William Robert Berkley

Class of 2024

I want to do everything I can to foster the American dream.

The second of three boys, Bill Berkley was born in 1945 in northern New Jersey, where the family lived first in an apartment and then in a modest house in West Orange. Berkley’s father took over a family company that serviced vending machines; his mother also worked in the business part time. “Up to that point, not much was going well for me,” Bill says. “I was a smart kid, but difficult. In school, I spent a lot of time in the principal’s office. I was always quick to apologize for my misdeeds, but one day the principal told me a story about pulling nails out of a piece of wood. You could pull the nails out, but they always left their mark. Empty apologies, he told me, did the same thing. They never erased what you had done. That story stuck with me, and I decided then to try to behave better in the future.”

When Berkley was in the fourth grade, his father’s business began to fail and he took a job with a company in Baltimore that manufactured products to be sold in vending machines. Berkley saw this move to Maryland as a chance for a fresh start. He recalls, “With my father’s new job, we were able to become more middle class. We had a nicer house, and I started doing well in school. I no longer got into trouble. Observing my father’s improved circumstances gave me the drive to want to succeed. It made me realize that if you worked hard, there were more opportunities.”

Berkley started a lawn-mowing business and charged $1 per lawn. He discovered that other boys in his neighborhood were unwilling to knock on doors to find customers. That gave him an idea: He would do the selling and take half the money earned from each new lawn-mowing recruit. “That was my first business experience,” he says.

When Bill was in the middle of his sixth-grade year, his father was the pilot of a company plane which crashed enroute from Alabama to Chicago. “I had a very hard time accepting my father’s death and the immediate changes it meant for our family,” he says. “My mother moved us back to West Orange, New Jersey, to be close to family. This was devastating for me. I liked our life in Baltimore and saw this move as a step back to a less happy lifestyle.”

Back in New Jersey, Berkley’s family lived in an apartment where the next- door neighbor was a stockbroker. Berkley spent as much time as he could with him learning about the market. Soon, Berkley bought stock in Decca records, reasoning that if so many of his friends were buying records, then the company must be doing well. When the stock price increased and Berkley realized a profit, he was hooked on the idea of becoming an investor.

Within three years, the family moved to a two-family home in a less attractive community in Union, New Jersey. Determined to be self-sufficient and not a burden to his mother, Berkley sold Austin biscuits door to door at an apartment complex. Looking to expand, he came up with the idea of selling his product to the local supermarket. At age 13, he became friends with the store’s owner, who gave him a job. “It was there that I learned to work hard and longer than anyone else in the market. I wanted to learn all I could about the business and soon I was giving the owner advice that would improve his operations. Mentally, I pretended I owned the store, which made me take responsibility for all I did.”

By the time he was in high school, Berkley was not only working in the store but also had a large paper route. He earned enough money to buy a car and cover all his personal expenses, but paying for his own college education was out of the question. Berkley was accepted by his first-choice school, the University of Pennsylvania, but without a scholarship, he couldn’t afford to attend. He did receive a full-tuition scholarship to New York University (NYU), and he quickly accepted the offer.

From the beginning, Berkley felt in a rush to complete his education. He double majored in statistics and finance and took 22 credits each semester, which allowed him to graduate in three years. He began a paper delivery business in his New York City apartment building, which immediately gave him access to 250 customers. At the end of his last year at NYU, he was approached with an offer to buy his route for $6,000. “That was a lot of money in those days,” Berkley says. “It helped me with my tuition to get my MBA at Harvard Business School.”

While at Harvard, Berkley established Berkley Dean, an investment advisory firm. He and his partner, Paul Dean, managed $2 million of clients’ money from his apartment on the Harvard campus. By 1968, when he completed his graduate degree, the company was managing $10 million of investment assets.

Berkley was offered a job with Fidelity Management Research Company, the company that he had interned for during his first year at Harvard. Berkley worked full time for Fidelity until he completed his MBA. He knew he wanted to start his own business, and his mentor at Fidelity, Ned Johnson, offered him a $25,000 investment in Berkley’s new company. “This was money I was counting on to get my start,” Berkley says. “But after many discussions, Fidelity’s attorneys counseled Johnson not to go through with the deal.” In the end, Johnson decided to keep his commitment and gave Berkley the money as a consulting fee. “This was a huge lesson for me. From then on, I’ve known the importance of keeping your word and honoring your commitments,” Berkley says.

In 1970, Berkley began to focus on the insurance industry with the establishment of W. R. Berkley Corporation. In 1973, as chairman and CEO, he took his company public. W. R. Berkley has built more than 50 successful insurance businesses. The company’s market value, which is more than $20 billion, insures properties in aviation, mining, design, medical, transportation, oil, and gas. Today, Berkley serves as the executive chairman and his son is the CEO. “I still work full time,” he says. “I go in every morning at 6:30. I just find it exciting.”

Berkley has never forgotten New York University—the school that made his education possible with a scholarship. He has served on the NYU Board for 30 years and was chairman for the past eight years. He and his wife, Marjorie, have donated more than $50 million to the school’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business.

His charitable giving is largely administered through the Berkley Family Foundation, of which he serves as the president, secretary, and director. His philanthropic interests primarily include education, healthcare, and environmental causes.

“I’ve always believed in the American dream and I want to do everything I can to foster it in the minds of America’s young people,” Berkley says. “My definition of the American dream is this: If you work hard enough and devote time and effort, you can accomplish almost anything in this country. You don’t see that anywhere else.”

Honored to become a part of the Horatio Alger Association, Berkley strongly supports helping young people to attain higher education. “I see education as giving you the framework to understand how everything works,” he explains. “It doesn’t solve your problems, but it gives you something to build on. When combined with hard work and perseverance through challenging times, success is usually the outcome.”

When Berkley was 11 years old and lost his father, it changed his life forever. “My big break,” he says, “was winning a full scholarship to NYU. Without that, I wouldn’t be where I am today, living my own American dream. I’m living proof that an investment in education gives infinite payback, and it’s my privilege to pay that forward to the next generation.”

Over the years, Berkley has been involved with a number of nonprofits, but he says, “The Horatio Alger Association is the epitome of what I think a nonprofit should be. The scholarship programs that help deserving students achieve positive outcomes through their own commitment and desire are outstanding. It’s just one of the greatest nonprofit organizations that exists. I’m very excited to be a part of it.”