Tier One Interview: Jerry Hester, CLU
In a Tier One first, we are chatting with a past Tier One interview subject to get an update on what they have been up to since our last conversation. And as you read the interview in full below, you can find out the exciting news that led us to featuring Jerry Hester for a second time.
JAY: Jerry, it has been 42 months since our initial interview and a lot has happened in your life. So much so, that I decided to sit down with you a second time to catch up and hear about how your work in the life insurance industry has evolved. First, I want to encourage our readers to learn all about you and your background by checking out that first interview.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, when we first became friends in 2018, you had an idea. That idea has become a reality. What has happened?
JERRY: Wow! First, thank you for having me back. I am honored to be the first returning guest; and I am humbled because I read every Tier One interview! You have interviewed some impressive insurance/financial professionals that have been impactful within our industry.
Getting to your question, my “idea” was starting a life insurance company. Not a life insurance brokerage but a life insurer!
Over the past 10+ years there are a few situations that I believe played a major role in my decision to take this journey. In 2014, I began a research project on the lack of minority representation in the life insurance industry for a presentation at a conference for a major life insurance organization. My research took me back to the late 1800s and early 1900s when there were many successful Black-owned life insurance companies including North Carolina Mutual, Atlanta Life and Golden State Mutual. My family is part of this history, my great-grandmother purchased policies from Atlanta Life.
As I learned more, I realized these were very successful businesses, not just life insurance companies. That was the first time I thought how great it would be to re-discover that success by developing a new life insurance company. Other pivotal moments along this journey were my time with Dave Downey at The Downey Group and meeting Campbell Gerrish of Winged Keel. I was unbelievably fortunate to learn from an industry legend like Dave Downey. The experience with Dave, Jay Downey (Dave’s son) and the entire Downey Group afforded me the opportunity to not just broker life insurance policies but learn specific elements of what it takes to create, build, and distribute life insurance products.
Images clockwise from top left: North Carolina Mutual, Golden State Mutual, Documents from Atlanta Life and Alonzo Herndon (founder of Atlanta Life Insurance Company)
Early in my tenure at The Downey Group around 2011, I met Campbell Gerrish and Michael Liebeskind, two of the founders of Winged Keel Group, at an industry conference. Campbell and Michael introduced me to private placement life insurance which sparked my interest to learn even more. I remember leaving the conference and spending every free minute reading everything associated with PPLI and PPVA, including law and tax regulations. My wife Simone would joke that if she couldn’t fall asleep, she would just ask me to tell her what I learned that night reading Internal Revenue Codes…ha!
In a nutshell, having a front row seat at The Downey Group, seeing life insurance products get created coupled with my knowledge of the private placement insurance industry gave me the confidence that I could build a private placement life insurance company. However, it was my passion to not only talk about change or make a presentation on change, but to take action and be part of the change I wanted to see. That pushed and motivated me to say “Hey, what are you waiting for…go do it!”
Being a successful broker has been great and I will definitely continue in that role, but building a life insurance company has the potential to have a larger impact well beyond my family’s and my lifetime. I am not big on quotes but one quote that ties into my decision to start a life insurance company is Muhammed Ali’s quote: “Impossible is just a word…”
JAY: When you first mentioned that you wanted to start a life insurance company, I tried to talk you out of it for several months. Then, you talked me into helping you! Tell me about Verve International Insurance Ltd. and its differentiation in the marketplace.
JERRY: When you and I became friends, I knew you would be brutally honest on whether this idea was worth pursuing. I still remember us sitting down for breakfast in Chicago and you giving me a look and politely telling me “No, don’t do it.” What I appreciated about our early conversations was that you didn’t just say “no,” you also gave me the “why not.” You had valid reasons why I shouldn’t move forward with starting a life insurance company. Interestingly, I never felt discouraged, my brain processed your feedback as “why not?” I felt challenged to make improvements to the plan and reach back out to get your thoughts on the adjustments. I was persistent. What I eventually realized is that you needed to see the vision and passion of what Verve International would be and what it would represent. This was bigger than me and you.
JAY: I can’t say that I like the thought of my place in life insurance history as being an initial impediment to a historic business! It is a good thing you are an incredible salesperson and helped me to see what was possible.
JERRY: As a business, Verve International Insurance Ltd is a private placement life insurer providing Private Placement Variable Annuities (PPVA). Verve is domiciled in Barbados but makes a 953d election to be treated as US domestic life insurance company. This election could provide some unique advantages to policyholders. For me, Verve International Insurance Ltd. is more than just a life insurance company. We are an empowerment brand. Verve represents taking ownership - literally and figuratively - and not letting circumstances or traditional thinking prevent you from doing what you are passionate about and what you believe you can accomplish.
What will differentiate us is our business structure. Private placement insurance products are, by nature, transparent and allow for all parties involved to benefit fairly. A client knows exactly what they are paying for, and insurance professionals are not overly incentivized with large upfront commissions. However, I still noticed inefficiencies in the current private placement business model upon which Verve International could improve.
One area I knew I could improve upon was pricing. The insurance industry is very old, so even as innovative and transparent as private placement insurance can be, there is still a little bit of tradition that creeps into the equation. Also, having more than one party have input into what pricing looks like per policy can lead to inflated costs ultimately impacting the policyowner. Our enhanced transparency will give clients and their advisors confidence in the pricing of our PPVA policies.
Secondly, we are exclusively client focused. While we welcome some broker relationships, we aren’t spending time and resources to build an enormous sales distribution. From the insurer’s perspective, in my opinion, large distribution channels have the potential to indirectly create more costs and/or weaken customer service. Through strategic relationship alignment we believe our clients will have an industry-leading customer service experience.
Another differentiator is being a minority-owned life insurer, which I consider added value. First and foremost, we will be exceptional at what we do and be extremely competitive in the market. But we can’t ignore our unique position in the industry. Many institutions have mandates and/or goals for working with minority-owned businesses. Institutions have struggled to implement strategies to work with minority-owned investment firms in a meaningful way. Verve, to our knowledge, presents a first of its kind opportunity for institutional clients.
Also, we believe we can attract business from sources that have not been explored in the private placement insurance world. Knowing there is a lack of minority participation in the overall insurance industry, you can imagine what it looks like in the private placement industry. Not just on the broker or insurance company side but there were very few minority-owned investment managers and, to my knowledge, zero Black-owned investment managers participating on private placement insurance platforms.
Conversely, minority-owned alternative investment managers that have consistently performed are starting to see more opportunities. Private placement insurance is sometimes described as the intersection between insurance and investments - Verve will expand that by ensuring inclusivity at that intersection.
Jerry with the most important member of the Verve team - Leo!
JAY: I will come back to how private placement variable annuities are used by individual and institutional clients in a bit. First, is it easy to start a life insurance company? What goes into it?
JERRY: I feel like that is a rhetorical question…ha! I am very passionate about this opportunity, so I don’t think I looked at it as easy or hard. But yes, there is a lot of work that goes into starting a life insurance company. Fortunately, I immediately engaged your company’s formation services and Life Insurance Strategies Group was able to open a number of doors in Barbados. One of the warmest welcomes we received was from your friend and our now-attorney, Sir Trevor Carmichael.
As we expected, for a while, every time we felt like real progress was being made, more would need to be added to the “To-Do” list.
There were many decisions that we needed to make before applying for a life insurer license. I won’t bore the Tier One audience with every detail but some of the initial questions we had to answer included:
What product/solutions will we offer?
What jurisdiction should we domicile the company?
Obviously, I couldn’t do this alone so building a strong team was vital and the first step. There was experience and expertise needed on the team, but it was important to also have people willing to challenge one other when needed. Dave Downey told me a long time ago “If two people are in a room and they agree on everything…one of them is not necessary.” Diversity of thought, in my opinion, is critical to success and growth. From day one, Verve is walking it’s talk when it comes to being inclusive.
For example, one of the longest parts of the process was finding an actuary. There were plenty of highly qualified actuaries to choose from just based on a simple Google or LinkedIn search. However, these simple searches didn’t lead to any women or people of color. I purposefully looked for independent women and minority-owned actuarial firms to add to our interview list before deciding. During that process we ended up finding a minority-owned firm that helped us with our initial actuarial review of our PPVA product.
This is just a glimpse into what needed to happen before we applied for a license. Applying for the license was a tedious and thorough process. I am not complaining because it showed us that they aren’t just handing insurance company licenses out to anybody. There is an exhaustive amount of due diligence and background checks done to make sure we were qualified to run a life insurer.
Additionally, there was the development of an Illustration system, document creation which included private placement memorandums and other policy documents. Countless meetings, conference calls and late-night emails back-and-forth. This is just a summary but to get some perspective, once the team came together, everything I just mentioned and more has taken almost 2 years to get to where we are today.
JAY: You are fortunate because members of the Man Family joined you in forming Verve. Andy Man is well-known for starting Apeiron Group, one of the top producing international brokerages for high-net-worth clients outside of the United States. His son, Jonathan, is a Harvard graduate who practiced law and formed a hedge fund and having the distribution expertise Andy and Jonathan bring will certainly be a tremendous benefit. Like you, they also had strong feelings about the make-up of U.S. life insurance industry, didn’t they?
JERRY: That’s right. Andy Man is Verve’s Vice Chairman and a Board Director and Jonathan is our President. My first introduction to the Man family was reading Justin Man’s early 2020 Tier One interview with you. Justin is Andy’s son and Jonathan’s younger brother. I recalled thinking how impressive Justin and his family are. Later, you introduced me to Andy and Jonathan in person and just like the famous quote from the movie Jerry MacGuire, “you had me at hello.”
As you mentioned, Andy is a global insurance industry giant. Andy is the total package. He listens, processes quickly and communicates very effectively. It was very easy to see why Andy was running a successful international insurance business.
