Art Williams brings magic back to Primerica

By Maria Saporta
Atlanta Business Chronicle, June 24‑30, 2011

The Georgia Dome pulsated with excitement, music, cheering, stomping, clapping and screams from 40,000 people who were bouncing beach balls in their jubilation. The loudspeakers blasted: “We will, we will rock you.”

But this was not a sporting event or a political convention.

This was the first time in four years that Primerica Inc., a life insurance and financial services firm, had come together to hold a convention of its North American sales force.

To begin the evenings’ events of June 17, the Dome suddenly went dark. And then fireworks began to explode – including a curtain wall of fire on the stage.

“Wow,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed while welcoming the Primerica conventioneers to the city. “Welcome back! I told my staff backstage that the WWF (World Wrestling Federation) doesn’t have anything on Primerica.”

The mood of the evening was especially upbeat because it was the first convention since Primerica regained its independence. Until April 2010, Primerica had been a subsidiary of New York‑based Citigroup Inc.

It took Primerica’s co‑CEO, John Addison, several minutes to be able to speak because the crowd was so pumped up. Rick Williams, Primerica’s chairman and co‑CEO, stood back to watch the spectacle unfold.

Then the moment came that everyone had been waiting for.

Addison introduced his mentor – Art Williams – who had founded the A.L. Williams & Associates life insurance company in 1977. (He’s not related to Rick Williams.) A.L. Williams later became Primerica, but at the 2011 convention, it was as if Primerica and A.L. Williams had reunited in spirit.

As he came on stage, Williams was greeted with an even louder and longer standing ovation. This was the first time in 20 years that Williams had addressed a Primerica gathering, and the attendees were making up for lost time.

Williams, who became a billionaire while building A.L. Williams, came out dressed in khaki shorts (that didn’t hide a knee brace on his left leg) and a long‑sleeved T‑shirt that said “Do It BIG.”

“I wore my coaching clothes tonight,” said Williams, a former high school football coach, who began coaching the crowd – much in the way he had run the insurance company decades ago.

“A.L. Williams was born with 85 people here in Atlanta, Ga.,” Williams said. “We had a crusade, and we grew to an army of 225,000. You know what?”

“What?” the crowd roared back.

“You know what? In 1977, 86 percent of life insurance was cash value life insurance. Today, 95 percent of life insurance is term. And A.L. Williams did that. We changed an industry.”

Then in a momentary lapse to the present, Williams spoke to Primerica’s co‑CEOs.

“I believe the magic is back,” Williams said. “I love John and Rick. I love their leadership. They have seized the moment.”

Then he wandered back in time, to how he started working part time selling insurance during the off season of coaching high school football.

“I never got over how much money you could make part time,” Williams said. “A.L. Williams was not a sales company. It was a chance to go in business for yourself – to build a company within a company.”

The sales force had two goals. To sell life insurance and to recruit new sales folks to their teams, which in turn would go out and sell life insurance and recruit new sales folks to build their own teams.

“Building big teams requires you having passion about what you do. It’s got to be more than just about money,” said Williams, who went on another rant about cash value life insurance. “How could those jokers sell that crap? Our mission was to destroy cash value life insurance and build financial independence. Our goal was to destroy those jokers.”

Then Williams explained the impact of having a pyramid‑like sales organization.

“The secret of our exploding growth – A.L. Williams grew by multiplying growth, not by addition,” he said.

But most of Williams’ talk was imparting advice to Primerica’s sales force, which is now about half of what it was during the heyday of A.L. Williams.

His advice included: “Build personal relationships.” “You win with your heart, not your head.” “You only control two things: your attitude (positive or negative) and your activity – be a leader or sit on your butt.” “Everybody hates a boss, but everybody needs a coach. The worst two words in the English language are: ‘I can’t.’” “You can never show hurt. You can never show doubt.” “Have a balanced life.” “Find something you believe in.”

Then Williams reflected on his own life.

“I’m 69 years old, but I feel 16,” Williams said. “You are here on this Earth for just a flicker of time. Your tombstone can read: ‘Here lies a stud’ or ‘Here lies a dud.’”

Then he said the Lord’s hand had been with him at A.L. Williams, and that he had been “blessed with a wonderful wife,” who he had met when he was just a child.

“All the money in the world can’t compensate for what you have at home,” said Williams, adding that at 62 he had had open‑heart surgery. “Nothing good comes easy.”

For that evening, Art Williams was back at Primerica, serving as its guiding light. At the end of his talk, Addison and Rick Williams gave him a warm bear hug before they all turned around to wave at the crowd.

The Georgia Dome once again began pulsating with Primerica energy – a clear sign that the Atlanta‑based insurance company had rediscovered its freedom, its independence and its roots.