FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A CEO Who Mattered

by RALPH NADER

Insurance, art, architecture, civil liberties, auto safety, think tanks, peace, free thinkers, political candidates, marijuana, his alma mater Princeton University — these and other varied interests drove the inquiring career of the late Peter Lewis, chairman of the board of Progressive Insurance, who passed away at age 80 last month.

He interacted with many people who sparked his sense of the “unconventionally possible” as he built Progressive into the nation’s fourth largest auto insurer and made himself into one of the nation’™s leading philanthropists.

Peter was my classmate at Princeton. More than 25 years ago, I suggested he equip his company cars with air bags, both to prevent costly crash injuries to his employees and also to set an example for other insurance companies to give meaning to their “loss prevention” rhetoric. At lunch, he grasped the suggestion immediately and agreed. When I called for a progress report, he casually said it was done, as if to say, what else did you expect?

I never expected much in talking to corporate chiefs about what they should do in their own and the public’™s interest. In my experience, they had difficulty listening to anything not on their bureaucratic wavelength. With Peter it was different, and not because of any Princeton connection.

For example, he heard about my remarks that insurance companies were not engaged in meaningful competition. On a trip to Washington, D.C., we had lunch and he said that the big auto insurers compete like crazy. “œWhat do you mean?” he asked.

I replied that State Farm, Allstate, Geico, Progressive, etc. competed against each other in ads, marketing, sales incentives and imagery, but not directly for the consumers’™ benefit. I explained that it was almost impossible for the average customer to compare policies and prices between the various companies. His eyes lit up. It wasn’™t long before the famously successful Progressive ads were offering free competitors’™ rates, including Progressive’s, even if the latter was higher than one or more of the other auto insurers.

Other proposals he thought about and turned down. One that he considered too complicated was for Progressive to build a few prototype safety cars in order to push the auto companies to liberate their engineers and build more crash-worthy vehicles with better handling and therefore fewer claims. This idea stemmed from the pioneering Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. project in the 1950s when it rebuilt a much safer Chevrolet.

However, in the early ’90s, Peter made sure Progressive was a financial supporter of the effective new group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Another proposal was to fund organizers who would convince coalitions in major cities across the country to demand that presidential debates come to their communities in 2012. This would break the grip of the three “œdebates” choreographed by the Republican and the Democratic parties, through their creation, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). CPD is a private nonprofit that picks the reporters, invites only candidates from its two patron parties and solicits corporate donations for its budget. Peter “œloved the idea,” but after considerable back and forth, concluded it was not possible to pull it off.

Peter was deeply serious about civil liberties and worried about invasions of privacy, repression of dissenting views and government snooping in the aftermath of 9/11. He became the largest individual donor to the American Civil Liberties Union, with a record-breaking endowment gift of $7 million. He hated President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which he called “a disaster in all ways,” and funded civic opposition, including ours, to this worsening, brutal quagmire.

As a prominent Democrat, he supported John Kerry’™s presidential campaign with many millions of dollars. After Bush’s re-election and Kerry’s wishy-washy performance in 2004, he told me he was pretty much turned off of political campaigns.

He became “œmore focused on building the institutions that will facilitate and support progressive policy for years into the future.” As was his wont, he went beyond by helping launch Media Matters and the Center for American Progress, and was the founder of the Management Center, which conducts seminars to help nonprofits be more efficient and effective.

Once Peter joked that before joining the Princeton University Board of Trustees, the due diligence report called him a “œfunctional pothead.” Yet to my knowledge, he was known for promptly returning calls. He suffered pain — his leg was amputated below the knee due to chronic infection and poor circulation — but rarely exclaimed it. Instead he responded by becoming physically fit.

As a major patron of the arts from his hometown in Cleveland to New York City and elsewhere, he saw artists as making people view their surroundings through innovative, irreverent eyes. At Progressive’™s headquarters, he hung Andy Warhol’™s “œMao” portraits and relished the anger of some employees, noting that at least they were stimulated.

Whenever I asked him how business was, he would talk about how “œterrific” his successor — New Zealander Glenn Renwick — was as CEO, before noting some new approach like “œinstant claims service.”

Occasionally he expressed disappointment about his and other charitable and political contributions not getting results. “I’m at the edge of despair” about the state of the country, he confessed several years ago.

