Travelers Cos., the only property- casualty insurer in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, said Chief Executive Officer Jay Fishman has been diagnosed with a neuromuscular condition.
“While fortunately it has so far been slow progressing, you may soon see me with a cane or other gear to help me get around,” Fishman said in a letter to employees released yesterday by the New York-based insurer. “Nothing about this circumstance changes my ability or plan to continue as chairman and CEO.”
Fishman, 62, steered Travelers profitably through the financial crisis by sidestepping mortgage-related investments that hobbled rivals. He ran the insurer when it was a part of Citigroup Inc. under CEO Sanford “Sandy” Weill, then left in 2001 to lead St. Paul Cos. In 2004, the insurance executive engineered a merger with Travelers.
For a “long time,” Fishman believed he was suffering from a back ailment, according to his statement. He didn’t name the illness or provide other specifics about his condition. “You should know that I feel good,” he said.
Neuromuscular disease encompasses conditions including multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease and ailments that affect the nerves used to control voluntary muscles. Damage to neurons interferes with lines of communication between the brain and the body, making movement harder to control. Most neuromuscular diseases are progressive and have no cure.
Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, causes the nerves to slowly break down and eventually die. Early signs include muscle twitches and weakness, and patients are later robbed of their ability to move, speak, eat and even breathe. The disease, diagnosed in about 5,600 Americans each year, is fatal.
In multiple sclerosis, the body turns on itself, with the immune system destroying the fatty myelin sheath that protects the nerves. The cause of the disease that affects 250,000 to 350,000 Americans isn’t known. It can bring symptoms ranging from fatigue and weakness to trouble walking, talking and seeing. Medications can slow the progression and ease signs of the disease, mainly by quelling immune-system activity.
Other CEOs have disclosed health conditions in recent years and stayed at the helm of their companies. JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon, who worked with Fishman at Citigroup, said in July that he had throat cancer and would undergo treatment. Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., disclosed that he had prostate cancer in 2012 and underwent therapy.
Releasing the letter was a good way to pre-empt inevitable questions that Fishman will face in the future when he’s using a cane or other gear, said Paul Newsome, an analyst at Sandler O’Neill & Partners. While more people may ask about succession plans at Travelers, it probably won’t have a major impact on the company’s day-to-day operations, he said.
“My guess is that it’s not going to be that big of an issue,” said Newsome. “People will say they’re sorry to hear it.”
Travelers has advanced about 14 percent since Dec. 31, on pace for a sixth straight yearly gain. It was little changed yesterday in New York trading at $103.23.
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