It’s not unusual for Irish Americans to say their interest in their roots came through the influence of a father, grandmother or some other ancestral figure. In Bob Devlin’s case, his youngest son Matthew had as much to do with his burgeoning interest in Irish issues as anyone.
Matthew attended Boston College and went to University College Galway in Ireland in his junior year. While there he met a young Irish American woman from Marquette University who was also studying abroad.
Her name was Erin Conroy and they developed a love for Ireland that was passed on to their families. After graduation the two were married and they recently presented Bob Devlin with his first grandchild, Jack. They also helped kindle in Devlin the interest in his Irish heritage, which has now become a major part of his life.
Devlin, who is chairman and CEO of American General, the third-largest insurance company in America, was born in Brooklyn and is now a resident of Houston. His Irish roots trace back on his paternal side to his great-grandfather, James Devlin, who came over from either Tyrone or Donegal in 1848. His father’s older sister, who is still hale and hearty at 94, has put together a family tree outlining the Irish roots.
Devlin is proud of the fact that those Irish roots were recognized last year when he was awarded one of the Ellis Island Medals of Honor for his business achievements. “I was very honored to receive it,” he says.
Recently he has also become involved with Cooperation Ireland, the Irish and U.S.-based agency which helps foster cooperation and mutual trust between the two communities in Northern Ireland and between the people on both sides of the border.
On a personal level he enjoys his frequent trips to Ireland. Last September he went over for what he describes as the “three-day Irish wedding” of a friend of his from Houston who was married in Killybegs, Co. Donegal.
Devlin’s business career has been spectacular. In 1995 when he took over as chairman and chief executive of American General, it was a company of about $43 billion in assets. Today, the company has $110 billion in assets. The market capitalization has risen in the last four years from about $6 billion to over $20 billion. The company stock price increased 38 percent in 1997 and 48 percent in 1998.
Devlin’s success in growing the company was based on an aggressive expansion plan. He made several strategic acquisitions, one of which was Franklin Life in February of 1995. Just over two years later, American General acquired U.S. Life Corporation and in early 1998 they bought out Western National Life.
“We took some risks but they were fairly manageable,” Devlin says modestly in an interview in his New York office. “Right now, American General is the third-largest insurance-based financial services company [in the States] after American International and Allstate.”
Devlin believes that effective branding is one of the key elements in the success of the company. To that end, American General have been ubiquitous recently on major network television, advertising their services.
“If you went out and asked most people on the street — not just here in New York, but even in Houston, who is American General, they’d kind of give you a blank stare,” says Devlin. “We felt with the fact that we have 12 million customers and we’re the third-largest insurance-based company that we really had to have a better known company in the marketplace. We think that a branded name is more recognizable and is better long term.”
The ability to communicate the message is one Devlin does superbly and is a recognizable trait in many Irish CEOs. He also has the added advantage of having known the insurance business since he was knee high to a grasshopper because of his father’s lifelong involvement in the trade.
Devlin’s father’s story is a remarkable one. John Devlin was born in 1911 in Brooklyn, grew up during the Depression and as a result did not have much formal education. Indeed, he was lucky to find a job working as a clerk for an insurance firm in the Chrysler Building. From there he had a stellar rise, eventually moving to Schenectady, New York where he became chairman and CEO of an insurance brokerage and an agency named Ter Bush and Powell which was one of the largest between New York and Chicago.
Bob Devlin says his father taught him to “have a commitment and a high level of integrity to what you’re going to do and to really stick with it as well as you can.”
When it came Bob Devlin’s time to go out in the world after he graduated from Tulane University in 1964, he took his father’s advice and began working with Mutual of New York, one of only two companies he would work for.
In 1977, he joined American General and spent three years in California, then five and a half in Nashville before finally moving to Houston in 1986.
All that moving around and picking up and starting anew in different cities has left him with a deep sense of the importance of family and friends. He and wife Kate just celebrated their 38th wedding anniversary soon after their first grandchild was born.
“One of the things I found in our various moves was how important family is,” he says. “Whenever you move to a new town, the importance of the support system that your family provides becomes more apparent. I have been very lucky to have it.”
Bob Devlin has led his company to new heights and expects in the next millennium to take it even higher. But even from the lofty heights of the chief executive’s office Devlin also keeps a weather eye on what’s just as important in his life: the Irish roots that nurtured him and the family bonds which sustain him. They have proved to be an unbeatable combination.♦