By James R. Hagerty
As chief executive of Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. in the 1980s, John Creedon launched MetLife blimps and adopted Snoopy and other Peanuts characters to enliven the company's ads.
He also embraced the trend of creating financial supermarkets and denounced the wave of leveraged buyouts that were devaluing corporate bonds held by MetLife and other insurers.
Mr. Creedon oversaw a move into sales of mutual funds alongside insurance and the 1985 acquisition of the Century 21 real-estate brokerage chain, seen as a way to sell more insurance to home buyers. Six years after he retired, MetLife sold Century 21, joining a new trend of refocusing on core businesses.
Usually upbeat, he was furious about buyouts that loaded companies up with debt and slashed bond values. In 1988, MetLife sued RJR Nabisco Inc. over a buyout plan. Mr. Creedon said RJR executives were cheating bondholders.
"RJR has gone to the well for public debt for many years, and now they are trying to poison it," he said. MetLife and RJR reached a financial settlement of the suit in 1991.
Mr. Creedon died Oct. 11 at his home overlooking Long Island Sound in Larchmont, N.Y. He was 96 and had prostate cancer. He was still swimming in the sound in his early 90s. "Accentuate the Positive" was his theme song.
"In terms of our priorities, I believe we should place our families first before our jobs and everything else," he told colleagues in a speech in 1980, when he was president. He encouraged "constructive dissent" and said: "Different viewpoints are usually worthy of discussion. We must scrupulously guard against putting other people down. We must build on other people's ideas; not discard them."
When he was CEO, MetLife bought a life insurer in Britain, formed a joint venture in Spain and moved into East Asia. "We have our toes in the water" overseas, Mr. Creedon told The Wall Street Journal. "It's premature to tell whether this will be significant 10 years from now." In 2019, overseas units accounted for about 40% of profit.
In 1987, MetLife began deploying blimps, bearing the likeness of Snoopy, over sporting events to promote its brand. In the blimp world, it joined the Goodyear, Pepsi and Fuji film brands.
Other top executives initially didn't like the idea of Snoopy ads, and some were skeptical about the value of advertising in general. Mr. Creedon, who recalled an advertising course he took at New York University, believed in the power of ads. "You project an image that people like, so that they want to do business with you," he said later.
He told Young & Rubicam, the ad agency, he wanted to project an image of security and financial strength. Y&R came back with a picture of Linus sucking his thumb and holding a security blanket. Mr. Creedon saw potential.
"It was a risk," he added. "I mean, the staid, old Metropolitan Life, the dowager company, known for its conservatism, was all of a sudden going wild. But it took off."
John Joseph Creedon, the second of three sons, was born Aug. 1, 1924, in New York. His family lived at the time in a Queens housing development financed by MetLife. His father was a carpenter. When he was out of work the family moved into the back of a Roman Catholic church for a spell to save money. His mother later worked for the state motor-vehicles department.
As a boy, young John delivered groceries and shined shoes at Grand Central Terminal.
After graduating from high school, he got a mail-sorting job at MetLife. About six months later, he left to serve in the U.S. Navy aboard the oil tanker USS Caliente in the Pacific. As a quartermaster, he learned to steer the ship and later said the Navy built up his self-confidence.
After the war, Mr. Creedon returned to MetLife to ask for a job. A personnel officer suggested he look elsewhere. Before leaving, Mr. Creedon decided to say hello to one of his former colleagues, who overruled the personnel officer and hired him on the spot. He went to work in the commercial claims department.
At MetLife, he met Vivian Elser, a typist and stenographer, and sometimes made a rendezvous with her on a stairwell during breaks. One day a supervisor caught them in an embrace. They married in 1946.
Taking evening classes, he earned degrees in business and law at New York University. He later served as general counsel of MetLife before becoming president in 1980 and CEO in 1983. During his six years as CEO assets under management grew to more than $120 billion from $75 billion.
He got to know Ruth Bader Ginsburg when the future Supreme Court justice served alongside him as a director of the American Bar Foundation in the 1980s. He sometimes took her to meetings on a MetLife plane.
Mr. Creedon's first wife, Vivian, died in 1981. Two years later he married Diane Ardouin, a native of Quebec whom he met at a dinner honoring her and other top sales performers at MetLife. She survives him, as do six children, 11 grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
Though confined to a wheelchair in recent years, he still enjoyed belting out "New York, New York."
In one speech to colleagues, he said: "I believe we should take our jobs very seriously but that we should not take ourselves too seriously."
Write to James R. Hagerty at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires