Ed’s family tradition was ships and shipbuilding, but he studied business in school. His dad, William, owned a dry dock company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, while his grandfather, John, was a ship’s captain. John began working for the insurance company, Northwestern Mutual, on a part-time basis during one of the worst years of the Great Depression—1932.
Despite the economic situation, Ed’s part time gig became full-time quickly. The company recognized his talent, and he soon rose to become vice president. By 1947, Ed was company president. In 1958, because of his leadership, the company expanded. Ed was unanimously chosen to be chairman of the board of directors. He stayed in that role until two years before his retirement. His longevity in the company leadership was due to his wisdom regarding the company’s fiscal position.
One of Ed’s great talents was his ability to make sure the company was diversely invested. It was Ed’s thought that the diversity of investments would insure stability during the worst of economic situations. After all, he had been with the company during depression and through a world war. This is the period when the company began to make the change from being purely a life insurance company to being a financial services corporation that offered a wide variety of investment opportunities to clients and investors. Today, the company is one of the largest and wealthiest in the United States in large part due to the leadership Ed showed during this period.
As an example of the increased diversification of the company, Ed understood that shipping was one of the most secure investments the company could make since the company was in Milwaukee. That made sense also given his family’s connection to shipping. Ed convinced the board in the 1950s to start to invest in shipbuilding—one of the first investments of its type by any life insurance company in the United States. Thus, because of Ed, the board decided that the company should build large cargo carriers for the Great Lakes as another stream of income.
At one of the meetings of the directors, Ed had to leave the board meeting early and, in his absence, the board voted to name one of the largest vessels the company built after him. Ed felt that it was a great honor. At his death, his son, Ed, Junior, said that the naming of the ship was the greatest day of his life. Ed’s wife, Elizabeth, also felt honored to be the one to christen the new ship by breaking the champagne bottle on the bow as it was launched. Some superstitious people at the ceremony shook their heads when they noticed that it took Elizabeth three tries to break the bottle.
Oh, and the name of the ship?
The Edmund Fitzgerald.