The Voice of Business, Industry & the Professions Since 1942
North Carolina's largest business group proudly serves as the state chamber of commerce

Executive Profile

the Vision

James Speed is racing
to take N.C. Mutual

national, but taking
the time to make believers
out of doubters.

By Allan Maurer

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.”

It didn’t.

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 not.”

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 says.

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 as individuals.”

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 Coca-Cola.

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 well.

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 think.”

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 out.”

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.”



Visit us at 225 Hillsborough Street, Suite 460, Raleigh, N.C.
Write to us at P.O. Box 2508, Raleigh, N.C. 27602
Call us at 919.836.1400 or fax us at 919.836.1425

Copyright © 1998, All Rights Reserved
Last Modified: April 15, 2005
Web Design By The
Let Us Help You With Your Web Site Needs!