Many of us haven’t heard of Jack Byrne for a long time now. Remember when you last heard of him? Perhaps in 1991 when he turned Fireman’s Fund’s insurance business around and sold it to ALLIANZ AG (PINK:ALIZF) for $3 billion cash? The man who won heaps of praise from Warren Buffett, died last Thursday at the age of 80.
In 1976, Jack Byrne rescued Geico from the edge of bankruptcy, becoming one of the most successful turnaround artists in the insurance business. He did the same trick with Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co., split it from American Express Company (NYSE:AXP) in an IPO, and it to ALLIANZ AG (PINK:ALIZF).
In the 1970s, Byrne was a senior executive at Travelers Companies Inc. (NYSE:TRV) where he later became the chief executive officer. In 1976, Byrne joined the struggling Government Employees Insurance Co., or Geico. Founded in 1936, the Washington, D.C.-based auto insurer sold insurance to low-risk drivers. To boost its growth, the company began to insure riskier drivers, and underpriced its auto insurance policies. Geico had incurred a loss of $124 million in 1975. Shares had fallen from $42 in 1974 to $5 in 1976, and regulators were planning to shut the company down when Jack Byrne was called on to the board of Geico.
Byrne started cutting costs, he laid off almost half the employees, closed 100 offices, increased premiums and amputated unprofitable units. Then he raised $75 million in preferred stock. Impressed, Warren Buffet-led Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B) spent over $4 million to buy a stake. Warren Buffett’s mentor Benjamin Graham was an early investor in Geico. Buffett had purchased the stock at around $2 per share.
When Jack Byrne left the company in 1985, the stock was trading above $70 per share, and Warren Buffett was pouring in compliments for Mr. Byrne. Buffet called Byrne “the Babe Ruth of insurance and his “meal ticket on various occasions. Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B) acquired the rest of Geico in 1996.
Meanwhile, Jack Byrne went on to change the fortunes of another company Fireman’s Fund. Warren Buffett also became a big investor in Fireman’s Fund. Byrne received a master’s degree in math from University of Michigan. He joined Travelers Companies Inc (NYSE:TRV)’s variable annuities business in 1967. Patrick Byrne, son of Jack Byrne, became the chief executive officer of online retailer Overstock.com, where senior Byrne served as chairman.