James Speed Jr. did so well as a
CPA for Deloitte and Touche, then as part of Hardee’s senior management team
and in individual investing, that he retired at 46. He had to be coaxed back
to work as CEO of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. in 2002.
But Speed, now 51, says his life
did not always go so smoothly. After a high school teacher encouraged him to
study accounting, Speed, a North Carolina native, entered N.C. Central
University in Durham in 1971. “I went to study and have fun,” Speed says.
Among other things, he met his wife, Thedora, there. But the fun got in the
way of his doing his best. When he graduated in 1975 his grades were not
stellar, and he went to job interview after job interview without success.
After the interviews stretched to
10, then 15, without a job offer, friends chided Speed, asking him why he
kept going. “I only need one job,” he told them. Finally, he landed that
first job with Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. in Pittsburgh. But, there, too,
Speed’s potential did not surface right away. “My first job evaluation
wasn’t very good,” Speed says. “I resolved then and there that this would
never happen again.”
Speed, who enjoys motivational
books and tapes such as Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence
People,” and Napoleon Hill’s classic “Think and Grow Rich,” and Norman
Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking,” among others, draws
lessons from adversity. “I like to tell people that when things go wrong, if
you learn from it and move on, it makes you stronger.” It’s a philosophy
that shapes his personal and professional life. Like the stories of those
motivational writers and speakers, Speed’s stories always end with the
lessons he learned.
Speed grew up in Oxford, the
middle child of three. His late mother, Elizabeth, who had a stroke when
giving birth to Speed’s younger brother, also had sickle cell anemia. “One
of the things I learned from my mother was courage,” Speed says. “Sickle
cell anemia causes a lot of aches and pains, but whenever anyone asked her
how she was doing, she’d say ‘OK,’ even though I knew she wasn’t. It gave me
the courage to say that whatever the world throws your way, you can always
deal with it.”
Speed recalls that he also
learned from his aunt, Betty Green, who helped his partially disabled mother
out around the house. “No matter how bad things were, she always saw another
side,” he recalls.
Speed says his mixed income
neighborhood in Oxford also taught him lessons, such as how to get along
with people of all types. He particularly remembers an N.C. Mutual Insurance
salesman, Marshall Cooper. “Other than our teachers and the minister, he was
the only person we knew who wore a necktie to work,” says Speed. “Some of
the kids in the neighborhood wanted to do what Mr. Cooper did because he
wore a necktie to work.” Speed notes that Cooper, who was a deacon in
Speed’s family church, was also, like others in the neighborhood, very
supportive, “willing to take kids off to picnics whether they were his or
Speed’s father, a disciplinarian,
made sure the kids did well in school. “Not doing well wasn’t an option,”
says Speed. “The worst thing you could hear was ‘wait until your father gets
home,’ because then you would really get it,” he says. His father, too, had
to deal with adversity, suffering from a disease that causes deterioration
of the cornea and undergoing multiple cornea transplants as a result,
something his brother also suffers from.
Speed himself was “blessed with
good health and of 12 years in school had perfect attendance for nine,” he
Speed played baseball, football
and basketball in high school and some basketball in college. He still takes
his father, James Sr., who now lives in Oxford, to Braves games in Atlanta,
and says the key lesson he learned from sports was the value of teamwork.
“We had a good basketball team in my junior year of high school and we did
well,” he recalls. “In my senior year, a lot of the same players came back.
It was a better team — but didn’t do as well because too many of them played
He found his future career when
his sister began talking about a bookkeeping course she really liked in high
school. “So, I took the course and did quite well,” Speed says. “The teacher
said, ‘James, you’d be a good accountant.’ I asked what an accountant did.
She told me bookkeeping and taxes and they make good money.” So, he
graduated from N.C. Central with a degree in accounting in 1975.
Despite the aforementioned early
setbacks, Speed’s own career started its steadily upward course when he
picked up a copy of Black Enterprise magazine while on an airplane to
Puerto Rico while still with PPG. There, he read about MBA graduates at
Atlanta University earning $25,000 a year. “That was a lot of money then,”
Speed says. So he entered the school’s MBA program.
Speed had learned from his
experience at N.C. Central, though, and this time, he worked hard to reach
his potential. He graduated as the top student in his accounting class at
Atlanta University and was named the “Most Outstanding Student” in the
business program. As a result, Speed had job offers from all the eight
pre-Enron large accounting firms, he says.
