Renowned philanthropist, businessman Peter B. Lewis dies

Photo of Peter B. Lewis at CWRU commencement
Peter B. Lewis gave the commencement address earlier this year, urging students to embrace his mantra of “Risk. Learn. Grow.”

Peter B. Lewis, the visionary businessman and philanthropist whose name graces the home of the Weatherhead School of Management, died Saturday in Florida. The 80-year-old Northeast Ohio native is survived by his wife, Janet Rosel; daughter, Ivy; sons Adam and Jonathan; brother and sister-in-law Daniel and Jan; ex-wife, Toby Devan Lewis; and five grandchildren.

“Peter Lewis brought excellence and originality to all that he did,” President Barbara R. Snyder said of the longtime chairman and CEO of Progressive. “He transformed the auto insurance industry, elevated architecture and the arts and inspired our students to follow his mantra: Risk. Learn. Grow.”

Lewis, who received the university’s first President’s Award for Visionary Achievement at its 2008 graduation ceremonies, gave the commencement address this year. In his remarks that day, Lewis urged graduates to treasure relationships with family and friends and embrace integrity in all that they did.

“A passion to improve and enjoy everything will make your life more vibrant, interesting and successful,” Lewis told the graduates. “Find work you enjoy. Have fun doing it. Keep playing with the openness of a child. Experiment with your passions. Challenge conventional wisdom. And lastly, love and support CWRU.”

The university is the alma mater of his mother, father, sister, ex-wife and several earlier generations of his family. In 1999, Lewis made a $36.9 million naming gift for the building that now houses the Weatherhead School of Management. Designed by the world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, the five-story, 150,000-square-foot structure exemplifies ideals of curiosity, creativity and innovation. During its 2002 dedication ceremonies, Lewis urged the university to consider the school’s new physical home a catalyst for progress.

“What’s important now, to me, which is what motivated this project in the first place, is that getting better starts right now,” Lewis declared. “…that’s what I hope this building stimulates.”

The Peter B. Lewis Building will be bathed in blue light this week in honor of the man who made it possible.

Weatherhead School faculty credited the process of developing the building and then working within it for inspiring the school’s evolving emphasis on design thinking in management. This fall, the Weatherhead School announced a new department of Design & Innovation.

“The new department’s progressive curriculum will serve not only to educate students,” the university’s chief innovation officer Joseph Jankowski said in September, “but also bolster the entrepreneurial talent base and culture of innovation in the region.”

Lewis long has urged greater Cleveland to embrace such themes, and once considered building his company’s headquarters in the city’s downtown. But after expressing frustration with the community’s leaders, he announced a philanthropic boycott of Northeast Ohio in 2002. He made some modest local contributions in the ensuing decade, but last year made his most significant contribution in the last decade: $5 million to the Cleveland Institute of Art. That same year, the university marked the opening of Uptown and Toby’s Plaza, part of a dynamic residential-retail neighborhood of the kind Lewis long had urged. At the dedication ceremonies, President Snyder thanked Lewis for his prodding.

“I want to recognize Peter Lewis whose vision for the university and this neighborhood challenged us to think differently and more boldly,” Snyder said. “He set the tone for a remarkable collaboration.”

Lewis grew up in Cleveland Heights and went to Princeton University. His father died in 1955, and Lewis returned to Northeast Ohio after graduating to join the company his dad had cofounded 18 years earlier. When Lewis was 31, he and his mother managed a leveraged buyout of the company and he became CEO. At the time, Progressive had fewer than 50 employees.

Over the next several decades Lewis grew Progressive into a company nationally recognized for its willingness to set new standards regarding whom it would insure—including high-risk customers—and how it would serve them. Progressive’s advances included 24/7 claims service, one-stop rate-comparison shopping and a “concierge” approach to claims management. Today, the company counts more than 25,000 employees across the country and more than $17 billion in annual revenue.

In their 2011 book, Great by Choice, business scholars Jim Collins and Morton Hansen included Progressive as one of their case studies of “10x” companies, firms that beat their industry averages by a factor of 10 or more. Writing about their research in The New York Times, the pair explained how Lewis’ leadership impacted the company:

“Progressive and Mr. Lewis illustrate how 10Xers … use difficulty as a catalyst to deepen purpose, recommit to values, increase discipline, respond with creativity and heighten productive paranoia—translating fear into extensive preparation and calm, clearheaded action. Resilience, not luck, is the signature of greatness.”

Lewis stepped down from the CEO position in 2000 and in the ensuing years concentrated on significant philanthropic support for his alma mater, the Guggenheim Museum, and contributions to political causes. In 2012, he signed the Giving Pledge, an initiative launched by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet that calls on the world’s wealthiest people to commit at least half of their wealth to philanthropy. In his letter about the pledge, Lewis wrote that his own philanthropy began when he donated nickels to his Temple after his father explained that such gifts were a Jewish tradition. Over the years, he estimated he had given away half a billion dollars.

“Seeing results flow from my gifts,” he continued, “is my greatest pleasure as a philanthropist—whether exonerating a jailed innocent or completing a Frank Gehry building.”

As the university marked the 10th anniversary of the Peter B. Lewis building in the last academic year, both Lewis and Gehry received honorary doctorates during commencement. In awarding the degrees approved by the Board of Trustees and university faculty representatives, President Snyder noted that each had transformed his field.

“We were grateful for the opportunity to have Frank Gehry and Peter B. Lewis together again on our campus last spring,” President Snyder said Sunday evening. “Today, we cherish the special moments of that weekend all the more, and thank Peter’s family for taking part in the celebration. We also express our most profound sympathies to them, his friends, and everyone else whose lives he touched through a remarkable life.”