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Jacksonville: formerly “The Hartford of the South”

JF Bryan IV recounts the history of the insurance industry at Speaker Series event

Over 70 members of the Jacksonville Historical Society and other guests gathered Jan. 23 at Old St. Andrew’s Church in downtown Jacksonville to hear the story of the rise and decline of insurance companies which were headquartered in the city. The guest speaker, J.F. Bryan IV of Ortega, serves on the Society’s board of directors and was a third-generation executive of Independent Life Insurance, found by his grandfather, J.F. Bryan II, and six other life insurance agents in 1920 with $10,000 in capital.

Dr. Alan Bliss, JHS executive director, with JF Bryan IV, guest speaker and former president of Independent Life Insurance
Dr. Alan Bliss, JHS executive director, with JF Bryan IV, guest speaker and former president of Independent Life Insurance

Bryan recounted how there were once 16 insurance companies with headquarters in Jacksonville until the early 1980s, but after a series of mergers, acquisitions and consolidations, most of the headquarter offices were moved to other cities. Florida Blue – comprised of Blue Cross, founded in 1944, and Blue Shield, in 1946 – is the only major insurance company still headquartered in Jacksonville, in the Brooklyn-Riverside area. His story follows:

The history of the insurance Industry in Jacksonville Florida as presented to the Jacksonville Historical Society on January 23, 2020 by Jacob F. Bryan, IV

This is a story with a beginning and an end.

In about 1981 my dad volunteered me to write a history of insurance in our community to be presented at Jacksonville University. At the time I was a Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Independent Life with a loaded agenda and little time to be a historian, although that was my major in college.

As I immersed myself in the subject, I quickly confirmed the fact that Jacksonville was known as the Hartford of the South for good reason. There were about 16 insurance companies with home offices in our community plus for the most part they were owned and managed locally. In addition, Jacksonville had five major regional offices here of national companies. Unfortunately, we have no insurance company’s home offices here today, with the exception of Blue Cross. We have lost, as we will see, most of our regional offices or they have reduced in significance.

Let’s start at the beginning.

The company that started it all was called “The Corporation for Relief of Poor and Distressed Presbyterian Ministers and of the Poor and Distressed Widows and Children of Presbyterian Ministers” founded in Pennsylvania.

Now called The Presbyterian Ministers Fund, the company was still in existence in 1982.

Today, two of the largest, the Metropolitan and Prudential were organized in 1868 and 1873, respectively, more than one hundred years after the Poor and Distressed Presbyterian Ministers got their company.

By the way, the Prudential was originally called “The Widows and Orphans Friendly Society.”

Interestingly enough, at about that time a new form of insurance was introduced into the United States. It was an import from England where it was called Industrial Insurance because it was sold to workingmen, to people who could not afford to pay an annual premium in advance.

It was through the sale of this weekly premium insurance that the Metropolitan and Prudential, plus most other companies, achieved their great size. Under the weekly premium system, the agent not only received a commission for new policies that he wrote, he was also paid for collecting the policies on his route. Life insurance didn’t become a product for the affluent until the advent of the income tax in 1913 with its favorable tax benefits.

At that time insurance companies were pretty much separated into two groups: Fire and Casualty; Life and Health.

The Metropolitan and the Prudential and other of the older insurance companies became mutual companies – their owners were their policyholders.

Jacksonville’s insurance companies, on the other hand, were more typically stock companies – able to compete with the mutual companies and still make a profit.

In 1900 the City Directory listed fourteen insurance companies, mostly Fire and Casualty represented here, none of which were domiciled in Jacksonville.

This changed that same year when Jacksonville’s homegrown insurance industry got its start.

Actually, there were two contenders for the title of Jacksonville and Florida’s first and oldest insurance company. They were in alphabetical order: The Afro-American Industrial and Benevolent Association of the United States – later to become the Afro-American Life Insurance Company; and the Florida Mutual Benefit Association – which became, first, the Peninsular Industrial Insurance Company, and then, Peninsular Life.

The Florida Mutual Benefit Association was organized on April 6, 1900; it became Peninsular the following year when Afro-American was organized. Actually, Afro-American claimed to be the oldest continuously chartered insurance company in Florida.

Both Afro-American and Peninsular were weekly premium companies. Afro-American’s first policies were sick and accident policies paying $5 a week. By the time of the Great Fire of 1901, the company had a premium income of $50 a week.

Afro-American had seven founders, but the pressure of their ministerial duties forced some of them to leave the company and A. L. Lewis took the primary responsibility for the company. The Lewis family was still involved in the company as of 1982. The President and Chairman then was J. L. Lewis and the company was one of only 40 black-owned and operated insurance companies in the United States in 1982. The Lewis family are decedents of Anna and Zephaniah Kingsley of Fort George Island.

