FACE to FACE with John Addison and Rick Williams

Premier Business Magazine, Fall 2007

When John Addison and Rick Williams took Primerica's helm at the end of 1999, some said their Co-CEO experiment would never work. Here's how wrong they were.

In 1999 the company paid $431 million in commissions to its 79,000-member sales force. In 2007, compensation is on track to approach $700 million to slightly more than 100,000 repre­sentatives. The company has created more than 50 million-dollar earners – almost half of them since 2000. In 2006, it issued 384,000 term policies with a face amount of more than $87 bil­lion. In 1999, mutual fund sales were $2.9 billion. This year sales will exceed $4 billion. Debt consolidation loans have essentially doubled since 1999. And the best is yet to come.

PB: What makes your relationship work?
JOHN: I would just say it's the trust, respect and the fact that we genuinely like each other. Where we were born and raised, where we went to college, our skill sets – if you look at us as two distinct human beings, we could not be more different, which I think is part of what makes it work. And we have a common vision for what we want to accomplish here, yet we spend just as much time shooting the breeze with one another about life and family as we do about business. It's a unique relationship. Rick is very much the analytical person who will listen to all the scenarios, and I am very much of the ready-fire-aim type of personality. And I really think that makes things work much better.
RICK: It's hard for me to add to that. Everything that John said is just so true. The highlight of my day is when John walks across the hall to my office or when my secretary tells me he is on the phone.

PB: Rick, what is John's greatest strength?
RICK: Besides being just an incredible person with a tremendous amount of integrity, caring and love for people, he's obviously a great leader and motivator, not to mention an intuitive and strategic thinker.

PB: John, what is Rick's greatest strength?
JOHN: I've told our sales force many times, and it's the absolute truth: I don't care who we're meeting with about the numbers – Rick is the smartest guy in the room. The world is filled with a lot of smart, uncar­ing people, but Rick is just a good guy, a good person, fundamentally at the core a decent, good man. Rick goes about living his life doing things that, in my mind, show a far greater strength than his intelligence.

PB: How do you split your roles?
JOHN: For financial matters, people go to Rick, and when it deals with the sales force or the convention, I'm your guy. But we really do everything together. Rick always keeps me up to date about what's going on, and sometimes he has to force me to sit down and listen to him about financial information. But I think we accentuate the strengths of each other, and it helps mitigate each other's weaknesses. It helps us get the organization to the right place. I couldn't imagine doing it any other way.
RICK: We do more than keep each other informed. Going back to my comment about John being the intuitive, strategic thinker, which he very much is, I have a white board that is full of a bunch of numbers and scenarios and I want to go over them with him, but I also want his input. John and I are the yin and yang of the brain, and it just works.

PB: Why is it important not to become complacent with success? John, you say that you're either building momentum or losing it. What do you mean by that?
JOHN: This is a business that whenever you let your foot off the gas, whenever you cool the engines, Murphy's Law can take over and make a mess of things. I'm a big believer that you need to keep showing up and getting better. I learned that years ago by watching Art Williams. Art knew that every two months or so you had to have something new and exciting to deliver to people.
RICK: That's one of the benefits to having two CEOs; it takes two people to maintain that energy level. When one person is lagging, the other is there to push harder, and it makes us both better at maintain­ing an energy level to keep things moving forward.

PB: What has been your greatest reward since be­ing with Primerica? Can you point to one moment that stands out?
RICK: When John and I took over in 1999, we had a field – leadership meeting here in Atlanta in the first part of 2000. And the overwhelm­ing response the field gave us was all we needed to know that we had something great on our hands. I'm still so grateful for the vote of confidence they gave us that day, because we needed it.
JOHN: No. 1 is feeling like what I do every day, and what I have done every day in business for my adult life, makes a difference in people's lives. Among all of my human frailties, the one thing that I feel I bring to the table is a genuine love for this business, and therefore I feel a trust has developed through the years with the sales force. To be able to do what you do and know that you will make a positive difference in people's lives is huge. Secondly, it's the memories; it's the relationships. My tenure here is not just a piece of my life; it's a very significant part of my life. It's deeper than just business, a job and a career.

PB: What gets you out of bed every morning?
JOHN: I want to get up every day and have fun. I get up every day with the mindset that I want to have a good time today. And I want to go out and do something exciting and invigorating. I don't want to just get up and exist. People have asked me many times how long I intend on doing this. My goodness, long-range planning for me is where I'm going for lunch. All I know right now is I'm having a tremendous time doing this. I also want to make memories. I want to do things that go into that book of memories you build in a very short life. I just want to get up, have fun, and do something new and challenging.
RICK: It's the relationships I have here and the sense of enjoyment I get from them. Secondly, the fact that what we are doing collec­tively as a company is affecting the lives of others; it gives me a great sense of accomplishment and joy knowing that we really are making a difference.