Jay S. Fishman, the Travelers Cos. Inc. executive chairman whose public battle with ALS raised new levels of awareness in addition to millions of dollars, died at his New Jersey home early Friday, the company announced later in the day.
Fishman, 63, presided over the Travelers Championship two weeks ago, making public speaking appearances as honorary co-chairman, and at an Aug. 6 fundraiser he had helped organize, which raised more than $1 million for ALS research.
Fishman became CEO of Travelers in 2004 after a merger with St. Paul Cos., which he headed. He had previously led Travelers in the late 1990s after a merger formed Citigroup as the parent of Travelers.
Always low profile, rarely granting interviews, Fishman steadily guided Travelers through the Great Recession to a position on the Dow Jones Industrial Average of 30 bellwether corporations. Over his 11-year tenure, Travelers far outperformed its peers and broader markets.
A key member of the executive group assembled by the storied Sandy Weill, Fishman was well-liked by employees for his ability to bring people together to reach a goal and for his matter-of-fact way of speaking.
Fishman, a longtime resident of Englewood, N.J., announced he had ALS in August 2015, and stepped down as CEO on Nov. 30, but remained executive chairman, continuing to work most days in Travelers’ midtown Manhattan headquarters as recently as this week.
In a July 27 interview in advance of the Travelers Championship, Fishman declared that despite the disease he has been extremely lucky in his life — echoing the famous words of the New York Yankees’ Lou Gehrig, who died of the disease that often bears his name in 1939.
“This is how my life ends. It is not what my life is or was, ” he said in the interview. “There’s no self pity. I’m really on a mission.
Travelers Executive Chairman Jay S. Fishman discusses living with ALS and how he sees his legacy in life.
The mission included adopting causes related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease with no cure or effective treatment that progressively attacks nerves and muscle movement. He focused not only on research but also on helping improve care for patients, such as access to a noninvasive air ventilator, which Fishman used.
And the mission included speaking publicly about the disease, using his position as a platform in a way he had not done in his business career. Fishman did little or nothing in the public-relations realm to advance his name as a giant in the financial services world. But his leadership and performance, especially his long-term view in a world that values quarter-to-quarter profits, placed him there nonetheless.
“Jay led Travelers with an eye toward more than just success as it is traditionally measured, ” said Alan Schnitzer, the Travelers CEO who succeeded Fishman. “In part because of that philosophy, he led Travelers to unprecedented success by every measure. Though he would be too humble to admit it, Jay was an icon among corporate leaders.”
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who shared a stage with Fishman at the opening of the golf tournament Aug. 1, called Fishman a “remarkable man” with a “remarkable impact.”
“He was not just a great individual, but an inspiration to those around him. The strength of spirit he displayed, the extraordinary philanthropy he showed, the mission to improve the world around him — all will never be forgotten by the Hartford community. Most of all, it was his outlook on life that was so infectious, ” Malloy said in a written statement.
Travelers named John H. Dasburg, a board member, as non-executive chairman. Dasburg is a former CEO of Northwest Airlines, Burger King and other companies.
Jay Steven Fishman was born Nov. 4, 1952, in the Bronx, where he spent much of his youth and where his father owned a small printing business. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and earned a master’s in accounting from the university’s Wharton School. Early in his career on Wall Street, he worked in investment banking and became a merger specialist.
In 1989, Fishman joined Robert Lipp at Commercial Credit, a consumer finance company that was the first building block in Weill’s Primerica, the company that bought Travelers and ultimately merged with Citicorp to form Citigroup. Lipp, a mentor of Fishman’s, became the Travelers CEO and Fishman was chief financial officer, known for cutting frivolous costs — and sometimes joking about it, such as the time he said, deadpan, that the company was turning an elevator into an office.
Fishman left Citigroup in 2001 to lead St. Paul, which merged with Travelers after Citigroup spun off the insurer, leaving Fishman back in charge of the company with its biggest operations in Hartford.
“He was a terrific leader, he was passionate, he had a big heart but at the same time he had goals to achieve and we achieved them, ” said Andy Bessette, the Travelers executive vice president for administration and a close friend of Fishman’s. “He knew how to convene everybody and be proud of what we do.”
Around the time that Travelers took up sponsorship of the golf tournament a decade ago, Fishman made another move with the community in mind — buying back the trademark red umbrella from Citigroup.
He was quick to credit the people around him, such as William Heyman, the vice chairman and chief investment officer, who Fishman credited over himself for steering clear of mortgage-backed securities heading into the housing collapse — even though the returns at the time were large.
Fishman later told Forbes and The Courant that he left Citigroup in part because he had concluded he would not have been a good CEO of the financial conglomerate — a rare and perhaps unique concession for a Dow Jones CEO.
Fishman, who had a golf handicap in the single digits before his disease, first became aware that he had a serious health problem in 2013, and was diagnosed late that year.
Bessette said he was amazed to find out that Fishman was at work in his New York office on Aug. 8, the Monday after Fishman and his wife, Randy, returned home from a week at the golf tournament — a week in which the wheelchair-bound Fishman not only was the public face of the event, but also visited fellow ALS patients every afternoon at Hospital for Special Care in New Britain, this year’s largest charity recipient at the tournament.
It’s not that he was a workaholic, Bessette said, it was that Fishman was so dedicated and energized, especially after the Travelers Championship. “He was so pumped up, ” Bessette said. “He was so proud of what happened there.”
Fishman sat on the boards of ExxonMobil Corp. and the University of Pennsylvania, and was chairman of the New York City Ballet.
In addition to his wife, Fishman is survived by two children and three grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were incomplete late Friday.
By Dan Haar
This story was first published at courant