Will Mullaney Be MetLife's Next Top Dog?

Last Updated Aug 14, 2009 12:40 PM EDT

It's always dangerous to speculate on office politics, particularly at the boardroom level, but it appears from today's announcement by MetLife that William Mullaney is within striking distance of becoming CEO at the country's largest life insurer.

But nothing is imminent. Current top dog C. Robert "Rob" Henrikson is doing a good job of steering the ship through the shoals of the recession, and not getting hung up on the jagged edges of promising too much in the company's variable annuities.

Henrikson would tell you that he owes it to his staff, all of whom he deems to be very competent. But which one of them is the most competent to succeed the white-maned Henrikson, who is approaching his mid-60's and probable retirement in a couple of years?

Today's press release could hold an important clue. MetLife said it was combining its institutional and individual businesses, as well as its auto and home insurance, into a single U.S. unit, which Mullaney will run.

The move makes sense. "Employers (i.e. "institutions") are increasingly shifting decision making ... to employees ("individuals")," says Henrikson, who adds that MetLife can better serve the market through a "single integrated organization."

Of course, when you combine MetLife's institutional, personal and property casualty businesses, there's not much left. It makes you wonder what role exists for Lisa Weber, who used to run MetLife's individual business. The press release doesn't address this, but, as previously reported, MetLife is looking to buy a big chunk of American International Group's Asian insurance business, which could offer further opportunities.

Other execs at MetLife may also be interested in the top spot, such as Chief Investment Officer Steven Kandarian and Chief Financial Officer William Wheeler. And why not? The job paid Henrikson $24.5 million in 2008, and that wasn't a good year. Both Kandarian and Wheeler are regular performers on MetLife's conference calls.

But most companies, including insurers, do tend to give preference to line officers over numbers crunchers, and Mullaney has been successful down in the trenches. When he served as head of the company's relatively small property and casualty business before taking over the institutional business in 2007, he produced record operating earnings despite some of the worst hurricanes in U.S. history. Many larger property casualty companies, like Allstate, took big losses.

Mullaney is in his early 50's, giving him the possibility of a long tenure at the top, but no one should expect any sharp changes in direction, even if he does become top dog. Why argue with success?

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.