John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company

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John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company

John Hancock Place
Boston, Massachusetts 02117
(617) 572-6000
Fax: (617) 572-6451

Mutual Company
Employees: 20,000
Assets: $32.34 billion

John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company is the nations ninth-largest life insurer, with $198 billion of life insurance in force covering 17 million lives in 1990. John Hancock Mutual Life is the dominant member of the John Hancock Financial Services group, which includes mutual funds, a securities brokerage, a consumer bank, and real estate and venture-capital companies.

John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company was founded in 1862. It alone survives, of six life insurance companies founded that year in the United States. Twenty-eight such companies were founded between 1860 and 1865; only seven survived to the 1950s. In the two years following the Civil War, 24 more were started. It was a boom time for life insurance, and hard selling by the new companies reaped a rich harvest. Life insurance in force rose to an estimated $2 billion in the 1860s.

Hancock was chartered on April 21, 1862, in Massachusetts, where a Department of Insurance had been established in 1855, the first of its kind in the new world. It was the first company to be formed under two recently signed laws that helped to regularize a previously uncertain and at times dishonest business. As if to emphasize the point, the new company took for its namesake the Massachusetts native first to sign the Declaration of Independence and later governorwhose signature became synonymous with a pledge of fidelity.

The more important of the two laws dealt with nonforfeiture. The practice in the industry had been to confiscate policies after one payment was missed. Nonforfeiture, paying surrender value of a life policy after the fifth year, became the U.S. norm after passage of this 1861 law in Massachusetts. The other law, passed in 1858, required each insurance company to demonstrate its worth yearly.

Hancocks first president was George P. Sanger. Forty-three years old, Sanger was district attorney for Suffolk County, in which Boston is located, and a former judge. Indeed, he continued as district attorney for seven years. Only then, in 1869, did he quit public office to be a full-time insurance executive.

By November 1863 Hancock had 176 policies in force, for $332,700 total value. In the next two months, the company wrote 111 more policies. Matters continued prosperous, and in 1869 the company moved from a small office, where the company medical examiner examined applicants in a crowded corner, to roomier quarters in the Sears Building. In 1872 the company redeemed its guarantee capital and became strictly mutual.

Sanger returned to public life as U.S. attorney for Massachusetts in 1874; his successor was George Thornton. During the economic depression of that time, Hancock suffered financially, but it remained solvent and honored its obligations.

Prudential Insurance Company had at the same time introduced industrial life insurance for the less affluent. Premiums were paid weekly rather than annually or semiannually. Its premiums and benefits were lower than those of ordinary life insurance. Policies were started for as little as 5¢. For many years it was the only insurance available on the lives of childrena feature that was to bathe it in controversy. Industrial life was new, and no one knew how closely U.S. mortality would mirror English mortality rates, on which this insurance was based. In addition U.S. companies had to keep fixed reserves, while the English did not.

Industrial agents work was part social work. The agent was expected to know everyone on his route, often including several people crowded into one or two rooms. His territory required up to 1,000 calls a week for collection of premiums. If the total collections for which the agent was responsible held steady, he was rewarded; if they fell, he was penalized. Agents were to make calls three or four days a week, and solicit new business on the other days. He was welcome to sell other kinds of insurance as well. Perhaps the most striking thing about industrial insurance was its educational aspect: people grew used to having insurance and dealing with an agent.

Prudential had the field to itself for four years. Then, in March 1879, Hancock got a new president, no less a figure than the Massachusetts insurance commissioner, Stephen H. Rhodes, who by midsummer was selling industrial insurance in Boston. By year end, Hancock had 9,327 industrial policies totaling $951,000, after only six months of selling the coverage. It was a welcome addition to the line. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company entered the industrial field the same year. These threePrudential, Metropolitan, and Hancock were to dominate that business, with Boston-based Hancock trailing a distant third behind the other two, both based around New York.

By 1881 Hancock had 36,012 industrial policies in force, and by 1889 it had issued 256,000 industrial policies worth $30 million; total worth of Hancocks policies was $39 million. Hancocks burgeoning prosperity was demonstrated partly by its move in February 1891 to its own richly ornamented home-office building in Boston, with monumental figures in colored mosaic in the staircase hall, against a background of nearly thirty thousand cubes or tessera of enamel overlaid with gold and covered with a thin film of glass... made by a process known alone to the Venetians, as described by R. Carlyle Buley in The American Life Convention, 19061952: A Study in the History of Life Insurance. Such grandeur was and for some time remained typical of insurance companies, whose home offices and other downtown buildings have provided almost as much commentary for architects as their policies have for insurance writers.

