John J. Byrne Jr., chief executive who helped save Geico in the 1970s, dies at 80


John Byrne, former Geico chairman and president, is interviewed in his office in Washington, DC on Nov. 30,1977. Byrne died March 7. He was 80. (Craig Herndon/The Washington Post)

John J. Byrne Jr., the chairman and chief executive of Geico who was credited with leading the insurance giant from near-bankruptcy to profitability in the late 1970s — an achievement that remains one of the celebrated turnarounds in modern business history — died March 7 at his home in Etna, N.H. He was 80.

His death, from cancer, was confirmed by his colleague Bob Snyder.

Mr. Byrne was for years one of the most prominent businessmen in Washington and for decades one of the most noted executives in his industry. He earned a memorable moniker from investor Warren Buffett, whose holding company, Berkshire Hathaway, has owned Geico since 1996.

Mr. Byrne, Buffett said, was “the Babe Ruth of insurance.”

He arrived in Washington in 1976 to take over at Geico, the national auto and casualty insurer that had been a mainstay of Washington’s business scene since the Great Depression. The company was founded in Texas as the Government Employees Insurance Co., offering insurance policies for responsible motorists, and moved to the District a year into its existence.

Government workers, executives had determined, tended to be good drivers, and there were many of them to be found in Washington.

Geico opened its corporate headquarters in Chevy Chase in 1959. The company distinguished itself from other outfits by communicating with policyholders directly, rather than through commission-charging agents. Marketing was done simply, through measures such as direct mail. (The spunky Geico Gecko did not make its debut until 2000.)

For years, the business model worked.

But shortly before Mr. Byrne’s arrival, Geico began a decline that nearly resulted in insolvency. Insurers in general struggled amid inflation and an uptick in severe auto accidents. But Geico also had written too many high-risk policies, The Washington Post reported, and had let costs rise too high. In 1975, the company posted a net loss of $126 million.

The threat of a Geico bankruptcy and its potential ramifications for the insurance industry, Mr. Byrne would later say, was becoming “a national emergency.”

He began working to stem the crisis shortly before leaving Travelers Insurance, where he was executive vice president, to join Geico. He helped arrange a series of secret meetings between Geico executives, competing companies who had a stake in its survival and Maximilian Wallach, the D.C. superintendent of insurance.

The death of Geico, The Post reported, would have released $900 million in liabilities into the market.

Mr. Byrne later credited Wallach with helping to save Geico by persuading more than two dozen insurance companies to assume a portion of Geico’s policies in a “reinsurance agreement” that granted the struggling company a reprieve.

Mr. Byrne proposed the sale of $75 million in preferred stock, The Post reported. At a time when Geico stock values had plummeted, it seemed an unusual decision. But the company found an investor — Buffett, whom Mr. Byrne had met at a social occasion. At one point in their years-long collaboration, the Newark Star-Ledger reported, Mr. Byrne stayed up until 5 a.m. conferring with “the Oracle of Omaha.”

In house, Mr. Byrne launched what became known as “Operation Bootstrap.” He shuttered about 100 offices and eliminated 3,000 of the company’s 7,000 employees. Those who remained received stock in Geico. He closed the executive dining area.

Mr. Byrne cut the number of policyholders and, in a move that shocked some observers, yanked the company’s business out of highly regulated states such as New Jersey. Rates for remaining customers went up by as much as a reported 40 percent. Bills were printed on smaller sheets of paper to save on postage.

“As the low-cost operator in our business, discipline is an awfully important word that we use a lot around here,” he once told Forbes. “Count the paper clips. Reduce the phone lines. Reduce the pads of paper we use. How many policies can we service per employee in the company?”

By 1980, Geico posted $44 million in net operating income in the first nine months of the year, Forbes reported. In 1981, The Washington Post reported, Mr. Byrne was the ­highest-paid executive in Washington and one of the 10 highest-paid businessmen in the country.

Mr. Byrne, Buffett once said, according to Forbes, “is like the chicken farmer who rolls an ostrich egg into the henhouse and says, ‘Ladies, this is what the competition is doing.’ ”

John Joseph Byrne Jr. was born July 11, 1932, in Paterson, N.J. As a teenager, he worked at his father’s insurance company.

The younger Mr. Byrne received a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University in New Jersey in 1954 and, later, a master’s degree from the University of Michigan, both in mathematics. After Air Force service, he began his career as an actuary at Lincoln National Life Insurance Co.

In 1985, Mr. Byrne left Geico to head the Fireman’s Fund insurance company, then owned by American Express. He led it through its initial public offering and until it was acquired in the early 1990s by Allianz AG.

He kept control of the holding company, according to Bloomberg News, today known as White Mountains Insurance Group. He retired in 2008.

Survivors include his wife of 54 years, Dorothy Cain Byrne of Etna; three sons, John J. Byrne III and Patrick Byrne, both of Salt Lake City, and Mark Byrne of Verbier, Switzerland; a brother; and seven grandchildren.

Mr. Byrne once humbly attributed Geico’s revival to a “miracle.”

“Looking back on it,” he told an interviewer, “I say, ‘What a screwball I was to take that job.’ Why would a sound man with a heavy mortgage and two kids in school take that job?”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.