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Fifty years of Independent Life - Jacksonville Florida

George Cook Coburn, Jacob Franklin Bryan II, James Henry Gooding,
Jacksonville , Fl 
Claybourne Garland Snead, John Samuel Young,James Arthur Howard
Harry Hill Lyon .  Jacksonville Florida

There is an old Chinese proverb to the effect that "when I tow someone else to shore, I get there, also." The people of Independent Life have been "getting to shore, also" in just that way, for almost 50 years. Yes, in just five months, our company will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. Of the seven men who founded Independent Life on March 2, 1920, only one, Harry H. Lyon, is still living to witness this anniversary, but all would be proud of what has been accomplished in those 50 years.

It is an interesting commentary, considering the prominence of Independent Life in the present economy of Jacksonville and Florida, that none of these founders was from Florida. George C. Cobourn was from Virginia, my father, Jacob F. Bryan, II, was from South Carolina as was J. H. Gooding. Claibourne G. Snead and J. Arthur Howard were from Georgia, and John S. Young and Harry H. Lyon were from Tennessee. For one reason or another, however, they were all living in Jacksonville when this story of Independent Life began.

My own father's case is certainly typical. Papa's mother at his birth had determined that after losing three young sons to diphtheria before the days of the tracheotomy he should be a doctor and sent him to a school in Charleston with the unlikely name of Dr. Porter's School for Young Gentlemen Who Wish to Pursue the Art of Medicine, which is now Porter Military Academy. And he did study for two and a half years until it came to the problem of working on a cadaver. At that point he decided he was not cut out to be a doctor. He took what money he had and bought a railroad ticket to the farthest point it would buy. That happened to be Jacksonville.

All seven of the founders were insurance men. If my recollection is correct they worked at various times for Southern Life, Peninsular Life and Life and Casualty. They had very simple reasons for wanting to form their own company. It was America and it was America when it was not shameful for a man to want to make his mark in the economic world, to stake out a place for himself and his family, to be his own boss, to work for himself and not someone else, to make it on his own. It was not an easy decision for any of them. As I recall, my father in 1920 was earning around $85 a week working for another company as superintendent. Today that does not sound like much, but in 1920 it was a comfortable living even for a man with six children. With six children you do not easily give up such security for the uncertain rewards of starting out on your own.

In 1920 it was possible under Florida law to start a life insurance company with $10,000 capital. Our seven founders raised this sum—not an easy task by any means: Homes were mortgaged, friends were called upon, every available source was tapped. The charter was applied for in January 1920 and was issued the following March 1 and the Company went into business.

If I may digress at this point I would like to say that I have for many years opposed efforts by the legislature to raise the capital requirements for starting new life insurance companies to amounts that the little man cannot raise. If Independent could make a go of it with no more than $10,000—and other large and successful life companies have made the grade with beginnings just as modest—then it can still be done. The success of a business depends on the sound judgment of those that run it— men who can properly utilize the resources they have. In the life insurance business, you can overextend yourself and go broke with $10 million of capital just as easily as you can with ten thousand if you are not watching what you are doing.

And, of course, that was why the Independent succeeded. We were not out to sell large policies—our first policies had modest death benefits—$75. In 1920, $75 was a lot of money to a lot of people. There was a vast market of people who had no insurance at all and no resources to buy but modest amounts. We met a need. We offered a product that reached the lowest budget with a weekly premium. When a salesman is selling something that is really needed by his prospective purchasers he is motivated not just by the commissions he earns. The feeling that he is doing useful work, helping the people he is selling to, generates enthusiasm and a sense of purpose.

Make no mistake about it: There is no substitute for life insurance. It has often been said and it is certainly true that life insurance is the only way a man can create an instant estate. This is just as true of the poor as well as of the well-to-do. And life insurance is the most widespread form of saving in America. Yes, we are a service industry and proud of the contributions that service has made to our free enterprise system through promoting security of the family and the habit of thrift.

