A nimble constancy in putting customers first. Five — and only five — chairmen of the board in 100-plus years. And one soft-spoken zoologist who pitched a TV show.
Such has been the formula that made Mutual of Omaha a Fortune 500 company, a bedrock of its community and a nationally known name.
It's visible in the insurer's imposing 75-year-old campus and the shining shopping center linking it to downtown Omaha. It's reflected in the local university buildings named for its first chairman, the west Omaha high school christened for its second — and, of course, the Wild Kingdom Pavilion near the entrance of Omaha's world-class Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium.
Mutual has shuffled its lineup of insurance and financial products from time to time, most dramatically when it shed its group health insurance lines in 2007 — the same year it entered the banking business just as a “bubble” in nationwide housing prices began its colossal collapse.
Still, neither the Great Recession of the past decade nor the Great Depression in the last century could knock Mutual off its rails. Longtime company spokesman Jim Nolan said the same factors that saw Mutual through those crises remain the key to its future: stable leadership and an unshakable focus on customer service.
The latter, he added, flows naturally from Mutual's status as a mutual insurance company. Because insurers so organized are owned by their policyholders, “we can make decisions for the long term,” Nolan said. “And we're called upon to make decisions for the benefit of our policyholders, not for shareholders.”
Even Mutual's bold moves in launching and quickly growing Mutual of Omaha Bank can be traced to its historic identity, he said. Company leaders immediately declared their intention to become a major player in banking, then followed up by buying weakened and failing banks — but not their toxic real-estate loans — in growing from zero to $6 billion in nationwide banking assets in six years.
“It was a matter of making decisions that … (promote) continued financial strength and can continue to grow to meet the needs of our policyholders,” Nolan said.
Mutual's enduring principles began to take root in July 1910, when a Creighton University medical student named C.C. Criss was elected treasurer of the fledgling insurer originally known as Mutual Benefit Health & Accident Association.
Founded in March 1909, the firm needed nearly a year to gain the 250 policy applications necessary to be licensed to sell health and accident insurance in Nebraska. After reaching that goal in January 1910, it received only 29 more applications in the six months before Criss' election, according to a timeline on Mutual's website.
Criss encouraged a corporate attitude of customer service “from a populist perspective for the common man,” Nolan said. Customers repaid the approach with their confidence. Mutual Benefit was licensed to sell insurance in 15 states by 1920 and in all of the then-48 states, Alaska, Hawaii and Canada by 1939.
Criss never did practice medicine. Working alongside his wife, Mabel, who joined the leadership team in 1928, he served as Mutual Benefit's president from 1933 to 1949 and then as chairman until his death in 1952.
The couple's impact on their city, Nolan said, is reflected in the buildings named for them at each of Omaha's major universities: the Health Sciences Building at Creighton and the library at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Already a top-five U.S. insurer by 1929, Mutual Benefit barely broke stride during the Depression. It acquired other insurers, entered the hospital-insurance field in 1936 and broke ground at its longtime campus at 33rd and Farnam Streets on Sept. 4, 1939, three days after World War II began. Its 613-employee home office moved into its new headquarters a year later.
By 1946, Mutual Benefit had become the leading U.S. insurer in premium income. Four years later, it had a new insignia — the familiar Indian chief in full headdress — and a new, shorter name in Mutual of Omaha. Transforming them into national icons was the lasting contribution of Criss' successor, V.J. Skutt, who was involved at Mutual for 69 years until his 1993 death.
Skutt was “the consummate salesman and promoter,” Nolan said. The insurer sponsored the national radio show “Freedom of Opportunity” in 1944 and backed several notable TV shows during the 1950s, including “Father Knows Best,” “What's My Line?”, “The Lawrence Welk Show” and the earliest versions of NBC's “Today” and “Tonight” shows.
None of those sponsorships yielded the fame that followed after TV producer Don Meier — an Oshkosh, Neb., native — and St. Louis Zoo director Marlin Perkins approached Skutt with their idea for a weekly show featuring animals and nature.
“Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom” debuted on NBC Jan. 6, 1963, and remained on that network for nine years before entering first-run syndication. The show entered millions of U.S. living rooms each Sunday night, usually as lead-in to “The Wonderful World of Disney.”
Perkins hosted the show until 1985, a year before his death. He would introduce film footage of animal species in their habitats, usually showcasing co-host and successor Jim Fowler, and introduce Mutual's commercials.
“It set the stage for our sales agents and opened a lot of doors,” Nolan said. But Mutual also is proud that “a lot of people in the (wildlife) field say they became interested by watching 'Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom.'”
Skutt — namesake with his wife, Angela, of Creighton's student center and Skutt Catholic High School — handed over Mutual's reins in 1986 to his son, Thomas. Jack Weekly, who first joined the insurer in 1950, became president in 1987 and succeeded the younger Skutt as chief executive officer in 1996 and chairman in 1998.
Their tenures, Nolan said, coincided with the beginning of the acceleration in U.S. health-care costs. Though health insurance had accounted for as much as 60 percent of premium income, he said, Mutual increasingly sought to diversify its offerings “so we weren't so reliant” on what long had been the insurer's “bread and butter.”
Mutual's withdrawal from individual and group health insurance was completed by 2007, two years after Weekly died and was succeeded by current Chairman and CEO Daniel Neary. But the insurer continues to offer dental, critical-illness, long-term care and supplemental health policies in addition to financial retirement services and life, accident and disability insurance.
It was Neary who shepherded Mutual's entry into banking, which began with its fall 2007 purchases of Nebraska State Bank in Omaha, Security Federal Bank in Lincoln and Peak National Bank in Golden, Colo. Mutual of Omaha Bank now operates 44 branches in nine states, including four in Omaha, one in La Vista and two in Lincoln.
Neary also spearheaded the development of Midtown Crossing at Turner Park, a 15-acre, $300 million retail and residential redevelopment of Mutual-owned land east of the home-office campus that was dedicated in 2010. Work on Midtown Crossing's multistory buildings — designed to fit into long-prevailing architectural styles in its neighborhood — began in 2006 and continued through the depths of the Great Recession.
But one shouldn't expect Mutual to become a regular player in Omaha redevelopment projects, Nolan said. It built Midtown Crossing only due to “an extraordinary set of circumstances,” most notably its deep involvement in Omaha's Destination Midtown studies that encouraged similar redevelopments.
That said, Nolan added, Midtown Crossing reflects Mutual's ongoing commitment to Omaha after more than a century. “It's fun to drive through on a Friday or Saturday night and see all the activity buzzing, (especially) when you remember how (the neighborhood) was before,” he said.