Practice What You Preach

How Penn Mutual's CEO Took Her Love for Life Insurance Outside of the Boardroom

byKate Hynson


September 20, 2019 .5 min read

For Life Insurance Awareness Month, myWorth sat down with Eileen McDonnell, Chairman and CEO of The Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company, to talk about the role life insurance plays in everyone’s life, including her own. 

“When I first entered the life insurance industry, to me, it was just a job. I came to work, and I enjoyed the people that I worked with. But it wasn't until I understood the impact that our products made in people's lives, that it became a passion of mine.”  

McDonnell has always been very close with her family, even as a young professional working long hours. From ballet lessons to karate competitions, Eileen loved participating in her nieces and nephews lives.

 “One day, it just occurred to me that if I wasn’t here, I couldn't continue to give help when needed.  So, even though I was 27, single with no children of my own, I knew that a life insurance death benefit would make a difference in the lives of those I loved.”  

Not only did McDonnell buy a life insurance policy on her own life, but she recognized that she didn’t just have a job, but was part of a noble profession. 

“It became a passion of mine to make sure that everyone I had an opportunity to speak with knew the benefits that life insurance could bring to their lives.”  

Eileen McDonnell, Chairman and CEO of The Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company

McDonnell frequently speaks on the empowerment and financial flexibility life insurance can bring to people.  “With a life insurance policy in place, you can make decisions that are truly right for you, without the financial stress.” This holds especially true during times where critical and life-altering decisions need to be made.

McDonnell experienced flexibility and freedom again when she found that her father was in the last season of his life. “I knew that I had to step away from work to spend time with my Dad.  The cash value of my life insurance policy gave me the freedom to have income during that cherished time.”   

Another time she experienced the benefits of life insurance was for something very special - to adopt her daughter.  

“Life insurance once again gave me the opportunity to experience these important life moments without worry.  I was able to take money from the cash value of my permanent life insurance which gave me money so that I could take the time to readjust my career and connect with my daughter. ” 

For anyone thinking about financial planning, specifically life insurance, McDonnell recommends speaking with a financial adviser to develop a plan. Whether it is retirement, college planning or having the right financial product mix in your portfolio, an adviser can help guide you in the right direction.  

There's a misconception that life insurance is only for those who are left behind, when, in fact, life insurance has great benefits for you while you're living.”

With the leading cause of heart attacks being stress, and the number one stressor being money, McDonnell believes that, “it's not only your financial health. It's actually your physical well being that you have to protect and life insurance can do that.”

And while the thought of taking that first step to planning can feel overwhelming, McDonnell likes to think about it as exercise. 

“Everyone thinks it's so difficult to get started exercising.  But when you start to see results and the long term benefits, it almost becomes something that you can't do without. I think of financial planning the same way. It's just taking that first step.”

This advice comes with over thirty years of experience in the industry, witnessing clients within the company as well as friends and family benefit from life insurance, especially during moments of significant grief. 

And as a native New Yorker who had lived and worked in Manhattan through 9/11, McDonnell has personally witnessed the outcome of survivors who had insurance and those who did not.

“I saw the families who had insurance in place. And as sad as the events of 9/11 were, they've been able to move on - their children go to the schools they love, they have been able to stay in their homes and life continued. I also saw the families who only had the insurance that was provided through their workplace. It took a long time for the government to come through with money for the families of 9/11 victims. Some people had to sell their homes and move in with their parents. And, you know, after losing a loved one, to have to disrupt your whole life is really, really difficult.”

Seeing first hand how insurance can benefit the lives of many and how lack of insurance can take a toll, McDonnell can’t stress enough how important life insurance is as a foundation of planning.  

“As I say to anyone, there are options. Many people think life insurance is more expensive than it really is, but when you know your options you can pick a policy that is right for you.”  

Of course, McDonnell believes that it is better to have term insurance than no insurance. However, when you know the flexibility a permanent insurance product can offer you, it becomes a better choice.  

“When you think about what people spend on coffee and other entertainment, having the peace of mind that a permanent life insurance policy can give you seems like a small price to pay.  Most young people can have insurance in place for less than they spend on their cell phones.”

As McDonnell recommended, working with an advisor can help you to coordinate your life insurance with other benefits and assets.  “Life insurance complements Social Security, pension plans or other investments you own.  Knowing how to use life insurance to give you flexibility throughout your lifetime is key.”

McDonnell has also seen the benefits life insurance can provide in the event of a chronic illness.  

“When you become chronically ill and are unable to take care of yourself you can take an advance on the death benefit.  This allows you to get the care you need or enjoy your life in whatever you see fit. With the new features of many life insurance policies these days, you can build a policy that fits your needs and goals.”

For those looking to take out a policy for their children, she highly recommends it. “It is one of the greatest acts of love and preparation.”  Because McDonnell’s daughter is adopted, she lacks any kind of family medical history documentation to know what could be in store for her down the road. She wanted her to be prepared financially for any unforeseen conditions or health needs that may arise, and this was the best way she knew how.

“It is something I have done personally.  I took out a policy on my daughter so that as she gets older she will have the freedom to navigate anything that happens in her life.  I would hope that all parents would help reassure their children and their spouses by letting them know that they have taken this act of love, which is to buy a life insurance product.”

Gifting life insurance to members of your family is another way to contribute to their financial future. According to McDonnell, various Penn Mutual surveys have revealed that most young parents welcome the gift of insurance at the time they have their children. 

“There is a way to take a look at the multi-generational aspect of life insurance. Especially for those who may want to help put their grandchildren or future great-grandchildren through college or launch a business.  And, it isn't just for the very wealthy individuals, it can work for everyone when planned properly.”

In addition to providing a gift to family members, life insurance can also give you many benefits while you are alive.  

“I feel really secure knowing that in retirement if I need income, I can draw down from my cash value.  I don’t have to withdraw money from my retirement plans If the markets are down. Life insurance gives me choices that no other product can provide.”