Aflac in Columbia

Growing precociously in its fifth year

By Mike Fitts

Photography by Jeff Amberg

Insurance giant Aflac has grown spectacularly even as it has been managed cautiously. When it acts, however, it tends to be decisive and succeed where it has found advantages. Five years after it decided to invest in Columbia, it has grown greatly and expects to keep doing so in the years ahead.

In 2009, Aflac acquired Continental American, a homegrown Columbia company that had found its own niche in supplemental insurance. Despite its growth into a nationally known brand, Columbus, Ga. based Aflac had never bought another company. Now, with the Columbia branch of the company, Aflac Group, operating with great independence, is poised to pass 1,000 employees locally. In just five years, Aflac has become one of the Midlands’ leaders in employment, use of insurance technology and philanthropy.

“I think the opportunities are fantastic,” says Dan Lebish, who came aboard this past year to head up Aflac’s Columbia operations.

This all started with an unexpected phone call.

Chris Goodall, then CEO of his family’s company, Continental American, didn’t recognize the number but answered the phone anyway. He had never spoken with the man on the other end of the line: Paul Amos II, president of Aflac. 

“I’d like to take you to dinner. How’s Thursday?” Chris remembers hearing. He counted to 10, then said “yes.” At the time, Continental American had been succeeding with steady growth and profits, and Chris had not even contemplated a sale or merger. “I had no plans of selling the company,” Chris says.

At Dianne’s on Devine, the two men discussed their business, and Paul laid out his vision of Continental American growing dramatically as a part of Aflac. The nationally famous Aflac duck had helped the company become one of the most recognized brands in America. Most of its dominant market share, however, was concentrated in individual or small employer supplemental insurance. These policies complement traditional medical insurance and are intended to cover other costs, such as out-of-pocket expenses, travel to medical care or even lost wages. Another sector of the market that Aflac hoped to crack was group insurance, the sector in which Continental American had found its niche. These policies are sold through larger companies to their workers or via insurance brokers. Paul explained his vision of Aflac acquiring Continental American to move toward new success in the group insurance market. “It was quite a surprise to me, to say the least,” Chris says.

Many such business acquisitions usually result in the work of the acquired company being moved out of town. Chris says he knew from the beginning that Aflac would be different. Instead, Aflac Group has grown to fill the original Devine Street building and several floors of space along both sides of Huger Street in the Vista. “It’s done what we expected, maybe even a little quicker,” says Chris, who served for most of the past five years as CEO of Aflac Group and is now vice chairman of its board.

The merger worked because the two companies had similar cultures, Chris says. Both are companies that were created by families. Chris took over as CEO of Continental American from his father, Leon, while members of the Amos family were and continue to be leaders at Aflac. “All of this is now here as a result of the vision, dedication and sacrifice of my father who started continental American in 1979 with a dream, a strategic plan and two employees. My dad is probably the best businessman I have ever known,” Chris says. “That family heritage is reflected in a real concern for employees, their families and the policy holders.” Chris’ successor heading up Aflac Group operations in Columbia, Dan Lebish, sees that same interest in place in his first year in Columbia. “There’s a real interest in the employee and what’s happening in his or her life,” Dan says.

Aflac has grown from about 150 employees in Columbia at the time of acquisition to about 1,000, but Dan says that is just the beginning here. His mission is to lead the growth of Aflac Group toward leadership in group insurance nationally. He joined Aflac Group and moved to Columbia specifically to oversee such an expansion. “We definitely have that aspiration,” Dan says. As chief operating officer, what he oversees in Columbia has been designed to be very much its own operation, intended to have the autonomy to be efficient. Federal health care reform has made supplemental insurance attractive to more customers to plug gaps in coverage, and Dan sees Aflac as poised to benefit. 

“Our products are perfect for that,” Dan says. “It’s the only part of the employee benefits market that’s going to be growing.”

Even as Aflac grows in Columbia, the overall company continues to be a leader in the insurance industry. Among its achievements:

l The market leader in supplemental insurance

l Ranked in the top 200 of the Fortune 500

l Ranked in Fortune’s “Most Admired Companies” 13 times and “Best Places to Work” 16 times

l Listed on Ethisphere’s list of “World’s Most Ethical Companies” eight times


Has a 94 percent brand recognition level, thanks in large part to the duck

The duck, of course, is the Aflac mascot, appearing in numerous TV commercials and even on company business cards. It’s also another rare example of the cautious Amos family taking a chance. Years ago, the company’s leaders realized they needed to build its identity in the marketplace, especially because few customers knew much about the American Family Life Assurance Co. — the source of the Aflac acronym.

Before the ads were launched, focus groups found that the Aflac duck made the brand even more memorable than another commercial featuring a celebrity endorsement. Goofy as it may have seemed at first, the duck got the job, and the Aflac name is now virtually synonymous with the supplemental insurance field. “That fame gives Aflac the kind of consumer recognition that other companies can only dream of,” Dan says. 

