Building On A Brand
Atlanta Life Financial Group, which celebrated its 100th year in business in 2005, was founded by Alonzo Herndon, a former slave who used earnings from his successful barber shop to purchase The Atlanta Benevolent and Protective Association for $140.
In its early days, the company sold burial insurance; today Atlanta Life, which is still privately owned, has $210 million in assets and more than $16 billion of life insurance in force.
Editor Susan Percy talked to President and CEO Ronald D. Brown, a Morehouse graduate who took over in 2004 as the company’s sixth president, in the Atlanta Life headquarters at Herndon Plaza on Auburn Avenue, historically the epicenter of the city’s black business and culture. Here are highlights from that interview.
GT: I’d like to hear about your decision to come aboard as CEO of Atlanta Life.
Brown: It was one of those decisions that, candidly, was done out of a labor of love. I had been on the board of this company for about three years when my fellow directors said, “You know what, you have some pretty good ideas. You’ve brought some pretty good ideas as to what the company could be, going forward, and we’d like to ask you to lead the company into the future for us.” We were coming up on the centennial celebration, so it was a time of reflection for everybody. People were thinking what will that next 100 years look like and what should the person look like who’s going to lead it into the next hundred years. For some reason, they decided that was me. I went home and had a very serious conversation with my wife about actually going to work again on a daily basis. I was semi-retired when the opportunity presented itself.
GT: Was it daunting to take on a company with a 100 year history – and such a strong significance for the black community?
Brown: It was more a sense of pride that this was one of those rare opportunities in life to make a difference in something that already had achieved iconic stature. I can remember people talking about Atlanta Life when I was a child. To actually be asked to lead it was a very humbling experience. Yet at the same time it was the kind of challenge where you say not only is that something I want to do, but I want to do it well. The wheels started turning around: How can you make sure that all the blood, sweat and tears that all the other people had put in to get you to the point of surviving for 100 years … that you do your part so that gets it ready for the next 100? So it wasn’t so much daunting as it was humbling. When you talk about being the sixth president in 100 years – that’s rare air.
GT: What were the strengths you saw when you came to the company?
Brown: One of the most incredible things about Atlanta Life is its actual brand. That brand has not only existed for 100 years but it has stood as a strong brand, and people associate the brand with integrity and also with caring – and associate it with what I have now dubbed the double bottom line. Most people understand the profit bottom line. But I also believe there is a real social bottom line. Atlanta Life has always been regarded as [a company for which] the social and community aspects are very important. One of the things that really attracted me to this opportunity was the ability to not just do something well, as far as running the company, but to do good also. There is a legacy that had been built around this company not just surviving for 100 years, but thriving. This company founded by a former slave has lasted through the great Depression, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, the whole civil rights movement – and is still standing.
GT: What were some of the problems you needed to direct attention to?
Brown: Whenever you take on any new business, you want to look at whether or not the business is actually aligned with the marketplace and what people are doing today. There was the point in time when all of us were living in different worlds [when] somebody coming into your home and sitting down to talk to you about your financial future and your insurance policies was a big deal. People actually did recognize value in having that. That is no longer the case. A series of things had changed – including how people bought the primary product that Atlanta Life had been built on – individual life insurance policies. That paradigm shift was taking place everywhere, not just inside Atlanta Life. There needed to be a faster recognition of exactly what was happening in the marketplace and why exactly.
GT: Could you speak to those changes in the marketplace?
Brown: One of the biggest things was the ascension of group life insurance policies, where people were buying insurance at work. In years past, that was not the case. People still went out and shopped for their own individual life insurance.
GT: The company has done some realigning and restructuring in recent years.
Brown: There was the understanding that we really needed to be a financial services company. One of the biggest things was [creating] the Atlanta Life Investment Advisors – that is our extremely fast-growing assets management business where we actually manage and invest other people’s money.
GT: How is the company set up now?
Brown: Under the Atlanta Life Financial Group umbrella you have two distinct companies. One is the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, which is where all our group insurance and group re-insurance business resides, along with the pre-need business. The Atlanta Life Investment Advisors is the assets management business.
GT: What’s the pre-need business?
Brown: Pre-need is [built] around funeral arrangements, burial plots. If you think back to how the company started years ago, it was around burial insurance. You actually could pay for your own funeral over a period of time and have it financed via Atlanta Life. [Now it’s] updated from the standpoint of how it’s being done and the financial tools to allow it to happen. Today that coverage is [arranged] with a pre-need counselor inside the actual funeral home. The financing is then handled by Atlanta Life.
GT: As the baby boomers age, is life insurance itself a tougher sell?
Brown: You’d be surprised. Some of it is cultural. There is a select group of people that actually go out and consciously take out an insurance policy on their grandparents because it is the best investment vehicle they can possibly have at that point in time, knowing that the death benefits would then accrue to the grandchildren. There are certain people who view life insurance as one of the primary vehicles for handling their risks in life. There are so many additional instruments now available that you could tailor life insurance almost to be anything you want it to be. For some people who have an aversion to the stock market, being in the insurance annuity world is a safer feel for them. The demographics around people who actually invest in insurance are probably much broader than conventional wisdom would say. Some people are using it as a form of investment vehicle; some people are using it as a retirement opportunity or looking at it as a way to offset the savings that they didn’t do. I think what you’re starting to see now is that people are understanding that insurance is another financial tool.
GT: What’s ahead for Atlanta Life?
Brown: I’m looking at it from the standpoint of utilizing everything that was done for the first 100 years – all the integrity, the building of the brand itself and using that as the platform to launch into the types of financial services and offerings that people will need not just today but in the future. And some of those products and services haven’t been invented yet. But Atlanta Life has stepped up to take what I believe is its rightful place as a leader in how financial services get delivered to a broad spectrum of the marketplace. I don’t know if anybody would have looked at Atlanta Life 100 years ago or, for that matter, 15 years ago and said that our customer list would actually read like a Who’s Who from the Fortune 500. There has been a significant swing or shift in who Atlanta Life provides services to, yet we have not forgotten where we came from.
GT: Atlanta Life has an impressive collection of African-American art. How did that come about?
Brown: It’s a tremendous source of pride. It was started out of necessity. There were so many African-American artists who could not get their work shown in the standard places that other artists could. Atlanta Life stepped up said we will provide the platform, the showcase. Artists from all over the country and overseas came to show their work here at Atlanta Life. Some of the very early art programs that preceded what we now call the National Black Arts Festival stemmed from what took place here at Atlanta Life. There were contests, and well-known curators would come in and judge. Previous administrations recognized how important that was and actually went about collecting that art.