By all accounts, Joey Loudermilk practices what he preaches. And as general counsel of Aflac, Inc., the country’s most recognized supplemental-insurance provider, he sets the bar high for himself. “A lawyer is an officer of the court,” says Loudermilk, who has worked for the company since 1983, more than half of its existence. “We need to lead the way in following not only the letter, but the spirit of statutes and regulations. A natural extension of being a lawyer is that we need to make sure we are always doing the right thing.”
Raised in Columbus, Georgia, where Aflac is headquartered, Loudermilk, has written a weekly column for his local newspaper, the Harris County Journal, since 2003. “They let me write about whatever I want—history, politics,” he says. “I see it very much as a vent. That’s when I write my best, when I feel strongly about the topic.” Well-timed and easy, Loudermilk’s prose often centers on personal events with wider social connotations. He recollects sweltering summers without air-conditioned cars, catching catfish, and watching pilots training for Vietnam. All his columns read with the melodic lilt of his Southern accent.
Loudermilk, 58, seems to have remained true to his small-town roots and values over the years. Inspired by his pro-life convictions, he decided to expand his family in 1990. “I was in a hotel room in Washington, DC, where I felt the Lord spoke to me to adopt a child that would have been aborted,” he recalls. “And within two weeks, we had our little girl.”
The Christian adoption agency Loudermilk used specializes, in part, in placing multiracial children. He and his wife, Ramona (his high school sweetheart), formed a bond with a representative of the agency. As the years went by, she notified them of certain babies’ circumstances. On each occasion, the couple felt compelled to adopt. The Loudermilks now have a total of six children: the eldest three are biological, and the youngest three, adopted and racially mixed. “My oldest adopted child is 22. We didn’t know it at the time, but she was the first racially mixed child adopted by a white family in the history of
Columbus, Georgia,” he says.
One might wonder if such a “first” would cause tensions in the Deep South, but Loudermilk never noticed any. “My thought was, if anyone disapproved, that was their problem, not ours. We were doing what we were called to do … We were being obedient (to God).”
Loudermilk cites “faith and family” as his priorities. It bears mention that Aflac operates like a family business. It’s not uncommon for employees to be related and serve lifetime careers there. Loudermilk’s son, brother, sister, and brother-in-law work for the insurance giant.
A Servant Leader
Having known Loudermilk for eight years, Laura Kane, vice president of corporate communications at Aflac, says his approach to work reflects his approach to life: a humble response to a call of duty. “Joey sees himself as a servant leader, as opposed to someone who holds a great title or is known for accomplishments,” Kane says.
Loudermilk’s titles, in addition to general counsel, include executive vice president, director of government relations, and corporate secretary. “All of those make me sound much more important than I am,” he says. Despite his quips, however, Loudermilk is among the top-five highest executives at the company, which is 125th on Fortune’s 150 list. His departments, with roughly 150 staff, cover legal, regulatory (compliance), and political matters. He reports directly to Dan Amos, CEO and chairman of the board, and has done so for the last 28 years.
Loudermilk considers Amos “the best CEO in the entire country” and a personal inspiration. Amos made Aflac the first public corporation to allow shareholders input on executive compensation—that is, a “say on pay”—in 2008. Furthermore, Amos turned down a $2 million bonus in 2009, when the company’s stock was down, even though he was entitled to it based on the company’s financial performance. Perhaps Amos’s most widely noted account of integrity was when he fired Gilbert Gottfried—the infamous “duck voice” in Aflac’s commercials—roughly an hour after the comedian tweeted several jokes about the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011.
“Whatever I have learned about being an executive, I have learned from Dan Amos and his example. I can’t imagine a better mentor than he has been,” Loudermilk says, adding, “Hopefully I have helped him along the way as well.” Loudermilk describes the relationship with his boss as a yin yang; Amos is the Type A of the equation. “He speeds me up, and I help slow him down a little bit,” Loudermilk explains.
Amos hired Loudermilk in 1983, just after becoming president of Aflac. Amos had been a personal client of Loudermilk’s in the private practice he ran for five years after graduating from the University of Georgia’s law school. “I was approaching 30,” Loudermilk says of his private-firm days, “and looking at other lawyers in Columbus who were 10, 15, or 20 years my senior—and they were doing exactly the same thing I was doing. I knew that was not what I wanted to do the rest of my career.”
Being an executive wasn’t on Loudermilk’s to-do list, either, but resulted from fulfilling his vocation. “My career goal was to be a successful lawyer,” he says frankly. Loudermilk’s biggest win, in his profession, was having assembled a litigation team for an influential case in the early 1990s. (Putting together teams of distinct experts and personalities is one of his most rewarding pursuits to this day, he admits. Kane adds: “He believes in teamwork and supports the efforts of the team.”) The dispute involved an Aflac lawyer on retainer who was terminated. It went to the Georgia Supreme Court, setting a legal precedent regarding the contractual relationship between a lawyer and a client. Loudermilk’s son, Matt, 36, who is now a lawyer at Aflac, earned star-pupil status by recounting the “behind-the-scenes” of the case during an ethics class at his father’s alma mater, where he also studied.
In the end, Loudermilk hopes ethics will be his legacy. Every year since 2007, Aflac has ranked among the most ethical businesses in the world, according to Ethisphere magazine. It is the only insurance company that has made the list every year since its creation. Despite Loudermilk’s inclination to share credit, Aflac’s exemplary behavior in business is one area where, as its preeminent attorney, he must simply bow his head and accept the applause.