Those early years of the Company were not easy ones, as I can very well remember. I was nineteen, I had worked at various selling jobs while in school and after finishing school, when one day my father said "Jake, when are you going to get some sense in your head and come to work at Independent." My answer was "Monday morning" and so I did, as an agent, just seven years after the Company was founded. I was the first son of a founder to come to work for the Company. And I had to sueceed, not only because the Company could not afford anyone on the payroll who was not successful, but because I had to set the example which would be followed by other sons who came along. And if I had to set an example, I had an example to follow, my own father. Papa was a man of quiet temperament, but in one respect he had a no nonsense attitude. In his scheme of things, hard work was not just necessary to support a large family, it was positively a virtue.

Indeed, the other founders also thought the same way. In the early days all of them worked as agents for the Company in addition to their other duties. Mr. Cobourn, our first president, acted as a general manager. In the beginning the home office was two rooms on the second floor of a building at the corner of Duval and Main Streets in Jacksonville.

I remember Mr. Cobourn very well. He was a frugal man. Every sheet of paper was used on both sides and no pencil was thrown away until it was worn down to a stub. When new or revised policies were suggested, Mr. Cobourn was known to vote no simply because we still had a stock of the old ones on hand— the paper could not be wasted. I remember Mr. Cobourn pacing the floor, hands behind his back, worried because we had received two death claims in a single week. Actually both claims only amounted to $200 and the company had ample funds in the bank. But such frugality was needed in the fledgling company and certainly paid off. At the end of the first year, insurance in force was $708,000. We then had three girls working in the office and fourteen agents in the field in addition to the founders. Needing larger quarters, the Company moved its home office to the Mutual Life Building at Main and Forsyth Streets where it occupied a half floor.

In 1932 Mr. Cobourn died and my father succeeded him as president. In those twelve years under Mr. Cobourn, insurance in force had grown to $3,853,000 and the Company was not only operating in Jacksonville, but also in Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and Daytona. Mr. Lyon was in charge of operations in Daytona and Mr. Young in Orlando. Mr. Howard was in charge of Miami. Mr. Howard later would take over our operations in Georgia and build it to the second largest division of the Company.

In these booming and dynamic times, it may not sound like much for a life company to end up its first twelve years with only $3,853,000 of life insurance in force. But it must be remembered that the initial capitalization of the Company was only $10,000, and a life insurance company can only grow within its means. Over the early years the founders did in fact contribute more capital. However, until the Company made its first public offering in 1965, its entire paid in capital and surplus was only some $50,000. The rest of the $18,600,000 of capital and surplus that the Company's books showed in 1965 represented retained earnings and internal growth. This enormous capital appreciation, not unique in our economy, is a striking example of the vital potential for growth that is built into our fine, capitalistic economy.

Mr. Cobourn died in 1932. That was during the great Depression which was followed by the war, a time not easy for anyone including Independent Life. 

During those years, my father was president, succeeded by Mr. Gooding. Incidentally Mr. Gooding was a double first cousin of my father who was persuaded to move from South Carolina to Jacksonville by my father. They did not call Jacksonville the bold new city in those days, but it must have been something like that the way it attracted settlers

My father died in 1939, still a comparatively young man of 58. He could only have guessed at the great future of the Company that he and the others had worked so hard to establish.

Even during those difficult Depression years, the Company continued to grow. In 1934 the home office was moved to the Rogers Building and only three years later larger quarters were needed again and we moved to the Jenks Building. This was originally the old Chamber of Commerce Building. It seems strange in this day of almost universal air-conditioning that theJenks Building in those comparatively recent times was the first fully air-conditioned office building in Jacksonville.

In 1942 Claibourne G. Snead became president. Mr. Snead believed in growth. In his 15-year administration the Independent became the largest insurance company in the world writing only weekly premium insurance. Just a few days before he died we were able to report to him that he had reached his long sought goal—the Company's weekly debit, that is weekly premium income, had reached $1,000,000—$52,000,000 a year.

Mr. Snead was a portly man. Portly is a polite description: he loved to eat and although none of us knew what he weighed, it was in excess of 300 pounds. When he stepped on a scale it would not only go to the limit; it would do so with a clang. He was not sensitive about his weight, in fact he was proud of it. We used to joke with him that the only way to weigh him was to drive a car—without him—onto one of those truck weighing scales by the highway, weigh it, and then have Mr. Snead climb in. I once had to introduce Mr. Snead at a meeting and made a point that we weren't the biggest company in the world, but we certainly had the biggest president. The audience roared with laughter and so did he. Mr. Snead not only loved to eat, but he could eat anything without suffering any discomfort. It was a standing joke between us that I wanted his stomach when he was through with it; there are a lot of things my stomach will not tolerate.

