As CFO and executive vice president of MetLife, Bill Wheeler is widely credited with playing a key role in steering the $41 billion insurance company through the perilous shoals of the credit crisis and recession, and bringing it out on the other side stronger and bigger than before.
But Wheeler, 48, is quick to credit others in the company who "made some pretty good investment calls" before the crisis hit. Notably, he says, as early as 2005 MetLife became concerned about structured investments and started getting out of debt products that were based on subprime mortgages. Wheeler also "vividly recalls" a board meeting in late 2007, he says, when it was decided that a recession was ahead, "and we had to get out of cyclical businesses--the auto companies, the airlines and the builders."
In late September of 2008, when the credit crisis really hit, "I saw a fear factor, a kind of run, a crisis of investor confidence," Wheeler says. He recommended that MetLife move fast to announce its earnings early and then issue equity while it still could. "So we raised $2.3 billion in early October," he says, "right before the bank crisis got to the insurance industry.
"That move gave us a financial cushion and put us in a position to take advantage of some opportunities for acquisitions," Wheeler says, opportunities that he felt certain the financial crisis was going produce.
Indeed, even though MetLife was whacked by the same investor panic that hit other financial companies, with its stock falling from a 2007 high of $70 to just $12 by March 2009, in early 2009 Wheeler and his team were able to start bidding quietly for Alico, the international arm of bankrupt American International Group.
Negotiations with AIG's board took almost a year, but on March 8 of this year, MetLife was able to announce that it had itself a deal. It is buying Alico for $15.5 billion in a transaction that Wheeler claims will create "probably the largest life insurance company in the world."
That deal poses Wheeler's biggest hurdle going forward. "This is the largest acquisition in the history of MetLife, and possibly in the history of the insurance industry," he says. "So executing that deal, and looking for new global growth opportunities, will be my main challenge over the next year."
Wheeler credits his 10 years of experience handling M&A transactions as an investment banker at Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette with helping him negotiate the Alico deal. "Having had a lot of deal experience at DLJ gave me the confidence to push forward on this transaction," he says.