Decision to step down was “not difficult at all” following diagnosis
By Brandi Makuski
After 30 years of running the company- in one form or another- he built from scratch, John Noel stepped down as head of the travel insurance unit of Berkshire Hathaway on May 6.
The announcement came quietly via an insurance trade website last week, some time after he told his family, and later his employees in the form of a letter, about his recent diagnosis of Diffuse Lewy Body Disease, which takes the form of a protein that destroys the brain.
“I have been diagnosed with a disease,” the letter reads in part. “A deadly one that will cut my time here on earth. How much time I have is really up in the air.”
Noel said he was diagnosed about a month ago, and said his decision to step down “wasn’t difficult at all”.
”It was an important decision to make, to make sure we had someone of Dean’s caliber to replace me.”
Noel spoke fondly of Dean Sivley, who was hired last week to take over the top spot. Sivley has worked for Orbtiz and GroundLink, and for the past five years as CEO of Travel Guard.
Noel will remain with the company as an advisor.
“I’ve moved my priorities around to what I like to call ‘grabbing all the gusto I can’,” he said. “Whether that be at work, at home, with my grandkids, Africa, Boys and Girls Club…things I hold near and dear to my heart.”
Noel and his wife, Patty, are widely known in the community for their continuous philanthropy of the arts, various community events and youth programs.
In an interview with the City Times on Thursday, Noel politely declined to discuss his symptoms and diagnosis in favor of talk about his favorite historical figures and work with AIDS-stricken African orphans. Noel’s office is loaded with knick knacks from the company’s history- to include several red telephone booth models, the company’s previous logo- and the walls are lined with photos a few of the public figures he’s met.
There’s a photo of Noel kissing the ring of Pope Benedict XVI, standing with presidents George Bush and Barack Obama and shaking hands with Warren Buffett- but it’s the photos from the Kenyan orphanage, which the Noel’s help fund, that he talks about the most.
He lamented about never being able to have met Mohandas Gandhi, and told of the inspiration he derives from the late South African President Nelson Mandela’s philosophy of forgiveness and nonviolence.
Noel also mused about his humble beginnings.
“I met Patty when we were 14 years old,” he said. “When we were married, we were both 19 and living in a trailer home in Fairview Village. I remember getting something in mail from the YMCA one day asking for donations. I remember thinking, ‘I should donate, because one day my children will go there’, and they did. I’m sure I only gave five dollars or something, but I gave something.”
Noel said the philosophy of giving has never left him- and noted his goal in life was never to make a lot of money, but “to be happy and make a difference in the world”. He says he’s accomplished just that, and even following the diagnosis still holds on to the mission statement he created with his wife. He says its a philosophy he shares with his employees, his friends, and his 14 grandchildren- who affectionately call him “Pee-Paw”- and range in age from six months to 14 years.
“Write a mission statement, and build your life around that foundation,” Noel said. “It really helps you stay true north, where ever you want to go in life.”
Noel said he’s most proud of having created over 1,000 jobs both locally and around the world.
“Patty and I are especially grateful to our employees who helped us build successful companies around the world. I want to make sure they’re recognized for their dedication. Without them, none of this would be possible.”
“To live, to love, to laugh, to learn and to leave a legacy for our children, relatives, friends, employees, and our global and local community through strength of purpose, in our commitment to our principles and our business success, by helping children, encouraging diversity in all areas of life, integrity and living- and all of this with our unwavering core of values being passed on to our children and grandchildren. To always have our principles and motives clea and to continually strengthen our legacy.”
-Mission statement of John and Patty Noel