The ballet brought him business, and business brought him the ballet.
Jay S. Fishman, an insurance company executive, will become the new chairman of New York City Ballet, the company said on Wednesday. In an unusual move the board reached outside its ranks to choose him.
“Jay is someone who, I think, possesses the right calibration of passion for the arts, financial acumen, humility and networks,” said Darren Walker, a City Ballet board member who led the search committee. Translation: He knows lots of wealthy people who are potential donors.
“It’s not just having a Rolodex,” Mr. Walker said. “It’s being comfortable asking people for money and cultivating donors.”
Robert I. Lipp, a longtime board member, was named president.
High-profile board positions at New York cultural institutions are plums in social circles, but the appointment of Mr. Fishman, who is the chairman and chief executive of the Travelers Companies, provides particular insight into how the worlds of commerce and culture commingle among the city’s elite.
His connection to the ballet began with Mr. Lipp, who was an executive at Primerica, a predecessor to Citigroup, when Mr. Fishman joined it in 1989.
At the time, Mr. Fishman said, he had never been to the ballet. Mr. Lipp “grabbed me and my wife one night and said, ‘We’re going to the ballet.’ ” Mr. Fishman became a regular City Ballet-goer and contributor.
The two men became close friends and worked together until Mr. Lipp, 14 years his senior, left Citigroup in 2000. Mr. Fishman had risen through the company as a protégé of its architect, Sanford I. Weill, another major patron of the performing arts in New York.
In 2001 Mr. Fishman left Citigroup to run St. Paul Companies, an insurer perceived as in need of a shake-up. He reduced the work force of 10,000 by about 10 percent, cut costs by $ 350 million and sold off poorly performing units.
At a City Ballet performance on June 3, 2003, he ran into Mr. Lipp on the promenade during intermission. Mr. Lipp at the time was chairman and chief executive of another insurance company, Travelers Property Casualty Corporation.
“The prospect comes up: might we consider putting the two companies together,” Mr. Fishman said. Almost six months later the companies announced a $ 16 billion merger that created the nation’s second largest commercial insurer (after A.I.G.), now called the Travelers Companies, which reunited the two executives. Mr. Fishman was the chief executive and Mr. Lipp the executive chairman. (Mr. Lipp retired in 2005.)
Six months ago, when the City Ballet board began pondering a successor to the outgoing chairman, Mr. Lipp suggested Mr. Fishman. Mr. Fishman said he agreed to take the job if Mr. Lipp would replace the outgoing president of the ballet’s board.
“If not for him, I never would have gone to the ballet,” Mr. Fishman said.
City Ballet board members are expected to contribute or raise at least $ 100,000, and generally more for chairmen. Mr. Fishman, 59, who earned $ 16.5 million last year, according to his company’s proxy statement, said he had not “even thought about” his personal contribution.
Mr. Fishman starts the job on July 1, succeeding John L. Vogelstein, whose term is ending. City Ballet is trying to pare down deficits that reached $ 8 million in 2008 and have dipped to a projected $ 1.4 million on a budget of $ 62.4 million this year.
Mr. Fishman, more of a classical music fan than a balletomane, said he would probably resign from the New York Philharmonic board to make more time for the ballet.
Mr. Fishman was born and reared in the Bronx. His father, a jazz enthusiast, started and owned a small printing company.
“No silver spoon here,” he said. “I don’t aspire to be anything more than an ordinary guy.”