Raising the barre

What makes Donald Kramer tick? Nancy Acton talks to the newly appointed chairman of the renowned American Ballet Theatre about his passion for dance and giving back to the community.

  • Donald Kramer

    Donald Kramer

Transitioning from an internationally respected insurance executive to chairman of one of the world's renowned ballet companies might seem a bridge too far for some, but not for Donald Kramer whose passion for dance goes back to his college days. It was cemented decades later – first with his active involvement in the National Dance Foundation of Bermuda (NDFB) and then the American Ballet Theatre.

When Mr Kramer became a member of the ABT's board of governing trustees five years ago, little did he imagine that today he would be its new chairman.

Yet, in his quiet and gracious way, he views his path to a leading role in the dance world not as something which is his right, but rather as his duty – beginning right here in Bermuda.

As one of a number of top executives who have come here and enjoyed great personal success, he believes he also owes something to the community in return.

“I think it is critical to give back,” Mr Kramer said. “I look at the CEOs. Notwithstanding the fact that their companies are generous, and the corporate community does give back, I am talking about the individuals themselves.

“I have a profound respect for people who give not just money, but of themselves. I am so grateful for the years I have been in Bermuda, and I wanted to give back to the community.”

Through Wendy Davis Johnson, then-director of global communications at Ace, he found a way. It was 2002 and, in a strategic planning exercise, the National Dance Theatre of Bermuda was examining its future and the best way forward.

“At the time there was the National Dance Theatre of Bermuda, but it was a moribund institute, and certainly not up to modern-day standards of what a charitable institute should be,” Mr Kramer recalls.

Knowing of his commitment to young people, and his connections in the business world, Mrs Davis Johnson suggested her colleague at Ace was the ideal person to help establish the new NDFB, and lead it forward.

That was in 2003, and he has been the registered charity's sole chairman ever since.

Tracing his affinity for dance back to his college days in upstate New York, Mr Kramer said, “I have always loved to dance. I grew up as a waiter in the Catskill Mountains in the summer while I was in college. The husbands would bring their families up to stay, but they would go back to work in New York City during the week and return on Fridays. The women loved to dance, so from Monday to Thursday it was part of our job to dance with them. It was Latin dancing in those days. What you saw Patrick Swayze doing in ‘Dirty Dancing' was exactly what I lived.”

Professionally, he went on to acquire an impressive body of knowledge gained during a long and successful career in investment banking, securities analysis, insurance and reinsurance over more than half a century.

The chartered financial analyst is the founder and former chairman and CEO of Ariel Holdings Ltd of Bermuda, and the former vice chairman of Ace Ltd following its acquisition of TempestRe, which he also founded.

Among many honours he has received is the Bermuda Insurance Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award.

When the opportunity arose to contribute to the NDFB Mr Kramer's close association with dance was rekindled.

Under his aegis, the NDFB has thrived in its mission to develop dedicated young people through dance by supporting and providing world-class training to the Bermuda community.

“What the NDFB does for young dancers is give them poise, stature and discipline. The kids are so terrific. We also bring them exposure beyond the insular life of Bermuda.”

Just as Mr Kramer is also excited about the strides and benefits the NDFB has made in the lives of Bermuda's young dancers, so too is he proud of the ABT's achievements.

Despite being a member of its board of governing trustees since 2005, the offer of the chairmanship came as a complete surprise.

“They [ABT] took me to lunch one day, and I was sure they were going to ask me for a further donation,” Mr Kramer recalled. “When they asked me to be the chairman I was amazed. Their submission was that they had plenty of people who knew the arts, but they didn't have people with business skills.”

Since the search for a new ABT chairman coincided with stepping down from his daily duties at Ariel, he was honoured to accept.

The saying, “if you really want to get something done, give it to a busy person” is certainly true of Mr Kramer, who thrives on being active. In fact, the new appointment adds another component to his list of community give-backs. In the US he also serves on the board of trustees of Brooklyn College Foundation, and in Bermuda is an active member of the think tank, Bermuda First.

“A number of us saw the coming of the financial crisis, and put together a think tank. For a period of time Bermuda was somewhat insulated, but sooner or later we knew it would affect the Island. Bermuda First consists of some of the brightest and best brains on the Island who want to help with Bermuda's social and economic issues where they can, and support in other areas where they can. The co-chairmen are the Premier and the leader of the Opposition, and (its members) are across societal levels.”

When asked how this devoted family man, who travels between his homes in Bermuda and Connecticut, manages to fulfill his many civic duties so successfully, Mr Kramer replies: “Time management. I have been going to work every day for over 50 years, and I enjoy it. I just can't sit home and do nothing. I love being busy and engaged.”

In terms of the NDFB, its chairman is also grateful to have the assistance of fellow insurance executive Brian O'Hara, former president and CEO of XL Capital, who has stepped in as vice chairman and chairman of the development committee.

“Brian has been such a generous and enthusiastic participant, and I am so grateful to him because it now means that if I spend a little more time off the Island he is there to help, communicate, and keep everybody on track, which is such a blessing.”

Of course, a healthy lifestyle also helps, and Mr Kramer's daily routine includes working out on a Stairmaster and treadmill, and doing balance exercises. Recovered from hip surgery, he walks with a stick over long distances, but is otherwise “in great physical shape”.

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Published Feb 7, 2011 at 10:09 am (Updated Feb 7, 2011 at 10:09 am)

Raising the barre

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