Look closely and you’ll find Daniel Neary’s fingerprints in each of these landmark events.
Despite the nation’s worst financial crisis in 60 years, Omaha’s 2008 United Way campaign set a fund-raising record. Neary and his wife, Shirley, were campaign chairmen.
The Little Sioux, Iowa, Scout Ranch ravaged by a tornado that killed four boys in 2008 was rebuilt and reopened in May. As volunteer chairman of the Omaha-area Scouting organization, Neary helped organize the effort.
Midtown Crossing at Turner Park, a $300 million mixed-use development that reimagines the purpose and future of that area, opened this fall. Neary, as CEO of Mutual of Omaha, was the one who pulled the financial trigger.
Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork. That’s Neary’s mantra, and yet his guidance and decision-making are common elements in the success of these and other ventures.
For his contributions to Omaha and the region during his 35 years at Mutual of Omaha, especially the past five years as chairman and CEO, Neary today is honored by The World-Herald as its 2009 Midlander of the Year.
The designation also recognizes Mutual’s role as steadfast business anchor over the past century, including during the past financially tumultuous 16 months, and the completion of Midtown Crossing, which pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy during the recession.
“I think Dan Neary really exemplifies the kind of key corporate leaders we have here who step up and give their time and experience,” said United Way of the Midlands CEO Michael McLarney.
“There was never a moment when he was anything but confident that we could get this done. The attitude was ‘This is Omaha. As a community we can do some things that other communities can’t do.’”
Mayor Jim Suttle said everything Neary does benefits the city and makes Mutual of Omaha stronger.
“He’s one of the go-to people that I will engage with on a regular basis,” Suttle said.
Neary said he shares The World-Herald honor with the nearly 5,100 Mutual employees nationwide, as well as others with whom he works on business, civic and charitable activities.
He said he strives to “empower people to make good, high-impact decisions.” As an example, he points to the two giant banners, one picturing a swimmer and the other a tiger, that were draped down the front of the headquarters building to mark the 2008 Olympic Swim Trials and the company’s centennial in 2009.
“Actuaries aren’t that creative,” Neary said wryly of himself.
Fellow insurance man Robert Reed, president and CEO of Physicians Mutual Insurance Co., said Neary’s vision has brightened Omaha and projected a positive view of the city nationally.
“As our good neighbor and competitor up the street from us, I’ve enjoyed working with Dan and watching his leadership take root at Mutual of Omaha,” Reed said.
Neary didn’t travel far to end up in Omaha. A native of Carroll, Iowa, about 95 miles northeast of the metropolitan area, he attended Briar Cliff College (now Briar Cliff University) in Sioux City on a basketball scholarship.
Taking the advice of a nun, his math teacher, that actuarial science would be a good combination of mathematics and business for him, Neary transferred to the University of Iowa and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees there.
When a campus recruiter showed up from Mutual, he signed on with the company in 1975. Eventually he headed the company’s group health insurance division.
In 1997, Neary left Mutual to become president of an insurance plan in New York, but he returned within a year when he discovered that its core values didn’t match his.
Coming home to Mutual was “one of the brightest days in my working career,” Neary said.
Early on, he put his team concept into place: identify talented, trustworthy people; empower them to do their jobs; and hold them accountable to encourage a high-performing business culture.
“A company like this doesn’t run on an individual,” he said.
When it came time to name a new president in 2003, then-CEO Jack Weekly chose Neary, a sign that he was in line to become CEO. Weekly died in late 2004 after being injured in a fall, and in January 2005, company directors named Neary as Mutual’s fifth chairman.
Critical matters were simmering at the time of his appointment:
Ÿ Mutual’s health insurance business wasn’t competing well with much bigger companies.
Ÿ It had excess real estate stretching east from its headquarters at 33rd and Dodge Streets.
Ÿ Financial companies were diversifying as federal rules allowed insurance companies and banks to mingle.
Neary, believing that Mutual could succeed well in some areas but not in everything, pulled the plug on the company’s health insurance business in 2007, except for Medicare supplement insurance.
With teams of executives leading the way, the company focused on Medicare supplement, long-term care insurance, annuities, life insurance and banking, along with mutual funds and a limited number of other financial services.
By late 2007, Mutual of Omaha was in its strongest financial position ever, and while it wasn’t unscathed in the 2008 financial upheaval, it was profitable at a time when other big financial companies were forced to rely on government bailouts.
