Changes at top for Atlanta Life

Atlanta Life Financial Group, the century-old downtown finance and insurance firm, is searching for a new president and CEO after announcing its second top-echelon change in the past week.

The company said Friday that Bill Clement, the current president and CEO, is stepping down but will remain in the post until a successor is found. Clement succeeded Ronald D. Brown, who died in April 2007.

The company said it has launched a nationwide search for its next CEO.

“I agreed to be the bridge until we could do a search for a new CEO,” Clement, 67, said of his appointment as president and CEO three years ago. “We want to get a younger, more vibrant CEO to write the next chapter for Atlanta Life.”

Atlanta Life plans to name a replacement within four months, Clement said. The 18-year veteran of Atlanta Life’s board will remain on the board of directors.

Like many insurance and financial services firms, Atlanta Life has been shaken by the economy. The credit rating of its Atlanta Life Insurance Group affiliate was downgraded to C+ from B- with a negative outlook by A.M. Best Co., a ratings service for the financial sector.

According to Clement, the privately held company has returned to profitability in the first seven months of 2010 after spending 2009 in the red.

“The worst is behind us and now is a great time to think we can grow this (company) at the top line,” he said.

Atlanta Life was founded 105 years ago as Atlanta Benevolent and Protective Association by Alonzo Franklin Herndon, a freed slave.

Atlanta Life is made up of Herndon Capital Management, an institutional investment firm, and insurance brokerages Atlanta Life Insurance Co and Atlanta Life General Agency. A fourth division, Jackson Securities, founded by late Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson in 1987, merged with Atlanta Life in 2007.

The combined company is the largest African-American owned financial services firm in Atlanta, with $202 million in assets under management in their financial services division, plus $2 billion in life insurance policies covering 2 million customers.

The latest announcement follows the departure of Reuben McDaniel III, the chief executive of Jackson Securities, who left Aug. 13.

McDaniel had led the subsidiary since 1999. W. Bruce Gow is the interim leader of Jackson Securities.

The two leadership changes, Clement said, were not related, and do not indicate problems in the organization.

Gow, a 17-year veteran of the firm, said no other changes are expected at Jackson Securities. Atlanta Life will also conduct a nationwide search for McDaniel’s permanent replacement, and Gow will be among the candidates considered.

Atlanta Life wants candidates with “a wow factor,” Clement said.

McDaniel, reached Friday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said he intends to start his own investment banking and financial services company. Valerie Jackson, the widow of the former mayor, supports the venture but is not an investor, McDaniel said.

The as-yet-unnamed firm will not be a direct competitor with Jackson Securities, he said, as it will focus on the private equity and direct investment side of the business.

An announcement about the new company is planned after Labor Day, pending regulatory approval, McDaniel said.

He said there was no schism at Atlanta Life.

“The challenge is people start speculating,” he said. “It’s me being entrepreneurial and an opportunity to do what I wanted to do a long time.”

The merger of Atlanta Life and Jackson Securities happened in a difficult operating environment, McDaniel said, but the integration of the companies was successful.

“As a practical matter you couldn’t have had worse market timing,” McDaniel said, “but the integration went well and as the market moves to a more stable place, the synergies we saw to put the company together will come to fruition.”