Southern Smarts

Richard Bielen | Vice Chairman & CFO | Protective Life Corporation | Location: Birmingham, AL | Career Advice: “Do whatever is asked of you. If you always define yourself by only what’s in your job description, you’re likely to stay in that job. Your role is what you make it.”

How a centralized leadership team and longtime values empower Protective’s century-long legacy

Protective Life Corporation continues to grow, evolve, and succeed. A trifecta of guiding principles—longevity, agility, and discipline—stand at the core of the journey. So do leaders like Richard Bielen, Protective’s vice chairman and chief financial officer, who strives to keep those founding principles alive.

Bielen has always been good with numbers. That talent intuitively sparked an interest in the economy and current events, which is a hallmark of his expertise today. He enrolled at New York University with an eye on financial services, earning both an accounting degree and his MBA. Bielen launched his career as an accountant but was drawn to Wall Street. He joined Oppenheimer & Co. in the mid 1980s as a new-product sales analyst, working with brokers and clients on tax and accounting issues.

After a few years spent helping numerous clients make investment decisions, Bielen wanted to move from the sell side to the buy side. In 1991, he leveraged his unique blend of accounting, finance, and business expertise and stepped forward to manage a billion-dollar bond portfolio at Protective Life Corporation. The new challenge meant moving home and family—including a newborn baby—1,000 miles to Birmingham, Alabama.

Since that move two decades ago, Bielen has risen through the ranks at Protective, a century-old life-insurance company with annual revenues of $3.6 billion. After serving in the investment department for 16 years, spending five years as Protective’s chief investment officer, he served as vice chairman and CFO starting in 2007. His steady and grounded expertise helped the company weather the financial crisis of 2008. Today, Bielen channels that same deep professional experience to help steer the company’s future by creating a new financial path that capitalizes on the potential synergy of a healthy retail franchise and Protective’s distinctive acquisition capabilities. Protective, strengthened by strong leaders like Bielen, is emerging atop its industry behind those three guiding principles of longevity, agility, and discipline.

Protective Life has been led by just six CEOs over its 106-year history. Bielen says the unbroken continuity and strong culture make PLC a unique place to work. “We have a history of great leadership, and that gives us an advantage in talent acquisition,” he says. “I can genuinely sell this as a rare place to work, a place where you can be part of a company big enough to do sophisticated work but small enough to let you make a real difference.”

Protective is a place that engenders relationships that help each employee discover his or her strengths—and that, in turn, drives profits upward. “Since we know each other so well, we know our assets,” Bielen says. “We know how to use our diverse skills to make the overall team effective.” The senior leadership team works closely together and stays in constant communication. Since there is very little turnover, each leader feels accountable to the next, benefitting the company, its employees, and its customers.

Secondly, the company is an agile one, responding to a changing and sometimes challenging environment. While Birmingham might not seem like an obvious choice for a growing company’s headquarters, the entire senior management team is based in the Alabama offices. The centralized nucleus bucks a rising trend of dispersing senior personnel across a variety of locations and time zones. Protective can gather its decision makers quickly to make things happen. The senior management team meets informally once a week to discuss risk issues, priorities, concerns, and vision. “It’s very hard to bring everyone together in a consistent and meaningful way if you’re a much larger organization with operations scattered across the globe,” Bielen says. With everyone in the same room at least once a week, Protective can take immediate action when needed.

Bielen points to a recent acquisition transaction to illustrate how its agility gives Protective a competitive edge. In October of 2013, the company bought a block of insurance for $1.06 billion from AXA. “We’ve had a reputation for punching above our weight in the marketplace,” Bielen says. “We quickly mobilized 150 of the company’s 2,300 employees to help with due diligence before the transaction and to integrate the business upon its completion.” The deal went from first look to a third bid in about 10 weeks, and 12 senior leaders gathered in the Birmingham boardroom to make the decision to move forward.

Discipline helped Protective rebound after the recession of 2008. Five years ago, PLC shares fell to single digits, but the company now trades above $40 per share. The weekend Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, Bielen and his colleagues were able to assemble quickly and formulate an action plan. They focused on liquidity, then moved on to capital. When things had stabilized, Protective was able to refocus on acquisitions earlier than its competitors, completing a deal in 2010, another in 2011, and finalizing its 47th (and largest) acquisition in 2013. These disciplined moves allow Protective to consolidate more business into its systems, bringing unit costs down and improving competitiveness and shareholder returns, which means the storied life insurance company is set to continue its impressive growth deep into another century.