In the mid-1840s, there was little surprise that James de Peyster Ogden would soon establish what would become one of the country’s largest insurance firms, now known as New York Life Insurance Company.
An orphan at 11, Ogden began his business career as a clerk with a prestigious New York firm, Van Horne & Clarkson, before moving to Liverpool, England, where he became a salesman for another top mercantile firm.
In 1840, then in his 50s, Ogden became the first president of the Atlantic Dock Company, which was chartered by New York State. The company built the Brooklyn Harbor by constructing docks and warehouses and building a deep basin for ships. The basin today is known as Red Hook in South Brooklyn.
Five years later, Ogden was named the first president of what was then known as Nautilus Mutual Insurance Company, now New York Life, which he helped establish. The company sold life, fire and marine insurance.
Nautilus, like other insurance companies at the time, insured the lives of slaves for their owners. Ogden deeply disliked the practice, and the company’s board of directors, at his insistence, voted to end the sale of such policies in 1848.
Ogden died in 1870 at age 80. Aside from his business career, he was a founding member of the New York Chamber of Commerce, of which he served as president.
Today, the company Ogden established is the nation’s third-largest life insurance company and the nation’s largest mutual life insurance company. It is ranked No. 71 on Fortune‘s 500 list of the largest American corporations by total revenue.
John Curry, managing partner of New York Life’s New York office, said the company has eight locations “spread from New York City to Medford” in Suffolk County, on Long Island.
The company’s core product is whole life insurance, a type of coverage that offers lifelong protection and that builds cash coverage over time. But it also sells other types of policies, including term, universal, and variable, as well as annuities and disability insurance. New York Life serves both global businesses and retail customers.
But what is it like to work for this company?
“We have a very rich culture,” said Curry. “The bedrock of the organization are the many agents and employees who have been here 50, 40, 30 years. We also are a very ethnically diverse organization with many cultures represented. We want to reflect the communities that we serve. Another attribute we are very proud of is that almost half of our workforce is made up of women. This is a demographic that has changed over the last 20 or so years.”
In 1894, New York Life became the first U.S-based insurance provider to offer policies to women at the same cost as men. Susan B. Anthony, the social reformer, was one of the company’s first female policyholders.
The company has a philanthropic arm, New York Life Foundation, which became involved in childhood bereavement programs and supports Comfort Zone Camp, for grieving children. It also sponsored the HBO Emmy Award-winning documentary One Last Hug, about children learning to cope with the loss of a loved one.
This is a company that aims to build support, inside and outside its walls.
“Our experienced agents help us to create a culture of mentorship and guidance,” Curry said. “A simple walk to the water cooler can become a coaching and mentorship conversation. This helps us groom new agents, provide invaluable knowledge, and welcome them to the culture and organization. Although our management and service team do a fantastic job, it’s that camaraderie between producers and agents that sets us apart from the crowd.”
Tying people together is a prime goal of New York Life, which likes the concept of togetherness. There are several culture-building gatherings throughout the year for employees.
Curry hosts a black-tie event at his own home at the beginning of each year.
“We also host a Council Agent Gathering on a yearly basis, celebrating the accomplishments of our top producers,” Curry said. “All these events are a large part of how we build and maintain a family-like atmosphere.”
The feeling of inclusiveness extends outside the company as well. The New York Life Foundation funded a $10 million endowment for the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies at the City College of New York, which the company calls the New York life Endowment for Emerging African American issues.
New York Life never forgets that it is a business, responsible to its policyholders. It distributes a portion of its earnings to eligible policyholders as annual dividends. The company has paid a dividend every year since 1854.
Curry said there are myriad advantages to working for New York Life..
“In addition to having a welcoming place where everyone can feel valued and supported, we have several roles and career opportunities here at the general office,” he said. “An agent career offers a more entrepreneurial experience with greater flexibility and upside in pay, while our management and service roles provide opportunities for those that are pursuing a more traditional career and are looking to climb the corporate ladder. All paths provide potentially robust retirement and benefits packages.”
New York Life is a good career choice, Curry said.
“It’s the perfect combination of attributes for what we do in providing peace of mind and financial security to our policyholders,” Curry said. “If you are the type of person that wants a purpose-driven career and the chance to better the lives of people in your community, New York Life Long Island is a great place to work.”
The 2023 Fortune 500 ranked New York Life #71, one position higher than last year’s ranking. It remains the largest mutual and is the only representative of the “Insurance: Life, Health (Mutual)” category in the Fortune 100.