J. Barry Griswell
ca. 1949–

CEO and chairman of the board, Principal Financial Group

Nationality: American.

Born: ca. 1949, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Education: Berry College, BA, 1971; Stetson University, MBA, 1972.

Family: Married; children.

Career: MetLife Marketing Corporation, dates unknown, president and chief executive officer; Principal Financial Group, 1988–1991, agency vice president; 1991–1996, senior vice president of individual insurance; 1996–1998, executive vice president; 1998–2000, president; 2000–, president and CEO, 2002–, chairman.

Awards: Honored by the National Academy of Design, 2002; CEO of the Year, Des Moines Business Record , 2002; named a member of the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, 2003; Alexis de Tocqueville Society award; Iowa Business Leadership Award, University of Iowa Henry B. Tippie College of Business, 2004; Ellis Island Medal of Honor, National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, 2004.

Address: Principal Financial Group, 711 High Street, Des Moines, Iowa 50392-0002; http://www.principal.com.

■ As chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the Principal Financial Group, J. Barry Griswell was a well-respected and popular leader. Known as much for his personable nature and generosity as for his business acumen, he inspired employees, colleagues, competitors, and strangers alike. Two things distinguished him from most other top successful insurance executives: his background in sales and marketing and the fact that he did not play much golf.

Griswell was greatly admired by colleagues for preparing and leading his company through a $1.8 billion initial public offering, becoming one of the first, and certainly the largest, company to do so following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It was a great example of Griswell's keen ability to

J. Barry Griswell. AP/Wide World Photos.
J. Barry Griswell.
AP/Wide World Photos

grasp situations and act decisively with impeccable timing. Principal's shares advanced that first day. The company rapidly gained Fortune 500 status, trading on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol PFG.

The Principal Financial Group had more than $119 billion in assets and 14 million customers under its management in 2004. It provided (among other products and services) retirement and investment services, life and health insurance, and mortgage banking. According to CFO magazine, more employers chose the Principal Group for their 401(k) plans than any other bank, mutual fund, or insurance company in the United States.


Raised in Atlanta, Georgia, J. Barry Griswell was the product of a troubled home. With an alcoholic father and a stressful family life, he sold newspapers and bagged groceries to help the family make ends meet. By the age of 15, he was loading trucks. The adversity seemed to strengthen him. On a full scholarship, he attended Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1971. He went on to earn a master's degree from Stetson University in 1972.

A tall man (6 feet, 9 inches) with a warm and affable disposition, he decided on a career in which he could capitalize on his "people skills," particularly in one-on-one communications. Choosing the insurance industry, Griswell received his Chartered Life Underwriter designation in 1976 and his Chartered Financial Consultant designation in 1985. He later became a fellow of the LIMRA Leadership Institute.


Griswell's career began with Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (MetLife), where he soon became president and chief executive officer of MetLife Marketing Corporation, a brokerage and supplementary distribution marketing subsidiary. He joined the Principal Financial Group of Des Moines, Iowa, in 1988 as an agency vice president. Principal served both individuals and institutional clients with a wide array of financial products and services, including life and health insurance and retirement and investment services. The fast-paced environment was a good match for Griswell, despite his atypical background in sales and marketing. His hard work, winning personality, and positive thinking propelled him through the ranks. He was named senior vice president in 1991 and executive vice president in 1996. In 1998 Griswell became president. In 2000, when then-CEO David Drury vacated his position to concentrate on his duties as chairman, Griswell was promoted to the CEO position and then became chairman in 2002.


Griswell had worked so closely with his mentor, Drury, that he needed only to continue the strategy they had outlined and introduced a few years earlier. The plan involved developing global markets for retirement plans and financial planning. Principal hoped to capitalize on emerging markets that utilized some form of tax incentive or mandatory retirement system, such as Chile, Brazil, Mexico, and Hong Kong. Providently, these were geographic markets where Principal could also leverage its U.S.-based products and supporting technologies. The executive leadership incorporated this strategy into the reorganization plan before going public, envisioning a more integrated and collaborative structure for Principal, which would be capable of responding rapidly to change. To further their international objectives, the company spun off Principal Capital Management and acquired BT Australia, in addition to starting a Brazilian joint venture with Banco de Brasil.

In an interview with the Des Moines Business Record (December 13, 1999) just before he was installed as the new CEO, Griswell conceded that Principal had become larger and more complex an organization than it had ever been in its history. He explained that he would be in charge of overall company management, while Drury, as chairman, would focus on capital markets development. When asked how the company would change with him as CEO, he replied, "There's not much to report there. I had been an integral part of the management team building the current strategy. What I need to do is help the company execute that strategy."


In fact, Griswell did add something of his own to the CEO position. He brought with him the winning personality and his approachable persona. Not just an implementer, he was also an influencer. That component of his personality played out in both internal and external communications but, in both cases, positively enhanced the image of the company and of its leader.

A visible and hands-on boss, Griswell invested heavily in his employees. He strongly believed that employee health and productivity were the most important issues faced by corporations. In a 2004 interview for the Wellness Council of America, Griswell articulated his own philosophy that "if you want to lead a successful company and satisfy shareholders, you must start by making sure your employees are treated well. Give them the tools and resources they need to stay happy, healthy, and productive" (http://www.welcoa.org/free resources/pdf/griswell_interview_example.pdf). The trickle-down effect dictated that when employees were satisfied, they treated customers well, which created shareholder value.

At Principal, Griswell promoted a holistic approach to employee well-being, which integrated personal health and fulfillment with organizational resources. Success could be measured by such tools as tracking the number of transactions per employee, absenteeism rates, surveys, and so on. In 2004 Principal's employees participated in a national survey that measured several areas of employee performance and satisfaction, including productivity, absenteeism, and levels of stress. The Principal employees fared very well against national norms for the industry. Griswell himself made it a point to participate in wellness initiatives and, after losing 50 pounds, became an example and hero to his employees. Principal had its own employee fitness center and a full-time wellness manager on its staff.


Finally, Griswell's leadership was characterized by charitable involvement with the community and its citizens. He served as a trustee of Central College in Iowa and Berry College in Georgia. He was director of the local Business Committee for the Arts, a member of the Business Roundtable, and an honorary trustee of the Boys and Girls Club of Central Iowa. He also held participatory roles in fund-raising events for the American Red Cross, the American Heart Association, PACE, and the United Way. In 2004 Griswell took over as chair of Central Iowa's regional economic development organization, the Greater Des Moines Partnership.

See also entries on Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and Principal Financial Group in International Directory of Company Histories .

sources for further information

Burger, Kathy, "Position of Influence," FinanceTech.com, May 18, 2004, http://www.financetech.com/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=20600018 .

"Griswell Will Oversee Both Ongoing and New Projects," Des Moines Business Record , January 26, 2004, p. 16.

"J. Barry Griswell to Be Inducted as Member of the Horatio Alger Association as Role Model for Overcoming Humble Beginnings," December 2, 2002, http://www.horatioalger.com/geninf/PressRel/Pdf/griswell.pdf .

"Leading by Example: Interview with J. Barry Griswell," The Wellness Councils of America, WELCOA, 2004, http://www.welcoa.org/freeresources/pdf/griswell_interview_example.pdf (accessed June 15, 2004).

Lovell, Michael, "Leaders Cite Griswell's Heart, Drive," Des Moines Business Record , January 13, 2003, p. 7.

"A Smooth Transition at Principal," Des Moines Business Record , December 13, 1999, p. 4.

—Lauri R. Harding

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