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Century-Old Black Insurer Looks Ahead

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Selling to African-Americans was not an issue of much concern to insurance companies at the end of the 19th century. In fact, quite the opposite was the case. So, black pioneers set out to start their own such enterprise in a challenging climate.

Today, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, founded in 1898, is moving to take its place in the mainstream, all the while revering the role it plays in black history.

Chief Executive Officer James Speed took over the reins nearly two years ago and hopes to cement the transition of the Durham, N.C.-based insurer from one offering small face policies to one that markets more sophisticated and higher priced items.

“For a long time African-Americans could not get any insurance from any place other than the African-American companies,” Speed says.

That unique role through the first half of the 20th century reinforced the commitment on the part of the company to invest in the community, not only with dollars but with time and effort of NCM agents.

“That is the North Carolina Mutual I grew up with. In fact, the North Carolina Mutual agent was one of my mentors. He was a deacon at our church,” Speed says. “All the agents were well thought of. They wore neckties and such. It was a whole different era.”

But that was then, and this is now.

“If you talk to someone who is 45 or older, they know the company; they can remember when they were a child when North Carolina Mutual came by your home to collect insurance,” he says.

But reminding those potential customers that just because home service has for the most part vanished doesn’t mean the company has is an important challenge. “We have to reach them a different way because we are not going to their homes and we have to change their image of who North Carolina Mutual is so that they don’t think we are not progressive,” he says.

Speed hopes the younger customers will appreciate not only NCM’s heritage but also the fact “we can offer anything that MetLife or Prudential has to offer.”

The company sells through both a captive and independent agency force with the majority of the individual business sold by captive agents.

Speed says that for the past several years the company has ventured into the commercial arena selling group life, dental, and short-term and long-term disability.

“As we move into the mainstream we have a couple of challenges in branding our image as to who we are today,” he says. “So, we will leverage that rich history that we are a strong sound financial institution.”

But such change does not come without cost. “There are growing pains and of course a lot of investment,” Speed says. “You don’t always get it right.”

Speed says there is not a unique “silver bullet” out there to gain the trust and business of the African-American community.

As African-Americans move from segregated areas to live in more diverse areas “you just can’t go to the neighborhood any more and find only African-Americans.”

Alliances with black sororities and fraternities help to fill that gap for NCM along with educational and religious organizations. “We’ll attend some of their national and regional meetings to let them know we are out there,” he says.

From its humble beginnings in Durham where it helped spur development of the so-called “Black Wall Street,” NCM grew to a company that today has $10 billion of insurance in force and $27 million in reserves and surplus.

But that is only the beginning for a company facing challenges of the new century.

Caption for pic of Speed

North Carolina Mutual Life CEO James Speed hopes to cement the transition of the insurer from one offering small face policies to one that markets more sophisticated and higher priced items.

Caption for founders

The founders of North Carolina Mutual Life, which has been serving the black community since 1898.