Neary, who had served as a director of Commercial Federal Bank, favored a move into banking, and Mutual of Omaha Bank eventually became Nebraska’s fastest-growing bank.
With a geographical range from California to Florida, Mutual of Omaha Bank acquires faltering institutions and opens new branches, capitalizing on Mutual’s well-known brand name to attract customers.
The two-year-old operation will contribute substantially to future company earnings, Neary said.
Neary said he supports but lets others supervise Mutual’s marketing efforts, including the rejuvenation of the Wild Kingdom campaign and the company’s sponsorships of professional athletes and Olympic swimmers. The focus of those efforts is that the Mutual of Omaha brand is a vital company asset.
Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming in Colorado Springs, Colo., said Mutual has integrated itself into the sport of swimming, winning loyalty of the “swimming family” for the company and for Omaha.
“It’s really an ideal Olympic sport-corporate sponsorship relationship,” he said.
In 2009, Mutual had record sales, increased its work force in Omaha and nationwide, and is meeting its profit goals, Neary said.
The company could even show an investment gain this year, Neary said, thanks to its talented team of investment managers who, among other things, avoided deep exposure to high-risk investments.
But he said Mutual’s true success is measured not by yearly profits but by its long-term ability to provide the financial products its members need. As a mutual company, Mutual is owned by its policyholders.
To Omahans, Mutual’s most visible step forward in recent years is Midtown Crossing, an idea developed through community groups and refined by Mutual, which owned nearly all the property involved.
Before unveiling the plan publicly, Neary summoned a high-level team from the midtown neighborhood to talk about the project. They included the Rev. John P. Schlegel, Creighton University president; University of Nebraska Medical Center President Harold Maurer; and Bruce Grewcock, CEO of Peter Kiewit Sons’ Inc.
Schlegel said he saw the drawings and realized Mutual was talking about improvements south of Dodge Street that would rival Creighton’s expansion to the north.
“He sort of had this vision and talked to us about it. I got very excited,” said Schlegel, who added that Neary has done a superb job “repositioning” Mutual.
The Weitz Co. eventually became the general contractor for the project. Senior manager Rob Zimmerman remembers when he first saw the plans. Construction people are confident, he said, and his first reaction was, “Oh, yeah, we can do it.”
But then he looked closer.
“Oh, wow, this is a huge project,” he remembers thinking.
Zimmerman had to figure out how to manage construction of 1 million square feet of building space, hemmed in by two of Omaha’s busiest streets, with an aggressive construction schedule.
However, the ultimate “go” decision was Neary’s, as well as the resolve to see the huge project through even as the economy faltered and construction projects elsewhere in the country shut down for lack of financing.
“It was time to change the optics and look to the future and do something productive with that land,” he said.
At its peak, as many as 1,000 people directly and indirectly worked on the project, with a payroll approaching $1 million a month — a huge injection of cash at a time when economy-related fear and retrenchment dominated the news.
Mutual’s plan was solid, Neary said.
Insurance companies must invest their assets to grow so they have money available for claims, and real estate is a traditional holding for insurers. Mutual essentially invested its money in the Midtown Crossing project rather than in office buildings or other real estate around the country.
While building the entire project at once might seem like a gamble, Neary said, it actually was the safest strategy.
Few people would move into condominiums and apartments without neighboring services such as a grocery or restaurants. Likewise, retail and commercial businesses wouldn’t sign leases without nearby residential occupants.
By constructing the whole “village,” he said, “people don’t have to trust that these things will fill in 15 years from now. It’s here.”
Dan and Shirley Neary, coincidentally, fit into a prime demographic for Midtown Crossing’s residences. They have four grown children — Bryan, Brandon, Conor and Leigh — and five grandchildren. And Neary, of course, works in the neighborhood.
For years they lived in central Omaha, and Shirley regularly shopped at the original Wohlner’s grocery at 52nd and Leavenworth Streets. When Wohlner’s announced last month that it would open a store in the Midtown Crossing project, that was enough for Shirley.
The Nearys are finalizing plans for the Midtown Crossing condominium they will buy and occupy sometime next year.
Neary, 57, said no one could have charted the course that landed him on Mutual’s top floor and in a Midtown Crossing condo. As a steward of a “great company,” the key is to put the right teams in place.
“Then you get out of the way and let people make their decisions.”
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