'Quiet Company' recalls its local roots

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Friday, October 26, 2007
— When John Johnston surveyed the Rock County landscape in the 1850s, one thing was very clear.

The area was rich in fertile farmland, and Johnston bought a 3,000-acre tract northwest of Janesville that he thought would be a great place to grow crops and operate a stock farm for pedigreed cattle.

But as a guy who, records indicate, never seemed to answer one calling for long, he found Janesville as the bed to seed and grow an insurance company that today has more than $1 trillion of life insurance protection in force.

The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., which Johnston started in Janesville in 1857 as The Mutual Life Insurance Co., is 150 years old. Also known as “The Quiet Company,” Northwestern has been named “America’s Most Admired” company in its category for 24 years by Fortune magazine.

Johnston, who had moved to the Wisconsin frontier, was nearly 70 when he founded the company on the premise of safety, stability and performance during life’s most difficult times.

“I think Johnston was looking for something else to do when he started the insurance company,” said Margo Hokanson, Northwestern’s corporate relations manager.

“Our records show he was a guy who never seemed to quite fit in with the environment he was in.”

Johnston put together a 36-man board of trustees, 14 of whom were Janesville residents. The board included Edward Dimock, a one-term mayor of Janesville elected in 1855, and Josiah F. Willard, father of Frances Willard, who would become a prominent member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

The company’s first office was in Janesville’s Exchange Block. A year later, it moved to the Lappin-Hayes Block at the southwest corner of Main and Milwaukee streets.

In order to be incorporated, the young company had to sell $200,000 in life insurance. Johnston bought the first $5,000 policy, and his friends and colleagues chipped in to help the company meet that threshold in 1859, when the company promptly was moved to Milwaukee, which had its share of trustees on the company’s board.

“They wanted to use the fledgling company as a vehicle to build the city of Milwaukee and state of Wisconsin,” Hokanson said. “Sales were also stronger in Milwaukee, which probably played a factor in the move.”

About the same time—when even a few deaths threatened to wipe out the company—Mutual Life faced its first catastrophe. A train wreck near Johnson Creek killed 14 people, two of whom held policies totaling $3,500 in benefit payments.

The company only had $2,000 on hand, so its president personally borrowed the extra $1,500 to cover the payments.

“That certainly tested the company’s strengths and values, but it persevered,” Hokanson said.

Last updated: 11:48 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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