Peter B. Lewis was a leader who doesn’t come along often, according to those who knew him. After taking over Progressive Insurance in a leveraged buyout with his mother in 1965, Lewis steadily built the company into an insurance powerhouse. Steve Litt is architecture critic at the Plain Dealer and has written extensively about him.
“I think it was through a kind of a relentless -- some would say ruthless -- process of refinement and self questioning that the company kept on trying to improve its product.”
Lewis was certainly a risk taker, as was evident in his gambit to insure high-risk drivers all across the country. Other insurers wouldn’t touch them, but he made that model a success. Other innovations followed, such as comparing Progressive’s prices to those of competitors, 24-hour claim service, on-line quoting.
Lewis was an avid art enthusiast and had assembled an impressive art collection at Progressive’s headquarters. Mark Schwartz is president and creative director of the design firm Nesnadny & Schwartz, which has produced Progressive’s annual report for more than 30 years, and he says from the start, Lewis demanded that fine artwork be the centerpiece of the company’s annual report.
"Both the artwork and the annual report were reflective of the culture of progressive. Risk, challenging yourself, exploring new ideas really a metaphor of the business of Progressive, and using fine artists to illustrate what is essentially a financial document was a radical thing to do back in the eighties."
Causes and lost faith
Lewis was also a generous philanthropist and patron of the arts, contributing many millions of dollars to the Guggenheim in New York, and to his alma mater, Princeton University. He also contributed to Cleveland organizations. He paid for as much as half the construction of the building that houses the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. The building, which was named after him, was designed by his friend and renowned architect Frank Gehry.
But Lewis had lost faith in Cleveland’s non-profit community.
“He thought there was too much of an incestuous relationship among all non-profits where you have many of the same people serving on the same boards," said Litt.
And he focused his anger at Case Western Reserve, whom he had thought mismanaged the Lewis building project. Here he is describing his feelings in a 2002 interview with ideastream’s Dee Perry.
“My objective is to fix the university, thereby fixing Cleveland. And the way to fix Cleveland is to fix the board, and until the board -- the current board that got the university in the mess in which it is -- changes, I’m not going to give any more money to any other institution in Cleveland.”
Art, marijuana and the ACLU
His boycott of Cleveland went on for a year, after which he resumed giving smaller gifts to Cleveland institutions. Last year he gave $5 million to the Cleveland Institute of Art. He also gave a million dollars to ideastream.
Lewis was also a contributor to causes, including the Center for American Progress, the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations. He also was a strong supporter of legalizing marijuanaand contributed to the campaigns that won legalization of the drug in Washington and Colorado.
In time, Lewis’ relationship with Case Western Reserve thawed. University President Barbara Schneider, who joined the school in 2007, echoes what so many say about Lewis -- that his passion for excellence was felt by all who came in contact with him.
A passion to challenge
“His intensity, his creativity, his passion for excellence were a part of the person we knew at Case Western Reserve. And I think that has affected every organization he’s touched.”
Lewis gave the commencement address at Case last May. He called on graduates to challenge conventional wisdom. And he urged them to take a page from his life’s playbook.
“The passion to improve and enjoy everything will make your life more vibrant, interesting and successful. Find work you enjoy, and enjoy doing. .”
Lewis died Saturday. He was 80 years old.