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Upbeat First Day For The New Guy At The Hartford

Kenneth R. Gosselin

October 02, 2009

Hi. Call me Liam."

On his first day as The Hartford's new chairman and chief executive officer, Liam McGee breezed through the rear atrium of the company's headquarters in Hartford, introducing himself to employees and quickly making it clear that they could drop the Mr. McGee stuff.

He could easily have been the local banker greeting customers in the branch. After all, he'd worked as a teller in college and in the decades that followed rose to run Bank of America's sprawling 6,100-branch network.

His upbeat mood was shared by many of those he shook hands with Thursday.

"There's such a renewed sense of energy," said Diane Goodwin, who works in the marketing department. "People are very excited."

"If that changes," McGee said quickly, "you send me an e-mail."

As with many big-company CEOs meeting reporters on their first day, the walk-through, at lunchtime Thursday, was somewhat staged. Still, it was clear McGee aims to make employees at ease as he succeeds longtime CEO Ramani Ayer at a tumultuous time for the 199-year-old company.

Over the past year, The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. was battered by bad investments and problems in its variable annuity business, enough so that it sought a $3.4 billion U.S. Treasury bailout.

The 55-year-old McGee, tall and trim with graying hair, cut an approachable figure, sporting a lapel pin with The Hartford's stag, a nod to his conviction that the company's strong brand will be key to its prospering in the future.

McGee regularly wore a lapel pin with Bank of America's chevron-style logo when he worked at the bank. He quickly adopted the practice for The Hartford, and it is expected employees will follow suit.

Thursday's stroll wasn't the first time McGee spoke to employees. On Wednesday, he held a "town hall" meeting for about 450 with thousands more hooked in from remote locations.

"Wish you said you were a Giants fan rather than for the Patriots," joked Brian Boyer of internal communications, a die-hard fan of the New York team.

McGee laughed.

"But when you said you were a fan of the Red Sox, you made up for that," Goodwin piped up.

McGee, an Irish immigrant raised in California, the son of a bus driver, explained how he had been a fan of the Sox ever since the "Impossible Dream" year of 1967, when Carl Yastrzemski won the batting triple crown.

At one point when he was by himself, McGee looked up at the poster-size pictures of customers in the atrium. He said it was his first time seeing them.

As he walked from the atrium located in the imposing, Neoclassical Revival-style building that was The Hartford's first building in Asylum Hill down a set of stairs through a cafeteria, he entered a tunnel that connects to the campus's high-rise. Employees had a lot of questions for McGee but not about jobs.

"That question has not been asked in any form," McGee said.

Not yet, that is. The Hartford is cutting jobs. By the end of this year, the company says it will eliminate 2,800 jobs globally. As of June, The Hartford had cut 1,100 jobs worldwide, 475 of them in Connecticut. Layoffs have continued, but the company has not provided updated figures.

The Hartford has 12,000 employees in central Connecticut, and McGee said he couldn't imagine The Hartford not having a substantial presence in its namesake city.

Going forward, the company will focus on its property casualty and wealth management businesses. While its variable annuities business the source of some of its recent ills will remain important as part of wealth management, it won't have as prominent a profile, company officials said.

McGee ended his walk in the lobby of the high-rise building. He now had another appointment.

The new guy looked toward the employees from marketing who had escorted him for some direction.

"Is it OK if I go back?"

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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