We all know that DNA is one of life’s essential building blocks. Encoded within its double helix structure is a vast treasure trove of priceless genetic material that opens a window into the unique evolutionary history of an organism and its ability to survive in its environment. Without access to DNA, our knowledge about living creatures would be limited to surface-level observations. Corporate archives function in much the same way. A good archive contains unique and priceless information that can help any organization understand its story in greater depth.

Through stories, artifacts and archival materials, an organization can connect its past to its future. One of the most exciting aspects of heritage management is uncovering examples from the past that continue to resonate in the future. In the case of The Hartford, a leading insurance company, one of the building blocks that set them apart was already known, but only from one perspective.

When we organized our first anniversary planning session with The Hartford’s executives, they made it clear that one of the company’s primary goals was to strengthen its relationship with their independent agents, who had long been responsible for maintaining and bringing in new business.

Our target in mind, we immediately embarked on a journey back in time through The Hartford’s 200-plus-year history.  There, we discovered a story that had never been told from the perspective of an agent. We had already known that The Hartford had issued insurance policy to President Abraham Lincoln, which seemed like a good place to start. But we had a lingering question, which we posed to The Hartford’s internal team.

“Do we know,” one of our researchers asked, “the name of the agent who actually wrote the Lincoln policy?” Everyone in the meeting looked at each other quizzically, scrambling for an answer, until someone finally piped up and admitted they had no idea.

But within a matter of days, The History Factory did.

After digging into The Hartford’s archives, we came upon Lincoln’s original policy, which was written by an agent named James L. Hill—a man whose story remained virtually untold for more than a century.

This is a graphic from one of The Hartford's early auto insurance advertisements.
The Hartford’s bicentennial anniversary program was an important part of the company’s turnaround in 2010.

It was all right there in the files. After being elected president in 1860, Abraham Lincoln withdrew $400 from his account. He pocketed $100 in cash, obtained some negotiable bank drafts for his trip to Washington, and invited James L. Hill into his home to talk about his options.

Lincoln’s hope was to immediately take out a property casualty policy covering his home and stable in Springfield, Illinois. Time was of the essence. Lincoln needed to sign off on a policy before leaving for Washington, D.C., so Hill rushed over, surveyed Lincoln’s home, and issued him a $3,200 Hartford policy for just $24 down. And the rest, as they say, is history.

For decades, The Hartford had trumpeted the fact that it had insured Lincoln’s home. It was an old story. But by shifting the focus onto Hill, that old story took on new life and importance. The story was no longer about The Hartford itself; it was about a single agent who went beyond the call of duty to help a valued customer in need.

Had the story not been uncovered, it would have remained an overused piece of history with no further business value. By uncovering this unique story, The Hartford was able to use it as a building block in its resurgence after the 2008 housing collapse. It helped reshape the narrative of the company as one willing to do more for its customers than its competitors. 

The above is a passage from Start with the Future and Work Back: A Heritage Management Manifesto. The book offers a unique look at how leading global organizations are leveraging their heritage assets to drive real business advantage. 


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