Peninsular, under President, M. C. Johnson, began writing weekly premium accident and health insurance. In 1915, when Charles E. Clarke became President of Peninsular, the company also began writing weekly premium life insurance.

In 1934, Peninsular was purchased by the Occidental Life Insurance Company of Raleigh, North Carolina and Occidental’s President, Lawrence F. Lee, also became President of Peninsular.

The next insurance company in Jacksonville didn’t arrive until 1916 – six years after Jacksonville had become the largest city in Florida, with a population of over 57,000.

            The Gulf Life and Accident Insurance Company began operating in Pensacola in 1911.  Its founders were T. T. Phillips and his brother, E. L. Phillips, who guided its operations for four decades.

Gulf Life’s first products were five cents and ten cents a week accident policies and a $100 burial expense life insurance plan. The first claim almost put the company out of business – except that T. T. Phillips persuaded the beneficiary to take her $100 in weekly installments.

By 1916, Gulf Life moved to Jacksonville to be at the center of its operation and to be in a position to reach the growing areas of Florida and Georgia. The Phillips family continued to control Gulf Life until T. T. Phillips died in 1953. At that time its stock went public.

In 1968 the Gulf Life Holding Company was formed and purchased Gulf Life, American Amicable and the Stonewall Insurance Company. In 1975, the holding company acquired the Interstate Life Insurance Company of Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1977, the name of the holding company was changed to Gulf United Corporation because television and radio interests had been acquired.

In 1982, Gulf Life Corporation had assets of 1.3 billion dollars and total insurance in force of $12 billion dollars.

Our own company, the Independent Life and Accident Insurance Company, was founded on March 2, 1920. The seven founders were George C. Coburn, Jacob F. Bryan, II, J. H. Gooding, Claibourne G. Snead, J. Arthur Howard, John S. Young and Harry H. Lyon.

They were all insurance men. They had worked as agents at various times for Southern Life and Peninsular Life. At that time it was possible to start an insurance company, under Florida law, with only $10,000 in capital and that was what they put up to start the company.

At that time life insurance companies were notorious for slow pay and/or litigation. Our founders decided the way to become successful was to take in everybody you possibly could and pay off all possible claims quickly. The first 10 years were hard based on the above policy but over time as our reputation spread we passed many companies that had started much earlier.

The new company’s first policies had modest death benefits – just $75. But we met a need. We offered a product that reached the lowest budget with weekly premium installments.

The first home office of Independent life was two rooms over a drug store on the corner of Duval and Main Streets.

At the end of the first year, the company had $708,000 worth of insurance in force, three women working in the office and 14 agents in the field, in addition to the founders.

In 1942, Claibourne G. Snead became President of Independent Life. In his 15-year administration, the Independent became the largest company in the world writing only weekly premium insurance.

Independent Life Building, on the east side of Julia Street between Duval and Church Streets, held a commanding view of the St. Johns River, with the Main Street Bridge in the foreground.
Independent Life Building, on the east side of Julia Street between Duval and Church Streets, held a commanding view of the St. Johns River, with the Main Street Bridge in the foreground.

The year 1957, when my father, J. F. Bryan, III, took over the helm, our product line was expanded to include Ordinary Insurance. In the early ‘60s group and credit life lines were added. We were able to expand into states that already had companies with names similar to Independent by creating a new wholly owned subsidiary – Herald Life, in 1960.

Later by acquiring some small fire insurance companies in 1968 the Independent and Herald Life expanded into the fire and casualty market.

The Independent Group was represented in 20 states and had over 5,300 employees in 1982.

Our next homegrown company was Guaranty Life, founded in 1934 by L. Knabb and was still substantially owned and operated by the same family in 1982.

The company started writing weekly premium life insurance policies with benefits up to $250 and Health & Accident policies. L. Knabb’s son, Ralph, headed the company in 1982, which operated exclusively in Florida.

Still another company, the Professional Insurance Corporation was incorporated on November 12, 1936, and commenced business a little less than a year later. The company grew out of the Nurses Mutual Protective Association headed by a Mr. Waller and Harry Kight. They sold health policies first to nurses and later to schools. About 25 percent of their new business was life insurance in 1982. In 1951 the company was acquired by the C. A. Sammons interests in Texas. The company also owned a debit company, British Fidelity Insurance that operated on eighteen islands in the Caribbean. In 1982 the assets of the company amounted to about $24 million dollars and they had between $13-1/2 and $14 million dollars in annual premium income.

Still another company, Suwanee Life, was founded in 1933 when T. W. Benson bought a burial insurance company in Gainesville that had been called Douglas Burial Insurance.  In 1937, James Anthony and White L. Moss left Peninsular and bought Suwanee. Like the others it was a debit industrial insurance company. Suwanee was bought by the United Insurance Company of America in 1961. The company operated only in Florida.

