Lowell native Tim Sweeney, the incoming CEO of Boston-based Liberty Mutual Insurance, is a 40-year overnight success story.
He credits his rise to the top role in the Fortune 100 company to a combination of his Lowwell upbringing, hard work, good friendships, being a good person and as he describes it, “a fair chunk of luck and a lot of serendipity.”
In an exclusive interview, The Sun spoke with Sweeney about his Lowwell roots, his thoughts on where he came from to where he is today and his advice for the young people just graduating from high school.
Sun: It’s graduation season, and all these students are walking across the stage and into the world with their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations and their diplomas in hand. Do you remember your graduation in 1983 from Lowell High School?
Sweeney: Oh sure. I was a third-generation Lowell High School graduate. I was proud of my accomplishment. During graduation in the Lowell Auditorium, I remember sitting up on stage as a Carney Medalist looking out at the crowd and thinking, I’m glad I’m not the valedictorian because I don’t want to make a speech. (laughs)
Sun: Your family’s roots are in Lovell. Can you tell us a little bit about your family and growing up in the city?
Sweeney: I had wonderful parents. I remember them saying to me — me and my two siblings — God has blessed you with a wonderful brain. You need to make sure you use it — it’s an obligation.
My dad and his cousin co-owned a drugstore, a pharmacy down on Dummer Street right by City Hall near the original DeMoulas Supermarket (now Market Basket). It was called McCord Sweeney Drugs, and I used to go there after high school and work the front cash register. And I worked summers as a lifeguard at the city pools.
My two best friends on the planet that I still text with every single day were my Lowell High classmates Dan and Shawn. I’ve got many friends from all walks of my life from college and business school, but the two best friends that I have are my Lowell High pals.
Sun: It’s about 27 miles from Lowell to Cambridge, where you attended Harvard University, but it might as well be a world away for a kid from a blue-collar, working-class town. What were you thinking as you prepped for life beyond the city where you grew up?
Sweeney: Well, I was certainly intimidated by the notion of going to Harvard. I was a junior in college before I was ever on an airplane. I think I had only been to Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island my whole life before college. Most of my life had been in Lowell and two weeks every August with my family at the beach. As an 18-year-old on the stage, at Lowell Auditorium, I didn’t have a vision for what I wanted to accomplish or wanted to achieve — I just wanted to do my best job at every juncture.
Sun: How did Lowell prepare you for the wider world?
Sweeney: What you see is what you get with me. My folks, we had everything that we needed, but nothing more. Whatever I did, I just worked hard and asked people for help, and surrounded myself with amazing friends and family.
Sun: How did you get the job at Liberty Mutual?
Sweeney: When I graduated from Harvard, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I worked for Shawmut Bank (now defunct) for two years. Then I went back to Harvard Business School for two years, so I had six years of Harvard tuition neither me nor my parents could afford.
With a mountain of debt, I went to work as a management consultant for Deloitte because they gave me a big signing bonus that helped me pay off my student loans.
Two years and one day after starting as a consultant, I resigned. I went back over to Harvard — this was before online job postings in 1993 — and I found a posting at the career office for an internal strategy consultant group with a large Boston financial services firm. I was like, great, it’s going to be Fidelity or Bank of Boston. I called the recruiter whose phone number was on the posting, and he said oh, it’s Liberty Mutual Insurance. And I was like insurance?
I came in and I was really inspired by the people I met. It was at that stage that I really started to buy into our mission, we help people live more safe and secure lives. I quickly loved the culture of the company and putting people first.
Sun: What made you stay at Liberty?
Sweeney: The people. David (current CEO David Long) and I grew up together at the company. We’ve worked together for 25 years now. He’s from Liverpool. Ted Kelly, who was CEO before David, was from Belfast, and grew up with six siblings and not much else. And now the Lowell kid is arriving on the scene. You might detect a theme with the CEOs of Liberty Mutual.
Dave actually came over from England to Hartwick College in upstate New York on a soccer scholarship, and he was an All-American soccer player. When he was out of college, he actually played in the Portuguese-American soccer league up in Lowell. He had spent time in Lovell. We immediately had that in common.
He’s just a good, good man, and we’ve had a lot of laughs. You know, when you’re coming up the ranks in a large company, you need trusted colleagues who support one another. David and I have a special and a very wonderful relationship. He’s one of my closest friends, and I admire him.
Sun: Do you give back to your hometown of Lowell?
Sweeney: Liberty and me have been supporters for several years now of the Lowell Boys & Girls Club and the great work that Joe Hungler and the team do over there. I used to go to the LBGC, play foosball, shoot hoops and use the swimming pool. What they do now to help kids, the scope of the LBGC has expanded so much. Liberty Mutual and me personally are always looking for ways to give back to a great city with so many people doing great work.
David has a son on the autism spectrum. He’s very public about that. We just had our 20th annual fundraiser where he and I have co-chaired a fundraiser for a program at Mass General’s Lurie Center for Autism, for young people on the autism spectrum. We raised $3 million in one night. Over 20 years, we’ve raised something like $30 million.
Sun: Did you see yourself as the CEO of a Fortune 100 company?
Sweeney: There’s not a chance in heck that when I was sitting on that stage at my high school graduation that I thought I would be the CEO of a Fortune 100 company one day.
Sun: Any advice you would like to share with the graduates of Lowell High School?
Sweeney: A lot of people help you along the way. You create a lot of your own serendipity through hard work, being a good person who relates well with others and establishes relationships and friendships. A fair chunk of luck and a fair chunk of not being afraid to ask for help.
Remember to work hard and laugh harder. You’ve got to love what you do. You’ve got enjoy who you do it with. You have to enjoy the journey.
Sun: Any last thoughts before we let you go?
Sweeney: I sit on the board of directors of the Statue of Liberty in New York City, which is all about immigration and diversity and tolerance of people with different backgrounds. It’s awesome (that the City Council said that racism is a public health crisis).
I am proud of my town. Always have been.