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april 20, 2012

Liberty Mutual critics decry pay package

Pay package prompts watchdog group to call for scrutiny of tax breaks

Liberty Mutual’s revenue tripled to nearly $35 billion while Edmund F. Kelly was chief executive. Barry Chin/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Nancy Geiser of Natick has been a Liberty Mutual customer for 27 years. But maybe not much longer.

Geiser, 78, said she decided to start shopping for a new insurance company after the Globe reported that the Boston insurance giant paid its top executive about $50 million a year, making him one of the highest paid CEOs in the country.

“I’m so upset,’’ said Geiser, a retired social worker who has both auto and home insurance policies with Liberty Mutual. “This self-serving, greedy compensation plan is way out of line.’’

The revelation that Liberty Mutual paid chairman Edmund F. “Ted’’ Kelly about $200 million during the past four years has angered some customers and watchdog groups. Kelly earned far more than most of his peers at other major corporations, including MetLife, the country’s largest life insurer, AT&T, General Electric, and IBM in recent years.


Just three of 300 chief executives at the nation’s largest publicly traded companies earned more than Kelly last year, according to a recent survey by Equilar Inc., a California compensation research firm.

Liberty Mutual spokesman John Cusolito said the company consulted a prominent compensation consultant and Kelly’s pay included many incentives for his long-term performance. Liberty Mutual’s revenue tripled to nearly $35 billion during Kelly’s 13-year tenure as chief executive, making it a Fortune 100 company. Kelly stepped down as chief executive last June, but remains chairman of the board.

Cusolito said customers are generally happy with the company as evidenced by its 85 percent retention rate. “It is a competitive insurance market, our rates are competitive, and we provide quality products and services to our policyholders,’’ he said.

Kelly’s pay has become controversial because of its size and because Liberty Mutual is mutually owned by its policy holders so any surplus profits are supposed to go back to customers as dividends or be reinvested in the company.


Like other insurers, Liberty Mutual has raised rates for many customers in recent years. Russell Mason, who bought a home and auto policy from Liberty Mutual, said he was already irked that the insurer increased his rates. Mason said his auto premium rose 22 percent and his home insurance premium 18 percent during the past three years. But Mason said he was positively steaming after reading about Kelly’s pay package.

“I was amazed and, quite frankly, I was disappointed,’’ said Mason, an 82-year-old retiree from Lexington, who said he might also look for a new insurer. “Fifty million is a hell of a lot of money. It just seems to be way out line.’’

The pay package also irked some government watchdogs because Liberty Mutual received $46.5 million in state and local tax incentives in 2010 to build an office tower near its Back Bay headquarters and create 600 jobs. The state tax break was also notable because it was larger than state guidelines normally suggest.

“It begs the necessity of the tax break,’’ Deirdre Cummings, legislative director for the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group in Boston, said of Kelly’s compensation. At a minimum, she said, the government should require companies that receive aid to disclose the pay for top executives.

Greg Bialecki, secretary of housing and economic development, said he and the governor were surprised by reports about Kelly’s compensation. “It is a very large number and the company and its board of directors need to explain to their policyholders how it can be justified,’’ Bialecki said.


But Bialecki said the administration decided to give Liberty Mutual the incentives based on the company’s commitment to expand its corporate headquarters and create hundreds of jobs. “That decision was the right one,’’ Bialecki said.

If Liberty Mutual does not meet its jobs commitment, he noted, the state can revoke the incentives. State economic development officials, however, can not cut off the breaks because of executive pay.

In addition to state aid, the city of Boston chipped in a local property tax break worth as much as $24 million over 20 years. Dot Joyce, spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said the tax break made sense at the time because the firm was threatening to move the jobs to Dover, N.H., where it already has significant operations.

“In the midst of the deep recession, the city was presented with an opportunity to keep Liberty Mutual in the city of Boston,’’ Joyce said.

Liberty Mutual said the $300 million project also created 500 construction jobs.

Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.