Friday, September 21, 2012

(No. 215) Economical Insurance, Joe Belth & great art

"Economical Mutual Insurance Co.,  Joseph Belth and some great art exhibitions past, present and future"

by Alastair Rickard

For decades the American Joseph Belth has been, for me and many others in and out of the North American life insurance industry, a model for what a thoughtful and well informed critic of the business should be. For decades he has edited and published a leading insurance periodical in the U.S. -- the monthly INSURANCE FORUM "for the unfettered exchange of ideas about insurance".

I have known and admired Joe Belth for some years and have written for the INSURANCE FORUM previously. After I started doing columns on about the proposed demutualization of Economical Mutual Insurance, the Waterloo Ontario property and casualty company, Joe asked me to do an article for his readers on the subject.

I accepted the invitation and that article, one which Joe has entitled "The Shocking Terms of a Proposed Canadian Demutualization", appears in the October 2012 issue of the INSURANCE FORUM (Volume 39, No.10).

In an editor's note following my article Joe Belth said, referring to "the shocking ccnsorship details" about which I had written (i.e., the federal Dept of Finance's treatment of certain submissions to Finance on a proposed demutualization regime) that "I am incensed. I have submitted comments over the years to federal and state agencies in the U.S. and have never experienced censorship. I would welcome comments from readers on this matter."

Concerning the INSURANCE FORUM visit: www.the


The Canadian painter Homer Watson was born in 1855 in Doon, Ontario near what was then the town of Berlin (the name of which was changed to Kitchener during World War I). By the mid-1870s he had become a serious artist, by the mid-1880s his name was becoming well known.

In 1880 one of his paintings, "The Pioneer Mill", was purchased by the Canadian Governor-General the Marquis of Lorne and his wife Princess Louise as a gift for her mother Queen Victoria. The Queeen liked it so much she asked them to buy her another Watson painting. They did: "The Last of the Drought".

With two of his paintings in the Queen's art collection Watson's career took off. He travelled extensively and prospered (until the stock market crash in 1929) having settled in his home and gallery in Doon.

That property has been preserved and is a permanent space open to the public. Currently a special exhibition of Watson's work is on view ( it concludes Sept 30): "Reliving Royal History: A Homer Watson Exhibition".

This exhibition features the two Watson paintings acquired by Queen Victoria. They have been lent to the exhibition from the Royal Collection as have other works from the National Gallery of Canada and elsewhere.

If you enjoy (as I do) landscapes, especially ones that are dark in tone, you are likely to enjoy this Homer Watson exhibition.

For information visit


A 'heads up' for a major and rather unusual exhibition that will be at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto from Oct.20, 2012 through Jan. 20, 2013: "Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting". It has been co-organized by the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City, the High Museum of Art, Atlanta and the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Today in Canada and the U.S. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are likely the best known Mexican artists. In part this is the result of the 2002 Hollywood movie "Frida" starring Salma Hayak as Frida and Alfred Molina as Rivera.  I thought the performances were better than the movie itself (Hayak was nominated for a best actress Oscar for her performance) and the English actor Molina always delivers a superior performance.

Kahlo (b. 1907) and Rivera (b.1886) married in 1929 and had a turbulent, dysfunctional relationship which did not end until her premature death in 1954. Kahlo had a serious traffic accident at age 18, the physical effects of which blighted her life. Both were as passionate about politics as painting.

Pat and I attended a 2002 exhibition "Places of their own" at the Vancouver Art Gallery in which Kahlo was one of three featured female artists ( the other two were Georgia O'Keeffe and Emily Carr).

The upcoming exhibition at the AGO is unusual because it brings together for a non-Mexican audience the work of Kahlo and Rivera. It will feature 90 original works from three major Mexican collections as well as loans from North American museums and private collectors plus more than 60 photographs taken of the two artists during their lives.

For information on the exhibition "Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting" running from Oct. 20, 2012 to Jan. 20, 2013, visit


Earlier this summer I wrote columns about two noteworthy art exhibitions: the Van Gogh exhibition at the National Gallery in Ottawa ( column No. 204, posted June 29, 2012) and the Picasso exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto (column No. 197, posted May 7, 2012).

Both exhibitions have ended and their success with the public was impressive.

