|Donald R. Frahm, B.S.B.A. ’53
Respected Leader Creates Environment for Success
An advocate for business-education partnerships, Donald Frahm, former chairman and CEO of The Hartford, shares his formula for leadership and community-building.
In 1955, just out of the U.S. Army and armed with the Olin School B.S.B.A. he earned in 1953, Donald R. Frahm went to work for Continental Casualty Co. in St. Louis. By 1974, having advanced to senior vice president for marketing and underwriting at the company’s Chicago offices, he left to join The Hartford Insurance Group, then known as ITT Hartford, as vice president for commercial liability underwriting.
He became senior vice president in 1976, executive vice president in 1979, president and chief operating officer in 1983, and chairman and chief executive officer in 1988. He took over leadership of The Hartford at a time of difficulty for the company and the insurance industry, but managed during his term as chairman to increase revenues by some 50 percent.
Asked to sum up his success, he offers: “hard work; the desire to learn more, to understand, to do better; and the most important thing—having good people working with you.” When The Hartford Group became an independent company again in 1995 after 25 years as a subsidiary of ITT, Frahm was asked by The Hartford Courant about the company’s turnaround from 1988 to 1996 under his leadership. The Courant’s 1996 “Business Leader of the Year” said: “All I did was create an environment in which it could happen. I try not to get in the way of people who know what they’re doing. I think that’s a strength.”
Although sometimes criticized for not pushing people hard enough, Frahm followed his belief that “if people take things as their own idea and do it, then what they do comes out much better than if you tell them to do something.”
He is known by colleagues at The Hartford for being tough on himself, being honest, and being matter-of-fact in his approach. If one of the company’s businesses wasn’t one of the best performers in its field, he said as his chairmanship came to a close, “then we shouldn’t be a player, because we believe [in the market] you’re either very good or you’re not there. It’s the strong getting stronger and the weak disappearing.” One of his best decisions, he believes, was to sell off the company’s health insurance and managed-care business, never a top performer, to expand the life insurance operations.
The architect of an internationally successful business, Frahm is highly respected in the insurance industry and its professional associations as a true leader—modest, low-key, a good listener, but tenacious and aggressive in pursuing issues and causes he believes in. When he speaks, industry CEOs pay attention.
He has been active in both major insurance industry professional associations. As a member of the American Insurance Association, he pushed for the reform of Superfund (the federal legislation intended to clean up hazardous waste sites) and spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C., as chair of an industry task force that investigated Superfund in the 1980s. He also chaired the Insurance Information Institute, the property-casualty industry’s public relations arm, which has the major responsibility for insurance industry communications.
The return to independence for The Hartford was the culmination of Frahm’s leadership and 23-year career with the company. It was also a cause for celebration in the Hartford region. Besides the obvious economic benefit of once again housing a corporate headquarters, the city of Hartford gains from The Hartford’s policy of encouraging its employees to embrace local causes and its executives to serve on the boards of local groups. In addition, about two-thirds of the company’s annual charitable contributions are directed to the Hartford area.
The Hartford has a longtime reputation for maintaining a strong community focus and involvement, and Frahm is a strong proponent of the corporate role in a region’s economic stability and quality of life. He believes the company’s first responsibility to the community is to remain strong and grow. “The stronger we are, the more we can contribute to the community.”
Asked to sum up his success, he offers: “hard work; the desire to learn more, to understand, to do better; and the most important thing—having good people working with you.”
The committee that selected him as the Courant’s 1996 “Business Leader of the Year” said Frahm exemplified the meaning of “good citizen” and understood the obligations associated with privilege and influence. As a member of the Greater Hartford Chamber of Commerce, Frahm involved The Hartford in a major strategic housing and redevelopment project. He also has been a corporator of the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center (which The Hartford helped fund), a director of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association and the Connecticut Bank & Trust Co., and a member of the advisory committee of Community Health Services in Hartford. Seven years after his retirement as chairman, Frahm went off the board of The Hartford in May 2004.
He continues to serve on the boards of the University of Hartford, where he is chairman of the audit committee, and Hartford Hospital and its parent organization, where he has served as member and chairman of the executive committee, member of its board of directors, and chair of its 150th anniversary campaign. His service also extends beyond Hartford to his alma mater, Washington University, with membership on the Olin National Council, Boston Regional Cabinet, and the National Corporate Network.
These commitments, and others, make his “retirement” anything but idle.
St. Louis native Frahm has always been an athlete, lettering in baseball at Washington University, along with being a member of Sigma Chi, Lock and Chain, and Thurtene. He continues to be an active tennis player, competing mostly in New England tournaments under the auspices of the United States Tennis Association (USTA). He has held several No. 1 rankings in the over-60 and over-70 age groups in the USTA’s New England section. One of his doubles partners described him as “a good sport, but an aggressive player who hits the ball hard,” perhaps a reflection of his management style.
He and his wife, Jean, spend a lot of time and have a lot of fun with their three grandchildren, all under 4 years old. The Frahms enjoy traveling, including last year’s trip to Patagonia, which featured a hiking trip in the Andes, and the previous year’s journey to Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. He also is playing more golf during his family’s stays each year in Florida, and he has more time for reading his favorite subject, history, and tackling The New York Times crossword puzzles.
Life Benefactors of the Eliot Society, he and Jean are annual members of the Danforth Circle, sponsors of the Jean and Donald Frahm Scholarship in Business, and donors of the Frahm Family Professorship in the Olin School of Business. Frahm was honored with the Distinguished Business Alumni Award in 1989 and the Distinguished Alumni Award at Founders Day in 1996. One of the couple’s three children, Mark, also graduated from the University with an M.B.A. from Olin in 2000.
A strong advocate of education, Frahm admires the growing interaction between the business community in St. Louis and the education community at Washington University, as well as the interaction between students and faculty. His commitment to Washington University and the University of Hartford, his personal sponsorship of scholarships, and his advocacy of business-education partnerships influenced his successor as chairman of The Hartford to honor him with the Donald R. Frahm Hartford Scholar Program, which targets students pursuing an M.B.A. with opportunities for summer internships—a fitting tribute to commemorate an important leader at the company he served so well.