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Sunday, April 21, 2024

NC trend: Speedy the Rhino enlivens Durham annuity seller Aspida

The GSD Award is given to the Aspida employee every quarter who got s%#@ done.

Every quarter, the staff at Durham-based Aspida Financial Services gathers for a town hall meeting where an employee receives its GSD Award, so named after the phrase “Get S*#* Done.” Amid loud cheers, Chief People Officer Sandy Ball announces why the staffer was chosen.

The most recent winner was a senior cybersecurity engineer who built the life insurance company’s occupational risk dashboards. She received a giant poop emoji trophy – not your typical employee of the month award. “We think we’re cool insurance,” says Ball. “It’s not this whole stodgy thing.”

Less than three years old, Aspida Financial has grown to more than $10 billion in assets under management by selling fixed annuities with a simple strategy — build software that allows it to approve annuity applications faster than peers. The new technology helps staffers avoid antiquated systems that at times bedevil older insurers. A vibrant work environment has also attracted talented people, Ball says. 

A subsidiary of Los Angeles-based asset manager Ares Management, Aspida has almost doubled its staff to 154 in the past year, hiring 70 people nationally. It’s in a 32,000-square-feet office on the edge of Research Triangle Park looks more like a biotech company than a life insurer, with pink neon lobby lights and sayings from Mahatma Gandhi and others printed on the walls. It’s expanding into another 10,000 square feet. 

Chief Financial Officer Brian Stewart says the company is mulling an initial public offering in 2027 if the markets are receptive.

“Our size and technical know-how makes us agile,” says Stewart. “A lot of our competitors take eight weeks to process an annuity app. We’ve issued a contract in as little as 21 seconds.” The company’s mascot, Speedy the Rhino, pops up in its marketing materials and on its website.

Stewart, Ball, CEO Lou Hensley and some other Aspida executives previously worked at Richmond, Virginia-based Genworth Financial, a large insurer that now focuses on long-term care insurance. Ares created the business in 2021 by buying an insurance company shell, as well as a Bermuda-based reinsurer, and renamed it Aspida, the Greek word for shield. Last year, it launched sales of annuity products through independent agents and is about to start selling through an unnamed bank. Ares manages about $360 billion in assets, including Aspida’s investment portfolio.

Annuities have become more popular as interest rates shot up in the last year, with industry sales surging 22% to $310 billion last year, according to the industry’s Life Insurance Marketing and Research Association, or LIMRA. Among the industry leaders is Charlotte-based Brighthouse Financial, which reported annuity sales of $11.5 billion last year, a 26% increase.

Fixed annuities are a more stable business than variable annuities, whose returns are typically tied to stock market performance, says Michael Adams, an associate director at insurance rating agency A.M. Best.  “[It’s] a very competitive environment. There are risk mitigation strategies that insurers can implement, and Aspida has done a good job managing these risks.” 

A.M. Best rates Aspida A- for financial strength rating, which is considered excellent on the company’s A+ to D scale.

Because the company is so young, it’s not burdened with out-of-date technology, says Stewart. Its marketing materials also avoid “insurance speak,” aiming to avoid the industry’s historically dense and archaic subject matter.

Then there’s the corporate culture. During a Business North Carolina Best Employers event that recognized the company, Stewart cartwheeled down the aisle. Two pickleball courts outside Aspida’s office are regularly booked. It pays for lunch on Tuesdays, and a recent field day included food trucks. There’s a walking competition among the staff, and in August, the company offered “roam days” to enable staff to work anywhere. In part of August, Stewart worked from California.

To build that culture, officials say they purposely hire employees with non-insurance backgrounds, complementing those with specific insurance skill sets. The goal is for a fresh perspective, innovation and an urgency to act.

Aspida’s staff recently worked on a new fixed annuity with an income rider designed to guarantee a specific growth rate. Just weeks before its launch, the company delayed the rollout, a decision a larger insurer may not have made. 

“For us, it’s about the power of moments,” says Ball. “Creating experiences — whether fleeting or lasting — that really impact our employees. From new hire orientation to special benefits like roam days to our most coveted award — the GSD Award — we look for ways to attract, engage, and retain our team that make us stand out as an employer of choice.”

Chris Roush
Chris Roush
Chris Roush is executive editor of Business North Carolina. He can be reached at croush@businessnc.com.

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