On display at John Hancock Financial Services Inc.’s annual meeting five years ago as a leading candidate for the presidency, David D’Alessandro, then the Boston company’s senior executive vice president for retail sales, launched into a presentation on a cheaper way to remake a Hancock TV commercial that featured ballerinas.

It was a performance calling for grace under pressure and putting his best foot forward — which he then did, sort of, in a video of him leading a three-man corps de ballet dressed in pink tutus.

“My first thought was, ‘This has to be a very confident man,’ ” recalls Kathy Graveline, the company’s current chief of retail sales.

And he is, for good reason. What Mr. D’Alessandro sells, however unorthodox his methods, sells well. That talent helped him win the presidency less than two years after the 1996 annual meeting, and since then he has moved up to chief executive, in June 2000, and, in May of this year, chairman, capping a 17-year career at Hancock. At 51, the East Utica, N.Y., native and recent first-time author is the youngest to hold all three posts in the company’s 139-year history.

But to keep them, he’s going to be tested. Hancock, which converted from a mutual to a public company four months before Mr. D’Alessandro was named chief executive, is a good acquisition candidate and if it’s taken over, he stands to lose his job. Still, he insists, “This company is not for sale. I think everyone is going to need to grow. For us, I can see a merger of equals, perhaps buying an insurance company.”

In an interview in his office, a sort of museum of film, sports, and politics, Mr. D’Alessandro says of the unusual decor, “I want to surround myself with greatness.” Its hundreds of movie, music, historical, and sports artifacts include a portrait of Lincoln, with a lock of his hair under glass; a letter from Napoleon; a drawing by John Lennon; an autographed photo of hockey great Bobby Orr of the Boston Bruins; a napkin bearing Natalie Wood’s lip mark; an FBI “wanted” poster of Bonnie and Clyde; a top hat that was worn by James Cagney; Al Pacino’s “The Godfather II” contract; and Annie Oakley’s rifle.

“This stuff all gives off a certain aura,” he says. “It beats looking at blessed ducks,” he adds with a smirk, referring to the staid surroundings of the typical financial services company chairman.

Under Mr. D’Alessandro’s watch, Hancock has had the aura of a company on the march — it has expanded distribution, raised product development several notches, and broken into Web sales of term life insurance. It is also spending $30 million a year on promotional and sponsorship campaigns when some other insurers are cutting back. He can well afford to be bullish: Hancock’s stock has risen steadily in the 18 months since its debut, more than doubling to $39.75 from its $17 IPO price.

Of course, the stock makes Hancock mighty appealing to the acquisition-minded companies that Mr. D’Alessandro says he wants no part of. So does the fact that its operating income in its major lines of insurance, mutual funds, and institutional structured financial products has risen in the past 12 months.

Analysts doubt the new chairman’s declaration of independence. Colin Devine, an insurance analyst at Citigroup Inc.’s Salomon Smith Barney, which was one of the co-lead managers of Hancock’s IPO, says Mr. D’Alessandro’s fighting words are just that — the patter of a master salesman and someone used to doing things his way.

“Our expectation is they’ll be taken over in the next 12 to 18 months,” Mr. Devine said. “Dave will find an acceptable deal and sell it. It’s a phenomenal company, they have great senior management, and they’re going to be a target for some larger companies. There is no question about it. He doesn’t believe the company will stay independent. I love the guy, but he loves pulling people’s chains.”

Andy Davidson, a director in Chicago for the New York ratings agency Fitch Inc., had a similar assessment but gave Mr. D’Alessandro more wiggle room.

“They have a diversified book of business and are attractive enough to have some of the bigger companies look at them,” Mr. Davidson said.

Mr. D’Alessandro and his company are safe for now, because an anti-takeover protection built into Hancock’s IPO lasts through January 2002. After that, it is fair game. Analysts say there are a half dozen companies that would have no problem swallowing Hancock, a midsize company with a market capitalization of $12 billion. AIG’s acquisition of American General, which has a market cap of $22.8 billion, was ample proof that some large firm could easily snap up Hancock, which Mr. Devine expects to go for about $18 billion.

Predicting how events will play out, though, is not easy with Mr. D’Alessandro, who grew up in a working-class neighborhood and as a youngster was paid in hot dogs to work in his family’s grocery store. Not sure what he was going to do with himself, he went to the State University of New York in Oswego in 1968, majoring in political science. His attendance at Oswego was spotty, and he transferred after a year there to Utica College of Syracuse University, taking a dual major in public relations and journalism. He didn’t switch because of a newfound interest; they were the only courses available and going off to Vietnam was no option, since Mr. D’Alessandro opposed the war.

Journalism proved to be a good fit. He became editor of the Tangerine, the college newspaper.

“He didn’t take crap from anyone,” says John Winslow, who worked on the paper with Mr. D’Alessandro and is now a supervisor at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Syracuse office.

Mark Cacozza, an attorney, who was also on the paper’s staff with Mr. D’Alessandro, says the editor did not shy away from controversy at the Tangerine, battling with the college on issues ranging from race to the basketball coach’s performance.

