Sternberg, Sy 1943–
Chairman and chief executive officer, New York Life Insurance Company
Education: City College of New York, BS, 1965; Northeastern University, MS, 1968.
Family: Son of Max Sternberg (telegraph operator) and Mollie Sternberg (homemaker); married Roslyn Jacobowitz, 1965 (divorced); married Laurette Zolty, 1980; children: three (first marriage, two; second marriage, one).
Career: Raytheon Company, 1965–1971, engineer and researcher; 1971–1973, director of Management Information Systems Department; Data Architects, 1973–1975, manager; Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, 1975–1976, director of information services; 1976–1977, second vice president; 1977–1981, vice president, information services; 1981–1984, senior vice president of Group Life and Health Division; 1984–1987, executive vice president of Group Life and Health Division; 1987–1988, senior executive vice president; New York Life Insurance Company, 1989–1991, senior vice president, group health operations; 1991–1995, executive vice president; 1995, vice chairman; 1995–1997, vice chairman, president, and chief operating officer; 1997–2002, chairman, president, chief executive officer, and chief operating officer; 2002–, chairman and chief executive officer.
Awards: 5th Annual Engineering Alumni Awards, Egan Research Center, 2004.
■ Seymour (Sy) Sternberg, chairman and chief executive officer of New York Life Insurance Company, derived a great deal of satisfaction from his decision to buck industry trends and keep the company in the shrinking ranks of mutual insurance companies, which are operated and maintained for the benefit of their policyholders. The late 1999 decision to reject proposals to take the company public served New York Life well. In Fortune magazine's 2004 ranking of the 500 largest companies in the United States, New York Life, with 2003 revenues in excess of $25.7 billion, was accorded the number 70 position, ahead of such well-known companies as Coca-Cola, Federal Express, and Merck.
Sternberg also distinguished himself among top life insurance company executives in his decision to focus New York Life on its core products of life insurance, annuities, and long-term care insurance, resisting the temptation to transform New York Life into a widely diversified financial services company. In a 2002 appraisal of New York Life's financial performance, according to a company press release (March 11, 2002), Sternberg attributed the company's success to two factors: "a clear strategic focus and a great team of employees and agents." He pointed out that while most of the insurer's competitors had aggressively expanded into other financial services during the bull market, New York Life had continued its traditional focus on life insurance. "That focus is paying off." Sternberg also observed that the company's "decision to remain a mutual is proving to be a competitive advantage because a mutual can best deliver on the promise to policyholders of long-term safety and stability."
Sternberg was born in Brooklyn, New York. The son of Max and Mollie Sternberg, he grew up in Brooklyn's Benson-hurst neighborhood. His father, an immigrant from Romania, worked as a telegraph operator while his mother was a homemaker. She pressed Sternberg to do well in school. As he told Jacqueline Gold of Institutional Investor (November 2002), "'God forbid I came in with a report card that wasn't quite right." While in junior high school, he worked on the school newspaper and was leaning toward a career in journalism. However, his discovery that he liked math more than writing soon took him in a new direction.
After completing high school, Sternberg enrolled at the City College of New York (CCNY) to study electrical engineering. After four years of making the three-hour round-trip commute between his Brooklyn home and the CCNY campus in upper Manhattan, Sternberg earned his bachelor's degree in 1965. Less than a week after receiving his degree, he went to work as an engineer for the defense contractor Raytheon Company in Bedford, Massachusetts. He recalled, "They saw me as the kind of guy who learned quickly, so they gave me the opportunity to work on independent development projects" (Institutional Investor, November 2002); in one of these projects he helped pioneer computer-assisted design technology. While working for Raytheon, Sternberg earned a master's degree in computer science from Boston's Northeastern University in 1968.
TAPPED TO HEAD RAYTHEON'S MIS DEPARTMENT
In 1971 Raytheon tapped Sternberg, who was then 28, to be the director of its Management Information Systems Department. Sternberg noted, "We did some of the earliest work in online systems anywhere in the United States—purchasing, inventory control, billing, and inspection systems" (Institutional Investor, November 2002). In his new position, Sternberg had occasion to work with Norman Zachary, a computer consultant who had been hired to help on some Raytheon projects. In 1973 Zachary invited Sternberg to join his firm, Data Architects, which was based in nearby Waltham, Massachusetts. Sternberg jumped at the opportunity, convinced that his future prospects in the information systems business would be brighter with Zachary's company than it was with Raytheon, the primary business of which was the manufacture of military defense systems.
JOINED DATA ARCHITECTS
One of Sternberg's first assignments at Data Architects was to oversee the development of an online network for Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). During the course of the project, designed to link the insurer's 140 field offices with its headquarters in Springfield, Massachusetts, Sternberg met William Clark, who was then president of the insurance company and later served as its CEO from 1980 to 1988. Clark later recalled that Sternberg was "a very smart young man—not the most polished individual in the world, but he was so damned intelligent. In a short time he knew more about our health business than I did" (Institutional Investor, November 2002).
