Chattanooga's biggest company poised for growth after record profits last year [photos]

Chattanooga's biggest company poised for growth after record profits last year [photos]

March 12th, 2017 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Unum CEO Rick McKenney poses for a portrait Friday, Feb. 3 2017 above Unum's atrium.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

Gallery: Insuring successOpening up inside of UnumChattanooga's biggest company poised for growth after record profits last year

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By the numbers

› 2016 revenues: $11 billion, up 2.9 percent

› 2016 net income: $931.4 million, up 7.4 percent

› Staff: Nearly 10,000 employees, including about 2,800 in Chattanooga

› Annual hiring: About 1,300 employees a year

› Customers served: 34 million, up by more than 5 percent last year

› Market value: $11.2 billion

Source: Unum Group

Unum acquisitions

› Colonial Life - 1993

› Paul Revere - 1997

› Unum and Provident merge - 1999

› National Dental Plan (UK) - 2015

› Starmount Life - 2016

In Tennessee

› $246 milllion Annual payroll in Tennessee

› 160 million Benefits paid to Tennessee residents

› $6 million State and local taxes paid in Tennessee

› $3.5 million Community support and donations in Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia

The white stone exterior of Unum's headquarters may not look any different, but within the downtown headquarters of the Chattanooga-based insurer new work stations are taking shape to create a more open, collaborative and brighter environment.

Over the next three to four years, the Unum offices will take on the new look for the more than 2,500 employees who work in Chattanooga. Outside of its headquarters on Fountain Square in downtown Chattanooga, the insurer also is looking at ideas for redeveloping some of its surface parking lots.

Unum CEO Rick McKenney says the 169-year-old insurer is trying to recognize changes in the workforce and customer base after rolling up record profits last year and looking for ways to expand its business.

"We want to make sure that our business offices are representative of the modern attitude we have about our company," McKenney said. The company began renovations in Chattanooga in September 2015.

The new offices include more light and facilitate more team decision making, said Jim Sabourin, senior vice president of corporate communications at Unum. In Unum's IT department, for instance, the company's chief information officer sits in a more open and accessible office than in the past.

"We think physical space is important to bringing teams and the company together," Sabourin said. "The engagement and interaction allos employees to cross learn other roles among the team, which facilitates a quicker customer response and issue resolution."

McKenney said Unum is investing "tens of millions of dollars" in its office facilities in Tennessee, Maine, South Carolina and Massachusetts as part of the opening up of the once-staid insurance business.

The 48-year-old Unum CEO also is eager to be more open about his company in Chattanooga, where Unum is headquartered and where the company is the biggest business in the city.

"We want more people to know about us," McKenney said in a recent interview at the corporate headquarters in Chattanooga. "We'll continue to open up our doors and talk a lot more about what we do."

Poised for growth

After rolling up a record-high profit of $931.4 million last year on more than $11 billion or company revenues, Unum is forecasting additional growth in the 3 to 6 percent range this year — perhaps even more if the company does other acquisitions.

With the prospect of higher interest yields on the company's $50 billion investment portfolio and lower corporate taxes from the Trump administration and Republican-controlled Congress, Unum is poised for even stronger performance in the future.

"I think we are positioned better now than we have ever been to grow the company," McKenney said.

Among a half dozen industry analysts who follow Unum, most expect Unum profits to top $1 billion this year with the average per share earnings forecast up by nearly 6 percent to $4.15 per share this year and another 9 percent gain to $4.52 per share in 2018, according to analysts surveyed by Yahoo Finance.

Unum's stock is up about 60 percent in the past year and has more than quadrupled from the low point reached in the market at its worst point eight years ago.

But Unum's stock still remains well below its 1999 high reached when the former Chattanooga-based Provident Life and Accident Insurance Co., merged with the Portland, Maine-based Unum Corp. The company phased out its individual long-term care policies in 2009 and its group long-term care plans in 2012. Employment and benefit cuts during the Great Recession also challenged company results.

But McKenney said Unum is a growing company again.

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Growing voluntary insurance at work

Unum has been the world's biggest disability insurer for more than 30 years. But disability insurance is now only about 20 percent of the company revenues. Over the past couple of years, Unum has acquired dental and vision companies to expand its work-based employee benefit offerings.

Dental and vision was a gap in coverage that Unum moved to fill by buying National Dental Plan in the United Kingdom in 2015 and Starmount Life in the United States last year.

"We see dental and vision as a great growth area for us and we see the potential for us to be a top player in the next five to 10 years," McKenney said. "There are more opportunities, which could involve more acquisitions. But some of it is pure organic growth."

Unum, which is also the nation's third biggest provider of voluntary insurance and the fifth biggest overall insurer of group life insurance plans, will continue to sell its products in the work environment where employees typically are most able and desirous of buying and getting insurance and other employee benefits, McKenney said.

The company sells its workplace plans through more than 5,000 independent brokers.

"We're at the workplace and, while we don't want to do health care or retirement savings, we do want to meet other employee needs for benefits and coverage for everything else," McKenney said. "We want to be a one-stop broker for all of the other ancillary benefits."

Economy, political winds of change

Unum has benefited by the rebound in employment growth in recent years and the company should benefit as wages rise and more workers are able and willing to buy more volunteer benefits at work.

"We've seen some of the employment growth come back in the past few years, and now we're starting to see some more wage inflation," McKenney said. "Both of those are good for us."

The debate over the future of the Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare, has created more uncertainty about health insurance benefits by many employers, and the trend toward higher deductibles has forced a bigger share of workers to pay for the first dollar costs of illness and diseases. More than one fourth of health insurance plans now have high deductibles for health insurance.

That shift has created some employer and worker anxiety, but it also is creating opportunities for Unum by encouraging workers to consider other income replacement and other types of voluntary insurance options.

"We're going to keep adapting and changing," McKenney said.

Changes in Chattanooga

The economic changes have also put Unum's headquarters into a new physical environment in its home town.

Although Unum has outsourced some of its jobs, such as Aramark for its employee cafeteria, McKenney said the company expects to maintain its employment base here as its grows its overall business.

Unum has adequate parking for all of its Chattanooga staff in parking garages and the main parking lot near its headquarters. Other surface parking lots are now leased for others, but the company is working with River City Co. and talking with developers about alternative uses for part of the city blocks it continues to own between Fountain Square and the Tennessee River downtown.

"Whatever is built, we want to make sure it fits with our overall campus downtown," McKenney said. "We can envision our employees during lunch time having a nice stroll around our offices, especially if these areas develop in an attractive way with opportunities for our workers and others to eat or shop or enjoy a walk around downtown. That matters to us as opposed to just getting top dollar with something that is not what we want in our surrounding property."

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340.