“He certainly got involved in stories that the school administration probably wishes he didn’t,” Mr. Cacozza says. “But that didn’t bother him. He was confident and somewhat flamboyant. And he was a natural leader.”

Mr. D’Alessandro, who graduated from Utica in 1972, didn’t end up spending much time at newspapers. One of his first jobs was with the New York public relations agency Daniel J. Edelman Inc., where he spent two years as an account supervisor. He showed a flair for that work, too — like the time when he was representing the National Bowling Council and he coaxed celebrities to bowl outdoors on makeshift lanes in the parking lot outside Tavern on the Green in New York’s Central Park.

After Edelman, Mr. D’Alessandro spent 10 years at Control Data Corp., eventually rising to general manager of corporate communications. He left Control Data in 1984 to become the senior vice president of corporate communications at Hancock. Within two years he was in line for a big promotion and had only one question when he was asked by Hancock’s president at the time, if he was interested in taking charge of the company’s group business.

“What’s the group business?” Mr. D’Alessandro recalls asking of the division that sold life and health insurance to companies.

“It turns out that my obvious weakness as an insurance executive — the fact that initially I knew nothing about insurance — mattered relatively little,” he says. “What did count, however, was the brand-builder’s perspective I brought to the job.”

Five years later, after another promotion, he was made senior executive vice president in charge of retail sales, and in 1998 then-president/CEO Stephen Brown made him president. It was 20 months after Mr. D’Alessandro had performed his faux pas de trois at the 1996 annual meeting.

Mr. D’Alessandro takes his climb up the corporate ladder in stride.

“Everyone had to be an expert at something,” he says. “I happened to be an expert at marketing.

“At insurance companies, like banks, there is no shortage of people who know how to count or how to finance complex deals or understand credit or actuarial algorithms. Often what corporations need is not more of the same. The fact that you can lend money doesn’t mean you can run a bank. General management skills are much more valuable.

“So many CEOs luck into the job. They married well. Or play a good golf game. I mean, some CEOs scrap and deserve it.

“If you look at my background, and people don’t do that, in ’86 I ran the group health and life business for four or five years and at the same time I took responsibility for information technology, not a small measure. I also had responsibility for all of our real estate operations and then from 1991 to 1998 I ran the largest section of the company, which is retail: life insurance, mutual funds, annuities, marketing, distribution, sales and service.”

Those who know him well are not surprised by Mr. D’Alessandro’s success. Among them is Raymond Simon, who was one of his public relations professors at Utica and has remained in contact with him.

“He might not be the normal insurance executive, but he sizes people up very well,” Mr. Simon says. “I don’t know where he gets it from, but there is no doubt that he has a real ability to do that.”

How does Mr. D’Alessandro size up the insurance industry?

“Inevitably,” it “is going to go through what banks did,” he says. “No life insurer has more than a 4.5% market share of life insurance, though the AIG-AG merger would bring them to 7%. That’s still relatively small. There’s going to be heavy consolidation.”

The model, he says, is Citigroup’s.

“We’re all going to end up being mega financial services companies. The only question is, who dominates? Will it be banks, brokerage houses, or insurance companies that dominate?

“Insurance companies would do well to consolidate and get their market caps up. Of course, at the moment not too many companies are for sale. But a decent run on the equity markets and all bets are off.”

Bet on Hancock to keep up the high profile typified by its numerous sports sponsorships, from Major League Baseball and the Olympics to the Boston Marathon, where a few years ago the finish line was moved because the race used to end next to the corporate home of a big Hancock competitor, the Prudential Building. Ads target a cross section — from middle-Americans to the gay community. One of Hancock’s more provocative commercials has two women stepping off a plane after adopting a baby. One whispers to another, “You’ll make a great mom.” The other replies, “So will you.”

In the distribution expansion that Mr. D’Alessandro has engineered, banks and wire houses have turned into pertinent sellers of John Hancock’s products, and its wholesaling unit has been bulked up to accommodate the added volume. In the past the company depended heavily on its own agents to sell products.

Meanwhile, newer products such as Unison, a combined variable life insurance policy with long-term-care protection, and Revolution, an annuity with a long-term-care rider, continue to gain steam.

Then there is the core lines’ growth. First-quarter revenues were $1.96 billion, against $1.84 billion in the year-ago period. Annuity sales rose 28%, to $554 million, thanks mainly to a 94% leap in fixed annuities, as investors looked for conservative products. Long-term-care insurance earnings rose 48%, to $27.6 million.

“We continue to expect 10% to 12% growth in earnings per share for 2001,” Mr. D’Alessandro said when Hancock issued its first-quarter results.

Not bad for a publicly held company in a sluggish economy. Now everyone will be watching closely to see if the feisty guy from upstate New York is serious about keeping Hancock independent.

If it is acquired, perhaps he’ll have plenty of time to follow up his first book, “Brand Warfare — “10 Rules for Building the Killer Brand,” published earlier this year — with an entirely new story.

How about “Corporate Warfare”?

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.