Pop quiz: Name the chief executive of John Hancock Financial Services.
No, it’s not John DesPrez. He was four chief executives ago.
And if you said David D’Alessandro, you’re dating yourself. He gave up the dazzling views of the city from his office atop the former Hancock Tower in 2004, after selling the Boston insurer to Manulife Financial Corp. of Toronto.
The larger-than-life D’Alessandro made Hancock a player in the city, but since his departure the company has flown largely under the radar while being run by a series of low-key chief executives.
Enter Marianne Harrison. Manulife installed her as Hancock’s chief executive in October, and keeping a low profile isn’t on her agenda. It’s hard to when you’re her. As a top executive at Manulife, Harrison has been one of the most powerful women in Canada. Previously, she ran Manulife Canada, where she was its first female chief executive, and she comes to Hancock as the first woman in its 156-year history to occupy the corner office, which years ago was relocated from Clarendon Street to the Seaport.
Hancock has remained quietly embedded in the community, best known as a major sponsor of the Boston Marathon and the MLK Scholars summer jobs program. Harrison — the fifth Hancock chief executive since Manulife bought the company — has been making the rounds in town and recently joined the powerful business group Massachusetts Competitive Partnership.
“We need to restore the profile we had in the Hancock [Tower],” said Dick DeWolfe, Manulife chairman and Boston real estate executive.
DeWolfe hopes that Harrison will also show the world that Hancock is committed to diversity at the highest levels, a priority for more companies as they hunt for talent.
“We have the perfect executive to demonstrate our leadership in terms of doing it,” he said.
It’s an important message in the male-dominated world of finance. Here’s another pop quiz: Besides Fidelity Investments’ Abby Johnson, name another female chief executive of a major financial firm in Boston. The only one I could think of is Ernst & Young’s Jane Steinmetz, who last year became the first woman to head up one of the Big Four accounting firms in the city.
Harrison, 54, is no stranger to Boston or the challenges the insurer faces. She lived and worked in Boston a decade ago, overseeing Hancock’s troubled long-term care insurance business and steering it through the Great Recession. It was a job that required her to travel to nearly every state, meet with regulators, and call for unpopular double-digit rate increases to stabilize the business.
Harrison moved back to Canada in 2013 when Manulife tapped her as president of its Canadian division, but she still spent a lot of time in New England. Three of her four children ended up attending college here.
“I felt like we never left Boston,” Harrison quipped in an interview.
Hancock is best known as one of the country’s largest life insurers, but in recent years it has been growing its 401(k) and mutual fund unit, which has $148 billion in assets under management. Last summer, the Wall Street Journal reported that Manulife was exploring an initial public offering or spin-off of all or some parts of Hancock. DeWolfe told me Manulife studied the idea, but that’s all. Harrison added: “I am very focused on growing the US business.”
For Hancock, managing long-term care and other legacy businesses, such as variable annuities, remain among its biggest challenges. The insurer stopped writing new long-term care policies in 2016, a product that became too costly in large part because insurers miscalculated how long people would live and their need for nursing home care. (Hancock isn’t the only company to be tripped up by the long-term care market; it’s the reason why General Electric Co. recently had to take a $6.2 billion charge and set aside billions of dollars more to stabilize the unit.)
At the same time, Hancock has to find ways to sell life insurance that appeal to millennials. Like in many other industries, technology is changing the insurance business from how policies are sold to how financial advice is dispensed.
Two years ago, John Hancock, through its Vitality program, became the first life insurer to integrate Apple Watch with life insurance, focusing customers on health and fitness rather than just planning for death. The insurer uses medical data gleaned from the watch to offer discounts, such as a reduced premium, if customers exercise regularly.
More recently, Hancock launched Twine, a robo adviser app that helps couples meet major savings milestones such as buying a house.
“We’re at an interesting inflection point,” Harrison said.
All of this means Hancock itself has to get tech savvy and change its own culture, hiring more developers and engineers, not just actuaries and accountants.
“We are an old insurance company that hasn’t historically spent money on technology,” she said. “How do we disrupt ourselves?”
In Harrison, Hancock is off to a running start.