The company’s growth in Columbia has been possible in part because the region already has a considerable knowledge base in the insurance industry. Aflac Group is Dan’s first position in Columbia after a career leading insurance companies in Pittsburgh, but he was already with Columbia’s insurance industry cluster and had worked on cooperative projects with Continental American in the past. The concentration of insurance industry companies in Columbia makes it easier to hire locally and even bring talent in. “They can see that Columbia is a hub where somebody can build their career in insurance,” Dan says. “This is a little mecca of insurance in the South.”

To Lonnie Emard, Aflac’s growth here shows the wisdom of the investment in the Midlands in growing the knowledge base for information technology. As executive director of the IT-oLogy effort to expand the talent pipeline for information technology fields, Lonnie sees the move as validation of local efforts. Aflac did not need to seek a place outside Georgia to do this work or to continue investing here. “They realized that something was going on, the potential of growth,” Lonnie says.

Information technology related to the insurance business is considered a strong sector in the Midlands. That strength can be traced back to Seibels Bruce and the company it spun off in the 1980s, PMSC of Blythewood, which experienced tremendous growth. That early leader in the field gave the Midlands a talent advantage that blossomed into numerous companies either springing up here or relocating operations here. Now the insurance IT segment includes several of the biggest employers in the Midlands, from BlueCross and BlueShield of South Carolina to Colonial Life, an Aflac competitor. “Those companies and many others have made the Midlands an area with a deep well of IT talent,” Lonnie says. That talent and the variety of companies tapping into it here should continue to attract the attention of major brands in insurance to the region. Aflac’s recognition as a leader in insurance adds another esteemed brand that can only boost the region’s reputation.

“This is a full-fledged capacity that isn’t matched in other communities,” Lonnie says.

As Aflac has become well-established in Columbia, the company has also steppedbeen building its ties with the community through philanthropy. Aflac leaders emphasize that community involvement is a core value for the company and reflects the company’s ethical orientation. That attention to corporate philanthropy has been on display for years in Georgia and has already had an impact in South Carolina.

In Georgia, Aflac and its charitable foundation have made a major impact on one specific cause: the fight against pediatric cancer. According to the company’s 2013 corporate citizenship report, Aflac has, since 1995, raised more than $87 million to support the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Children’s Hospitals of Atlanta. The philanthropic impulse extends to the company’s employees. Aflac staffers in the United States and Japan contributed almost $10 million to the fight against childhood cancer in 2013, according to the report.

In South Carolina too, the company has already been heavily involved in philanthropic efforts against pediatric cancer. In 2012, Aflac pledged $400,000 to sponsor a department at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital. Now the hospital’s outpatient hematology/oncology examination area is known as the Aflac Children’s Care Center.

The company’s commitment to step up locally is welcomed as a blessing by Samuel Tenenbaum, the retired steel industry executive who serves as president of Palmetto Health Foundation, the fundraising nonprofit that provides support to the Palmetto Health system. The ebullient Tenenbaum has nothing but praise for the way that Aflac has stepped up as a benefactor in the community, saying Aflac does more than just talk about supporting the region. “You’ve got to embrace the community that you’re in, and they do it,” Samuel says. “It is an impressive company.”

He got to see that caring first-hand this spring at the first Duckprints event in Columbia, where Aflac and Palmetto Health Foundation leaders came together to honor three supporters of the fight against childhood cancer. Samuel also notes that Aflac has stepped up to help support several programs that make life a little easier for these children, including Camp Kemo, which gives kids living with cancer a chance to set all of that aside and enjoy summer camp. To Samuel, Aflac’s charitable outreach epitomizes an embrace of the call in the Ten Commandments to love our fellow man. “This is their love for the children of our community,” Samuel says. “God bless Aflac.”

While childhood cancer continues to be the primary focus of Aflac’s philanthropy, Dan Lebish notes that the company also supports other community efforts. A staff donations/volunteer committee reviews options to consider how the company can best be involved in the Midlands. Sometimes, as when sponsoring a special dinosaur display at EdVenture, Aflac’s support is public, but other efforts in the community are done anonymously. The company has given to about 20 nonprofit organizations in South Carolina in the past year, emphasizing groups that improve public health, education and community support.

As Aflac has grown into a major success in Columbia, it has filled up its current office space, which is scattered among three buildings. That’s not ideal, Dan says, and the company is actively looking to put the Columbia operation in one location.

“We definitely see the need to try to come together,” Dan says. “We definitely have in our plans to consolidate and get onto one campus.”

Where? Staying in the Midlands, and preferably in the city of Columbia, assuming the right location can be found.

Dan says that since arriving in August 2013, he has come to see Columbia as a community that is building its future in an exciting way. “It feels like Columbia is on the move,” Dan says. “It feels like the beginning of something exciting, and it’s neat to be a part of that.”

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