Before the tax advantages, before the investment elements, before a single fancy rider had been dreamed up, the need for life insurance was recognized and honored. This is a product that can be traced all the way back to ancient Rome, where military leaders established guilds called “benevolent societies” to cover funeral expenses and living costs for the families of deceased members. From these simple roots, the tool has blossomed into a complex product line that protects consumers from any number of financial risks.
See also: A brief history of life insurance
Today’s life insurance carriers sell hundreds of products, serve millions of clients and bring in billions in revenue. But many of them got their start as small family companies, built from the ground up by smart businesspeople committed to filling a specific market need. As we look ahead to Life Insurance Awareness Month, we share the inspiring stories of 10 of today’s most prominent life insurers.
American Family Life Insurance Company of Columbus was born on November 17, 1955. Brothers John, Paul and Bill Amos entered the life insurance market with 16 employees and 60 agents. After their first year of operation, they had over 6,400 policyholders and $388,000 in assets. This early success allowed them to expand into a new market: In 1958, they pioneered cancer insurance to help ease the financial burden faced by cancer victims and their families.
By 1970, the company had changed its name to American Family Life Assurance Company of Columbus, and was licensed in 37 states. In 1974, Aflac first ventured into international sales, becoming the third U.S. insurer to set up shop in Japan. That same year, Aflac was listed on the New York Stock Exchange, opening at $7.25 per share.
Image: The real, live Aflac Duck takes a first look at the red carpet as he celebrates the company’s debut as an official partner of The GRAMMY®s. (Eric Reed/AP Images for Aflac)
As the 42nd largest public company in the world, American International Group (AIG) is most often associated with its corporate headquarters in New York City. But the company first opened its doors 7,500 miles away in Shanghai. In 1919, American Cornelius Vander Starr started a two-room general insurance agency in the maritime city, called American Asiatic Underwriters. Two years later, Starr added a life insurance operation; six years later, he opened branches in Hong Kong, Vietnam and the Philippines. In 1926, the firm set up an outpost in New York, which was established as the world headquarters in 1939. The company continued to expand overseas and, in 1967, all operations were collected under the umbrella organization American International Group, Inc.
Image: People pass the AIG building, in New York, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Success came almost overnight for the Equitable Life Assurance Society of America, founded in 1859 by Henry Hyde. By the time the insurer turned 10, it was writing more new business than any other company in the world. Luxe accommodations followed: Equitable’s corporate headquarters in Manhattan was the first office building to use steam elevators; by 1879, it occupied the tallest office building in the world at the time.
From a product standpoint, Equitable was also a trailblazer. By the early 1880s, the company began marketing the first joint and survivor annuity, and established the practice of paying death claims immediately. In 1976, it pioneered the sale of variable life insurance products.
In 1992, with the sale of a major stake of company shares to French insurer AXA Group, Equitable converted from a mutual to a stock company and became a member of the Global AXA Group.
Image: Axa insurance company CEO Henri de Castries poses after the presentation of the group’s 2008 full year results, in Paris Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
It seems fitting that Delmonico’s, a legend in the Manhattan dining scene, was also the setting for the founding of one of the legendary players in the insurance world. In 1860, 21 prominent German-American businessmen gathered there to build the Germania Life Insurance Company of America. Civil rights lawyer Hugo Wesendonck led the group, whose original business model was to cover the growing wave of German immigrants arriving in the United States. In its early years, the firm kept strong ties to its German heritage and, in 1868, became the first U.S. insurance company to start an agency in Europe. The company’s European presence grew steadily until World War I, when it was forced to exit the market. Rebranding soon followed: In 1918, the company changed its name to Guardian Life Insurance Company of America.
Image: The Germania Life Insurance Company Building, now the W Union Square Hotel. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Lincoln National rose to join the ranks of elite insurers after the life insurance boom of the mid-19th century, conceived by a diverse and well-connected group of founders. On June 12, 1905, the company opened for business on the second floor of a bank in Fort Wayne, Indiana, backed by a collective of bankers, attorneys, wholesalers, hoteliers, manufacturers, physicians and brokers. Perry Randall, a Fort Wayne attorney, proposed the name “Lincoln” as a symbol of integrity.
The name became a powerful part of the company’s early branding and community outreach. Two months after the company’s launch, Robert Todd Lincoln provided a photograph of his father and authorized its use for company marketing efforts. In 1928, Dr. Louis A. Warren, a Lincoln scholar, joined the Lincoln National staff; that same year, the company opened the Lincoln Historical Research Foundation, home to one of the largest book collections about the late president in the United States.
In its first decades of operation, the company grew through a number of acquisitions, including Michigan State Life in 1913, Pioneer Life in 1917 and the Reliance Life Insurance Company of Pittsburgh in 1951.