John Ridings Lee holds the distinction of being one of the first freshmen at the University of Dallas. And although he didn’t graduate from UD, perhaps the university can stake a small claim to the success he has achieved in his career. Lee spoke recently to Dr. Greg Bell’s Business Foundations class on March 31 about what he’s learned during his 50-plus years in the insurance industry.
Lee’s first job (after a stint in the military in Special Forces) was working for an insurance syndicate in London called Blackwell and Green. They assigned him to work on the offshore oil rigs near Aberdeen, Scotland. “I think Scotland is about the coldest place in the world, so I was ready to head back to the states,” he said.
Upon returning to the U.S., Lee took a job as a salesman at Southwestern Life Insurance Company. “After a couple of years, I realized the janitor was making more money than I was,” he said. “Because he was a better salesman.” In hopes of improving his bottom line, Lee took a look around the industry and determined that he should head in a different direction. “Employee benefits was just beginning to break through,” he said. “So I decided to start my own company as a benefits administrator.” That company, Employee Plans Management, administered group health and life insurance plans for large companies.
After about four years as CEO of Employee Plans Management, Lee decided to sell the company and start a holding company that could serve as an umbrella for other businesses. Over the next several years he founded a succession of companies that provided the insurance industry with new and innovative tools. For example, Lee’s North American National Re was one of the first to spread the financial risk of large life insurance policies to more than one company. “My dad told me I was a glorified bookie,” he said. “But we paid back our initial debt in the seventh year, and the company sold recently for $770 million in capital and assets.”
That wasn’t the only bet that paid out for Lee. In 1982, he and a partner started Management Compensation Group, a company dedicated to compensation and executive benefit planning. The company, which grew to twelve offices and over 400 employees, sold in 2013 to insurance giant, Prudential.
Lee also holds patents on unique financial instruments including a product which pays salaries to the survivors of deceased employees. In addition, he invented a product that offers a paid-up life insurance policy to retiring employees. As a result of his patents, Lee receives royalties every time a new one of these policies is written.
Lee credits his ability to stay on top of industry trends to his moving around from company to company. “Don’t stay with one company your whole life,” he advised students. “Look for a different hill to climb. Look for a different way to skin a cat if you want to improve your personal bottom line.”
Lee said another crucial component of success is to surround yourself with the right team. “There’s no substitute for smart people,” he said. “Your math-inclined people, like actuaries, keep your business running. And your ‘people-people’ can get more you more yeses than anybody else.”
Lee also advised students to trust their first instincts when trying to solve a problem. “If you’re sure you’re right, don’t let anybody talk you out of what you know to be true,” he said. “Whether you end up being right or wrong, you’ll learn something.” Finally, Lee told the group to be aware of wolves in sheep’s clothing. “Somebody is always going to be trying to sell you something,” he said. “So do your homework and know what it is you’re buying.” Good advice from a man who built an enormously successful career around making the right bets at the right time.
The University of Dallas Executives on Campus program was founded to further the University’s mission of providing practice-based education, by inviting successful business leaders to share their experience with graduate and undergraduate students in the classroom. Through this program, alumni, business leaders, and their companies are invited to partner with the University in our shared pursuit of management excellence. For more information click here.