But portly or not, Mr. Snead got around. He loved to travel, to get out and meet the men in the field, the agency force that sold the insurance that made the Company grow. That is a tradition at Independent Life: Our highest ranking officers are accessible to all of our employees. Even today, when our agency force is nearly five thousand people, I will interrupt whatever I am doing to meet and chat a while with any agent who visits the home office. We have a company cafeteria in our home office, but we do not have an executive dining room. Our officers go through the cafeteria line along with everyone else and sit down and eat with our employees. It gives them an opportunity to know the people they are working for in an environment that isn't just business and makes for friendly, easy employee relations. Nor is this accessibility just a matter of policy. It is a Christian virtue to respect the dignity of any man, no matter what his station in life.

It was during Mr. Snead's tenure of office that the Company expanded outside of Florida, first into Georgia, then into Alabama, and then into South Carolina—a process that has continued until the Company now operates in 14 states and has licenses to start doing business in another 12.

In 1945, the Company bought the West Building at the corner of Bay and Laura Streets for a home office for $125,000. This five-story building was the first and for a time the tallest of the buildings erected following the fire that laid waste to most of downtown Jacksonville in 1901. We completely refurbished the building and put in air conditioning, but, in no time, we had desks in the halls and it became obvious we would have to build our own building for our future needs. It is evidence of the forward thinking of the then aging founders that the important assignment of planning and designing such a building was turned over to a committee of three of their sons, myself as chairman, Charles A. Snead and Harry H. Lyon, Jr. Sadly, Harry, a brilliant young man was to die of leukemia shortly after ground was broken.

The committee selected a site on the east side of Julia Street between Duval and Church Streets. The directors had in mind a six-story building, the building committee recommended a ten-story building and after many conferences with the architect and the board we actually decided on a 19-story tower. Such a large building required an investment substantially more than any of us had ever contemplated. But events proved that the decision was not a rash one. We had made studies projecting the Company's growth for the next 25 years based on the experience of the preceding ten. It is rather satisfying to me to recall that 5 years after our new home office building was opened we had surpassed the space requirement projected for the 25 years. The building was completed in 1955, a striking addition to the skyline of Jacksonville and a forerunner of a number of other skyscrapers to be built. At first we occupied just five floors, in i960 we occupied nine floors and today we fill the building and are bursting at the seams. Seeing the handwriting on the wall we have in recent years acquired almost all of the block in Jacksonville bounded by Bay, Main, Water, and Julia Streets with a commanding view of the St. John's River, for a new home for our operations.

Mr. Snead died on January 5, 1957, at the age of 82. I was then executive vice president and succeeded to the presidency. I was the first president who was not a founder but a member of the second generation. One of my first problems was to meet a felt but unexpressed fear on the part of a lot of old-timers in the Company that a new generation, like a new broom, was going to sweep clean. My first few months I traveled extensively over the Company's operating territory to meet and talk with the field force with the express purpose of allaying that fear. Changes there certainly would be, for change was nothing new to Independent's management, but change to me certainly did not mean putting a lot of faithful old-timers out to pasture and it was important that they know this. There was in fact a new generation running the Company. By the time I became president the founders had all left the scene.

