The following Golden Nugget of the Month is an excerpt from the book Start with the Future and Work Back: A Heritage Management Manifesto, written by History Factory’s CEO and Founder, Bruce Weindruch.
Launched in San Francisco in 1863, the Fireman’s Fund made a name for itself by donating a portion of its profits to help disabled volunteer firemen, their widows and their children.
Unfortunately, volunteer fire forces dwindled in urban areas in the latter half of the 19th century, transforming into the municipally controlled fire departments we know today.
Even though there were no longer any volunteer firefighters in San Francisco to support, the company maintained its distinctive name.
Then came the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Fireman’s Fund almost crumbled along with the city, but with the unwavering support of its agents and policyholders the company miraculously pulled through and steadily grew throughout the 20th century.
By the time we were contracted by Fireman’s Fund in the 1980s, the company had used an employee stock ownership plan to purchase its freedom from parent company American Express and was being led by a young, whip-smart Warren Buffet acolyte named Jay Brown.
We had built an archive for Fireman’s Fund and begun to weave together some interesting stories from its history, including unique findings about the company’s efforts during the 1906 quake.
Brown, who would have made a great historian, was keenly interested in these stories. Whenever he was in D.C. on business, he would spend a few hours in the archives stacks looking though boxes. We’d set up a table and he’d sit there—this, mind you, is the CEO of the company—poring over documents, intent on understanding how the company had weathered the 1906 earthquake.
By 1989, he had a strong enough command of the materials that he ordered the creation of a comprehensive disaster-communications plan.
The wisdom of this decision can’t be overstated. Just a few months later, the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake hit northern California, collapsing the upper deck of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and unleashing untold chaos throughout the area.
Brown knew immediately what to do. He remembered the stories about what company leaders did back in 1906.
They had dispatched a telegram to all the company’s branches, agents and business associates. It read, “All hands safe and well. Fire now entirely extinguished. Unable to ascertain liabilities until vaults are opened. The Fireman’s Fund flag is still flying and nailed to the mast.”
The next morning, in accordance with the disaster communications plan, Fireman’s Fund beamed via satellite an advertisement that ran in all the major newspapers. It read simply; “Fireman’s Fund’s flag is still flying and nailed to the mast.”
The statement gave Fireman’s Fund employees something few other companies could match: a sense of self-esteem and pride. It reinforced the idea that they had risen to meet a similar challenge in 1906 and would do the same in 1989.
And Fireman’s Fund did just that, helping San Francisco rise from the rubble by paying out all its claims with speed, grace and dedication.
But the story didn’t end there. More than a decade later, in the wake of 9/11, I received a call from Darryl Siry at Fireman’s Fund. He had been reading some of our research about the origins of the company’s name in the 19th century and felt it was particularly relevant in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks.
He told me he had been thinking about the heroism of the 9/11 first responders—what they’d done and what they’d endured—and suggested that the company return to its original mission by giving something back to them and their families.
Now that Fireman’s Fund was now owned by Allianz, a European financial services corporation, he wanted some help connecting the company’s founding ethos with his proposed 9/11 relief work.
We had a perfect link, and Siry took that story—the connection between the company’s founding and what was happening at that moment in time—up through the ranks of Allianz’s Board of Directors in Germany, which signed off on the proposal.
The ripple effect of that decision proved to be profound. Not only did the funds help hundreds of first responders, it also helped a new generation of employees and agents reconnect to the Fireman’s Fund’s founding mission.
All the people at Fireman’s Fund who handed out checks become symbols of the company’s philanthropy. The story humanized the company, a rare feat in any industry. The message was clear and authentic: If we take care of our first responders today, they’ll take care of us tomorrow.