N.C. Mutual rebrands as it attempts to secure its longevity

The NC Mutual building on West Chapel Hill Street will soon see changes to its facade as the group decreases its footprint there to one floor.
The NC Mutual building on West Chapel Hill Street will soon see changes to its facade as the group decreases its footprint there to one floor. The Herald-Sun

North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. has officially changed its name to NC Mutual — a rebranding effort that comes as the nation’s oldest black-owned insurer contemplates its future and downsizes its footprint in Durham.

The Durham-based insurer unveiled its new branding at its annual meeting Wednesday, where Chief Executive Officer Michael L. Lawrence told policyholders the company needed to make changes to re-introduce itself to a younger, African-American market that might not be aware of the company’s history.

The changes also come as the insurer endured another year of financial losses. The company posted a net loss of $479,000 in 2016, which improved upon a larger loss of $4.45 million in 2015.

In addition, the rating agency A.M. Best downgraded its financial strength rating to C++, or marginal, from B, or fair, last May. That downgrade was the result of the large losses in 2015.

“Last year also continued to be a challenge for us, but not nearly as large a challenge as it was the previous year,” Lawrence said. “... Overall, it’s certainly not where we want to be and we are continuing to improve on that.”

The losses in 2016 were in part attributable to a $1.7 million charge to renegotiate its lease at the NC Mutual building, which it sold in 2006. The company is decreasing its footprint in the building to one floor from six floors —a move that will save the company around $700,000 per year going forward.

NC Mutual now occupies just the 12th floor of the building, where it has around 40 employees. The company went through a large reorganization prior to Lawrence taking over the company, which led to a large number of layoffs. Lawrence took over the 118-year-old company in 2016, when he replaced former CEO James H. Speed Jr.

Because of its shrinking footprint at the NC Mutual building, which is being redeveloped into a mixed-use project, the company held its meeting across the street at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church on West Chapel Hill Street.

As part of the Mutual building’s redevelopment, the iconic signage on its roof, which reads “N.C. Mutual Life,” will soon be removed. As that symbol goes away, the company’s new branding will play a vital role in shaping its image going forward, Lawrence said.

“I think (the new branding) is extremely important, because a lot of people even living here in the Triangle don't know who we are,” he said. “We have to have something more eye catching and a little more relatable. We think by getting more active with social media and getting our brand around that will help tremendously.”

In addition to the rebranding, NC Mutual plans to increase the number of insurance policies it offers to its customers by becoming a distributor for national carriers such as Prudential and MetLife. The partnerships will allow the company to expand into a variety of new policies, from homeowner and automobile insurance to health insurance.

“When you are a small insurance company you don't have the resources of a MetLife or a Prudential, where they can design and develop new products when anybody thinks of something,” Lawrence said. “So, what we decided made more sense for us to do is partner with those organizations that do.”

He added that if the company is successful with its rebranding, it is targeting a return to consistent profitability in two to three years.

The company was last profitable in 2014, when it posted a net income of more than $350,000, Lawrence said. The year before that the company suffered another large loss, posting a net loss of $2.36 million in 2013.

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes