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- November 20, 1989
- Vol. 32
- No. 21
Ex-Football Coach Art Williams Runs a Winning Insurance Firm, but Some People Are Crying Foul
"Insurance companies don't hate me as much as I hate them!" he declares. "Ri-ight?" "Right!" roars the audience.
Not every founder of a major American company motivates his sales staff with phrases like "kick some goddam butt" Right? Right But Art Williams isn't your standard CEO. Rather, he is one of the country's most unusual success stories, a former high school football coach who started his own insurance business and quickly hit the big leagues. Today the company, based in Duluth, Ga., just north of Atlanta, has active policies totaling $273 billion in force in death benefits and is writing more individual life insurance than anyone else in the United States.
"I'm just a country boy who grew up on a football field," says Williams. The son of a high school coach in Cairo, Ga., Art attended Mississippi State College and then spent seven years coaching the Columbus, Ga., high school football team and was twice named Georgia's coach of the year. But his earnings from selling insurance part-time for ITT Financial Services soon outstripped his school pay, and Williams began to develop some iconoclastic views on the industry. In 1977 he recruited a sales force of 85 "true believers" from among his ITT colleagues and launched A.L. Williams. The company now has nearly 200,000 agents selling its products and Williams's personal fortune is estimated to be more than $200 million. With his former childhood sweetheart, Angela, Williams lives in a secluded mansion outside Atlanta and carefully guards his private life. (Their four adult children have left home.) A fitness fanatic and teetotaler, he donated $1 million to Rev. Pat Robertson's presidential bid.
Even when he sits in his large wood-paneled office, dressed in a suit and tie, Williams's demeanor reeks of the locker room. He calls his salesmen "studs," his competitors "pansies." On training videos, pumping up his team to despise the guys in the other jerseys, he snarls convincingly, "I hate Prudential!"
The old-line insurance companies are not too fond of him either, and they are not alone. For if A.L. Williams is one of the fastest-growing companies in the U.S., it is also one of the most controversial. Three states have investigated Williams for alleged deceptive trade practices and other irregularities, though two have ruled that there were no improprieties. His competitors charge that the company is more interested in recruiting salesmen than customers. And some disgruntled ex-employees go even further, claiming that A.L. Williams is running a "cult."
His harshest critics, though, all agree that Williams has built up his business on an essentially sound premise—and one too long soft-pedaled by the monolithic insurance industry. Until Williams came along, much of the life insurance sold in this country was as expensive cash-value policies that doubled as savings plans. Williams is not the first to note that as investment vehicles, they're no bargain; but his company is the first major firm to crusade aggressively against what he calls "trash value" insurance.
A.L. Williams agents sell only term insurance—policies with a lower premium that provide a death benefit and nothing more. Consumer groups like the Ralph Nader-affiliated National Insurance Consumer Organization in Alexandria, Va., admit this is a welcome shake-up of the hidebound insurance establishment. But though NICO recommends term insurance, it warns consumers away from Williams because, it claims, in their extraordinary zeal to rack up sales figures, the Williams agents often push their most expensive coverage and urge buyers to replace policies indiscriminately. "Williams has taken a good idea and gone too far with it," says NICO director Jim Hunt.
Just how much too far is a question of abiding interest to industry observers. Alan Press, President of the National Association of Life Underwriters charges that A.L. Williams is a "multilevel marketing system" in which an individual's earnings are based less on selling insurance policies than on finding other people to sell for you and taking a cut of their commissions. "Significant income can only be made when you reach a very high level," he says. "Eighty-five percent of the people who sign on drop out."
Morever, embittered former employees claim that these elaborate compensation formulas are changed at will by Art Williams—and that this is only one of many ways that he exerts arbitrary and capricious control over the sales force. Rick Smith, who as director of agency administration had access to company files, quit last February after 12 years in the company. "A.L. Williams was my life, morning, noon and night. But the more I saw people get hurt, the more I spoke out and the worse I felt," he says. "One employee openly expressed his concern when Art kept changing the compensation system. In return, Art dubbed him a 'half-butt,' demoted him and put him on probation. The company made me sick."
