After Three Decades, John Strangfeld is Perched Atop the Rock
In the end, Strangfeld’s experience at Darden was pretty much what he expected it would be. He did very well on the tests and relatively poorly on assignments that required good written and oral skills. The silver lining was that the experience forced him to improve where he felt he was weakest. And that was exactly why he said he chose to enroll at Darden.
His next move was again somewhat counterintuitive. While most of his classmates majoring in finance went off to brokerage firms and banks, Strangfeld accepted an offer from Prudential, which at the time was known mostly as an insurance company, not an investment powerhouse. Choosing Prudential was like choosing the road less traveled, but in hindsight, it was a clever tack. It would allow him to excel and position himself to begin scaling the Rock.
PRUDENTIAL FINANCIAL was founded in 1875 as the Prudential Friendly Society. It manages about $648 billion in assets, as of year-end 2007, and has offices throughout the country and in Asia, Latin America and Europe. Through its subsidiaries, it provides insurance, investment management and other financial products and services to both retail and institutional customers. It is one of the nation’s most enduring and powerful financial icons. In the 1950s, its Rock of Gibraltar logo became synonymous with one of America’s most popular television news magazine shows—The Twentieth Century—hosted by a young broadcaster named Walter Cronkite. Over the years, the company has become a symbol of America’s financial strength and dominance—so much so that in August 2004, the U.S. Office of Homeland Security revealed that terrorists were planning to strike its Newark headquarters.
Strangfeld, who is 54, joined Prudential in 1977. Over the next three decades, he took postings in Minneapolis, San Francisco, London and New York City. Largely through his leadership, Prudential transformed its investment management business into an operation with $439 billion in assets under management at year-end 2007. He helped engineer a critical joint venture with Wachovia and the acquisition of CIGNA Corporation’s retirement lines of business. In November, while serving as vice chairman, Prudential’s board announced his appointment as the company’s new chairman and CEO. Then-Chairman and CEO Arthur Ryan said of the board’s decision, “The board’s decision to name John as the company’s new CEO and chairman-elect represents the culmination of a thoughtful succession process that began nearly two years ago. He is an outstanding leader who has the qualities and skills necessary to ensure Prudential’s growth and success.”
Change, Strangfeld says, is what keeps the job fresh for him. “If you look at Prudential, we are a 132-year-old company that has had more change in the last decade than we probably have had in the previous century. To me, you have to keep evolving to maintain your relevance and to earn the right to grow.” To that end, over the last five years Strangfeld has been focusing the company on new markets. He follows demographic trends closely and knows that as Baby Boomers come of age, they are more concerned about outliving their financial resources than they are about their premature demise. That suggests a growing footprint in retirement products, which is a departure from Prudential’s traditional strength in insurance products.
Prudential is not the only company that has come to this conclusion, but it may be one of the best positioned. “In the retirement space, we are among the top five players in the annuity market, the top 10 players in the retirement services market—meaning 401-Ks and those products — and a top-10 player in managing defined benefit assets for pension plans,” he says. “There are not many companies — in fact, I can’t think of any — that are strong in each of those areas. The fact that we do all of them and do them as effectively as we do is very distinctive.”
Strangfeld says he is honored to have the opportunity to take Prudential to the next level and is excited by the prospects. “I believe that if you do a really good job of serving your customers, you can also handsomely reward your employees and produce an attractive return for the shareholders. And figuring out how to raise our game, to earn our right to grow more rapidly and in the process create better results for our customers…to me that’s a very motivating concept.”