Jonathan has been instrumental in the success of Apeiron, but he has also been a successful attorney and financial entrepreneur. I quickly learned Jonathan has an eye for detail like no one I have ever seen. If you ever have to find a needle in haystack…call Jonathan; not only, will he find it, but it probably won’t take him long…Jonathan is very efficient! I believe we complement each other, and they share my vision on inclusivity and focusing on being the best not the biggest.
JAY: Speaking of distribution, why will clients choose to work with Verve and what can they hope to accomplish with your PPVA?
JERRY: You mean Andy, Jonathan and I aren’t enough? Ha! As I mentioned previously, Verve is exclusively client focused. To expand a little, each of us works directly with clients and advisors so the decisions we make for Verve are based on real-life, real-time experiences. I’ve said it a couple times now, but we believe in being the best not the biggest – and see our size as an advantage. Private placement insurance is bespoke, and every client’s needs are different, so we can act quickly and make decisions promptly.
Next, our price efficiency. There aren’t external pricing levers that would add costs to a client.
Another benefit for our policyholders is international market access. Unlike with policyholders of a domestic insurer, Verve’s policyholder’s have access to non-U.S. investment options, managers, and custodians. This can provide opportunities for Verve to serve clients globally, and for these clients to take advantage of investment and planning strategies in different jurisdictions.
At its core, our PPVA solution is designed to create tax efficiency around investments including many alternative investment asset classes that include Hedge Funds, Private Credit, Private Equity, Real Estate and many more. Policyholders will experience compounding growth on assets by deferring and/or eliminating income tax challenges that include ordinary income tax, corporate income tax and unrelated business income tax (UBTI). This impacts both individuals and institutions.
For individuals, our PPVA solution solves issues/concerns around charitable giving, long-term retirement income, estate planning and enhanced creditor and asset protection.
For institutions, we will primarily work with tax-exempt organizations such as foundations, endowments and pension plans and their asset managers to address UBTI effectively and efficiently. Currently, PPVA is an underutilized strategy by asset managers and tax-exempt institutions. We plan to be very active in this space which starts with education.
JAY: Four years ago, you had an idea and today that idea is a reality. It isn’t a stretch for me to believe that you have a vision of where Verve will be in four years. What are you planning?
JERRY: From a product-solution perspective, we see Verve as a leader in providing PPVAs in the markets mentioned above. Eventually, we want to expand our business into providing life insurance products. We have some innovative ideas on how to structure life insurance products that may impact how insurance companies and reinsurers develop and price PPLI policies, but we will cross that bridge when we get there.
We also want to see Verve as a change agent that exposes more women and minorities to the insurance industry. I don’t want to talk too much about the vision down the road… my feet are firmly planted on the ground and focused on the opportunity Verve has today that will get us there in the future.
JAY: I am curious about how all of this went down at home. How did your wife, Simone, and your children, Jerry III and Jordyn, react when you told them what you wanted to do? And how do they feel today?
JERRY: I am very lucky and fortunate to have strong support from my family. My wife is my biggest cheerleader and vice versa. If you have a video conference with me, you will see my wife’s art and photography behind me. I purposely shared my goal of starting a life insurance company with Jordyn and Jerry III because, as parents, we set the example and by saying it out loud, I knew that would hold me accountable and give me that extra motivation.
My family not only provided emotional support, but they were involved. Our daughter started her college career as a graphic design major but graduated Magna Cum Laude in Communications, so she designed the Verve logo with some help from Simone. Our son, Jerry III, who just wrapped up his freshmen year at Louisiana State University, had the idea of adding the three secondary colors under the arrow on the right side of “V”. Simone, with a little outside help, designed our website and has been involved with the look and aesthetic of some Verve documents.
JAY: Even though this is our second interview, I have to stick with tradition and ask you the restaurant question. Last time, we discussed Polish food. Without naming a steakhouse or a steak dish, tell me about a few spots I need to visit and what I should order when I’m there.
JERRY: I’ll save some of the best spots in Barbados for our third interview, Jay! For this interview, let me start with an amazing breakfast and lunch spot – Batter & Berries. They currently have two locations in the Chicagoland area. They are known for their French Toast. In general, I am not a huge French Toast fan but LOVE them at Batter & Berries. You may need to add a couple extra workouts before and after dining here but it is 100% worth it!!!
Next, Virtue Restaurant is located in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago close to University of Chicago. Virtue is American Southern Cuisine. The Owner and Executive Chef Erick Williams is a James Beard award winner.
For dessert, go to Shawn Michelle’s Homemade Ice Cream. They have two locations including their Bronzeville neighborhood store that was featured on the popular food series “Somebody Feed Phil”.
Since its inception, Life Insurance Strategies Group has solely focused on the individual high net worth life insurance market. We do not sell products. This allows us to offer unbiased, pragmatic advice. Visit us at www.lifeinsurancestrategiesgroup.com.