Peninsular Life during this time had gone international with the acquisition of British American Life Insurance Co., Ltd. of the Bahamas. In 1955 Peninsular spun off from Occidental Life to become a separate entity and one of the interests of the McMillen Trust, which held the majority of shares of Occidental and Peninsular. This trust was named in honor of Alonso McMillen, father-in-law of Laurence Lee who was Peninsular’s President for 25 years.

In 1965, Peninsular set up the Haven Life Insurance Company as a vehicle for acquiring other insurance companies. In 1966 Haven Life merged with the George Washington Life Insurance Company which had been incorporated in West Virginia on January 26, 1906, as the Southern States Mutual Life Insurance Company – The George Washington name was adopted in 1914. In 1974, the George Washington Company was separated from Peninsular and the McMillen Trust.

As we have seen, all of the companies discussed to this point were founded with small initial capital outlay and sold modest weekly premium policies. Virtually all of the companies developed similar to Independent – they went from a weekly premium base to a multi-product line.

We come now to a new phase in the history of Jacksonville’s insurance companies, commencing after World War II. The new kind of company founded during this period was well capitalized, selling ordinary and group insurance rather than weekly premium from their beginning.

The first of these was the Insurance Company of the South, incorporated here in 1951.  Raymond K. Mason gained control of the company in 1955 and it was merged in 1966 with the Carolina Casualty Insurance Company. The company did business under the Carolina Casualty name. It sold marine, auto and surety insurance.

Then came American Heritage Life Insurance Company, which was founded in Jacksonville in September of 1956. The initial funding of over a half-million dollars came from the sale of stock. An additional one million shares were sold later. The principal founders of the company included J. E. Davis, Chairman of the Board since 1956, the first President, Claude Kirk (the outside man and future governor of Florida), and Mr. Ashley Verlander, the inside man formerly with the Insurance Department of Georgia, who assumed the presidency in 1962. The unique thing about the start of American Heritage was that it started big with group insurance from a number of companies that provided products for Winn-Dixie Stores.

American Heritage was licensed to do business in 49 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Nassau, and wrote insurance in three principal lines: Ordinary, Group and Credit. The 1976 admitted assets exceeded $105 million; premium income in 1976 was over $80 million. American Heritage in 1982 had $5.1 billion worth of insurance in force.

Another company, The National Life Insurance Company of Florida, was founded in February of 1965 and began doing business in May. The founders were Loy Anderson, Cooper Cubbedge, Raymond Mason, Henry R. Kramer, W. E. Lovett, and Farris Bryant.  Of that group, only former Governor Bryant was still associated with the firm in 1982.

The company set up a subsidiary, National Variable Annuities of Florida and acquired the Sovereign State Insurance Company of Tennessee and the Eagle National Life Insurance Company of Miami.

In 1968, the National Life of Florida Corporation was formed as a holding company.  National Life Insurance Company of Florida became a subsidiary of the holding company and then had its name changed to the Voyager Life Insurance Company – so the National Life name survived only in the holding company. The company had an ordinary department and was heavily involved with marketing credit life insurance.

And now to the final of our home-based life insurance companies. The Dependable Life Insurance Company was incorporated in Florida on August 27, 1975. The principal was Herman Terry. Initial resources were a million and a half dollars, provided by the sale of three quarters of a million shares of stock. Dependable merged with Securities Guaranty Life of Phoenix, Arizona. In order to transfer the corporate domicile of the company to Florida, Securities Guaranty Life had been incorporated in 1956 with initial resources of $37,500.

In 1982, Jacksonville had 15 domiciled insurance companies. Besides those previously mentioned there was Eastern Insurance Company and Fortune Insurance Company, which were fire and casualty companies. Also, The Title Insurance Company of the South and The Title & Trust Company of Florida, both were obviously in the title insurance business.

The biggest insurance company, in terms of local employment – employing over 3,500 in 1982, was Blue Cross (founded in 1944) and Blue Shield (founded in 1946) a nonprofit organization primarily in the group insurance business. They also administered the Medicare Program for the State of Florida.

So what happened? Simply the insurance industry following the banking industry went through massive consolidation. At one time Jacksonville had all three of the big banks in Florida, no longer because of consolidation. In our case we had made a number of small acquisitions in the ‘80s and ‘90s but when time came to entertain a merger with another entity and share equity, our third-generation leadership opted to sell. Other factors included a more litigious society, increased competition from bigger consolidated companies and the cost of technology upgrades

Many other companies that made Jacksonville the Insurance Capital of the South made similar decisions based on the above facts. The regional situation has greatly diminished.  State Farm moved to central Florida years ago and Prudential is here but no longer one of the five regional US offices of the company as they have evolved into a more centralized operation.

We sold to American General out of Texas and five years later they were purchased by AIG, Hank Greenberg’s company. American Heritage was purchased by Allstate who still has an operation here. Today the industry is predominately made up very large companies or very small ones – the middle sector is very small.


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