STUDIES IN ENTREPRENEURSHIP
Brig. General Robert McDermott
Robert F. McDermott headed USAA, an insurance and diversified financial services company, for 25 years. As chairman and CEO, he guided USAA to become a nationally recognized leader in the services sector. In September of 1993 he assumed the position of Chairman Emeritus. During his leadership of USAA, its owned and managed assets rose from $206 million to over $31 billion.
General McDermott was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He graduated from the Boston Latin School (1937); attended Norwich University (1937-1939); received a B.S. degree from the U.S. Military Academy (1943) and an M.B.A. degree from Harvard University (1950). He served in the U.S. Air Force as a command pilot, staff officer, and a professional educator. He was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as Dean of the Faculty for the first ten graduating classes of the U.S. Air Force Academy. For his many innovations at the USAF Academy, many of which were also adopted by its sister service academies, he has been called the “Father of the Air Force Academy” and the “Father of Modern Military Education.” He retired in 1968 to join USAA and become its Chief Executive Officer.
Under his leadership, USAA grew from the 16th to the 5th largest insurer of private automobiles in the nation. It also grew to be the nation’s 4th largest insurer. As of his retirement, USAA had more than $54 billion of life insurance in force and a wide range of other financial services products. More significantly, he led the company aggressively and successfully, starting in 1983 with $3.8 billion in assets, to become the first true financial services supermarket in the U.S. Additionally, in the book The 100 Best Companies to Work For in America, written by Robert Levering and Milton Moskowitz and released by Currency/Doubleday in January 1993, USAA ranked Number 1 in the scoring.
As Chairman of USAA, McDermott played a national leadership role in improving the safety of automobile travel. Under his direction, USAA brought to the public’s attention the relative safety of automobiles by publishing the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s ranking of safe automobiles. He was an untiring advocate of installing airbag technology, often opposing the major automobile manufacturers. USAA also initiated a Drive Smart program that offered discounts for safety devices. He helped develop for USAA a series of public service announcements promoting safe driving and opposing drinking and driving. One of these announcements featured President George Bush.
McDermott’s influence on San Antonio has been dramatic. In 1974, he was elected Chairman of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. This position gave him the vantage point to promote San Antonio as a center for domestic and international growth. In 1975, he founded the Economic Development Foundation and served as its Chairman until 1980. As Chairman Emeritus, he continues to work closely with the Foundation which plays the lead role in bringing new business into the city.
In the 1980’s, he focused on the developing biotechnology in San Antonio to provide the city with a viable economic sector for the 21st Century. He founded the Texas Research and Technology Foundation which began development of the Texas Research Park. In conjunction with the University of Texas Health Science Center, the TRP formed the core of biotechnology for San Antonio. To help ensure success, he has been the principal motivator in getting the University of Texas Board of Regents to develop biotechnology facilities in San Antonio and to offer science and engineering programs to the doctoral level in support of bioscience and biotechnology.
Testaments to his lifelong interests in education are an elementary school and a Clinical Science Building of the University Health Science Center which bear his name. A grateful community designated a section of Interstate Highway 10 running through San Antonio the McDermott Freeway in recognition of his many initiatives as a pioneer civic entrepreneur, both in education and economic development. Academic Chairs in his honor have been established at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the U.S. Military Academy.
His successful leadership at USAA and in San Antonio has been recognized nationwide. He has chaired several national trade associations such as the National Association of Independent Insurers and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. He has served on the Board of Directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. He also served on the Texas Economic Policy Commission, Chaired by then Governor William Clements.
In the international arena, he serves as a Regional Vice Chairman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies based in Washington, D.C. He was founder of the World Affairs Council in San Antonio, and served as Chairman of the International Leadership Center Foundation in Dallas.
For his leadership in business, he has been widely recognized. He was selected to the Texas Business Hall of Fame in 1987 and the American National Business Hall of Fame in 1989. Five universities have awarded him honorary doctorates. Periodicals such as Harvard Business Review, Business Week, Texas Business, Forbes, Fortune, and the U.S. News and World Report have focused on his leadership as have all San Antonio publications.
Highlighting his success in his military and business careers have been four prestigious awards. In 1993, West Point selected him to receive its Distinguished Graduate Award; in 1994 Fortune selected him as Laureate in Junior Achievement’s National Business Hall of Fame; in 1996 the International Insurance Society, Inc. inducted him into the Insurance Hall of Fame; in 1998 the Harvard Business School extended its highest honor, the Alumni Achievement Award, as a tribute to his extraordinary accomplishments at the Air Force Academy and USAA.
Currently McDermott is Chairman of the Texas Policy Foundation, and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Riverwalk: Live from the Landing; he serves on the Board of Trustees of the Association of Graduates of West Point and the Falcon Foundation at the Air Force Academy; and is Chairman Emeritus, USAA.
General McDermott is married to the former Marion Slemon of Colorado Springs.