But no one has taken his disenchantment with the Williams organization more to heart than Robert Michael, who has launched a public information campaign against the company. Michael, 52, joined A.L. Williams in 1982, after leaving his job as a captain in the Los Angeles Police Department. He rose to become a regional sales director before developing doubts about the company. "Things just didn't add up," he says. "The rules kept changing, but no one was permitted any dissent." Rather, Williams had a habit of publicly attacking malcontents on his Monday-morning television program, which provides an insight into Art's management style. "You saw emotional outbursts, venom, the hate—and you really began to see how he could manipulate people," says Michael. "For instance, he would take back raises on the air, and everyone would just sit and accept whatever he said."
In 1986 Michael was fired because, he says, "I felt they wanted me to perform questionable acts, such as paying commissions to unlicensed salesmen, and I refused." In July of that year, he sued the company on nine counts, including bad faith and conspiracy. After 18 months he won an arbitration award of $45,451—not the millions he sought, observes A.L. Williams legal counsel Stan Shapiro, "but he nonetheless won." But the award was not for bad faith or conspiracy.
Meanwhile Michael has labored to expose A.L. Williams as "a cult which uses business rather than religion as its foundation." Along with his wife, Gwen, and his son Bob Jr., 22—who also worked for Williams and was fired along with his father—Michael has opened an A.L. Williams information center in a San Diego mall. The company, they charge, resembles a cult: It is authoritarian—"Art is the absolute leader—no one can challenge him," notes Michael. It is exclusive—"only Williams possesses the truth, everyone else is wrong." And it is paranoid—"the whole company is based on a make-believe adversarial relationship with the established life-insurance business." (Williams claims, for example, that the jealous competitors are to blame for the various state investigations.) It also demands absolute conformity, Michael says, as to "how you and your wife must dress, the cars you can drive, even your hairstyle." (The company says it has no such rules.)
At first, says Michael, "we thought we were the only people who felt this way." Then last year he self-published An Exposition of A.L. Williams. The 112-page book quickly became a bible for a growing number of disenchanted A.L. Williams alumni, and Michael began receiving invitations to talk around the country.
"Michael couldn't cut it here," says Art Williams. "His [employees] came to us in outrage." The company is disseminating a large dossier on Michael, which includes material on a disciplinary action taken against Michael by the LAPD for holding on to library books. (But George Aliano, President of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, says Michael is "highly intelligent, and if he thinks he sees something wrong, he says so.")
According to Steve Hassan, a prominent cult counselor and author of Combatting Cult Mind Control, more and more people are coming to him about A.L. Williams. "It is now one of the organizations in the country that concerns me the most," he says.
"A cult is one of the nicest things they have said about me," Williams says with a laugh. "I don't mind being the most hated man in life insurance. I love it. You don't play football on the field to play nice." Williams dismisses his critics as poor losers. "No one can beat us—I keep sticking it up their butt," he says. "The scoreboard tells the story."
But an investigation now under way in the state of Tennessee raises more questions. Last May, Lewis F. Elrod, the state's supervisor of insurance investigations, began to examine several complaints of improper or illegal practices at A.L. Williams, many of which were unfounded. The state is, however, concerned about the company's relationship to Charles (Boe) Adams, who served time for stock and land fraud in the 1970s. State law bars Adams because he's unlicensed and, therefore, should not share in insurance commissions, yet Adams earns an estimated $5 million as a consultant to A.L. Williams. "We are the most scrutinized company that's ever sold life insurance," Williams says. "The competition would like to get rid of us, but they can't."
There is, in fact, big money to be made in the Williams organization and quite a few people making it. So it's no wonder that legions of Williams salesmen and women are quite satisfied with their jobs. They arrive by the busload in Duluth and take snapshots of corporate headquarters. Says Southern California-based national sales director Doug Hartman, a 10-year veteran of the company: "I love A.L. Williams—the company grew not because of slick sales tools but because of the product we offer. Art is a very good leader. He really communicates with Middle America."
Last June, Williams sold 70 percent of his insurance agency to the conglomerate Primerica for $75 million, according to Forbes magazine. But he still controls the sales force, having signed a 20-year contract to run that aspect of the business for a reported $35 million a year in compensation. The deal, he says, legitimizes his success: A respected Fortune 500 company would hardly buy a disreputable enterprise. Still the ranks of the disaffected seem to be growing. In some states, they have even formed support groups. Says Randy Stelk, a former national sales director who was fired on TV in 1987 for what he says were trumped up charges: "Art is the P.T. Barnum of insurance—he sells a dream but you live a nightmare."
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