'SOUL & SERVICE'
In creating a new display that highlights the 115-year history of N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co., John Gartrell said he wanted to give an idea of the expanse of time the company has been around.
He searched a collection of about 98,000 company materials to find pictures, financial statements and documents. He used reproductions of them to help tell the Durham-based company’s story in the exhibit, “Soul & Service: The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, 115 Years and Counting,” which opens to the public Thursday.
“I think this really just allow you to dig a little bit deeper,” said Gartrell, who is the director of the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture at Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The library, along with the University Archives and Records Special Collections at N.C. Central, jointly holds the company’s archives.
N.C. Mutual’s story, like any, is not perfect, with ups and downs, Gartrell said. The company almost folded early on, he said.
About two years after the company’s founding, five of the original founders withdrew. The original seven black leaders who had come together had, according to Walter B. Weare’s “Black Business in the New South,” each contributed $50.
To keep the company moving, two founders, physician Dr. Aaron Moore and barber John Merrick, reportedly used personal funds to help pay company debts.
The display includes images of Moore and Merrick, as well as of company leader C.C. Spaulding, who became N.C. Mutual’s vice president and general manager.
In addition to images of the leaders, Gartrell said he also tried to show the facts of the “every day folks” who worked there. There are images of female clerks in the 1940s, and of women at the home office in 1909.
The display also shows the company’s growth. It includes a document that shows how premium income grew from $840 in 1899 to more than $1 million by 1918.
It also provides details about the opening of offices in neighboring states, the move of its headquarters to Parrish Street (that became known as the “Black Wall Street”) and the 1966 dedication of the company’s headquarters building on West Chapel Hill Street.
It describes a decline from a peak that, according to Gartrell, occurred as more companies paid attention to black capital. In 2006, the company sold its West Chapel Hill Street tower.
Milton Campbell, a descendent of one of the company founders, said it’s important to recognize the company’s social and economic impact. He was part of the committee that helped to plan the company’s 115-year anniversary events, which included the exhibit.
Campbell said the company provided jobs for African Americans during segregation.
“It actually provided revenue to employ people to make them advance and increase their earning potential,” he said.
He said he believes that the economic downturn and other factors have hurt the company.
“I just think people, financially, they weren’t in as good shape as they were,” he said.
James H. Speed, president and CEO of N.C. Mutual, said the company benefited in the past from a concentration of African American dollars and talent. He said it grew as early leaders had a vision to expand into markets beyond the state.
Speed said customer dollars are now more dispersed.
“Because we have so much access and so much choice today, those dollars are dispersed not as much in a concentrated manner as it was in the early years,” he said.
Looking at a trend of declining premium dollars at N.C. Mutual, and at other African American insurance companies, he said the company shifted its business model.
The company has a three-pronged strategy that includes adding blocks of insurance policies acquired from other insurers in addition to serving existing policy holders. He said the idea is to get fees for servicing those customers without adding overhead costs.
Also, the company wants to increase its role as a distributor and marketer of products. N.C. Mutual spun out its in-house sales staff into a subsidiary with agents that can sell the company’s own policies, as well as those of other insurers.
And, finally, he said the company wants to grow in financial services. The company acquired an Alabama company now known as N.C. Mutual Financial LLC, that provides financial services for funeral home owners, Speed said.
“So as you can see from all those business strategies … the majority of our revenue will be based on fees and commissions, with a lower level of risk,” he said.
The company has been profitable in the last three consecutive years, but Speed said he doesn’t expect that it will turn a profit in 2013.
Through the end of the second quarter, the company reported a net loss of $1.125 million, according to the most recent financial data available through the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
The company took in about $9.4 million in revenues from premiums and annuities for its life, accident and health plans. The total was down 9 percent year-over-year. Its net income from its investments was also down.
Speed said the company has higher pension costs this year, it has seen a lower return on its investments and is affected by several cases of group businesses that were unprofitable in the year.
Looking to 2014, he said the company has been able to adjust its cost structure, and he expects good results.
“We really will see a significant payoff as we move into 2014,” he said.
The exhibit on N.C. Mutual’s history, which includes eight panels of reproductions from the company’s archives, will run through Dec. 20 at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies, at 1317 West Pettigrew St.