Mr. Howard died that very year and both the survivors, Mr. Young and Mr. Lyon had retired. Just as they had hoped, their children had taken over running the Company. Almost all of them had been agents in the field and had worked their way up from the bottom and this long training had much to do with the future success of the Company. Wilford C. Lyon, James A. Stanley and G. Howard Bryan were respectively first, second and third vice presidents. C. A. Snead was secretary-treasurer, J. Alex Howard, Burton C. Bryan, William A. Howard, and Richard M. Lyon were vice presidents, and all of them, together with Mrs. Lucy B. Gooding, Mrs. Grace D. Cobourn, Mrs. Virginia Young Hendry, and Cecil B. Carroll, a vice president and director of agencies, made up the board of directors. Later James C. Craig joined us as vice president for public relations. This board has remained unchanged ever since, except that Mrs. Co-bourn has since died and George M. Baldwin, a vice president, has replaced her. With the exception of the three ladies who represented substantial ownership interests not otherwise participating in management, all of these directors were life-time employees of the Company, as well as owners of the Company. This community of interest of the board members, and the fact that all have worked together for so many years has given Independent Life a management team which is remarkably free from conflicts. There are, of course, differences of opinion but it is a habit of our board members to resolve differences, to give and take so that any decision arrived at represents a consensus that each member feels that he can live with, even if he personally would decide otherwise. One thing came as a surprise to me when I became president—how many people wanted to speak directly with the president. For instance, one night at 12:30 A.M. the, phone rang and, having three sons off at three different colleges, of course my heart began pounding at the thought that maybe one had been hurt, but when I finally turned on the light and picked up the receiver a female voice asked if this was Jacob F. Bryan, III, president of the Independent Life Insurance Company. I said "yes" and she replied "Pa died this morning and I want to know if he is insured with your company." I counted to ten and then asked his name and where she was calling from. It was Vienna, Georgia—except they call it Vienna.I then asked what time he died and she said, "at 8 o'clock this morning." I asked why she had waited so long to call and she said they were going through his trunk and found a receipt eight years old. So I said, "Lady, I wouldn't know if your father was insured. I have no way of knowing because there are millions insured with us." It must have been an Irish wake because she evidently turned to the people in the room and said, "isn't that the beatinest thing—the president of the company doesn't know who is insured." Finally, I told her to go to our office in Vienna, Georgia, at 8 o'clock the next morning and they would know. She hung up—still amazed that the president didn't know. One of the first problems the new management faced was the question of the future of weekly premium insurance. Certainly, the Company had made an outstanding record in this field. Off and on, over the years, we had discussed expanding our operation into ordinary insurance. Other weekly premium companies who had taken this step had met with mixed success, some did well,some not so well.

John f. Bryan III  Jacksonville florida

We were still rapidly expanding our weekly premium operation. Why risk an enormous capital expenditure in a field where we were inexperienced and the competition from the very biggest companies would be intense? But if you succeed in business you can't just look at today and tomorrow; you have to consider the day after tomorrow and the day after that. Insurance trends were clear. America was becoming an affluent society. The southeast, our very own operating territory once labelled the nation's number one economic problem, had become one of the nation's fastest developing areas. There would be a weekly premium market for the foreseeable future, even a growing one. Indeed, to this day our weekly premium business is still showing a robust and healthy growth. Nevertheless, rising income in the nation and in our own southeast meant that the growth potential of ordinary insurance was far greater. So we put our actuaries to work to get out the rate books and the policies, we hired the people we needed to give us the expertise which our organization lacked, we put up the money, and we were in the ordinary business. We made our full quota of mistakes, but every mistake is a lesson, and I think we learned our lessons. We then had about 3000 agents—weekly premium agents. We tackled the enormous problem of training those 3000 agents to be combination agents—that is agents selling both weekly premium and ordinary insurance. Today everyone of them is just that, a combination agent, and we have tailored insurance policies to the market they work in. We have small policies, big policies, life policies, endowment, term, mortgage redemption, education, hospitalization, surgical, disability income—name it—if we haven't got it, one of our actuaries is working on it. A year or so ago, in a small town in South Carolina, a man walked into our district office one afternoon. Nobody was in the office but one lone agent, brand new to the business, who in fact was studying one of the correspondence courses we require of our new agents. If you had had a quorum call just then like they do in Congress, every other person attached to the office including the manager would have sworn that he was out interviewing prospects, when in fact they were all taking a nap, or fishing, or relaxing in whatever way people do in small South Carolina towns on a hot summer afternoon. Anyway this gentleman said to the lone agent: "Is this a life insurance office?" "Yes sir!" "Well good, I've got a deal going with Texaco and they won't close it unless I put up a $375,000 life insurance policy as collateral. Write me up." The startled agent managed to escape to the privacy of the manager's office and placed a call long distance to our head underwriter: "I've got a man in the office who wants a $375,000 policy and he wants it right now. What do I do next?" I've embellished that story a bit, but it is true. Our underwriter steered him to the help he needed, the policy was sold, and the young man is enjoying a commission that not even our most extravagant brochures designed to attract new combination agents had led him to expect. You know, people do not buy life insurance—it is sold to them. If someone comes into the office and says he wants some life insurance the first thought is to maneuver him into the nearest doctor's office and get an electrocardiogram.