Two years after joining Data Architects, Sternberg accepted an offer to join MassMutual as its director of information systems. In his new post he reported to David Blackwell, who then headed the insurance company's Information Technology Department. Blackwell noted that he first assigned Sternberg to try to fix the troubled claims-processing system of MassMutual's Group Life and Health Division. "Sy developed a very good system. He soon knew more about it than those who came out of the actuarial or sales side of the company" (Institutional Investor, November 2002).
NAMED SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT AT MASSMUTUAL
In 1981, as MassMutual's group operation continued to falter, losing $15 million a year, Blackwell once again called on Sternberg. This time Sternberg was named senior vice president of the group division and tasked either to turn it around or to get it ready for sale. Sternberg proved himself more than equal to the task, setting up a new pricing structure for the operation. Within a year the division had turned the corner. In 1984 Sternberg was promoted to executive vice president of the division, a post he held until 1987.
In 1987 Sternberg was named senior executive vice president of MassMutual and assigned to a specially created office of the chairman. However, Clark, who was now chairman, had already tapped Thomas Wheeler, head of MassMutual's life and annuity business, as his successor. A year later, when Wheeler succeeded Clark, Sternberg, seeing no short-term opportunity to move higher in the organization, left MassMutual. Although he left with no new job lined up, Sternberg's transition was made more comfortable by a $1 million severance package that Clark had convinced the board to grant.
JOINED NEW YORK LIFE
After mulling over job offers from a number of insurers, Sternberg in 1989 decided to join New York Life as senior vice president for group health operations. Although he had hoped for a higher position, he noted that New York Life's top executives "said that I had to prove myself, that if they made me an executive vice president, it would offend people" (Institutional Investor, November 2002). As he had done at MassMutual, Sternberg quickly engineered a turnaround for New York Life's group health business. Sternberg merged the health maintenance organization business with group indemnity, expanded the operation's agent force, expanded its product line, and invested heavily in software to support the sales push. As a result of his efforts, the company's group health operations went from a loss of $30 million in 1989 to a profit of $24 million three years later.
CONTINUED TO CLIMB LADDER AT NEW YORK LIFE
In 1991 Sternberg was named executive vice president and assigned responsibility for New York Life's operation in Canada. After a short time on the job, he concluded that New York Life was too small to compete effectively in the Canadian market, and in April 1994 the Canadian operation was acquired by Canada Life Assurance Company for $186 million. Sternberg was appointed vice chairman in charge of New York Life's life and annuity business in February 1995 and later that same year was given the additional responsibilities of president and chief operating officer.
For his next challenge, Sternberg was assigned to head off a possible revolt among New York Life's agents, most of whom were up in arms over a newly imposed company directive that all sales materials had to be reviewed by a separate compliance department. He said, "Sales fell like a rock. I had to get in there and kind of smooth some feathers and send the right message to our agents" (Institutional Investor, November 2002). To accomplish his goal, Sternberg instituted new training courses and videos, and he mandated more frequent visits to agents from New York Life's upper management ranks. Under the new system instituted by Sternberg, the company's sales of insurance and annuities rose dramatically, climbing from $2 billion in 1995 to $2.4 billion the following year. "The agency system is our key market differentiator," Sternberg remarked (Institutional Investor, November 2002).
On April 1, 1997, at the age of 53 Sternberg became New York Life's chairman and CEO. He also held on to his positions as president and COO. Just two weeks after taking the reins at New York Life, Sternberg was interviewed by Christine Dugas of USA Today. Asked if he saw banks and insurance companies as a natural fit, Sternberg said, "The businesses are very different. Banking is a transaction business. The insurance business is a relationship business." He predicted that attempts to merge banks and insurance companies into a single financial services company would ultimately come to grief and that "both will conclude that it's best to stick to their fundamental businesses" (April 15, 1997).
As part of Sternberg's strategy, in March 1998 New York Life sold its health-care business to Aetna for $1.05 billion. In announcing the sale, according to Samuel Goldreich of the Washington Times, Sternberg said, "This sale allows New York Life to focus on its own growth strategy in building on our core strengths in the domestic life insurance and annuity businesses" (March 17, 1998).
DECIDED TO KEEP NEW YORK LIFE A MUTUAL
An even more pressing question facing Sternberg and New York Life was whether to take the company public—as more and more of the company's competitors were doing—or remain a mutual. For a time it appeared that the insurer might pursue a course that would give it the best of both worlds by becoming a mutual holding company (MHC). This would allow New York Life to raise capital and still maintain a policy-holder focus and protect against takeover. In 1998, when New York state legislators let die legislation that would pave the way for MHC conversions, New York Life was left with no option but to demutualize or retain its longtime mutual structure.
