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Don Bryan, New Jersey director of insurance, set to retire

Over the last 27 years, information storage at the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance has changed from stacks of 10-inch-thick paper packets to an online database.

Over the last 27 years, information storage at the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance has changed from stacks of 10-inch-thick paper packets to an online database.

Ten department commissioners, and countless insurance companies, have come and gone.

But of all the changes in the years Don Bryan has served in the department, one stands out: the revitalization of the auto insurance industry, once considered a puzzle with no solution.

The credit for that turnaround has been widely given to Bryan, the Burlington Township resident known as "Mr. Insurance," who will retire at the end of the month after almost three decades in the department.

Bryan was acting commissioner in 2003 when legislation greatly relaxed state oversight of the industry, leading to more competition.

"If not for Don Bryan I don't think we would have the kind of marketplace that allows people to shop around for auto insurance," said Bernie Flynn, president of New Jersey Manufacturers, the state's largest carrier of auto insurance. "We were in crisis. ... Don had the experience and the courage to take the necessary steps to pave the way."

Bryan, 62, the state director of insurance, said he was proud of his role in the turnaround.

"It's really satisfying to see the success of a market," he said.

Bryan entered the government end of the insurance industry about 10 years after graduating from Rutgers-Camden Law School and following a stint at a law firm.

Although he didn't know much about insurance when he started, years of experience and hard work have made him one of the state's leading insurance experts.

Bryan, who is married to Connie Bryan, is an almost lifelong resident of Burlington County, moving to Burlington Township in 1993 from Lumberton, where he had served as mayor.

Those inside and outside the department said they would be sorry to see Bryan retire, not just for his expertise but for the good-natured personality and humor that he has always brought to the job.

"It's hard to find somebody ... who has a real breadth of knowledge and intelligence and experience, but a great sense of humor as well," said Magdalena Padilla, president of the nonprofit New Jersey Insurance Council. "It's a fabulous combination."

Bryan was appointed acting commissioner of the department twice, once by a Republican governor and once by a Democrat.

To the people he's worked with, he is a reasonable voice with a phone line that is always open, and a willingness to give his undivided attention to anyone who seeks it.

Padilla has worked with Bryan for seven years, and said that although they didn't always agree, Bryan was always fair.

"He always comes down striking a very, very delicate balance that, at the end of the day, is really most beneficial to everybody in New Jersey," she said. "He's what you aspire to when you're in state government. ... Don Bryan just really epitomizes what it means to do your job well."

So well, in fact, that Padilla said she has never successfully "beaten him to the punch."

Once, she thought she would be proactive and leave Bryan a message around 7:30 a.m. so he would be better informed at their scheduled meeting later that day.

To her surprise, Bryan picked up his phone.

"It doesn't really matter what time you call him," she said. "His phone is always on."

Flynn remembers working with Bryan as a deputy attorney general in 1990.

"He was considered by myself and everyone who worked with him as a guy with an amazing intellect," Flynn said.

Flynn was at New Jersey Manufacturers during what is perhaps Bryan's most notable career achievement, his role in stabilizing the auto insurance industry in 2003.

Before the reforms, New Jersey "was just a terrible market to be in if you were an auto insurer," Bryan said.

Two of the state's biggest insurers, State Farm and AIG, were about to leave the state.

As acting commissioner, Bryan helped develop a series of successful legislative changes aimed at keeping insurers in the state and attracting new ones.

What lies ahead for Bryan after June 30, his last day, is to be determined.

"I'm catching up on sleep," said Bryan, who has an interest in etymology and is an expert Scrabble player. "I'm making plans."

In the meantime, he will be training his replacement, Doug Wheeler.

Steven Goldman, New Jersey commissioner of banking and insurance, said that although he has faith in Wheeler, Bryan will be missed.

"He's calm, reasoned, careful, easy to work with," he said. "He's the heart and soul of the department in many ways."