By Kent Larsen
LDS Businessman McFerson's Affect on Columbus
COLUMBUS, OHIO -- Retiring LDS businessman Dimon McFerson has had a
substantial impact on both his company and community. McFerson was
Chairman and CEO of Nationwide Financial Services until his November
retirement, shifting the company's focus significantly during his
eight-year term. But McFerson also made a difference in the Columbus
community, leaving the city with a new building for its Center of
Science and Industry and with an arena for the city's new National
Hockey League expansion franchise, the Columbus Blue Jackets.
With his retirement, friends and colleagues characterize McFerson as
a no-nonsense businessman, who nonetheless is humble and caring. "If
you ask people at Nationwide, he's pretty forceful," says Brian
Gallagher, president of the United Way of Franklin County, who worked
with McFerson in Columbus charitable causes. But, "It's hard to take
a huge company partially public and global and in 10 days decide to
build an arena in Downtown Columbus and not be forceful." But, he
adds that McFerson is humble and "cares about people. And he's a
regular person." Gallager also says that McFerson managed to balance
his life well. "He's been able to balance who he is with running a
company. He may be the most human human being I've ever known."
McFerson grew up in a modest Southern California household to a
truck-driver father and a school-teacher mother. After earning a
degree in business administration from UCLA and a master's degree in
public administration from USC, McFerson worked as an accountant for
Ernst and Ernst and was assigned to work with an insurance company.
Over time he became an expert in insurance for the accounting firm.
"Had I been assigned to some other industry," he told The Dispatch
five years ago, "I might have gone in another direction."
He then went to work for an insurance company, Surety Life, in Salt
Lake City, and from there started a career working in the insurance
industry. He was hired to be a senior vice president for finance at
Boston-based New England Life Insurance. Then, in 1979, McFerson was
again hired away by a competitor, and came to Columbus to work for
Nationwide Mutual Insurance as vice president of internal audit.
McFerson's mentor at Nationwide was John Fisher, his predecessor as
Nationwide's chairman. Fisher taught McFerson that at Nationwide
executives were expected to be heavily involved in community service
at major local institutions. This led McFerson to work with both the
United Way and the Red Cross.
In 1992, Fisher made McFerson CEO, and when Fisher retired in 1994,
McFerson also became chairman, beginning an era of change at the
insurance giant. Seeing that the deregulation of the industry meant
that the company would need to change, McFerson moved Nationwide into
personal and small-business insurance, retirement services and moeny
management. He launched a hostile takeover attempt for Iowa-based
Allied Group, helping McFerson to triple the company's asset base.
Analysts applauded McFerson's moves, "They've done an excellent job
of moving their focus to becoming more of a financial-services
company," said Nancy Benacci, an analyst with McDonald Investments, a
Cleveland-based investment-banking firm. "It was a very, very
forward-thinking move by Dimon McFerson and his management team to
recognize that, because of the aging of baby boomers and their wealth
accumulation, they could have products to meet their needs."
Meanwhile, McFerson also tried to change the company's culture,
sending a message to the company to increase diversity by promoting
Donna James, a black woman, to be his administrative aid, and later
making her senior vice president of human resources. McFerson credits
his LDS religious beliefs with the motivation for the move. "When
something is so abundantly right, you do it," he said.
Meanwhile, McFerson has continued working with local charities and
causes. He served as chairmain of the board of trustees of the Center
of Science and Industry, helping the center to create the new $125
million, 320,000-square-foot science center that opened in 1999. And
it was McFerson's leadership that brought Nationwide Arena to the
city. A local businessman, Lamar Hunt, tried to bring the expansion
team to Columbus, but in 1997, voters rejected financing for his
proposed arena. So McFerson stepped in, over Hunt's objections, and
in a matter of days worked out the details for Nationwide, along with
the Columbus Dispatch, to finance the arena.
So McFerson turned to one of his friends, John H. McConnell, former
chairman of Worthington Industries and an investor in the prospective
"We had only three days left" to file documents for the proposed
expansion team, said John H. McConnell, former chairman of
Worthington Industries and an investor in the prospective team.
"Without him (McFerson), we wouldn't have the Blue Jackets," who
began play this year in the arena.
McFerson's balanced life has meant that he also served the LDS Church
as a local leader, and spent time with his family. In retirement,
McFerson's only plans are to spend more time with his family, which
now includes 21 grandchildren, at the family's planned community [He
and his wife have built homes for any of their seven children who
wish to live there.] He will also work on his genealogy and continue
his activity in the Church and on boards.
The city of Columbus is losing a 'gem' says Mayor Coleman, "Dimon
leaves a tremendous legacy. In fact, Dimon should be spelled with an
'a' and 'd' because he's a real diamond. As an individual, on a
personal level and a public level, he is a jewel."
'Agent of change' McFerson leaves his mark on Columbus
Columbus OH Dispatch 29Dec00 B2