In January 1999 New York Life's 16-member board of directors announced that the company would remain a mutual. As Sternberg told Joseph D'Allegro of National Underwriter, a mutual orientation is part of a company's culture, allowing it to differentiate itself in the marketplace. He pointed out that going public would make it difficult for the company to support participating products because shareholders would have a significant voice in deciding how dividends were to be used. "We've had a commitment to our policyholders," Sternberg said (January 25, 1999).
In further explaining the decision to retain New York Life's mutual structure, Sternberg told Ron Panko of Best's Review that the company's customers get nothing from New York Life except a promise that somewhere down the line the insurer will pay a claim. "Therefore, my stewardship must assure that this company be a vibrant, vital, and financially sound institution 30 years from today. That's my most important responsibility" (September 2001). Making it easier for New York Life to remain a mutual, Sternberg told Panko, was its comfortable financial position. At the time of the decision to reject taking the company public, New York Life boasted a strong cash flow and a free surplus of $2.5 billion, meaning that it had no pressing need for additional capital. Another factor, of course, was the question of retaining its independence. As Sternberg told Panko, "If we were to go public, we could very well see a hostile takeover because the company is so strong" (Best's Review, September 2001).
NEW YORK LIFE FLOURISHED AS A MUTUAL
The company's decision to remain a mutual did nothing to slow its financial growth. In early 1998 New York Life, under Sternberg's direction, had decided to pursue top-line revenue growth through emerging international markets, a strategic move that paid off quickly. In March 2002 Sternberg, in announcing the company's financial results for 2001, reported that more than a quarter of New York Life's total insurance sales had been derived from nine countries outside the United States. As of early 2004 the company's International Division had operations in Argentina, China, Hong Kong, India, Mexico, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. The company also maintained a representative office in Hanoi, Vietnam.
In late 2003 Sternberg, who a year earlier had relinquished his responsibilities as president and COO to Frederick J. Sievert, announced the formation of an office of the chairman, in which he would be joined by Sievert. According to a company release, Sternberg said of this change in the company's executive structure, "With Fred's new expanded role, I will be able to tap his vast experience for the management of our entire enterprise" (November 24, 2003).
In 2003 the company posted net income of about $1.1 billion on revenues of $25.7 billion, up from a profit of approximately $1 billion on sales of $24.7 billion the previous year. In 2001 New York Life reported net income of just under $1.1 billion on revenue of $22.5 billion, down from a profit of $1.2 billion on sales of almost $22 billion in 2000.
Away from his responsibilities at New York Life, Sternberg was an avid tennis player and stamp collector. He was also active in a wide variety of civic and professional organizations. He was a member of the U.S.–China Business Council and City University of New York Business Leadership Council, and he served on the board of the Partnership for New York City, a network of business leaders that seeks to promote the city as a global center for commerce, culture, and innovation. Sternberg also sat on the boards of United Way of Tri-State; Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York; Springfield College; and Big Brothers–Big Sisters of New York City.
See also entries on Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, New York Life Insurance Company, and Raytheon Company in International Directory of Company Histories.
sources for further information
"Aetna Buying N.Y. Life's Health Care Business," Seattle Post–Intelligencer, March 17, 1998.
D'Allegro, Joseph, "New York Life Will Keep Mutual Structure," National Underwriter, January 25, 1999.
Dugas, Christine, "Sternberg Prepared to Put Policies in Place," USA Today, April 15, 1997.
"Frequently Asked Questions about New York Life," company press release, http://www.newyorklife.com/cda/0,3254,8409,00.html.
Gold, Jacqueline S., "Mutual Admiration: New York Life CEO Sy Sternberg Decided to Go Abroad Rather Than Go Public," Institutional Investor, November 2002.
Goldreich, Samuel, "Aetna Buys New York Life Insurance's Health Business for $1.05 Billion," Washington Times, March 17, 1998.
Higgins, Barry, "CEOs Share Their Views of the Future," National Underwriter, April 22, 2002.
Hollmer, Mark, "Liberty Mutual Under Fire over Holding Company Bid," Insurance Times, March 6, 2001.
"New York Life Creates Office of the Chairman," company press release, November 24, 2003, http://www.newyorklife.com/cda/0,3254,13032,00.html.
"New York Life Is Still Ahead on the Fortune 500," company press release, http://www.newyorklife.com/cda/0,3254,11576,00.html.
"New York Life Net Income Rises 10% in 2003," company press release, March 16, 2004, http://www.nyl.com/cda/0,3254,13692,00.html.
"New York Life's Net Income Exceeds One Billion Dollars," company press release, March 11, 2002, http://www.newyorklife.com/cda/0,3254,11561,00.html.
"NY Life Promotes Annuity Chief to President," Annuity Market News, November 1, 2002.
Panko, Ron, "The Company He Keeps," Best's Review, September 2001.
Piontek, Stephen, "What Keeps You Up at Night?" National Underwriter, October 20, 2003.
Sternberg, Seymour, "Banks, Agents Can Work Together," American Banker, June 6, 2003.