During 1891 Hancocks insurance in force reached $54.5 million, up from $17.8 million in 1886. Hancock had managed to find its way in the uncharted waters of the early industrial insurance years.

Prudential and Metropolitan still were the leaders by far. Other companies had dropped from the race. Industrial insurance had a high lapse rate, with most lapses occurring in the first six months of the policy. In this period lapses were costly to the companies, who tried hard to prevent them.

The problems of insuring children came to a head in 1895, when Massachusetts considered the prohibition against insuring children under ten. The practice was denounced for five days in a Boston hearing room as encouraging cruelty and even murder. The tide turned when Haley Fiske, the Metropolitan vice president and lobbyist, testified, and the bill was soundly defeated. Other states considered such a bill, but only Colorado passed one; it lasted into 1921.

In 1902 Hancocks industrial agents were urged to push ordinary life insurance. The name of the company newsletter for agents, Our Industrial Field, was changed to The John Hancock Field. Hancock was diversifying. It also was growing. By 1905 it had 1.5 million policies, up from not quite 900,000 in 1897. Its insurance in force came to $245 million, up from $115 million. This was small compared to Metropolitan and Prudential, who with Hancock together held some 15.5 million industrial policies, of the total of 16.8 million such policies in the United States, worth $2.3 billion.

In 1905 the Armstrong Committees investigation of the New York State insurance industry achieved a general overhaul of the life insurance industry, and it led to needed reforms. At Hancock, however, 1905 was remembered for its exposure of the mistakes and misdeeds of a few individuals prominent in the business, followed by an investigation of Draconian severity, according to Historical Sketch of the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company of Boston, Massachusetts: A Half Century Completed, 18621912.

The investigation produced tremendous shock but did not for a second impair or suspend operations and furnished moreover an example of the inherent soundness... of the old line insurance plan, said The Satchel, the company magazine, in 1907.

In 1906 Stephen Rhodes died at 83, after more than 30 years at the Hancock helm. He was succeeded by Roland O. Lamb, 58, who had been with the company since 1872. Lamb was no sooner installed than another home-office building was completed. It was fire-resistant with an exterior of pink granite; its interior displayed several kinds of marble. Modern for its day, it boasted eight elevators and a drinking fountain offering refrigerated water on each floor.

In 1924 Hancock helped launch the group insurance business in the United States by offering such insurance to employers. By 1990 the company would have 1,000 group clients. Group policies, with life and industrial policies, were to form the core of business through Hancocks first 100 years.

The Great Depression shook up the world but not Hancocks labor whose business rose 7.3% in 1930, the Depressions first full calendar year. New business declined, however, in 1932, and Hancock cut its dividend.

Guy W. Cox became Hancock president in 1936. In 1937, its agents picketed the companys New York office on Christmas Eve. Six months later, the National Labor Relations Board considered filing a complaint against Hancock in connection with the petition for union election by the United Office and Professional Workers of America. In November of that year, Hancocks industrial agents sought a union election among Hancock employees.

The company purchased an aircraft carrier, the Hancock, in 1944, for use by the U.S. Navy in World War II. It was the result of a joint financing effort by agents, other employees, and policyholders. Agents carried patriotism a step further with their pledge to bring the appeal for a waste-paper-salvage drive to homes they visited in the course of business.

In 1944 Guy Cox became chairman, and Paul F. Clark, a former agent, became president at age 51. Clark would become chairman three years later. In the spirit of postwar recovery, Hancock began on-the-job training for returning veterans in 1946. In the same year, the company advertised on radio for the first time, sponsoring Boston Symphony Orchestra performances.

In 1948, in an investment market where even 5% was an unheard-of return, Hancock had assets of more than $2 billion. New investments in 1947 had topped $300 million. At that time, Hancock was earning 3%, down from 5% in the prior years. With a surplus of $166 million, its portfolio was unspectacular; fewer than $15 million were in common stocks, though by law it was allowed to carry ten times that amount. In addition, Hancock was lending on real estate to only 50% to 55% of market value rather than the 66.7% allowed. Yet Hancock, the largest life insurance company in the United States outside the New York metropolitan area, had the third-highest growth rate at that time of all insurance companies. The companys finance committee, by Massachusetts law, made final decisions in investments. Guy Cox chaired the committee, and caution ruled its deliberations. Before investing in the stock of a paper company, analysts were sent to view the whole paper industry. Hancock was willing to take three months to decide on a given issue.

