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In Connecticut, The Hartford's Ramani Ayer Leaves A Remarkable Legacy

Dan Haar

October 17, 2009

Ramani Ayer told the story Friday about how he was pitched on Greater Hartford 36 years ago, when he was looking to join The Hartford as a young executive.

"It's 90 miles from Boston and 100 miles from New York," Ayer recalled hearing, in remarks to the MetroHartford Alliance. "And I said, 'Something's got to change in this picture.'"

In more than a generation on the job, including a dozen years as CEO of The Hartford Financial Services Group, Ayer did change the picture in the one way that matters most.

He will retire at age 62 on Halloween after a harrowing year, able to see that his company the Hartford region's company, as he put it will survive. That was not a given six months ago when shares in the company were trading for less than $5, and the Hartford was seeking a federal bailout.

On Friday, the Alliance feted Ayer, a former chairman of the regional group, in honor of his years of service to the region. Later in the day, dozens of neighborhood children from West Middle School stopped by the black corporate office tower to offer thanks for The Hartford's longtime partnership with the school.

Those tributes, not unusual for parting executives, spoke about Ayer's work in the region. Well deserved, very public. But when it comes to brute economic value, Ayer's lasting legacy is contained in a number that's rarely cited: 40.

That's the percentage of The Hartford's employees who are based in the company's home region, 12,000 out of 30,000. It is, for a Fortune 100 multinational corporation with a workforce of 30,000, nothing short of astounding, recalling an era before the search for lower costs brought brutal consequences to states like Connecticut.

The Hartford, of course, has not been immune to layoffs under Ayer, especially in the last 12 months. The company is restructuring and expects to pare its payroll by nearly 3,000, including hundreds so far in Connecticut, with more cuts likely as the company emerges from financial purgatory.

Still, Ayer has maintained not only the core of the company in and around Hartford, but vast operations: Hartford Life in Simsbury, property-casualty in Asylum Hill, the AARP business in Southington.

"I love this city. I love this region," said Ayer, a Simsbury resident. Speaking of The Hartford as an asset that belongs to Connecticut, he referred to himself as a caretaker, "an apple polisher."

That's a very well-paid fruit man, for sure. Ayer has accepted his share of responsibility as the company's portfolio, stocked with mortgage-related investments, took a hard hit, forcing The Hartford to raise $2.5 billion from a German insurer and $3.4 billion in a federal bailout.

But he didn't bite into that 40 percent figure.

Ayer didn't build it up, he inherited it. The percentage was 41 in the year before he took over as chief executive in 1997. At the time, the company had 8,950 of its 21,000 employees here.

Then, in a decade when few giant companies grew at home, Ayer brought The Hartford's local total to 13,000 as the overall company grew, and he has maintained the core amid the painful cuts of this recession.

I asked Ayer whether it was strategy tapping into the labor market for a huge critical mass of people or his love of the area that drove him to uphold local employment so well. "It's a combination of both," he said.

There are historic reasons for the high figure. The Hartford grew organically from its original location on Asylum Avenue, for the most part, rather than by acquisition. By contrast, Aetna, for example, had a huge purchase of U.S. Healthcare in Pennsylvania in 1996. Manufacturing giants such as Hartford-based United Technologies Corp. (which has 12 percent of global employees, 26,000 people, in Connecticut) must maintain far-flung operations to make, sell and service their stuff around the world.

No other region comes close as a center of operations for The Hartford. The company has between 600 and 1,000 people in Minneapolis, Charlotte, San Antonio, Phoenix and Philadelphia.

The big question in the next few years, of course, is whether Ayer's successor, Liam E. McGee, will take the same approach. McGee formerly headed Bank of America's sprawling 6,100-branch retail network, so he knows how to operate an empire that's spread out.

McGee, in an interview on his first day on the job Oct. 1, said it's premature for him to talk about employment locations. "It's hard for me to conceive of The Hartford not having an important and significant presence in Hartford," he said.

Ayer, who was born and raised in India, hammered home the points about building up urban education on behalf of the whole region. Stay in school, he told the kids.

To the grown-ups, he said, "It is our job to educate our legislators and tell them ... there is enormous opportunity for creating jobs in this territory."

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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