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“All we sell is a promise.” Terrance Williams talks leadership, community and more as he takes the helm at TruStage

Terrance Williams. Photo supplied.

Terrance WIlliams took an unusual path into the insurance industry.

Unusual in its directness.

“I acknowledge wholeheartedly that I am unique,” Williams said in an exclusive interview this week. “Some might even say weird in that respect. I am doing what I planned to do. As a young person, when I was 17, 18, I wanted to pursue a career in the insurance and financial services industry. Most 17- and 18-year-olds don’t see that as a destination. But I did.”

Now 55, Williams took the helm this week at TruStage, formerly CUNA Mutual Group, as its ninth CEO – and the first who’s not a white man.

Williams takes over following the retirement of former CEO Robert Trunzo.

Williams’ early dedication to the insurance industry owed a lot to family influence – an aunt spent several decades at AIG in New York, and she’d often return to South Carolina for family reunions.

“(She) always shared stories with me about her journey, about her career,” Williams said. “She more or less imparted on me just the opportunity available within the insurance industry, but also the differences that the industry makes. Most people, in my view, at least, don’t have a full appreciation for the role of insurance and financial services from a societal standpoint. At the end of the day, all we sell is a promise. And that promise is really meant to be there during your time of need, or to help prepare you for the future. So it’s something that in my view is meaningful, what we do from a societal standpoint. That’s what led me to the industry.”

After graduating from the University of South Carolina’s risk and insurance program, he worked for a small company for a few years before joining Nationwide, where he’d spend 20 years in various roles in various cities as regional vice president for the region covering New England based in Hartford, Connecticut, and later the southern states based in Atlanta and then the central plains based in Dallas.

He said he learned the hard way about leadership in that first VP role in Connecticut. Having worked in several areas of the insurance industry – claims, underwriting, marketing – he felt at first that it was his job to tell the regional heads of those departments how to do theirs. He quickly learned differently.

“That’s not how you lead,” he said. “That didn’t create any level of engagement, of motivation, of inspiration to those folks. I had stubbed my toe in really learning and understanding how to truly lead. What mattered was creating a vision for that region, creating this aspirational goal, creating alignment around how we’re going to drive and hold each other accountable … That’s what leading is … I had some great mentors around me who more or less helped me to course-correct to really understand what leading really is … Effective leaders are the ones who are able to shape a vision, who can create a North Star, who can allow and create a level of energy and motivation within the team.”

Success in those roles led to national executive positions at Nationwide as president and COO of Nationwide Agribusiness Insurance Company and later president of emerging businesses. In 2019 he joined Allstate, first as executive vice president and general manager of sales and distribution, and then as president of protection products and services.

He was attracted to the opportunity to lead TruStage, he said, because of the company’s mission. It’s a mutual insurance company, much like Nationwide, and has its roots in the credit union movement. It maintains that cooperative spirit, Williams said.

“I was attracted to going back to a mutual company, kind of where I grew up corporately. But arguably the most important item was really about the mission,” he said. “This notion of ensuring that everyone has access, everyone, regardless of your zip code or background, where you’re from, everyone has access to the ability to protect their financial future. That was meaningful to me … we believe in this system, we believe in this notion of people helping people, this cooperative spirit, (and that) we can do more collectively than we can individually.” 

He was also impressed with the company’s commitment to community, and said he wants to evolve and strengthen that commitment beyond financial donations. TruStage has been a financial supporter of 365 Media Foundation, the nonprofit organization that publishes Blueprint365.

“One of the things we do with credit unions is we bring our credit unions in and we conduct strategy sessions with them,” he said. “We should do the same thing with nonprofit groups. We should find nonprofits and ensure that we are working to help them along the way … and not just from a financial standpoint. I often talk about the importance of boots on the ground, and ensuring that our people have boots on the ground as it relates to their passion, and nonprofit groups that are truly making a difference in the marketplace.”

He also reiterated his commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, noting that he regularly speaks with chief diversity officer Angela Russell and others about the company’s DEI strategy. He’s also keenly aware of his role as the first Black CEO and now a particularly prominent figure in Wisconsin’s business community. 

“I just believe in mentorship. And I believe that my platform allows me to serve as an example of what might be true,” he said. “I am a Black man who went to public schools in South Carolina, who had the good fortune of having a mom and a dad who instilled within me the value of education.”

He said he regularly returns to the University of South Carolina to speak with students preparing for careers in insurance.

Though he officially started October 1, he’s been in Madison since June, so he’s been quite aware of the ongoing labor dispute with the Office and Professional Employees International Union that’s led to work stoppages as the union has claimed unfair labor practices and demanded wage increases and diversity protections. Williams is optimistic and confident in the process.

“We’ve been embroiled in negotiations recently … I would like us to find ways to bring those to conclusion, allowing us to move forward as one TruStage.”

A TruStage representative said nine of the 10 unfair labor practice complaints brought by the Union have been withdrawn or dismissed by the National Labor Relations Board.

During that time since June, Williams has also gotten a chance to get to know Madison a bit.

“I’ve been met with open arms, is the way I would describe it,” he said, noting that a downtown restaurant gave him and his wife the quintessential Wisconsin greeting – comping their order of deep fried cheese curds. “People have welcomed me, people have been nice, they’re receptive. Even when they have no idea what I do for a living. Just, ‘I’m new to Madison,’ is my typical introduction. And people are just genuinely nice.”