James J. Maguire Sr.

by Lou Mancinelli

Before he founded and later sold his family’s stake in Philadelphia Insurance Companies for $1 billion, he forfeited a basketball scholarship to one school and nearly failed out of Saint Joseph’s College because of his grades.

Now, longtime Chestnut Hill resident James J. Maguire Sr., 79, is a principal donor to the $150 million Saint Joseph’s University (SJU) expansion campaign. A $15M gift from Maguire and his wife Frances led the way towards the school’s purchase of adjacent Episcopal Academy for $93 million in 2008 .

The 38-acre James J. Maguire ’58 campus increased the school’s size by 38 percent, adding classrooms, offices, laboratories, sports fields and parking. Maguire said he owed his success to Saint Joseph’s, where his life changed after he learned to manage his dyslexia and developed a moral compass he used to guide his attitude in life and in business.

He’ll be awarded the Distinguished Leadership Award at this year’s Insurance Society of Philadelphia’s Independence Gala on Nov. 14.

After failing out of Niagara University in December 1952, Maguire transferred to SJU. He was born in Germantown and later moved to upstate New York where his father worked for MetLife. In 1954 he was drafted into the army and spent 20 months in Korea. His grades, below a 2.0 GPA, prohibited his eligibility for a student’s draft deferment.

Two years later, back at SJU, the dedication of Father Hunter Guthrie enabled Maguire to learn to use index cards and a ruler to read.

“When I returned from the military [he] spent untold hours helping me and other students,” Maguire said.

In his first year with MetLife after graduation, Maguire earned the President’s Club distinction, a recognition reserved for 175 of 29,000-plus salesmen. He’d convinced MetLife to charge deaf clients a standard rate, compared to the rate-and-a-half they were currently paying at other agencies and “overnight became the talk of the industry.”

He founded Maguire Insurance Agency Inc. in 1960 at 156 W. Chelten Ave. in Germantown in a 300-square-foot office. It was around that time car dealerships began offering the lease option to individuals. Maguire worked out a plan to include car insurance in the lease agreement, capturing the Delaware Valley market.

Then General Motors called, asking him to arrange his plan to coordinate with their leases at dealerships across the nation. In 1968, his 15-person staff grew to include six offices nationwide, almost overnight.

Business and sports

“My feeling is the business world is no different than the sports world,” Maguire said.

Maguire runs his business like a general manager runs a sports team. He wants the top players, the most competitive and the most physically and mentally fit. He wants team players who want to win.

As his company grew, Maguire visited universities in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Orlando and more to interview potential employees, looking for athletes who competed in some way on the university level. He hired people who lived in those cities for years.

This approach led to success. Philadelphia Insurance Companies was ranked as one of the best companies in America by Forbes magazine, and The Wall Street Journal ranked it as the top insurance company out of 1,000 public companies, based on consistent earnings per share, return on equity and consistent profit and combined ratio.

Physical fitness has been a tenet of Maguire’s own life as well as that of his company. He himself participated in his first marathon in 1986. When his kids broke curfew or turned in poor grades, he’d have them meet him down in the Wissahickon Saturday morning for a four-mile run.

Philadelphia Insurance Co. sponsors The Philadelphia Triathlon, which he completed two years ago. At the time of this interview, 13 of the company’s current employees were participating in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. To finish, participants must swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles across fields of lava rock, and run a race as long as a marathon.

Maguire himself still runs two miles three times a week and for most of his life ran 40 miles a week. He’s been on biking trips around the world and is set to leave this month for a trip with his wife from Buenos Aires to Salta, Argentina, covering 50 miles a day.

Maguire’s son, James J. Maguire, Jr., has competed in the Hawaii race. That Maguire Jr. can run at all is a testament to the strength of mind passed from father to son and the kind of mental attitude that prevails throughout the company. In 2001 he broke his neck, jaw, both kneecaps and hand after being hit by a car while biking. Maguire Sr. and his wife feared their son might not be the same again, but he rehabilitated himself in six months. He became the company CEO in 2002.

“You can train your body so far, but if you don’t have the mental discipline you can’t do it,” said Maguire.

Maguire recounted his memories in his recent autobiography, “Just Show Up Every Day,” now available at Amazon.com and in Kindle format. He shares his six steps for success, showing up every day reigning paramount among them. Others include, pursuing one’s passion, demonstrating integrity and maintaining a balance between family, fitness, education and spirituality.

Best Professional

Maguire has always put people smarter than himself around him. He set out to be the best professional in America.

“I’m not smart enough to be a doctor,” he said. “But I can be professional.”

Four of his nine children attended SJU, and four of his grandchildren now attend the school, in addition to one who graduated. As the school strives to become the preeminent Catholic university in the northeast, Maguire continues to do his part to contribute.

With the assistance of fellow insurance magnate Brian Duperreault, also an SJU grad, Maguire started an insurance internship program at SJU. The two gathered 25 of the industry’s top executives, all of whom contributed gifts between $50K and $100K, and pledged to provide internships for its students. When those students finish school, there are jobs waiting. More than 40 of the program’s 2011 grads walked right into jobs they earned.

Maguire said his philanthropy is a result of a lesson the Jesuit priests at SJU taught him: to be a man for others. The Maguire Foundation supports dozen of causes, including the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Germantown, a soup kitchen and summer camp for underprivileged kids.

Maguire said in the next 10 years his foundation, with the William Penn Foundation, plans to focus on supporting education and the faith and future of Philadelphia’s private and public high schools. The Maguire Scholars Program provides scholarships to students at 15 schools.

“We’d like to outstrip Boston,” he said about SJU’s and Philadelphia’s growing academic reputation.

This year Maguire predicted that the SJU basketball team will break the top five in the nation, an optimistic hope for the man whose basketball skills got him into college – an opportunity he almost lost.