A truly remarkable journey

Dimon McFerson hadn’t even finished college when death snatched away from him a potentially great influence in his life.

“I lost my father when I was 21,” he says. “I think that was an opportunity lost.”

Still, McFerson often shares and tries to live by a cherished nugget of advice his father once gave him: “Be totally honest; absolutely and totally honest — with no double standards.”

Perhaps that’s why McFerson, who has climbed the proverbial ladder of success at Nationwide Insurance, hesitates when asked about those who have helped shape his career and influenced him as an individual. He honestly can’t name all the names.

“There’s no one person,” the 62-year-old McFerson says. “I try to emulate the character of lots of people around me that set good examples.”

He mentions the importance of his Mormon faith and points out that some of the leaders in his church have been good role models. He talks in generalities about the countless biographies he’s read about successful business leaders, noting, “I pick up what I can from them.” Then there’s the obvious mentor: his much-heralded predecessor at Nationwide, John E. Fisher.

“John Fisher was my boss virtually my entire time at Nationwide,” says McFerson, who began his career with the $100 billion insurance company in 1979 as vice president of internal audits. “He taught me a lot about the culture, the history … He kind of led me along the right path.”

Getting started on the path that led him to the chairmanship at Nationwide, however, was pure happenstance, McFerson admits.

“Probably like a lot of other people, I didn’t choose this career,” he says. “I always felt I wanted to be involved in business in some capacity, so when I graduated from college at UCLA, I had a degree in business education, but I decided I didn’t want to be a business teacher at a high school. I decided I wanted to be in business.”

After stints as a management trainee with a California drugstore chain and serving time in the Army, McFerson found a job with a growing, public accounting firm then known simply as Ernst.

“I went back to night school, passed the CPA exam and the very first audit I was assigned to was an insurance company,” McFerson says. “They could’ve assigned me to health care or anything else, but over the course of several years, I became the insurance guy. Here I am, almost 40 years later, and I’m still the insurance guy.”

Through five promotions in his 20 years at Nationwide, McFerson lists as his greatest accomplishment “helping to move Nationwide toward a more high-performance company; helping it become an organization that really emphasizes performance and leadership development and building a strong core of people … But I’ll probably be remembered as the guy that brought a lot of change to Nationwide and moved it away from its traditional business,” he adds.

Some of the most challenging moments McFerson has faced at Nationwide are those that follow natural disasters.

“When we have major hurricanes we have to deal with and we have tens of thousands of policy holders depending on us, knowing we can’t get to all of them the next day — I worry about that,” he says.

Fear of failure is what motivates this father of seven and grandfather of 20 to succeed in business.

“I also feel I have a responsibility to uphold my name and my reputation and my family so my children and grandchildren will feel like their father or grandfather is someone they can be proud of,” he adds.

Clearly, family holds great importance in McFerson’s life. He quick to say his greatest accomplishment, be it personal or professional, is “marrying the right woman.” Forget the Humanitarian of the Year Award bestowed upon him two years ago by the American Red Cross. Forget the Tree of Life Award he received from the National Jewish Fund for exemplary leadership and humanitarian service. Forget being elected chairman of three insurance industry groups as well as to the board of COSI and the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce. Those pale in comparison.

“My wife, Darlene, she’s a sweetheart,” he says with pride, thinking about the woman he met through his church and married 26 years ago. “She’s very insightful. She’s a confidence builder. She’s just a terrific lady — happy, upbeat, positive. When I come home after a busy day or tough time, I always know things are going to be solid and consistent because that’s the way she is. It’s a good place to go home to and recharge my batteries.”

When McFerson gets a free moment, he enjoys golfing, exercising, spending time with his family and basking in the sun.

“I like to lay around the pool,” he confesses. “That’s the Southern California guy in me coming out.”

Reading is also one of his favorite pastimes. One book that’s left a particular impression on McFerson is the biography of former President Harry Truman.

“Here’s a guy who never intended to be president, but when the opportunity was thrust upon him, he didn’t shirk away from it. He went in there and did the best he could and he didn’t let his ego get ahead of him. He was just a regular guy who was put in a bigger job than he ever expected in life, and when that job was over, he went back to being a regular guy.

“That’s what I want to do. When my time is up, I want to go back to being a regular guy again.”

If the truth be known, McFerson hasn’t strayed all that far.

“I love junk food,” shyly admits the man who’s considered one of the 10 most powerful in the city. “I love graham crackers and milk. That’ll probably come back to haunt me.”

Nancy Byron ([email protected]) is editor of SBN Columbus.