NAIC Dignitaries Remember Former California Commissioner Kinder

By | September 2, 2016

On a recent morning at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners meeting in San Diego, Calif., a group of people with impressive credentials gathered to pay tribute a man they held in high regard.

Wesley J. Kinder was a California insurance commissioner who served during a turbulent time. Kinder, a resident of La Habra, Calif., died in late July at age 94. At the time, friends and former colleagues decided they’d host a breakfast meeting at the NAIC meeting at the end of August to honor the former NAIC president.

Roger McNitt, a San Diego-based attorney who served as Kinder’s chief deputy insurance commissioner, planned the event.

McNitt felt there would be 20 or so people attend. Not only did many more show up, but old friends flew in from around the country just to be at the breakfast, he said. Attendees included nine past state insurance commissioners, including Ben Nelson, a former governor, a U.S. Senator and an insurance director from Nebraska. Nelson was also formerly executive director of the NAIC. Also there was Kinder’s son-in-law, Tom Kearney.

“By the time I got to the NAIC meeting everybody wanted to come,” McNitt said. “It was a phenomenal turnout and everyone spoke from the heart.”

McNitt talked about how Kinder was self-taught, having to drop out of school in 10th grade when his father died to work and help support his family, and how he worked his way up literally from the bottom of the industry.

Wesley J. Kinder
Wesley J. Kinder

“He went from the mail room of an insurance company all the way up to president of the NAIC,” McNitt said, adding that as California’s commissioner Kinder oversaw a big part of the state’s economy in terms the proportion of insurance premiums to total gross domestic product. “He firmly and fairly regulated more than 12 percent of what was then the fifth largest economy in the world.”

David Brummond was counsel and general counsel for the NAIC in the 1970s and 1980s and worked there when Kinder was president. Kinder came into office as California insurance commissioner when the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act, MICRA, was being hammered out. Among its many changes to the state’s medical malpractice landscape, it capped non-economic damages.

That was followed by a product liability crisis Kinder had to deal with, Brummond said.

Kinder was invited to speak to Congress about the product liability crisis, so Brummond, in the role of counsel , wrote a brief for Kinder to help him explain what approach the NAIC was talking to deal with the crisis.

Kinder read and easily comprehended the highly technical legal document despite him not being an attorney, Brummond said.

“I was just blown away at how he had absorbed all the things I had put in there,” Brummond said. “He was not even a lawyer, and I was impressed that someone who hadn’t had a formal education was so sharp.”

The speech went off well. Among the things Brummond learned from Kinder during the visit to Congress, and working with him for years afterward, was the importance of having a good presentation and knowing how to get things done.

“Wes was a terrific mentor to me in teaching me how the process works,” Brummond said.

Kinder helped put together a bailout package for Geico in 1976. Under the plan more than two dozen companies agreed to reinsure 25 percent of Geico’s policies, providing a much needed boost to Geico’s ailing surplus.

Kinder was part of a three-person committee overseeing the deal. The other committee members were Max Wallach, and Dick Rottman. Also involved was Nelson, who was a staff member at the time.

“The committee strongly believed that Geico was worth saving and not liquidating because its business model was then very efficient,” McNitt said.

At the last moment one of the major insurers that was to be part of the bailout pulled out and the deal fell apart. However, Berkshire Hathaway at the time had wanted to get in on the bailout deal so Kinder and Nelson, who were familiar with Berkshire, convinced the NAIC to let Berkshire rescue Geico.

“Berkshire was not a household word, but Kinder and Nelson felt they could do it,” McNitt said. “And the rest is history.”

Kinder was appointed insurance commissioner by Gov. Jerry Brown during his first stint as the state’s governor and served from 1975 to 1980. He served as the state’s chief assistant insurance commissioner under Gov. Ronald Regan. He was NAIC president in 1980.

He was born in Dubuque, Iowa on Sept. 8, 1921 to Samuel and Elizabeth Kinder. He was the oldest of four children.

Kinder got into the insurance industry through the mail room at Hawkeye Mutual in Iowa. Kinder later became the regional manager for General Re on the West coast, and served as executive vice president of Freemont Indemnity.

He is survived by his daughter, Kathy Kearney, and her husband Tom; 3 siblings: James Kinder (wife: Diane), Mary Kalisch, and Betty Ramm, as well as 4 grandchildren: Caitlin, Kyle, Corey and Claire, plus numerous nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his wife Annette.

McNitt said he felt it was important to honor Kinder because of his numerous accomplishments, which many may not know about.

“He did so many things and he never took credit for them,” McNitt said.

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