6 Famous People Who Had Successful Insurance Careers

A montage of celebrity headshots: Wallace Stevens, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Clancy, James Donovan, Franz Kafka, and Charles Ives

Far more famous people have been insurance professionals than you would probably guess. If you think about it, though, it’s only natural—it’s a huge industry that’s been around for centuries, and it offers dozens of different career opportunities.

Just to illustrate how diverse the list is, here’s a sampling: movie stars such as George Clooney and Charles Lane, comedians such as Steve Harvey and Cedric the Entertainer, business icons such as Warren Buffett and Colonel Sanders, musicians such as Questlove and Gene Simmons, and even reality TV stars such as Sean Lowe of “The Bachelor” and Mark Burnett of “Survivor” and “The Apprentice.”

While many of those people were just passing through the profession before moving on to another career, other household names who left their mark on the world spent their careers in the risk management and insurance industry. Here are six such influential figures.

1. Benjamin Franklin

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, founding father, inventor, and ambassador.

What didn’t Ben Franklin do? He was an author, printer, politician, Freemason, postmaster, inventor, statesman, glass harmonica player — the list goes on. And, oh yeah, he was also an insurance pioneer.

In 1752, Franklin created the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire, which was the first property insurance company in the Americas. In his eyes, insurance is a gift to society, “whereby every man might help another, without any disservice to himself.”

It could also be said that Franklin was a strong proponent of risk management, which aims to reduce the likelihood of an accident, not just help compensate victims after a loss. In an impassioned letter in The Philadelphia Gazette, making the case for the Contributionship, Franklin made one of his most famous aphorisms: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Franklin’s contribution to the field is still around today, now known simply as The Philadelphia Contributionship. It was because of his work that he was also one of the first inductees into the Insurance Hall of Fame.

2. Charles Ives

Headshot of Charles Ives, American composer.

Another one of America’s great creators, Charles Ives is known as one of the first American composers to achieve international acclaim.

He also happens to have been quite influential in the insurance field, where he developed new and creative ways to structure life insurance packages and laid the foundation for the modern practice of estate planning.

“If you play a lot of Charles Ives, you have to put up with the raised eyebrows of skeptics, who refer to him as ‘a crazy insurance salesman,’” pianist Jeremy Denk wrote in The New Yorker. “This is frustrating. He was actually a spectacular insurance salesman who co-founded an agency and made a fortune.” 

Ives passed away in 1954, but you can actually find much of his work on Spotify.

3. Wallace Stevens

Headshot of Wallace Stevens, Pulitzer Prize winning poet.

Pulitzer Prize winner Wallace Stevens has been described as “certainly the quintessential American poet of the twentieth century,” but he also spent most of his life working in the insurance field.

Stevens did much of his writing on his walk to work at Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, now known simply as The Hartford. He said that he wrote his verses as he strode, “matching the words in his head to the rhythm of his footfalls.” In his writing, some writers have even seen an influence from his insurance work. He specialized in surety (covering loans that cannot be paid back) and fidelity (covering employee wrongdoing).

“Something very like such calculated risk operates in his poetry: little crises in consciousness, just perilous enough to seem meaningful,” wrote New Yorker staff writer Peter Schjeldahl. “The endings are painstakingly managed victories for the poet’s equanimity.”

(By the way, who knew that The New Yorker loves to publish articles about artistic insurance professionals?)

Wallace died in 1955 and remains revered among American writers today. To learn more about him and read his poetry, visit StevensPoetry.org.

4. Franz Kafka

Headshot of Franz Kafka, author

You know you’ve made a lasting impression on the world when your last name becomes an adjective. It’s in memory of the iconic fiction writer Franz Kafka that we use the phrase Kafkaesque to describe surreal, complex and paradoxical situations.

Never heard it? Go ahead and search for it on Google News — you’ll find it in daily news headlines all over the world. It was the name of a “Breaking Bad” episode, The Onion has made jokes in reference to it, and there’s a clever animated Ted Talk explaining it.

But Kafka wrote his famous stories after his day job at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia in early 20th century Prague. It’s said that his bureaucratic career informed his absurdist writing, but he also wrote that he found his work very interesting.

Kafka is such an exalted figure that there is an entire book dedicated to examining his legal and clerical work while working in the insurance field, which shows that he “took his work seriously, believed in it, and did it well.”

5. James Donovan

Headshot of James Donovan, American lawyer and international diplomatic negotiator

Jim Donovan became a bit of a household name after being portrayed by Tom Hanks in the 2015 film “Bridge of Spies.” In the movie, Donovan, an insurance lawyer, is called on to defend an arrested Soviet spy in court and to also help facilitate a hostage exchange for a captured American spy.

We’ll never know why director Steven Spielberg didn’t spend more time focusing on Donovan’s insurance career, but it’s actually kind of cool in its own right. During World War II, for instance, he developed a top-secret disability and life insurance program for scientists conducting covert research.

“All Donovan had to do was to find U.S. insurers willing to underwrite a hazard they could know nothing about, on insureds whose names and precise jobs they could not be told, at rates which could not be based on experience,” one insurance magazine wrote. “On top of this, the companies had to agree to pay claims they could not even investigate!”

If you’re less interested in his negotiations with Fidel Castro and more curious about his insurance career, here’s a great summary.

6. Tom Clancy

Headshot of Tom Clancy, author

Tom Clancy published 17 best sellers, although today’s teenagers might know his name from seeing it on video games. He’s yet another example of a writer whose day job as an insurance professional influenced his writing.

Clancy was running his own insurance agency in Maryland when he wrote his first popular thriller, “The Hunt for Red October,” which soon became a movie starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin. In fact, in researching the book, Clancy interviewed a number of his insurance clients, who just so happened to be former submarine officers at a nuclear plant near his home.

His insurance career also taught him to have a keen eye for detail, which is actually what made his debut novel a favorite of President Ronald Reagan. That might actually explain why so many famous writers also had insurance careers.

“I feel a moral obligation to my readers to get it right,” Clancy told The New York Times in 1988. “In the insurance business, you have to pay attention to details, or a client could lose everything. A doctor has to, a cop, a fireman, why not a writer?”

Editor’s note: special thanks to Leader’s Edge magazine for its help in researching this piece.