The Picasso exhibiton at the AGO which ended Aug.26 was its fourth most attended exhibition ever drawing almost 309,000 visitors during its 17 week run.

The Van Gogh exhibition which opened May 25 and closed on Labour Day drew a 15% higher attendance than the National Gallery had projected (230,000). It was more than twice the 109,000 of the previous summer's Caravaggio exhibition and the best exhibition attendance at the National Gallery since 1997's "Renoir's Portraits".




blog archive: to access back numbers of RickardsRead, go to the blog archive listing which appears beside every column as it appears on the site and use the links

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Saturday, September 8, 2012

(No.214) The new Barnes gallery in Philadelphia

"The new Barnes Foundation gallery in Philadelphia: a treasure trove of art"

by Alastair Rickard

It was the autumn of 1994 that my wife Pat and I first encountered the Barnes art collection, or rather a part of this amazing collection of art put together by the the Philadelphia businessman Dr. Albert Barnes in the years between 1912 and 1951.

During renovations in 1994-95 to the home of the Barnes collection in Merion Pennsylvania outside Philadelphia, a selection of works from the collection went on an international tour. The only Canadian stop was at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, an AGO special exhibition that drew almost 600,000 visitors from Sept. through Dec. 1994 among whom were Pat and me. The Barnes exhibition remains the second most attended exhibition in AGO history (the first was 1979's "King Tut").

By the time Barnes died in an auto accident in 1951 his art collection had grown beyond impressive to stunning in its breadth and quality. Today there can be little doubt that it was one of the most impressive and extensive fine art collections in private hands in the modern era and ranks with that of the late J.Paul Getty  and of Queen Elizabeth and the House of Windsor.

I am not making use of hyperbole in my description of the Barnes Foundation collection today. Just a few examples of the Barnes holdings: 181 paintings by Renoir, 69 Cezanne, 59 Matisse, 46 Picasso, 21 Soutine, 18 Rousseau, 16 Modigliani, 11 Degas, 7 Van Gogh and on it goes.

The Barnes collection has been called the finest concentration of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting in the western world. In fact Albert Barnes was more interested in Post-Impressionists than the Impressionists.

He bought only four Monets while literally covering walls with Renoirs. One of his Monets, "The Studio Boat" (1876), is an interesting self-portrait (sort of): an obscure figure who is Monet seated in a small covered boat that Monet used on the Seine in order to be able to paint from a perspective on the river.

Albert Barnes (1872-1951) was financially very successful, a former physician who made a fortune based on an anti-gonorrhea drug called Agyrol. He became a collector of "avant-garde" art and was treated as an outsider by the Philadelphia art and social establishment.

He reacted by continuing to acquire more art scorned by many of the 'elite' of the day and by building in Lower Merion his own gallery to house his collection. So involved in and absorbed by his art was he that he personally decided on the precise positioning of each piece in the gallery which opened in 1925.

Barnes organized and ultimately directed his involvement with art and his collection through the Barnes Foundation and he directed that his collection must remain in its Merion home. Moreover it was a collection which was not open to the public per se. Access to it was strictly controlled by Barnes himself before his death, after which public access became the norm.

Skip ahead several decades. The pressure on the Foundation trustees had steadily mounted to make the Barnes collection far more accessible to a larger audience by moving it to Philadelphia, to the 'museum mile' along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. By 2002 the Foundation board decided to relocate the collection.

Some people remained opposed; indeed some sued (unsuccessfully) to stop it. But in May this year the new Barnes Foundation home in Philadelphia opened its doors to great praise, even from some sceptics. To a great extent I think this applause for the new building housing the collection was both predictable and justified.

The building is a stone clad, box-like structure with impressive atria designed by the architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams. It is strikingly modern and stark on the outside as well as the inside public spaces. Within the museum there has been an impressive replication of the 23 rooms in which Barnes arranged and hung his collection in its former Merion home.

As architecture the new gallery does not put a song in my heart but it has been warmly greeted in all the critics' reviews I have read, as indeed has been the relocation of the Barnes collection to Philadelphia.

The prospective visitor to the new Barnes Foundation location who is unfamiliar with the eccentric Albert Barnes needs to understand that he personally determined the hanging of every piece in his collection and grouped pieces in what he called "ensembles". He frequently revisited the arrangements and reordered them but following his death the "ensembles' have remained frozen, rather like bees in amber.

