May 26, 2017 | last updated May 26, 2017 4:18 pm
Lifetime Achievement Awards 2017

Love of sports drives Bessette's corporate, civic success

PHOTO | Contributed
PHOTO | Contributed

Andy Bessette

Name of organization: Travelers Cos.

Title: Executive Vice President & Chief Administrative Officer

Size of organization: 30,000 employees; $28 billion in revenue

Education: Bachelor's degree from the University of Connecticut; master's degree from the University of Rhode Island.

Previous job(s): Joined Travelers in 1980 and have held a number of management positions across the company.

Andy Bessette's love of athletics has ultimately led to his nearly four-decade career at The Travelers Cos. and the insurer's title sponsorship of the professional golf tournament, the Travelers Championship.

The path to becoming executive vice president and chief administrative officer started in college when Bessette was a hammer thrower and four-time Division I All-American athlete.

After graduation, Bessette was an economic geographer who helped companies determine the best locations to open offices. In 1977, he was hired by Sheraton and joined the Olympic Job Opportunities program to compete with the Soviet bloc of countries by working half a day and training during the other half.

In 1980, Bessette won the Olympic trials. Due to the boycott, however, he was unable to compete in the Moscow games. When Sheraton discontinued its program, Travelers hired him for the same initiative in a combined human resources and facilities position.

"I worked in the mail room. I worked in the supply room. I worked my way up from all those basic functions you need to run a company," he said.

In 1984, Bessette became an alternate on the Olympic team but decided it was time to transition full time at Travelers. He continued his work in HR and facilities where he was in charge of company infrastructure.

Throughout his career, Bessette has witnessed many mergers and acquisitions as well as divestitures.

• In 1995, Travelers merged with Aetna, and the following year, Travelers spun off its healthcare business.

• In 1998, Travelers merged with Citicorp, which became Citigroup, but a few years later, they divested.

• In 2002, Bessette left Travelers and became executive vice president and chief administrative officer at the St. Paul Cos. alongside CEO Jay Fishman.

• St. Paul merged with Travelers in 2004, and Bessette and Fishman returned, keeping their same roles.

"It's very much a culture of a lot of mixed backgrounds," Bessette said. "We're an accumulation of a lot of different companies."

Today, Travelers is headquartered in New York, but has major operations in Hartford.

By far, one of Bessette's biggest accomplishments was working with Fishman in 2007 to take charge of what would become the Travelers Championship. Through research they found that golf was the most popular sport for insurance companies.

"We've grown this thing to something that's just enormous and beyond belief," Bessette said. "Every year our motto, and I've always had this motto throughout my whole life, is that the status quo is unacceptable. You have to always get better. If you're not better tomorrow than you are today, than you're going backwards."

The 2016 championship raised $2.8 million for charity. Of that amount, $1.3 million was allocated to the Bruce Edwards Foundation for ALS Research in honor of Fishman, who battled ALS and succumbed to the disease later that year.

Travelers' current CEO Alan Schnitzer noted, "The heart and passion Andy brings to everything he does has had an outsized impact on Travelers and the Hartford community. His leadership role with the Travelers Championship has brought millions to the state's economy each year and generated nearly $13 million for hundreds of nonprofit organizations since Travelers became the title sponsor. It's safe to say that Andy has made Travelers, our community and everything else he's touched better than it was before he got involved. He is a leader in every sense of the word."

Bessette also spearheaded other projects, such as creating a fitness center in the 1980s that survived through the 2000s, renovating the Travelers' tower and rebuilding the outdoor plaza.

But he's also enjoyed his work in HR: "The HR side has always been very intriguing to me because there's a very technical side to HR, and there's a very human side to HR. You're always trying to balance the two of those things to make sure that your retirement plans are right but also to make sure that people feel good about what's going on here and how the place is being run."

Bessette is a member of many boards and organizations, but as a 1975 graduate of the University of Connecticut, being on the school's board of trustees is particularly special, he said. He is also the vice chair of the Capital Region Development Authority, which is responsible for housing and leading development and growth in the region.

Working closely with Gov. Dannel Malloy, in the last three years CRDA has built over 1,100 housing units that are over 90 percent leased.

"I've been totally blown away that we've built all these housing units in Hartford and they get sucked up immediately," Bessette said. "And it's not just young people. It's middle-aged and elderly people who want to get out of houses and come downtown."

On the job

Guiding business principle: The status quo is unacceptable. If you don't get better, you get worse.

Best way to keep your competitive edge: Do the right thing. Strive for continuous improvement. Create a positive work environment.

Proudest accomplishment: Being an Olympic athlete, my family, and the success of Travelers and the Travelers Championship.

Goal yet to be achieved: Making the Travelers Championship the best tournament on the PGA TOUR.

Favorite part of the job: The people I work with.

Personal touch in your office: A photo of former Travelers Chairman and CEO Jay Fishman and me posing with the Claret Jug at the Travelers Championship.

Judgment calls

Best business decision: Saving the Travelers Championship with our title sponsorship.

Best way to spot trends: Taking a deep dive into financials.

Your pet peeve: Complacency

Personal side

City of residence: West Hartford

Favorite way to relax: Paddle boarding

Hobbies: Golf, boating and fishing

Last vacation: Bermuda

Favorite movie: "Guardians of the Galaxy"

The car you drive: BMW

Currently reading: Corporate contracts

Favorite cause: JDRF

Second choice career: College professor and coach

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