They were giants in Alabama business
Published 12:04 am Wednesday, August 19, 2015
Last week we discussed the legendary story of Aflac. Three more remarkable business success stories are just as magnificent. Again, all three of these companies are Alabama born and raised fairytale ventures.
Alfa is Alabama’s largest property and casualty insurance company. Today, Alfa employs more than 2,300 people and has almost 450 agents in Alabama. It has 229 offices in Alabama, with an office in every county.
Alfa and its affiliates provide insurance in 11 states and has more than a million policies in force. Alfa is also Alabama’s leading provider of life insurance with $27 billion of life insurance on the books.
Alfa was formed out of necessity less than 70 years ago. The Alabama Farmer’s Federation was established in 1921 to help farmers garner political power. During the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, which spanned the Great Depression and economic catastrophe, Alabama farmers found it impossible to get fire insurance to cover their homes and barns. In 1946, the Farmer’s Federation formed a fire insurance company. Farmers put up $11,225 to start their own company. The rest is history.
Liberty National Life Insurance Company was founded in 1900 in Birmingham. During the next 60 years, it became the greatest business success story in Alabama insurance lore. As late as the 1960s, Liberty National had more life insurance policies on Alabamians than every other company in the world combined. It became one of Birmingham’s biggest businesses. It had a dominating presence on 20th Street with a gigantic bronze replica of the statue of liberty on top of their distinguished building. The company had so many Alabamians insured for their burials, they figured they might as well own the funeral homes, too. So in 1944 the company formed Brown Service and established ownership in most of the funeral homes in the state. In the 1970s, Liberty National acquired Globe Life and created Torchmark Corporation as a holding company.
Liberty National was founded by Frank P. Samford. Mr. Samford was born in Troy in 1893. He was the son of a judge and a grandson of Gov. William J. Samford. He graduated from Auburn in 1914.
Frank Samford became very wealthy as the President of Liberty National for more than 30 years, especially from his stock ownership in the company. A good many of his associates and business partners also gained tremendous wealth throughout the phenomenal grown of their Liberty National stock. Mr. Samford gave so much of his wealth to Howard College in Birmingham that the school he endowed moved to the beautiful campus in suburban Homewood. The school Samford University is named in his honor and rightfully so. He and Liberty National stock paid for the gorgeous elite private college in Homewood.
Another magnificent Alabama business story has been EBSCO. The company is named after its founder, Elton B. Stephens. Thus, EBSCO is an acronym for the founder Elton B. Stephens.
Elton Stephens was born and raised in the small Barbour County hamlet of Clio. Remarkably he and George Wallace were raised in Clio during the same era. So arguably it could be said that one of the greatest businessmen in Alabama history and the state’s greatest politician grew up in the same small southeast Alabama village at the same time.
Both Stephens and Wallace sold magazines door to door in the summer to help work their way through college. The idea resonated with Stephens. He started a business selling magazine subscriptions to military bases. Elton Stephens started this business with his wife Alys Robinson Stephens in 1944. Now, 70 years later, EBSCO is a global company with nearly 6,000 employees and 50 different companies operating in 23 countries. It has a tremendous diversity of business interests, which include information services, publishing and digital media, outdoor products, real estate and manufacturing.
EBSCO is one of the state’s largest private companies. When Elton Stephens died in 2005 at age 93, he was one of the wealthiest men in America. He was listed as the 66th wealthiest person in the country with an estimated net worth of $4 billion.
However, he is best known for his magnificent philanthropy in his later years. Some of his gifts included the Alys Robinson Stephens Performing Arts Center at UAB, as well as the Elton B. Stephens Science Center at Birmingham-Southern. He gave $15 million to revive the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. The Stephens family is also responsible for developing the futuristic eco-friendly pristine developments of Mt. Laurel in Shelby County and Alys Beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Steve Flowers is a former state representative. His column appears in a number of Alabama newspapers.