The grouping of Barnes' ensembles, with distances between frames and placements replicated to the last millimetre, are on view in the new gallery in Philadelphia. It's not the sort of arrangement of paintings that I prefer. Barnes' idiosyncratic approach to the display of art works better in some rooms of the gallery than in others.

A wall of Renoirs is one thing and easily admired. A wall of closely spaced small pictures can be too much like an artistic dog's breakfast. Nor do I feel the "creative flow" supposedly evident to Dr. Barnes in, say, a pair of medieval pliers two inches above a Degas painting or in the placement of a Joan Miro cheek by jowel with a 15th century German painting. However Pat found the "ensembles" arrangements interesting and the "flow" effectively elaborated by the recorded commentary.

So chock-a-block are the works on the walls of the galleries there is no room, even had Barnes permitted it and allowed for it, for traditional information cards posted adjacent to the works carrying for the visitor the usual information about each piece. In the new gallery Barnes' legacy approach is as unchanged from 1951 as was the wedding cake preserved by Miss Havisham in "Great Expectations".

Pat thought the use by visitors of iPod audioguides to the various rooms in the gallery was an effective way to make one's way through from work to work. I did make use of this form of support (there was no alternative on offer) but I did not care for it very much.

But these are quibbles. To view the Barnes Foundation collection is one of the world's great art experiences,  one enhanced by its relocation to its new home in Philadelphia.

Within walking distance of each other on Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway are the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its expanded adjunct in the nearby Perelman Building (see column No.212), the Rodin Museum and the new Barnes Foundation gallery.

Anyone seriously interested in fine art can confidently justify a trip to Philadelphia that will be both rewarding and unique.

For information, see:





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Sunday, September 2, 2012

(No.213) Updates: Economical Insurance, Sun Life & Manulife

Updates on Economical Insurance, Sun Life and Manulife

by  Alastair Rickard

I have written in several columns about the demutualization (sought by the board, senior management and relative handful of policyholders eligible to vote) of Economical Mutual Insurance. the large Waterloo, Ontario property and casualty insurance company.

For the most recent columns about Economical and the Canadian government's 'consultation' process on a new regulatory regime for P & C company demutualizations, see column nos. 206, 208 and 209 on

On Aug, 23, 2012 Economical Insurance released its financial results for the second quarter. Its "total mutual policyholders' equity" increased by $81.6 million in the first 6 months of 2012 to $1.382 billion.

This equity is the value that the Economical Insurance insiders set out awhile back to allocate on a demutualization among fewer than 1000 policyholders of the company, themselves included of course, out of the company's several hundred thousand policyholders.

Economical Insurance is also the company whose current statement of "Missions and Values" declares, under the heading "Integrity", that "we have the courage to do the right thing". Sure, and Her Majesty The Queen will appoint me as the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

Meanwhile, in terms of the public consultation process announced in June 2011 by Canada's Finance Minister Jim Flaherty on a regulatory framework to govern the demutualization of P & C insurance companies, there is still nothing from Ottawa in the form of draft regulations for comment. Perhaps, as I have indicated previously, there are political considerations slowing the process, including the absence of any consensus among Canada's P & C mutuals on what the approach ought to be.

The fact that the corporate financial media have been largely silent on this attempted financial grab by the voting policyholders of Economical Mutual Insurance, i.e., about something that ought to be a stench in the nostrils of any fair-minded person, may also have had more than a little to do with Ottawa's glacial speed in dealing with both the Economical Insurance demutualization and its sine qua non: a regulatory regime applicable to any federally regulated P & C company wishing to demutualize.
In response to the columns about Economical I received an impassioned email from a P and C insurance broker who argued that "another interesting twist to this is that insurance brokers representing Economical contractually own the clients or client list; Economical transacts their insurance business.

" Should Economical insurance brokers at any time choose to move the entire business en masse or piecemeal there would be no need for economical to demutualize nor to sell the business to a prospective purchaser as all that would be left of Economical would be a shell containing equity/cash with no remaining insurance clients.

"Can the argument then not be made that the Economical insurance brokers are really the true owners of the business side of Economical Insurance and should they not also be lined up with the undeserving characters?"