To get back to the subject: combination agents do not often turn up $375,000 prospects. Their work is in that vast market of low and middle income groups where Independent had over many years managed to establish a dynamic business. So in 1965 we organized an ordinary division completely separate from the combination operation. James B. Windham, an assistant vice president, headed this department. We believed that ordinary agencies selling and servicing ordinary insurance exclusively would reach a wider insurance market than we had previously reached. Just recently we had dramatic evidence of this fact when one of our ordinary agents sold $3,000,000 on a single individual. That is more insurance on one life than all the insurance the Company placed in its first four years of existence.

One field of operation as a life insurance company was left open to us—group insurance. If we had approached ordinary insurance with enthusiasm, we approached group insurance with caution. Most life insurance companies lose money on group insurance. The temptation to dress up the insurance in force figures is great. A single group policy may run to tens, even hundreds of million dollars of insurance in force, and consequently the competition is intense. Some companies will take a loss on the business for its advertising value—the loss leader idea. To others it is a loss—period. Well, over fifty years we had learned a few things about losses—to paraphrase the humorous slogan sometimes seen in retail stores—some of our business produced a loss, but we did not intend it that way. But we at Independent Life believe that what may be good for the Macy's and Gimbels in the retail trade has limited us in our industry. We are an industry that uses other people's money, and we don't believe that it is in the interest of either our policyholders or stockholders to court losses. Hence, we will not make a bid on a group case unless we believe there is a reasonable chance of at least a modest profit.

One roadblock to our continued growth was our name. We could not expand into more states because other companies with similar names were already operating in states where we wished to move. In i960 we solved the problem by acquiring the charter of a dormant company called Southeast Life Insurance Company to be operated as a wholly owned subsidiary. The name Southeast Life was not very suitable for a company we wished to expand into other parts of the country. So, for a long time we searched for a suitable name not already in use by some other company. One day I happened to pick up a book on heraldry. It occurred to me that nearly everyone wants a coat of arms, so we gave the new company a coat of arms and Herald Life Insurance Company was born. With this name we have been able to move into Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Kentucky, Virginia, and Indiana. In addition, we have qualified the company for operation in a number of other states. Just last year we took another step in expanding the nature of our business by acquiring two small fire and casualty companies. We have merged them and named the merged company Independent Fire Insurance Company. Through this company our combination agents can offer weekly and monthly premium fire insurance, and we can also offer fire insurance coverage through general lines agents. This operation is new and small but we expect the new company to make an increasing contribution to our growth over the years.

What has been that growth? If I may, I'd like to capsule the last fifty years of Independent Life in an elevator trip from the first to the top floor of our Independent Life home office building—a structure of 19 stories.In 1920, capital stood at $10,000, assets were just short of $15,000, insurance in force about $700,000, premium income about $1,000 a week. In that first year we rose the equivalent of one and a fraction inches.In 1930, capital had increased to $25,000, assets had climbed to just short of $80,000, insurance in force had risen to $3,616,000, premium income had climbed to $6,000 a week.In that decade, our elevator climbed about six inches.In 1940, capital had doubled to in excess of $50,000, assets had jumped up to a quarter of a million, life insurance in force stood at $4,790,000, premium income was $14,000 a week.Our elevator is speeding up. In that ten years we reached halfway up the first floor.Now we're in 1950. Capital and surplus are $1,200,000, assets $8,400,000, life insurance in force has vaulted to almost $250,-000,000, premium income is $270,000 a week.In this decade, we're really on the move. Our imaginary elevator is somewhere between the second and the third floor.In i960, capital and surplus has stepped up to $8,000,000, assets stand at $85,000,000, life insurance in force has leaped up to just short of one billion dollars, premium income has climbed to about one and one-third million dollars a week.Our elevator is gathering speed. In these ten years we've made it to the tenth floor.It is now 1969—our fiftieth year.Capital and surplus is $46 million. Assets are $236,000,000, life insurance in force has just reached two billion dollars, premium income is well over two million dollars a week.And our elevator has just crashed through the nineteenth floor! In these last ten years we have traveled just as far as we did in the previous forty!

