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Hancock chief D'Alessandro stepping down

David F. D'Alessandro, the former adman who converted John Hancock Financial Services Inc. into a public company in 2000 and later engineered its sale to a Canadian insurer, will resign as chief executive of the insurance firm.

A high-profile executive active in political and civic matters in Boston, D'Alessandro will step down as an employee of John Hancock Nov. 30, but will become nonexecutive chairman of Hancock's advisory board, and remain a member of the board of directors of Hancock's parent company, Manulife Financial Corp. of Toronto.

D'Alessandro attracted attention as soon as he arrived in Boston in 1984, shaking up Hancock's stodgy image with his edgy "Real Life, Real Answers" ad campaign. Later he was hailed as the savior of the Boston Marathon when the company stepped in and sponsored the venerable, but financially troubled, road race. From there, Hancock went on to become a prominent, and vocal, sponsor of the Olympic Games. D'Alessandro found himself in the middle of many major issues in the city, from the sale of the Red Sox to the shake-up of the leadership of Boston University.

"He was an extraordinary marketer. He really did energize that brand," said advertising executive Jack Connors, who has often served as a mentor for D'Alessandro. "It would be in Boston's best interest to try to hold onto this guy."

He also became a local lightning rod on the issue of executive compensation because of his multimillion-dollar pay packages. His total compensation in 2002 was nearly $22 million, followed by a $16.8 million package in 2003. Also, as part of the acquisition, D'Alessandro's Hancock holdings were exchanged for Manulife shares that the company now estimates are worth about $25 million.

He will receive a $16.5 million severance for leaving, but said his retirement pay won't be calculated until next year. However, D'Alessandro this year received a stock award worth $8 million, which he agreed to waive his rights to as a condition of his retirement, said company spokesman Stephen Burgay.

In an interview, the 53-year-old D'Alessandro said that after working nonstop since a teenager, including 20 years at Hancock, it was time to stop and take stock of what he wants to do next.

"I'll write, and I'll think," said D'Alessandro, author of two books, and most recently of an op-ed column in the Globe reflecting on how both his and George W. Bush's college-aged children are not serving in the US military effort in Iraq.

"One of the problems with working for 30 to 40 years is you don't have time to think," he said. D'Alessandro will take a year off before deciding his next career move.

He professes great interest in working in the entertainment industry, and he has carved out a major role for himself and the company in sports marketing. D'Alessandro is a part-owner of the Boston Red Sox, and as a Hancock vice president he helped rescue the Boston Marathon by having the company sponsor the race. Hancock also is a sponsor of Major League Baseball, and the Olympics through 2008. For many years, D'Alessandro has been a leading critic of the clubby practices of both the International and US Olympic committees.

Politics also may be on the horizon. A behind-the-scenes player who claims friendships with both Republican Governor Mitt Romney and Democratic Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the unenrolled D'Alessandro said he's been approached by people from "both parties" to run for "something big in the state. I've been asked. It's only because I'm just thinking these things through. I've said no, because my entire focus has been on the integration of the two companies."

Manulife yesterday named two executives to fill D'Alessandro's shoes. James M. Benson will become chief executive of Hancock's life insurance business, while John D. DesPrez III will lead the firm's money management operations.

Manulife chief executive Dominic D'Alessandro yesterday said, "I regret, but respect" David D'Alessandro's decision to step down. "David has meant a lot to both of our companies. Although David was willing to remain until next April, the one-year anniversary of the merger, we jointly concluded that it made sense to make these moves by the end of the year."

David D'Alessandro was scheduled to become president of Manulife next April, and in a recent interview with the Globe, he said there was "no reason not to believe that" would happen. But now, he said, the merging of the two companies had gone smoother and faster than initially expected and he was comfortable leaving Hancock in the other D'Alessandro's hands.

David D'Alessandro said he still has no regrets about steering Hancock into a merger with Manulife, especially since the deal will preserve the company's fabled brand and corporate name, unlike FleetBoston Financial Corp., which is being completely subsumed within its new owner Bank of America Corp.

