John Keenan, 1930-2014

John Keenan, who built his Torrance-based insurance business into one of the largest privately held brokerage and consulting firms in the country while stressing “people before profits,” has died. He was 84.

By Larry Altman, Daily Breeze

POSTED: 09/04/14, 6:06 PM PDT | UPDATED: 1 MIN AGO

John Keenan, who built his Torrance-based insurance business into one of the largest privately held brokerage and consulting firms in the country while stressing “people before profits,” has died. He was 84.

Keenan, chairman of Keenan & Associates on Crenshaw Boulevard, died Wednesday afternoon at Torrance Memorial Medical Center with family members at his side. Doctors discovered Keenan had a brain tumor when he suffered a stroke Saturday, his son, Phil Keenan, said Thursday.

Despite his condition, Keenan spent Sunday and Monday calling company administrators and family members to his hospital room to instruct them on how to run the business without him, his son said.

“He managed his death like he managed his company,” Phil Keenan said. “He did it his way.”

Born May 24, 1930, in Los Angeles, Keenan attended Catholic schools and Loyola University in Westchester. After graduating in 1952 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, he served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War.

Once he returned to Los Angeles, Keenan went to work in the insurance business, married his wife, Margaret Ann, in 1955, and purchased a three-bedroom house in the Hollywood Riviera section of Torrance in 1957.

Keenan worked while his wife raised their seven sons — Dan, Phil, Kevin, Tim, Chris, Tom and Vincent, all of whom attended St. Lawrence Martyr School in Redondo Beach and South High School in Torrance. He was president of Hollywood Riviera Little League while his sons played and was a longtime member of the West End Tennis Club in Torrance. He later sold the house to a son and moved to Redondo Beach.

In 1972, Keenan became a pioneer in a niche insurance field when he and three employees opened Keenan & Associates in Torrance, specializing in insurance for schools and hospitals. The business rapidly grew, establishing offices in Riverside, Oakland, San Clemente, San Jose, Rancho Cordova, Redwood City, Pleasanton and Eureka. The company employs nearly 700 people, serving 950 public school districts, cities, counties and special districts, and more than 125 hospitals in California and other states.

“He came up with the idea to be able to insure school districts and teachers,” son Kevin Keenan said. “His deal was to help teachers get better benefits, and he basically invented the selling of insurance benefits as well as property and casualty insurance, as well as workers’ comp to school districts.”

The company is now the 17th largest broker in the United States and the largest independent broker in California, taking in more than $149 million in revenue in 2012-13. The company provides insurance and services to schools, community colleges, hospitals and cities for employee benefits, health benefit management, workers’ compensation, risk management and property and liability.

“He was a legend in the insurance industry,” said Sean Smith, the company’s president and chief executive. “He really was an icon. He was really about niching and having market-specific units before it was fashionable.”

Company officials and family members said that throughout Keenan’s tenure, he emphasized customer service and placed his employees first, signing cards to them on their work anniversaries and giving bonuses at Christmas even if the company had a difficult year. He believed in “people before profits,” Smith said, and that every employee should “have a few extra dollars during the holiday season.”

“He wanted an environment where his employees could go coach their kids’ soccer teams,” Smith said. “It created an incredible culture here where there is an incredible loyalty and commitment to the firm.”

Remembering his roots, Keenan supported schools in South Los Angeles, providing donations to campuses such as St. Raphael’s School and Verbum Dei High School. His company participated for years in Verbum Dei’s Corporate Work Study program that provides internship for students. More than 20 students were interns at Keenan.

“Every Christmas he would go to the busboys around all the restaurants, and the janitors at West End, and give them a tip,” Kevin Keenan said.

Keenan required that his sons make names for themselves in other businesses before any could work for him, Phil Keenan said. Two of his sons and two grandchildren work for the company, but Smith was made CEO about 14 years ago. One of his sons is a police officer and another a firefighter.

Keenan rejected hundreds of millions of dollars over the years offered by other insurance companies trying to acquire his company, Phil Keenan said. He did not want his employees to lose their jobs as part of a large corporation. He made arrangements years ago that his company would not be sold following his death.

“Keenan & Associates is positioned to continue John’s vision into the future,” Smith said.

In addition to his sons, Keenan is survived by 12 grandchildren. His wife died in 1987.

Services are pending.