Over 30% of Hancock investments lay in U.S. government bonds, and almost as much in public-utility bonds and notes. Average net interest for 1947 was 2.91%, but the new investments averaged 3.14%. Things were looking up, after more than a decade of having to buy low-interest-bearing securities.

Hancock was experimenting with financing of rental housing. Two Hancock villages went up, one in Boston, another in Dearborn, Michigan. The latter encountered labor and other problems. Meanwhile, in Boston a new home office was raised26 stories, making it the highest building in town. It also had the longest escalator in the United States. As high as the new building was, it was dwarfed by the life insurance idea, said President Clark at its opening. It replaced a ten-story building which in 1922 had won the Boston Society of Architects award for its designer, J. Harleston Parker.

The 1940s wrought a marked change in the life insurance industry. Government investment rose sharply during the war, to an all-time high of 46% of the total. By 1951 it had dropped to 17%. The nation looked to the industry for capital, with its net yearly rise in assets of $4 billion to $5 billion. The industry responded. By December 1951 it was looking into natural gas in the southwestern United States and iron ore in Labrador. It was looking beyond the bond market to private, or individual, placement between corporate need and the investor.

The 1950s were a time of political nervousness. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin held the stage on Capitol Hill, and the cold war was a fact of life. Hancock succumbed at least temporarily, refusing a lease renewal in 1953 to the Community Church of Boston, which had rented its home-office auditorium for 30 years for its liberal lecturers.

What to do with the money was the main life insurance issue, however. By 1954 Hancock ranked fifth among U.S. insurance companies, with $3.8 billion in assets, and was investing as much as $4.6 million a week. Investments had earned 3.07% in 1953, up from the all-time low of 2.9% in 1947. Hancock moved to higher yields, looking increasingly to mortgage loans, which had risen to 20% of its portfolio, from not quite 12% in 1949. High return, however, had to be joined with safety, which made the task difficult.

By the mid-1960s another story was unfolding. Hancock was showing a new aggressiveness. According to Business Week of January 15, 1966, it was second to none of the old-line mutuals in selling itself, as it did in building its sky scraping monument in Chicago, the John Hancock Center, then second in height only to the Empire State Building. Hancock had just elected its youngest-ever chief executive officer, 49-year-old Robert E. Slater, an actuary and a firm believer in the use of the computer. Slater was busy reshaping the company, looking ahead to a time in which baby boomers, born in the post-World War II decade, would be buying much of the countrys life insurance.

In the 1960s ordinary life insurance was the companys biggest moneymaker, followed by group accident and health, group annunities, and group life. The old industrial insurance was no longer a consideration.

Byron K. Elliott, 67 and a Hancock employee since 1933had been a judge in Indiana before thatremained as chairman and ran the $7.8 billion investment portfolio. The rest of the executive suite was considerably younger. Gerhard D. Bleicken, the new executive vice president, was 52. A team averaging age 52 was running insurance operations. Self-renewal was the theme. Still, with 32% of its portfolio in mortgagescompared to 42% for Prudential63% in bonds, and only 5% in stocks, Hancock was unquestionably a conservative investor. Changes were coming, however. Hancock formed a real estate subsidiary in 1968 and entered the mutual fund business the next year. An international group program was begun. It was the start of broad diversification.

Hancock entered the Canadian market in 1969, and in 1971 entered the property and casualty insurance markets. Its 1972 income topped $2 billion for the first time. The company was in the securities business by then, with its John Hancock Income Securities Group. Slater resigned in December 1969 and was replaced by Gerhard Bleicken as chairman and CEO. In May 1972 the first black director, who was also the first woman director, Mary Ella Robertson, was elected.

Hancock was again making architectural history with the John Hancock Tower, its new home-office building in Boston. The Chicago John Hancock Center, a $95-million investment, had been hailed as innovative and workable. The Hancock Tower, built five years later, was another story. In 1974, the towers windows began to blow out and fall to the ground, 60 stories at the farthest. The cause was a flaw in the design of the windows. The double-pane windows were replaced for $47 million, and the cost of the whole structure rose from an original $52 million to $144 million. The initial construction of the building had created other problems, including a weakening of the foundation of nearby Trinity Church, which sued Hancock for $4 million. Hancock in turn sued the architects, I.M. Pei & Associates; the general contractor; and the window-glass manufacturer, who in turn countersued Hancock.