 Independent Life Building Jacksonville , Fl. in 1969

In 1965 the Company made its first public offering of stock and became a public corporation. Where before we had only a few dozen stockholders all related to the founders, we now had several thousand. Coincident with the public offering we granted stock options to 44 officers and key employees, none of whom were related to the founders. By this wise move we rewarded a lot of faithful officers and employees, and for the first time gave them an opportunity to participate in the growth of the Company through stock ownership. The Independent is still something of a family business. Even some grandchildren of the founders have come into the business. Some of them have taken specialized courses in college to fit them for specific jobs in the Company, such as Wendell Sheppard in personnel management and Boyd Lyon in real estate. Wilford Lyon Jr. is an actuary. Richard Brooke did post graduate work in hospital administration and is now in charge of our group insurance department. Jacob F. Bryan, IV, my eldest son, is making a record in the combination field force. My youngest son, Kendall Gibson Bryan, will be graduating from college this next year with a major in public relations and advertising. My middle son, Carter Byrd Bryan, is an ordinary agent and I hope I will be forgiven a little fatherly pride to note that he sold $2,100,000 of insurance in 10 months on the job and is a certified applicant for the Million Dollar Round Table.

But Independent Life now is much more than just a family company. We have numerous officers in our management not related to the founders, some of whom hold top ranking jobs. I have mentioned Cecil B. Carroll, our director of agencies. We have Thomas H. Pate, a vice president and chief actuary, Robert H. Abbott, a vice president and home office co-ordina-tor, James H. Reeder, a vice president and head of ordinary underwriting, Robert A. Mills, a vice president and assistant in our mortgage department, and Earl M. Barker, our comptroller.

We value these officers as we do all of our employees. We want our people to feel that they work for a good organization. Our various fringe benefits compare favorably with any company in the industry. In all this length of time only three have ever resigned, all for reasons other than their treatment by the Company. Of course, others might put a different interpretation on this record. I recall the story, a true one, of the highly successful trial lawyer who gave up the practice of law to become a professor at a leading law school. We will call him Mr. Jones. Well, it did not take Mr. Jones long to learn that spellbinding a jury was one thing, but teaching a big class of bright-eyed college students was something else. Feeling discouraged he took his problems to the dean. The dean sympathetically listened to his frustrations, his errors, and his misgivings, but finally he became tired of hearing about Mr. Jones' shortcomings and blurted out: "Mr. Jones, quit worrying about your job, at this institution it is a policy to live with our mistakes."

I have talked a lot about the success of our Company, but there is another side to our business. Both as a corporation and as individuals we take an active part in the civic and cultural affairs of our community—as the young people like to say these days, we believe in getting involved. We give generously of our time and money to projects and drives that are striving for better health, better education, and better living conditions in the communities where we live and conduct our business. Our very business is an endeavor for human betterment—providing security. At one time one of our officers was an aid to the governor. We had an officer who was president of the Jaycees, another, president of Muscular Dystrophy, another, president of the Cancer Society, president of the Heart Association, on the board of governors of the Chamber of Commerce, and also chairman of the Health Facilities Planning Council that finally moved Jacksonville off the panic list on health facilities.

Down through the ages, man has sought and even fought for security, but it was not until the 18th century that man found the security he was looking for—when he devised what we know as insurance.It was a fact when Independent Life was founded, and it is a fact today that: there is no substitute for life insurance because today it provides the total way of life.That's the motto of Independent Life. And it is true.

There is a story that I think worthy of the final and thus most important part in my talk with you.Forgive me if I seem to be selling insurance, I've been doing it for forty-two years, and I really don't know how to stop.The story? Well, one night in ancient times, three horsemen were riding across a desert. A voice in the darkness called out to them to halt and dismount. When they had dismounted the voice told them to fill their pockets with pebbles. They did as the voice ordered. And then the voice commanded them to mount and ride on. As they started off into the darkness the voice predicted that they would be both glad and sorry that they had stopped. The three horsemen rode on through the darkness. When the night faded into dawn they reined in their horses and examined the pebbles that they had picked up. They found the "pebbles" to be precious jewels . . . and, as the voice had predicted, they were both glad and sorry. Glad that they had taken some . . . and sorry that they had not taken more. That is insurance!

Thank you.

The End