Unbeatable Combination

By merging a venerable insurer, a thriving asset manager, and a revitalized investment bank, Atlanta Life Financial Group has become the industry's latest powerhouse

Ronald D. Brown greets the congregation of a dozen or so senior managers. With a flip chart and colored markers, he discusses the importance of creativity in today’s business climate. “The status quo isn’t working,” he asserts, his calm instructive tone more reminiscent of an Ivy League professor than an executive. “Creative solutions to problems and identifying opportunities are imperative.”

Using the flip chart to illustrate his points, the president and CEO of Atlanta Life Financial Group, the holding company of one of the oldest black insurers and two BE 100S financial services firms, lists elements critical to producing creativity — preparation, incubation, insight, and verification. It takes, he says, doing one’s due diligence with regard to a concept, digesting the findings, projecting the best way to execute, and finally determining if it’s suitable, feasible, and doable. He then jots down the barriers to such novel thinking: fear, habit, prejudice, and inertia. In the financial services game, with its ever-changing rules, identifying winning opportunities is a must. “The way we were successful in the last three to four years isn’t how we’ll be successful in the next three to four years,” Brown points out.

His analysis is accurate and evident as the company’s senior managers give updates on their respective divisions. Financial services companies are pulling back on their corporate issuances in light of the implosion of Bear Stearns brought on by its toxic mortgage portfolio — an event that could have an impact on the company’s corporate bond underwriting business for months to come. Then there’s the question of how lower interest rates and the subprime mess will affect their other commercial activities. The old rules of business no longer apply, and the new ones demand creative thinking, decision making, and execution.

Brown continues with a story about Walt Disney. The legendary entrepreneur had learned that revenues at the company’s theme park dropped precipitously every time it rained. Attendees got wet and went home. Not to be foiled by bad weather, Disney created a rainy attraction where families could see a fireworks show and their favorite characters on parade during inclement weather. Visitors would pay to line up for the festive event, huddling under newly erected shelters or using umbrellas and ponchos they purchased. Brown cites Disney’s ingenuity as a classic case of turning a challenge into a revenue-generating opportunity.

As the blueprint for success in corporate America has changed, so has Atlanta Life. The century-old institution has evolved from a door-to-door seller of insurance policies to a comprehensive financial services holding company that is not only involved in reinsurance but controls fast-growing Atlanta Life Investment Advisors Inc. (No. 15 on the BE ASSET MANAGERS list with $1.1 billion in assets under management) and Jackson Securities (No. 8 on the BE INVESTMENT BANKS list with $4.8 billion in senior-managed issues), the black-owned investment banking firm that it acquired last year. As a result of its stellar growth, top-notch leadership, and prime example of a black-on-black business partnership, BLACK ENTERPRISE has named Atlanta Life Financial

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