At Raleigh’s Deloitte & Touche
office, Speed met Willie Closs Jr., another African American, who convinced
him they would be more than just token minority executives at that firm,
which actively recruited minority business. Closs, now an executive vice
president with N.C. Mutual, says they proved very successful at bringing in
minority clients for the firm.
One of Speed’s later clients at
Deloitte & Touche was N.C. Mutual, the largest minority managed insurance
company in the United States, which he audited for 10 years. “So I’ve known
Bert Collins, my predecessor (and now chairman of the board) for 20 years.
I’ve known many of the current and retired employees, and some of them
trained me,” says Speed.
Closs, who acquired the N.C.
Mutual account for Deloitee & Touche, and later joined the insurance firm,
says, “When I came here, James audited me.” How was that? “He’s a dot the i
and cross the t kind of guy,” says Closs. “I admire his integrity and
professionalism.” Closs, who’s known Speed for 25 years, says his
professional demeanor even shows at a baseball game. “He’s not the sort of
guy who’s going to curse at the umpire or throw a cup on the ground,” Closs
says. “On casual Friday’s, he breaks down and wears a sports coat.”
Speed says working for Deloitte &
Touche taught him to see the importance of details. The company checked the
work of its auditors carefully. He worked for the firm 12 years and was in
the process of becoming a partner when in 1991 Hardee’s, the Rocky
Mount-based fast food chain, offered him a senior management position. Speed
took the job, which did not prove the easiest he would ever have. “We had
four presidents in the nine years I worked for them,” Speed says.
Again, he learned lessons from
difficulties. “I was there about six months when they downsized our
department by 25 percent. I learned how important people are to a company,”
he says. And he applied a lesson he learned from sports.
“Over the next few years, we
were able to get a lot more done,” Speed says, “even with 25 percent fewer
people, because we worked as a team. There were things we didn’t think we
could accomplish in terms of changing processes, but when we got our team
involved, not just the managers, it showed us how much we could do when we
got everyone on the same page.”
Speed also invests in stocks as a
hobby. To this day he spends evening hours at a computer pursuing it. But
after spending more than a decade at Hardee’s, he retired at 46 to pursue
personal investing as a livelihood. Speed says he took the time off because
he wanted to spend time with his family, including daughter Kiera, now in
college at UNC-Chapel Hill. “You only get one chance to do that and I didn’t
want to miss out on it,” Speed explains.
Speed still invests, often on
weekends on a computer in a basement office. He prefers to invest in
companies with consumable products, he says, such as Philip Morris and
When Bert Collins and Willie
Closs of N.C. Mutual began courting Speed to join the company, he resisted
returning to fulltime work. They coaxed him, but he continued to resist. So
they brought him on as a consultant. In that role, Speed says, “I saw the
potential this company has.”
The company, then up among the
high 400s in terms of gross premiums, had experienced some troubles due to
poor results from insuring college students. Speed, however, saw the company
had good people and with new spirit could move forward. “One time in my
career,” Speed says, “I asked someone, ‘man, why isn’t it easier?’” He said,
“Don’t wish it were easier. Wish you were better.” He adopted that as
something of a personal philosophy that you see in the way he approaches his
day to day duties at N.C. Mutual.
When he finally accepted the CEO
position at N.C. Mutual in 2003, Speed immediately began imparting his
vision for the company’s future. “No matter what happens, if you keep moving
forward, things will get better,” Speed says. He wants the company to become
one of the top 150 insurance companies in terms of gross premiums, and in
his three years it has moved from $70 million annually to $140 million
annually. Speed notes that the company has taken on re-insurers to manage
its risk, reducing its net premium take, but plans to keep more of the
business as its new processes continue to take effect.
N.C. Mutual spent $1.5 million on
marketing and expansion in 2004 and plans to replicate that investment this
year. “The message we want to send is not to just do business with an
African-American company, but to do business with a solid company that
provides the solutions people expect,” he says.
Since Speed took the helm, N.C.
Mutual has deepened relationships with businesses such as Sprint, Abbott
Laboratories, Progress Energy and with the state of North Carolina. He
phased out money-losing accident policies, increased financial reserves and
set the stage for national expansion. N.C. Mutual plans to widen its
footprint from the current 22 states to all but New York, where costs are
deemed too high, he says.
Speed says he plans to roughly
double the sales staff to about 60 this year and recruit more independent
resellers in metropolitan areas with high concentrations of
African-Americans. The company currently has about 180 employees.
“Go back in history. Anyone
successful always had to overcome something to move forward. That’s part of
vision: you don’t get tripped up by the obstacles sent your way. You deal
with them. I truly believe we can be a billion-dollar company,” he says.
Associates say Speed delegates
authority rather than trying to micro-manage the company. “He’s a visionary
and he empowers people who work for him,” says Gracie Johnson, human
resources director for the company. “He’ll spell out what the objectives are
and holds people accountable.”
Johnson says she worried a little
about whether an accountant would be entirely focused on “how much does it
cost,” as CEO. The question gets asked, she says, but “his first question is
about morale. He cares about people.”
Johnson says she saw that when,
after working to put through a change in the way employees were paid, an
initiative that evolved from employee requests, a small group raised some
objections in a letter to Speed.
“He called me and said, ‘Let’s
slow down,’ and that worried me because I don’t like flip-flops,” Johnson
says. “But we just delayed it two months to give employees a chance to get
ready for it. That’s James’ approach. He listens. When he says he has an
open door, he does. He’s not just talking the talk, he walks the walk.”
Johnson says one of the
hallmarks of his personality is that “He models the behavior he wants the
rest of us to follow. In his processes for decision making he creates a safe
environment for each of us to put anything on the table. He doesn’t run away
from a different perspective. His name is befitting, because he moves fast,
but without leaving casualties behind.”
Speed himself admits he wants to
hear different perspectives. “I might even give better evaluations for
hearing you express a point of view different from mine.”
Collins, his predecessor as
president, and currently chairman of the board at N.C. Mutual, says “James
Speed just fits into what we’re all about. He moves around the state and
country explaining his vision and builds staff to handle the work inside.”
Collins, like nearly everyone who talks about Speed, admires his energy and
his people skills.
Collins notes that Speed works
long hours. Speed says he’s usually in the office by 8 a.m. and generally
out by about 8 p.m., but also attends many events evenings and weekends,
including community and charity functions. Some of Speed’s hours continue to
go to a variety of charity efforts and community work, some of which he’s
been involved with for decades. They have included serving on the boards of
the Central Children’s Home of N.C. Inc., and the N.C. State Board of
Communities in Schools. Speed strongly believes that community involvement,
including that of businesses, can help keep students in schools and doing
Speed’s office in the N.C. Mutual
Building is larger than many living rooms and furnished better, too, with
plush chairs and glass end tables. The views from the large windows show an
impressive panorama of the Durham landscape. Sweeping his hand across the
view, the impeccably dressed Speed says, “I’m almost oblivious to the view.
A lot of the time, I’m not in this office and when I am, I’m concentrating
on what I have to do. I’m not looking out the windows.”
“James is a change agent,” says
Richard Hall, a senior vice president and CFO of N.C. Mutual. In a reversal
of roles, Hall was Speed’s CFO at Hardee’s, where Speed was comptroller.
When he left, Speed then filled his CFO role.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to
effect change here,” Hall says.
Both Hall and Speed say the same
thing about their reversal of roles at N.C. Mutual. Speed explains, “When I
worked with Richard at Hardee’s it was always like working side-by-side with
someone, and it’s like that here. There isn’t a lot of hierarchical stuff.
The people on our senior team are independent thinkers and I really like
that. You might not like what they say, but they’ll tell you what they
Speed says that while he’s open
to disagreements and alternative points of view, he dislikes consistently
negative attitudes. “What goes in is what comes out,” he says. “If what goes
in is more negative than positive, then negative is what’s going to come
Hall, who praises Speed’s vision
and energy, says the CEO’s grasp of the company’s details and ability to
form a big picture, make his job as CFO easier. “We all have more work than
we can do but he creates an environment where we can get the hard work
done,” Hall adds.
If Speed has his way, the work
probably won’t get any easier. He credits Closs with pioneering N.C.
Mutual’s successful move to take on group insurance plans for other
businesses. “We have an array of group products,” Speed says. Since 2002,
the company has doubled its group benefits business, and Speed expects to
increase group sales 10 percent annually.
He also expects the company to
grow through acquisitions and continue expanding its geographical reach.
Looking out his office window at the expansive view, he says, “We’re always
thinking about what to do next.”
Speed says his biggest challenge
is “selling the vision. Having people believe you can get there. But that’s
also the part I love doing. I like to make believers out of doubters.”