5 Lessons From the Life of David Noble

The founder of American Equity Investment Life worked hard, and smart, to do well

David Noble (Photo: American Equity Investment Life) David Noble (Photo: American Equity Investment Life)

Some business leaders are born in misery and soar to the top through a combination of superhuman brilliance and miraculous force of will.

Some business leaders end up at the top because they start at the top. The only way to emulate them is to go back in time and do a good job of choosing your parents.

David Noble, the founder of American Equity Investment Life Holding Co., started in the middle and made his way into the Iowa Insurance Hall of Fame on the kind of path that other bright, hard-working, mortal human beings might be able to create for themselves.

(Related: FGL Falls After Anbang Withdraws N.Y. Request to Buy Life Insurer)

Noble, 85, who died Sunday, was the son of a cattle farm owner in West Des Moines, Iowa. He entered the insurance industry while working at Farmers Life Insurance Co., in Des Moines. He then left Farmers Life to start another insurer, General United Life, with a colleague, Jack Schroeder.

He later moved to the Statesman Group. In 1995, after the company now known as CNO Financial Group Inc. acquired Statesman, he bought two blocks of in-force business from CNO and formed American Equity, which helped create the modern U.S. indexed annuity market.

The company earned $83 million in 2016 on $2.2 billion in revenue.

Noble worked full-time for American Equity until July 2016. When he died, he was still the company's chairman.

The Iowa Insurance Hall of Fame admitted him as a member in 2004.  

Here's a list of five lessons an observer might draw from his life, based mainly on articles of him that appeared over the years in the Des Moines Register and on his Iowa Insurance Hall of Fame entry.

Path to success (Image: Thinkstock) 

1. Learn math.  

Noble entered the insurance industry through the finance and actuarial department. His ability to work with numbers may have been especially helpful when he later led companies that sold products such as indexed annuities and variable annuities.

2. Look for chances to leap over regulatory barriers.

Back in the 1980s, while leading Statesman, Noble knew that people needed retirement savings products, and that many people were thinking hardest about retirement savings products while visiting their banks.

Noble had Statesman acquire savings institutions at a time when the idea of an insurance company having any kind of involvement with banking was considered off-limits.

3. Pay attention to customer service.

Noble was famous for borrowing other people's cell phones to call American Equity and prove that a caller would really reach a live human within 120 seconds.

4. Be willing to go to court.

Bill Clinton's thrift regulators seized one of Statesman's thrifts back in 1990.

Noble argued that that the seizure was an outrageous breach of contract. He took that argument to the Supreme Court, and, in July 1996, he won.

5. Get involved in advocacy.

In the mid-2000s, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission tried to impose requirements similar to the onerous requirements it imposes on issuers and distributors of variable annuities on the issuers and distributors of indexed annuities.

Noble helped organize and fund the fight against that SEC effort.

Eventually, Congress responded by passing a law classifying indexed annuities as state-regulated insurance products, rather than as SEC-regulated securities.

American Equity was so active in the advocacy effort that it brought Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who helped fight for the indexed annuity status bill, to its headquarters later that year to thank him for his work on the bill.

--- Read Insurance M&A May Continue Amid Some 'Patchy’ Results, S&P Says on ThinkAdvisor.

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