An American reader wrote to say that he "read the well-informed submission of Mr. Gingras with great dismay [ column No. 209 posted July 31, 2012], knowing from your prefatory comments that it had not been posted by the Department of Finance [on its website]. As an American I have long admired the role that open, fact-based discussions play in Canadian public affairs.

"It is disheartening to learn that the bureaucrats in the Department of Finance don't have an understanding of or appreciation for the value that sunlight brings to a democracy."


I devoted a column [No. 211 on, " Sun Life, Manulife and the Kabuki Theatre of gerrymandered expectations"posted Aug.15, 2012] to the largely inadequate commentary in the financial media about major life insurance company financial results (specifically Sun Life's and Manulife's).

I said, in part, that "we hear endlessly about the negative impact of low interest rates, equity markets etc on a company's earnings. What does not get rehearsed or even mentioned most of the time is why this magnitude of negative financial impact came to be felt by the company, about its connection to how the core business was operated: i.e., how effectively does it operate the actual business of a life insurance company in Canada and elsewhere?"

As an update for readers of that column: there was a fine example of the facile analysis and predictability about which I wrote in my Aug. 15 column provided recently by The Globe and Mail's Report On Business on Aug. 28, 2012 in the 'VOX' column.

My Sun/Manu column prompted a number of responses. For example:

One correspondent of, a Canadian who held an agency role with The Mutual Life of Canada and is now an independent industry consultant, wrote to say that "Once again you put into erudite words what I've been saying for years. [Life insurance] companies and now their shareholders are paying the price for their stupidity earlier.

"I consider myself blessed to have worked with men like Ken MacGregor and John Panabaker [both former CEOs and chairmen of Mutual Life -- ed.] who would never have have allowed such nonsense and understood the sacred trust they had.

"Demutualization just didn't help anyone but greedy executives who are now mostly retired. I wonder when the re-mutualization process will begin?"

A longtime American life insurance industry participant weighed in with "a bit of history that I believe relates to the situations at Manu and Sun. Both of these companies used to have a reputation for educating their home office employees through LOMA, CLU and presumably other programs that gave their employees an understanding of the business they were in (in other words, before you play football you'd better know how to block and tackle and you'd better understand the plays when the quarterback calls them).

"At one point both Sun Life and Manulife even paid for employees to attend industry annual conferences in the year they earned [their industry-related] designation, presumably because the companies recognized that the cost of the incentive was far less that the value of the knowledge gained when applied over the employee's entire career.

"Sometime in the late 1980s -- early 1990s the old guard in Human Resources management changed hands and their replacements did not come from within the ranks. Rather, the people appointed to create employee development policies were interested in touchy feely programs and (not knowing anything about the life insurance business themselves) expressed the view that 'employees can learn that technical stuff on the job'. As a result, industry-focused education plummeted in both companies and the drain of knowledgeable midddle management and tech professionals began.

"In some ways the home office experience is similar to the treatment of the agency force, as you have described [in RickardsRead]. There was an assumption by top management that the magnificent store of human capital available to them would always be there. Executives are clueless as to how that human capital was developed and maintained, and some no doubt relished the impact that cutting expenses would have on their reputation and bonuses. After all, cutting education and training was an immediate, short-term impact on profits and future generations can deal with the eventual consequences in lost productivity.

"Apparently Manulife and Sun Life are paying the price -- and if you look around the life insurance industry you'll see they are not the only ones. As someone once said, 'If you think education is expensive, try ignorance!'  "


Finally an update involving a couple of recent columns on

The Wealth Channel, a U.S. magazine published by The American College (est.1927) asked permission to reprint my June 21, 2012 column (No.202) "What's been wrong with the Canadian life insurance business?" I agreed and it will appear in the fall 2012 issue.

My Aug. 6, 2012 column (No.210) on "Charles Willeford & Hoke Moseley" appeared as an article in the book review pages of the Aug. 18 editions of two southwestern Ontario daily newspapers: the Waterloo Region Record and the Guelph Mercury.




blog archive: to access back numbers of RickardsRead, go to the blog archive listing which appears beside every column on and use the links

to set a "Google alert" for new columns as they are posted on, go to: