Founded as Germantown Life Insurance Co. in 1964, Unity Financial Life Insurance Co. is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Under the guidance of the company’s current Hardy family ownership, Unity Financial Life has enjoyed more than a decade of continuous, profitable growth, and has been recognized by Inc. Magazine for the past six years as the fastest growing, privately-owned life insurance company in America. Thomas C. Hardy, Unity’s chief executive officer, talks about the past, the present and what the future holds for the Cincinnati-based company.
Q&A with Thomas C. Hardy
How does it feel to be celebrating Unity Financial’s 50th anniversary in 2014?
With so many companies not lasting 50 years, it feels very good to reach this milestone. We tend to focus on the last 13 years because that covers Unity Financial’s current market plan and management team, but there are many policies on the books that were issued long before 2001.
Hardy, LLC purchased 50 percent of Unity Financial Life in 2001. What was so attractive about the business to purchase a half stake in the company?
I really liked the preneed market, following my prior experience creating and building Mayflower National Life for the same market. It also helped a lot that Unity Financial was small enough that we could purchase half without bringing in a financial partner who would focus primarily on an exit strategy. Our plan was to build and grow for a long time with no plan to get out of the business. Another reason was that the seller was willing to continue to administer the business until we could build a team in Cincinnati.
A decade later, Hardy, LLC purchased the other half of UFL. What was the thought process behind the business decision?
We had a good working relationship with Unity Mutual, our original partner, but it was always our intent to build Unity Financial as a family-owned company. When Unity Mutual merged into Columbian Mutual, it accelerated the transition because Columbian is also in the preneed market. It is very difficult to have a competitor as a partner.
You moved the company headquarters from Syracuse to Cincinnati in 2002. Why was this done?
When we made the original purchase, I lived in New Orleans and the company was in Syracuse. I felt that neither city was the right one. Cincinnati had a much better airport
and a strong local life insurance industry from which we could hire experienced people. It was also the first time that my wife and I were able to pick a city and move to it. We enjoy good symphony, and Cincinnati has one of the best in the country.
Unity Financial is now a private company – how does that make it different from the other players in the marketplace? What does it mean for the customers you serve?
As a private, family company, we find it easy to relate to the funeral industry where most of our customers are family businesses. We don’t sell through the large consolidators. One
advantage of running a relatively small company is that we can react and make decisions more quickly than our largest competitors. When an agent or funeral home needs something a little outside of the box, we can often provide a solution. We’re not unique; in the preneed insurance world, we have competitors who are also family owned.
How has the funeral funding insurance business changed in the last decade?
There have been at least two large issues. Several years of low interest rates have reduced margins, altered product design and forced a few companies out of the market. It has been an uncomfortable time for both insurance companies and funeral homes.
The second issue has been partly caused by the first. Low rates, coupled with some poor decision-making, have created some disasters in the trust funded side of the funeral
funding market. This has been very painful for many funeral homes and caused a shift away from trust and to insurance funding. Frankly, I am surprised that the move has not been faster and more widespread.
You are currently licensed in 46 jurisdictions and the District of Columbia. Are there any plans to become licensed in the remaining states?
The four remaining states are New York, Michigan, Alaska and Hawaii. W e probably will add Alaska and Hawaii within a year or so. New York and Michigan do not have
friendly preneed laws.
The company has been recognized by Inc. Magazine for the last six years as the fastest growing, privately-owned life insurance company in the country. How can you explain your continued growth?
Often our growth has resulted from new distribution sources and expanded geography, but some years we just get more growth from our existing funeral homes. One of our
strengths has been that for 12 years we have had a consistent marketing approach, and we have tried hard to keep everything as simple as practical – fewer forms, uncomplicated
What are Unity Financial’s core business philosophies?
From the beginning, we have targeted the medium sized funeral homes that make their preneed decisions on the basis of the total package of benefits. We are very
competitive when you look at the overall combination of growth, bump and commission. Some companies have a variety of policies so they can say they have the best of
one feature, but there are still only 100 cents in the dollar so they have to take something back on other features. Although we would be happy to serve them, we have not
targeted the large, “trophy” funeral homes.
Unity Financial has a commitment to employee development and advancement. Why is this important to the company?
Although the management team came to Unity Financial with a substantial level of experience, we hire employees with and without prior insurance experience. Even
those with prior insurance experience need to learn the uniqueness of preneed. Occasionally, we bring in outside instructors for specific topics, but usually the management team leads the classes. All of us are teachers. Learning the Unity Financial culture of service and learning to work in the field are more important than technical insurance information.
You will be holding a special anniversary celebration at your Cincinnati headquarters this month to mark the golden anniversary. What will this include?
On May 6, the home office will have a 50th anniversary party. Partly, it will be to reward the team with a party, but partly it will be an occasion to share parts of the Unity Financial Life history that most people don’t know. For instance, our company was once owned by the
Philadelphia Contributionship, which was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1752 and is the oldest insurance company in America.
Finally, tell us a little about the Hardy family. What else are you involved in business-wise inside and out of funeral service?
My wife Jan and I had our 50th anniversary last year, ahead of the company by about 11 months. She is retired. We enjoy trips to the Wimbledon and French Open tennis
tournaments. We have two sons; one (Jay Hardy) was elected president and chief operating officer of Unity Financial Life at our March board meeting. Locally, I have been on the boards of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Cincinnati Fire Museum. I also serve on the board of the Kansas University Business School.