Robert M. Devlin: Businessman & Philanthropist
For Bob Devlin, the combination of natural business acumen, strong family ties and Irish roots has proven unbeatable.
Today, at 72, he is chairman of Curragh Capital Partners, a New York-based investment firm that – between its Irish-inspired name and the fact that he founded it with his eldest son, Michael – embodies his central values.
Devlin was born in Brooklyn in 1941 to Norma Hall Devlin and John M. Devlin, whose grandfather James Devlin immigrated to the U.S. from County Donegal in 1848. John Devlin’s story is a remarkable one. Born in Brooklyn in 1911, he grew up during the Depression, and, as a result, did not have much of a formal education. In a pivotal turn of luck, he found work as a clerk for an insurance firm in the Chrysler Building, and from there his career took off. The family eventually moved to Schenectady, New York, where Bob grew up with three brothers and one sister, and where their father became chairman and CEO of Ter Bush and Powell, then one of the largest insurance agencies between New York and Chicago.
For Devlin, this provided a model of success. After graduating from Tulane University in New Orleans in 1964, he entered the life insurance business with Mutual of New York. In 1977 he joined American General and spent three years in California, then five and a half in Nashville before moving to their Houston headquarters in 1986, as president and CEO of American General Life. By 1993, he had been elected vice chairman and a director of American General Corporation, and in 1995 he became the company’s president and CEO. One year later, he was made chairman.
From 1995 – 2001, Devlin helmed what would become, by his final year in charge, the country’s third-largest life insurance company. During his tenure, American General’s assets grew from $46 billion to over $150 billion, and its market capitalization rose from $7 billion to $24 billion. The company was acquired by the American International Group Inc. in August of 2001, and Devlin left upon the merger’s completion.
In addition, he has served on the board of directors of ConocoPhillips, Cooper Industries, LKQ Corp., Discover Financial Services and Forethought Financial Group.
Throughout all this, Devlin has been supported by his wife, Katharine (Kate), with whom he celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2011, and their two sons Michael Devlin II and Matthew. As he said in an interview with Niall O’Dowd in the December/January 2000 Business 100 issue of Irish America, one of the things he found over the years is “how important family is. Whenever you move to a new town, the importance of the support system that your family provides becomes more apparent. I have been very lucky to have it.”
Devlin’s parents taught him to “have a commitment and a high level of integrity to what you’re going to do and to really stick with it as well as you can,” and that’s exactly what Bob has done – not only throughout his career, but also his philanthropic work.
Bob became involved in the non-profit arena from an early age, serving on the board of the Muscular Dystrophy Chapter in upstate New York and the YMCA boards in Sacramento and Nashville. After moving to Houston, he and Kate worked with the Holocaust Museum there, hosting the annual gala at which then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was honored with the Lyndon B. Johnson Moral Courage award. Together Bob and Kate were awarded the Anti-Defamation League’s Torch of Liberty Award, and Devlin also served on the board of trustees of the Houston Fine Arts Museum.
For ten years, Bob was a member of the board of Colin Powell’s America’s Promise initiative. More recently, he and Kate were inducted into the Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation Hall of Fame in recognition of their contribution to the fight to end domestic violence.
A trustee of his alma mater, Tulane, Devlin was chairman of the university’s endowment committee for six years and is a member of the Paul Tulane Society. He was also a trustee of Boston College, from which Michael and Matthew both graduated – in 1988 and 1990, respectively – and is now a trustee associate. In 2004, he and Kate were recognized by the college as Outstanding Parents of the Year.
A significant number of the Devlins’ philanthropic projects have been connected to Bob’s Irish roots. Growing up, he recently explained, he was aware, through his parents, of the richness of his Irish ancestry, but the emphasis at the time wasn’t on where you came from, it was on striving to be American. While many Irish Americans come to treasure their heritage through stories and traditions handed down generation to generation, Devlin’s interest in Ireland was piqued when the family spent Christmas there in 1984, and was further enhanced when his two sons attended Boston College. Matt then studied at University College Galway in Ireland during his junior year. There he met Erin Conroy, a young Irish American woman from Marquette University who was also studying abroad. Married with three sons, they now live in Toronto, where Matt is the TV sportscaster for the Toronto Raptors.
Michael, Matt and Erin helped kindle in Devlin a deep interest in his Irish heritage, which has become a major part of his life. As co-chair of the American Irish Historical Society (a position he shared with Liam Neeson), Devlin, along with President General Dr. Kevin Cahill, put in place the long-term strategic plan to save the AIHS’s townhouse, the finest Irish one in the U.S., and regenerate the society. Devlin’s Irish roots were recognized in 1999 when he was awarded one of the Ellis Island Medals of Honor for his business achievements, and in 2001 when he received the AIHS’s Gold Medal.
The Devlins’ visits to Ireland often find them in Killybegs, Co. Donegal, where they feel blessed to love a family, Samantha, Colum and their daughters Kaitlin and Shonaugh, as their own. The Devlins have supported the restoration of St. Mary’s, a church in Killybegs, and Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Barretstown, Co. Kildare, which provides a fun, nurturing environment for children with serious illnesses.
Reflecting on his Irish heritage, Devlin recently said “the Irish spirit encompasses everything I value: inner strength, determination to continue forward and do better, a great love of family, soulfulness, and an all-important sense of humor. Connecting with Ireland and my roots has helped me immeasurably, in ways both large and small.”