As part of the acquisition, Manulife and Hancock agreed to a four-year commitment with the Massachusetts insurance commissioner to headquarter Manulife's US operations in Boston, keep at least a majority of Hancock's 4,200 employees based in the state, and maintain charitable giving at current levels, which is now $7.5 million a year. Hancock also will continue to sponsor the Boston Marathon through 2018.

Even though he will no longer be there to defend and enforce those commitments, D'Alessandro said he is comfortable that the executives in Toronto will live up to them over the long term. "This is not like carpetbaggers who can break promises," he said. "These are legal commitments we've made here."

Through his short tenure as chief executive of a public company, D'Alessandro fretted about Hancock's vulnerability as a midsize insurer in an consolidating industry increasingly dominated by massive multi-line financial services companies. "If we continued at the size we were, it was more likely someone would have taken us over as a hostile bid, and taken the company out of Boston, and use the brand as a shell," he said.

At one point last year D'Alessandro and Hancock officials even held long discussions with executives of Fleet about combining the two hometown companies into a financial services giant before concluding it wouldn't work.

Within a year of joining the company as vice president for communications and marketing, D'Alessandro helped engineer two major developments that reaped huge rewards for both Hancock and himself. First, the sponsorship deal for the Boston Marathon. D'Alessandro drove the race course one day, found a way to modify it just enough so the finish line could be moved several blocks down Boylston Street closer to Hancock's signature skyscraper.

"He really is a premier corporate citizen," said Guy Morse, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association, which runs the annual race. "He came to us at a point in our history when we needed corporate support. It was very critical at the time, in order to bring the marathon into a new level."

Equally critical for Hancock was that year's launch of the critically acclaimed "Real Life, Real Answers" advertising campaign, which helped breathe fresh life in what many critics had felt was a tired brand.

D'Alessandro's critics contend that his maneuverings as a Hancock executive, culminating in the sale to Manulife, were motivated by money. "He swooped in so he could become rich, and leave the rest of us with shreds," said Jason Adkins, a consumer attorney and longtime D'Alessandro nemesis. "If you don't think Hancock is going to be a shell of its former self in a matter of years, you're not looking at what's happened to all the other companies in Massachusetts," that have been bought out by distant owners. D'Alessandro's pending departure just six months after the closing of the acquisition, Adkins added, is "outrageous, but totally predictable."

D'Alessandro's civic activities include heavy involvement in one of Boston's top cultural institutions, the Wang Center for the Performing Arts, where he is chairman of the board of trustees.

In addition to two business books, D'Alessandro has also used the pen to wade into controversial issues of the day. He's written numerous opinion pieces, arguing against the expansion of legalized gambling and for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law during the clergy abuse scandal in Massachusetts. He's testified before Congress on the ethical problems at the US Olympic Committee and resigned as a vice chairman of Boston University's board of trustees in the summer of 2003 in protest of the board's selection of Dan Goldin as new university president. Months later it was Goldin who was out at BU and D'Alessandro rejoined the university's board in April.

"David has been very willing to get himself involved in public issues, things that for most CEOs are like third rails," said former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger.

D'Alessandro's political involvement dates to 1988, when he was brought in to help with the advertising efforts of presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. He has worked to be an important broker in local political circles ever since. Harshbarger recalled how D'Alessandro supported him during his own run for governor in 1998, and even arranged a dinner meeting with Menino to try to get the wary Boston mayor to more actively support his candidacy.

Friends and associates don't think D'Alessandro will take the next step and run for office, saying he is too much of a take-charge executive to have the patience for the conciliatory nature of politics.

As chairman of Hancock's advisory board, D'Alessandro will oversee the company's charitable giving and said he will continue to be involved in much of the company's community-based activities. Nonetheless, he did question whether he could continue to play a powerful role in Boston's civic and political affairs once he loses the title of chief executive. "I'll soon find out if that is true," he said.

Andrew Caffrey can be reached at caffrey@globe.com.

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