Titans of Tomorrow: Symetra

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One might expect a company steeped in the business of growing assets for retirement, annuities and life insurance to take the long view. So when parent company Safeco sought to shed its profitable Safeco Life for some immediate cash, its subsidiary president Randall Talbot sought investors to keep the unit whole rather than see it sold off in pieces for short-term gain. A small group of buyers that included Berkshire Hathaway helped what is now called Symetra Financial become independent in 2004, taking the firm public in 2010.

Its current CEO, Thomas Marra, continues that long-range thinking, hoping to someday extend Symetra’s solid regional reputation for providing employer-based benefits as a national brand.

“The whole American system is under transition,” Marra observes, as employers continue their long shift from traditional defined-benefit pension plans to 401(k) and similar plans that require workers to take more charge of their retirement savings. This presents more opportunity for Symetra, which can innovate new investment products that grant access to equity markets while confining exposure to risk. “That’s a place you can differentiate.”

Marra affirms his predecessor’s understanding of the business, noting that the future of Symetra lies in the collective success of its three divisions: benefits, annuities and insurance. “I’m a big believer in the need for multiple growth engines,” he says, noting that most of Symetra’s new product ideas have come from within each division’s development groups.

As with most public companies, Marra feels the pressure to deliver immediate returns, and values the discipline of shareholder demands. But here, too, he labors to hew to the long view, avoiding pressures to window-dress or take on the risks that boost short-term sales that have caught up with too many others in the financial industry.

In an arena where consolidation is frequent, Marra makes clear that, over the long term, he would prefer for Symetra to be the buyer rather than the seller, perhaps even adding an unspecified fourth division someday. “That would be the ultimate affirmation that we’re fulfilling our vision.”

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