InsuranceChairman, President and CEONorthwestern Mutual | Milwaukee John Schlifske joined Northwestern Mutual in 1987 as an investment specialist, rising through the company’s ranks to become president in 2009. Today, Northwestern Mutual is among the largest employers in the state and ranks No. 97 on the Fortune 500. Schlifske has spearheaded the company’s efforts to bolster Milwaukee’s tech talent and startup ecosystem, most visibly through its Cream City Labs initiative and its data science institute, in partnership with Marquette University and UW-Milwaukee. Education: Bachelor’s, Carleton College; master’s, Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern UniversityWhat was your first job, and what did you learn from it?
“Working for my dad’s trucking business. While my career has evolved, I still carry lasting lessons from the experience: the importance of taking care of others, and that humility and learning from those around you leads to personal growth.” What would people be surprised to learn about you (fun fact)?
“Football is a personal passion of mine. As a former college player, the game taught me a lot about the importance of teamwork, focusing on the fundamentals and staying innovative. Go, Pack, go!” What's the toughest business challenge you’ve had to overcome?
"Dealing with the unknowns of the pandemic was one of the toughest business challenges that I’ve had to face. But through the unknowns, and despite a flurry of short-term predictions about the markets and the shift to working remotely, I continued to have a very optimistic long-term view. No matter what stood ahead, there is one thing I knew for certain: Northwestern Mutual would stand strong for our clients.
"In fact, thanks to the financial strength and stability of the company, we were able to go on offense during the pandemic. We invested $14 billion in assets during market lows, allocated resources and support to our advisors and employees, and proactively connected with our clients – especially our business owner clients – to resources inside and outside Northwestern Mutual to help keep them on track during the difficult economic environment.
"Over 165 years, we have navigated recessions, a depression, natural disasters, wars and pandemics. And we’ve stood strong through it all. During my 35 years at Northwestern Mutual, I’ve watched how our company prepares for these kinds of events in advance – building capital, increasing liquidity, managing strategically and opportunistically, balancing risks, and avoiding issues. We are strong, prepared, and ready for whatever comes our way."
What advice would you give to a young professional?
"I often share these three pieces of advice: be open, find your mission, and be a life-long learner. You may find opportunities in places you may not have thought to look, and inexperience shouldn’t hold you back."
What has been your/your company’s most significant success over the last 12 months?
"Over the 165 years that Northwestern Mutual has been in business, 2021 was our best with record results across nearly every key performance measure. As we announced in April of 2022, we grew our total number of clients to nearly 5 million. Our life insurance sales grew 52%, our highest ever and significantly outpacing our competitors. And beyond insurance, we’re also becoming a leader in wealth management, growing 25% in 2021 and consistently being ranked among the largest broker-dealers nationwide.
"But it’s important to share why these are more than just numbers on a balance sheet. They each represent something much more compelling. By growing to a record number of clients, more people are putting their trust in Northwestern Mutual – which is the ultimate measure of success. Over 97% of our clients kept their life insurance coverage with us – our highest rate on record. Additionally, our record surplus expansion by $4.7 billion to a record $37 billion demonstrates our ability to make and keep our promises. Our record $6.5 billion total policyowner dividend payout for 2022 demonstrates the powerful way our clients share in our success."
What is one thing you would change about Wisconsin to make it even better?
"As the CEO of a company driving its own tech transformation and a vocal proponent of Milwaukee’s future in tech, I’m frequently asked, 'How can we build Greater Milwaukee into a tech hub?'
"Every city has the potential to become a tech hub and in Milwaukee, we need 'all hands on deck' to recruit, retain, prepare and inspire tech talent. To strengthen and build our community, Northwestern Mutual and our partners are engaged in a community-wide effort with many facets, including investing in universities and tech startups, and bringing tech talent together through relevant programming, educational events and networking groups.
"For us, these activities aren’t simply an effort to help our local community. They are also an investment in building the tech ecosystem that will be needed for Northwestern Mutual in the years ahead – a win for everyone involved."
What has you most excited about the future?
"I’m excited and have every confidence that Northwestern Mutual’s winning streak will continue. The company has never been this strong and well-positioned to drive forward its mission to free Americans from financial anxiety. We are the top provider of life insurance, by market share, in America. Our wealth management business is growing rapidly, winning business from major investment firms. And we continue to maintain the highest available financial strength ratings that can be awarded within our industry. We had a record year in 2022 and I am even more bullish about Northwestern Mutual’s growth prospects in the future."