That disappointment, bordering on resignation, seemed to come forth during a discussion I arranged at the New York Public Library with Peter and Ted Turner, two of the protagonists in my book, “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” — a work of political fiction that could inspire real world change. He began to doubt whether any major proposals for change could break through.

But Peter had so many irons in the fire that he always found sources of resiliency. And he liked to shock people out of their comfort zone. Earlier this year, he relayed a conversation that he had with the new president of Princeton, Christopher L. Eisgruber, wherein he urged the Princeton football program be dropped. Even though Peter is Princeton’s largest benefactor in the modern era ($220 million), he may have stepped out of bounds on that one. Which is just what the boundary-breaker expected, to turn silence now into conversation later.

Peter Lewis put so many forces in motion that his beloved extended family need not wonder about a legacy. They grieve through the enlivening presences, futures and memories he gave them. He leaves behind a candid forthcoming autobiography that should show how he kept evolving and renewing himself to the benefit of many people.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.

More articles by:

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

Weekend Edition
November 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Jonathan Cook
From an Open Internet, Back to the Dark Ages
Linda Pentz Gunter
A Radioactive Plume That’s Clouded in Secrecy
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Fires This Time
Nick Alexandrov
Birth of a Nation
Vijay Prashad
Puerto Rico: Ruined Infrastructure and a Refugee Crisis
Peter Montague
Men in Power Abusing Women – What a Surprise!
Kristine Mattis
Slaves and Bulldozers, Plutocrats and Widgets
Pete Dolack
Climate Summit’s Solution to Global Warming: More Talking
Mike Whitney
ISIS Last Stand; End Times for the Caliphate
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima Darkness, Part Two
James Munson
Does Censoring Undemocratic Voices Make For Better Democracy?
Brian Cloughley
The Influence of Israel on Britain
Jason Hickel
Averting the Apocalypse: Lessons From Costa Rica
Pepe Escobar
How Turkey, Iran, Russia and India are playing the New Silk Roads
Jan Oberg
Why is Google’s Eric Schmidt So Afraid?
Ezra Rosser
Pushing Back Against the Criminalization of Poverty
Kathy Kelly
The Quality of Mercy
Myles Hoenig
A Ray Moore Win Could be a Hidden Gift to Progressives
Gerry Brown
Myanmar Conflict: Geopolitical Food Chain
Matthew Stevenson
Into Africa: Robert Redford’s Big Game in Nairobi
Katrina Kozarek
Venezuela’s Communes: a Great Social Achievement
Zoltan Grossman
Olympia Train Blockade Again Hits the Achilles Heel of the Fracking Industry
Binoy Kampmark
History, Law and Ratko Mladić
Tommy Raskin
Why Must We Sanction Russia?
Bob Lord
Trump’s Tax Plan Will Cost a Lot More Than Advertised
Ralph Nader
National Democratic Party – Pole Vaulting Back into Place
Julian Vigo
If Sexual Harassment and Assault Were Treated Like Terrorism
Russell Mokhiber
Still Blowing Smoke for Big Tobacco: John Boehner and College Ethics
Louis Proyect
The Witchfinders
Ted Rall
Sexual Harassment and the End of Team Politics
Anna Meyer
Your Tax Dollars are Funding GMO Propaganda
Barbara Nimri Aziz
An Alleged Communist and Prostitute in Nepal’s Grade Ten Schoolbooks!
Myles Hoenig
A Ray Moore Win Could be a Hidden Gift to Progressives
Graham Peebles
What Price Humanity? Systemic Injustice, Human Suffering
Kim C. Domenico
To Not Walk Away: the Challenge of Compassion in the Neoliberal World
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Giving Thanks for Our Occupation of America?
Christy Rodgers
The First Thanksgiving
Charles R. Larson
Review: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “We Were Eight Years in Power”
David Yearsley
On the Road to Rochester, By Bike
November 23, 2017
Kenneth Surin
Discussing Trump Abroad
Jay Moore
The Failure of Reconstruction and Its Consequences
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
Trout and Ethnic Cleansing
John W. Whitehead
Don’t Just Give Thanks, Pay It Forward One Act of Kindness at a Time
Chris Zinda
Zinke’s Reorganization of the BLM Will Continue Killing Babies
David Krieger
Progress Toward Nuclear Weapons Abolition
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail