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Crunch time for Bert Collins: North Carolina Mutual's CEO is shrewd. But can he inspire the innovations needed to keep his insurance firm competitive?

Many remember Jackie Robinson as the hero who broke the color barrier in professional baseball. But that's not what left a lifelong impression on a teenage Bert Collins. At the pinnacle of his power in the late forties, Robinson came to Collins' tiny, rural segregated high school in Austin, Texas. Discussing his triumph over adversity, Robinson stressed the importance of education, hard work and perseverance. inspired by Robinson's message, Collins has taken his own long journey from that small Texas town to the elite ranks of the top of his profession as president and CEO of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. (NCM), the nation's largest black-owned insurance firm.

Today, Collins appreciates more than ever the grit and uncompromising faith of the Robinson legacy, now that he faces the most challenging leg of his professional career. The company's lackluster credit ratings, unstable performance and precarious position as a black firm in an increasingly competitive industry, are testing both his creativity and character as an industry leader.

For one thing, unless they are willing to battle head-on with larger, majority-owned competitors, black-owned insurance companies could become obsolete in the next decade. Since 1973, the number of black insurance firms has shrunk from 42 to 23 in 1992. Acquisitions and bankruptcies have provided a one-two punch for an industry staggering from economic setbacks in the black community. Some companies have gone bankrupt, while others were bought by whites.

Collins' formidable predecessor in the CEO's office, William J. Kennedy III, best sums up the challenge: "I am not optimistic about the future of the insurance business as a whole. Most of the large companies are diversifying [their financial services and products] as fast as they can. If some of the black companies don't get into diversification, they are going to have a hard time just writing insurance."

Collins' performance also must measure up to the daunting 96-year-old entrepreneurial legacy of NCM. A perennial No. 1 on the BLACK ENTERPRISE Insurance List, NCM is a bulwark among black-owned businesses and one of the most important business institutions in Durham, N.C., a city nationally recognized as the most enduring example of black economic progress. Historically, the company has maintained a high-profile public image as a pathbreaker - with its own history of bold businessmen at the helm.

But Collins, a manager known for his soft-spoken intelligence, steady temperament, and focused style, has already brought his own quiet flair to a company whiplashed in recent years by an unstable business environment. From the start of his tenure as CEO in 1990, he has had to prove himself. When it was Collins who stepped into the big shoes of the larger-than-life CEO Kennedy, many were surprised by his rise to the top. Outsiders had expected Maceo K. Sloan, the head of the firm's asset management subsidiary, NCM Capital Management Group Inc., to become heir to the throne. Both Kennedy and Sloan are descendants of the company's founders, whereas Collins is not.

Collins also shifted the emphasis at the firm, moving it away from diversification of products - the favored course of his predecessors - and toward offering less expansive, back-to-basics insurance policies. Collins witnessed NCM's failed foray into selling health-care insurance. Basically, it got in too fast, without laying the proper groundwork. Clearly, the methodical Collins is not likely to make that kind of mistake, but how much risk is he willing to take?

He took the helm three years ago at a low ebb in NCM fortunes: Operating income was a negative $1.616 million, while net income a negative $819,745 by the end of 1990. The company was also suffering from the stigma of mediocre credit ratings by the leading insurance rating agencies. Meanwhile, a slow economy and flagging life insurance policy sales were further endangering NCM's financial health.

To stabilize the situation, Collins declared war on expenses. Trimming the sales force down from 325 to 240, NCM reaped the savings from the early retirement of 50 employees (including Kennedy) in 1990. These cuts, however, had both a positive and negative impact. On the plus side, general expenses fell by $2 million to $14.109 million and commissions paid to salespeople declined by $4 million since 1991. Of course, decreasing commissions mean fewer policies were sold and less premium income collected.

Another change was the 1991 sale of NCM Capital Management, an independent asset management firm. Its chief investment officer, Maceo Sloan, and 12 of his colleagues went with the firm to Minneapolis-based IDS Advisory Group. IDS paid NCM an estimated $7 million for the then four-year-old asset management firm. The upshot was an estimated $1 million profit for NCM. The company invested the money in a new training facility for new sales personnel and created an on-line computer system linking the 26 district offices to 11 states and the District of Columbia.

Unfortunately, extraordinary sales, like that of NCM Capital, do not occur annually. While 1991 net income, buoyed by the sale, soared to $4.049 million, it fell back to $713,036 one year later.

With housekeeping done, Collins has set NCM's sights toward the creation of new insurance products and markets. His goal: to attract clients outside NCM's historic market niche of lower- and working-class customers. A study by the firm "found that the people who know North Carolina Mutual are the 35- to 55-year-olds," says Collins. "The 18- to 35-year-olds don't know a lot about us." It is that market of post-segregation, better educated, middle class consumers - as well as potential employees - which NCM must now bring into its fold.

"Bert is a highly intelligent person,"says Kennedy, who describes Collins as his protege. "He has all the academic qualifications, including an MBA in finance and a law degree. NCM is probably the best run company among black financial institutions." However, Kennedy adds, "he is more a CPA than a general manager."

That may be the old guard talking now that the new guard is holding the reins. Three years into the Collins regime, there are unmistakable signs that his quiet, systematic, determined approach is bringing results. "I used to consider myself an accountant," muses Collins. "I thought numbers were everything. I used to see through numbers; now I see through people."

If Collins has doubters, well then so did the tortoise in his race with the hare. Friends and colleagues describe him as the kind of guy who rolls up his sleeves and works beyond the call of duty to do what needs to be done. First he lays the foundation, then he builds on it. "If anybody had ever said I would become president 26 years ago," Collins reflects, "I wouldn't have believed them." There's something to be said for being a workhorse.

He has always been steadfast and determined. Encouraged by his mother and aunt to go to college, Collins left the 1,000 acres that his grandfather had bought to grow cotton in the 1800s, and set off for Huston-Tillotson College in Austin. After earning an MBA degree at the University of Detroit, he married the former Carolyn Porter. He started law classes while waiting to take his CPA exam in Detroit, and continued classes after starting to work for Motor City's only black CPA firm, Austin, Washington and Davenport. A friend took him to NCM on a casual visit during a vacation to Durham in 1967 and the company promptly recruited the personable, slightly built man. The 33-year-old Collins accepted the administrative assistant's job, becoming NCM's first resident CPA. His industriousness quickly gained him renown, even in a town already abounding in enterprising blacks. Determined to complete his law training, Collins took a class at eight in the morning before coming to work, then another one during his lunch hour. Gratefully, he remembers NCM allowed him to make up any work time lost by coming in on Saturdays. In 1970, he not only earned his law degree (at North Carolina Central), but also finished University of North Carolina's Young Executive Program in the same year. Fellow board member R. Edward Steward, executive director of UDI Community Development Corp., a nonprofit community organization, has known him since 1967. He admires Collins' grit in going to law school full-time while working full-time and being the father of three kids. "He even passed the bar on the first try," says Stewart. "That indicates strength."

Over his 26 years at NCM, Collins has been regarded as a thoughtful, methodical consensus builder, qualities especially called into play when the 68-year-old William Kennedy stepped down after 18 years as CEO. The board of directors elected Collins to replace him, although rumors say he won by marshalling forces to defeat a bid by Kennedy's nephew, Maceo K. Sloan.

Now, Collins' primary objective is to raise earnings. One way is to slowly create a better educated and more efficient sales staff, he claims. Toward this end, all NCM sales staff members are sent to the Durham headquarters for a one-week training session, which includes learning to use the new computer system.

Aware that better technology and efficiency alone aren't enough, Collins says the tough part is for NCM to capture new clients, who nowadays have many more options. To help reach that goal, Collins recently unveiled a plan that some might call visionary.

This three-pronged sales plan is designed to build on NCM's historic links with African-American achievers. The Heritage Plan, according to Collins, will focus on selling life insurance to the staff, graduates and families connected to the nation's historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Collins, who has served as the chairman of his alma mater North Carolina Central board of trustees, says policyholders can purchase insurance with face values between $50,000 and $1 million. But the goal is not to simply secure the financial future of the policyholders. It is also to provide HBCUs, or the charitable institution of an insuree's choice, with a portion of the claim upon the death of the insured.

This is just one sign that this "cost-cutter," "profitseeker," "tough-but-fair" manager wants the business to survive and thrive but not just for the bottom line. He believes that black-owned businesses can still make a difference for black people, and he puts that faith into action. Students come from all parts of the country to walk through the NCM offices. "It gives them an opportunity to see blacks running an institution," Collins says "to see that we can be as successful as anybody else." It's that confidence and inspiration that Robinson gave Collins so many years ago that Collins wants to share with young people. "Particularly young blacks, "he says, "to know they can strive to be whatever they want to be."

Spurred by this concern, Collins organized some of his fraternity colleagues to adopt a school and work with kids from single-parent homes. He meets with a sixth-grader from Fayetteville Street School at least once a week, and considers him "part of my family."

Hands atop the polished surface of his desk from his office on the top floor of the NCM Building, Collins can smile in the face of his own apprehensions and maybe even conjure up an innovative vision or two... "You may never know the kind of influence you have," he says, "but you may make some difference in someone's life."

Case in point. Recently, Collins spoke to a black teen group about meeting life's challenges. Afterwards, a boy was seen pointing up to the 12th floor of the NCM Building, telling his mom excitedly, "I was up there in Collins' office!"

The spirit of Jackie Robinson carries on.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:McCoy, Frank
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Biography
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Words:1934
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