The late 1970s were bringing what Hancock called winds of change into the life insurance industry. Rising inflation and interest rates and deregulation offered circumstances in which policyholders borrowed on life polices at 5% or 6% to reinvest in money-market securities paying twice that. The prime rate shot up, and in 1980 many life insurance companies found themselves faced with a negative cash flow, for the first time in memory. The prime rate dropped later in the year, from an astronomical 20%, and the crisis eased. Insurers knew things would never be the same, however. From this realization came substantial changes in the company that would outdo any changes of the 1970s.

One of the first things to change was the investment strategy. There would be no more fixed-interest, long-term loans. The company would build a liquidity reserve of short-term securities. The fixed-income portfolio would be examined constantly by means of thorough computerized programs.

During the 1980s, Hancock entered most segments of the financial-services industry and become a vocal proponent, alone among life insurance companies, of deregulation. The level playing field became a byword: all financial institutionsbanks, brokerages, insurersshould have equal access to all financial services. By 1985 Hancock was in money management, stock brokerage, venture-capital management, equipment leasing, and real estate syndication. Hancock wanted to be a financial supermarket, but it was an old conservative company in a yet-more-conservative industry. As a mutual company, it had no shareholders and had never been run with profit in mind. It was the sixth-largest insurer, down from fifth, with assets of $25 billion. Its old ways had sent it into sharp decline. Its policyholder base had shrunk 30% in the previous ten years, to $7 million. New business bookings had peaked in 1981, as consumers moved from whole-life policies to cheaper term coverage.

Hancock had to change. To stay with traditional life insurance would have meant to shrink the company, said chairman and CEO John G. McElwee. Instead it would offer banking, investment, and insurance products. It already had gone into credit cards and a half-dozen other non-insurance products and had bought a regional brokerage house and banks in Ohio and New Hampshire. There was, however, question whether its predominantly middle- and lower-income policyholders would buy such services.

McElwee was succeeded by E. James Morton in March 1986. Stephen L. Brown became president and chief operating officer. In 1986 Hancock helped found the Financial Services Council, a coalition of 18 manufacturers, retailers, and financial firms who lobby for pro-competitive reform of laws affecting financial services. Normally rivals, these firms coauthored a draft bill for reform that was unveiled in October 1987.

The United States lagged behind England and Canada in rallying government, business, and consumers around the idea of integration of financial services. Hancock was prevented from buying a savings-and-loan institution, for example, because the savings and loan owned a brokerage that underwrote corporate equities and debt. Instead, Hancock bought a consumer bank, First Signature Bank and Trust Company, in New Hampshire, a limited-purpose bank with a 7% growth cap as required by the 1987 banking law. It was the most Hancock could do. Forbidden to become a holding company because mutually held, it was unable to demutualize for lack of enabling legislation in Massachusetts.

President Brown offered a goal of reciprocal access to financial services, whether for banks or insurance companies, and a vision of financial services as one competitive industry that is controlled by appropriate legislation. By 1986 Hancock had slipped to number eight among life insurance companies, with assets of over $27.3 billion. Manufacturers, retailers, and foreign competitors already had entered the insurance and other financial markets, while bank holding companies and mutual life insurers operated under restraint.

John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company remained in 1990 a life industry giant, though somewhat diminished. It is a historic company, whatever its stature, founded as it was during the Civil War in one of the nations most historic cities, Boston. Throughout its existence, Hancock has taken what steps were necessary to survive and grow, whether by entering the infant industrial life business in the 1880s or by entering many non-insurance areas in the 1980s. The company aimed to be a major competitor in financial services in the 1990s and beyond.

Principal Subsidiary

John Hancock Variable Life Insurance Company.

Further Reading

Schwab, Emil, ed., Historical Sketch of the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company of Boston, Massachusetts: A Half Century Completed, 18621912, Boston, John Hancock Printing Shop, 1912; ODonnell, Terence, History of Life Insurance in Its Formative Years, Chicago, American Conservation Company, 1936; James, Marquis, The Metropolitan Life: A Study in Business Growth, New York, Viking Press, 1947; Buley, R. Carlyle, The American Life Convention, 19061952: A Study in the History of Life Insurance, New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1953; Keller, Morton, The Life Insurance Enterprise, 18851910: A Study in the Limits of Corporate Power, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Belknap Press, 1963; Grun, Bernard, The Timetables of History: A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1979.

Jim Bowman

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John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company

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