David G. Bronner David George Bronner (1945- ) has been the Chief Executive Officer at the Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA) since 1973. Through the last five decades, he has worked with eight governors, almost 200 RSA board members, numerous government and corporate leaders, and hundreds of RSA staff members to provide retirement benefits to hundreds of thousands of Alabama public servants. In addition to growing Alabama’s public pension fund, Bronner and RSA have assisted the state’s economic expansion by recruiting and financing corporations in Alabama. Many government and business leaders in Alabama have credited Bronner’s efforts and RSA funds as contributing the most to expanding its economy over the last 50 years. Many people have referred to Bronner as one of Alabama’s most influential people in recent memory.
Bronner was born in Cresco, Iowa, to George David and Margarite Bronner; he has two sisters. Married twice, he is the father of three children, one of whom died in 2011. As a young boy, his family moved to Austin, Minnesota, where he attended the local schools and graduated from high school in 1963. Bronner earned his bachelor’s degree and his master’s degree in finance at Mankato State University (present-day Minnesota State University) in 1967. He developed an interest in the stock market and the Chicago Board of Trade while studying finance in college. Following graduation, he taught finance half-time and worked half-time in the Financial Aid Office at Mankato State for a year.
A vice president at Mankato State who took a job at the University of Alabama (UA) encouraged Bronner to consider UA to further his graduate education. Bronner moved to Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, and enrolled in the UA School of Law in 1968. Dean Daniel J. Meador accepted a few students each term who were not from Alabama with the hopes that they would remain in Alabama after graduation and contribute to the state. Bronner was one of these students. Bronner taught courses as a graduate assistant in the Finance Department while working towards his law degree and graduated with a J.D. in 1971 and a Ph.D. in educational administration in 1972. After receiving his degree, Bronner served as an assistant dean in the UA School of Law and administered their classes at Jones Law School in Montgomery, Montgomery County.
Bronner at RSA
RSA Headquarters RSA began a search for a new chief executive in 1973, and Bronner was hired. At the time, RSA assets were invested very conservatively, with 95 percent in bonds and mortgages and only 5 percent in stocks. Bronner began diversifying RSA’s assets to increase investment income and prevent large losses at any one time. He began personally transacting the buying and selling of stocks and bonds for RSA, guided chiefly by stock reports in the Wall Street Journal. Over the years, as the funds under management at RSA increased from three funds worth $600 million in 1973 to 24 funds worth $42 billion in 2019, investment professionals were hired to constantly monitor business sectors and corporations and RSA investments. As RSA’s membership increased, staff was hired to manage the increased individual accounts.
Bronner led RSA’s efforts to own alternative investments to stocks and bonds, which are income producing. They require greater active management than stocks and bonds and can have a positive economic effect on their location. This was a novel concept for state public pension funds when RSA began this investment strategy. Bronner has directed RSA investments in a geothermal plant in California, oil tankers, Delta Airlines and US Airways, one of the largest office buildings in New York City, TV stations, and newspapers. He has led RSA’s economically targeted investments in Alabama to increase jobs and tax revenue when the return rate was equal to or better than in other areas. Under Bronner’s leadership, RSA has developed in Alabama 14 office buildings, 26 golf courses, eight hotels, and a rail-car assembly plant. RSA also has developed assets or provided financing for corporations in 30 Alabama municipalities.
RSA’s investment returns have increased during Bronner’s tenure, with RSA assets in 2020 comprising 70 percent stocks, 20 percent securities, and 10 percent real estate. RSA’s income under Bronner’s guidance has totaled $94 billion ($41 billion in employer/employee contributions and $53 billion in investment income). RSA has suffered losses on investments in only four of the last 46 years. These years were 2001 and 2002 following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and 2008 and 2009 in the wake of the Great Recession from the collapse of global credit. Benefits paid by RSA under Bronner have totaled $54 billion. RSA’s investment income and money saved by managing investments in-house under Bronner has covered the benefits paid, thus preserving RSA’s employee and employer contributions as RSA’s principal for continued investments.
Bronner/RSA and Alabama’s Economy
When Bronner took over the RSA in 1973, the economy in Alabama was centered largely on producing cotton, peanuts, soybeans, and livestock; extracting natural resources such as timber and minerals; and light manufacturing like the textile industry. The state’s military installations attracted federal dollars and an educated workforce. Among its largest metropolitan areas, Birmingham, Jefferson County, employment relied on the steel industry and manufacturing; Huntsville, Madison County, revolved around the expanding aerospace industry at Marshall Space Flight Center and Redstone Arsenal; and Mobile, Mobile County, still focused on shipbuilding and shipping.
Oxmoor Valley In the late 1970s, Bronner began collaborating with government and business leaders to expand commercial industry by providing financing to corporations in Alabama. Some of RSA’s early investments in Huntsville included PPG Industries (1979) and United Technologies (1983); in Mobile, Springhill Medical Center (1981) and Dynamit Nobel (1993); in Fairfield, Jefferson County, a U.S. Steel pipe mill (1983); in Cullman, Cullman County, a Walmart distribution center (1985); in Foley, Baldwin County, Rohr Goodrich Aerostructures (1988); and in Monroeville, Monroe County, the Alabama Pine Pulp facility (1989).
In 1990, RSA began developing a collection of public golf courses in Alabama, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail (The Trail), to increase tourism, attract industry, attract retirees, and improve Alabama’s negative image from racial violence in the 1960s. Bronner worked with 55 local government entities, 13 private developers, and many major contractors to develop 5,700 acres encompassing 11 sites, 26 golf courses, and 468 golf holes. The land was donated or leased to RSA at no cost, and local governments financed the utility expansion and access roads. In 1996, RSA invested $3 billion in TV stations and local newspapers, and this investment has garnered over $1 billion in free advertising for The Trail and Alabama and generated much media attention. Alabama is now known for natural beauty with recreational amenities and a quality of life that is competitive with other states for attracting industrial expansion.
Mercedes Plant in Vance In 1992, Bronner joined Gov. Jim Folsom Jr.; Billy Joe Camp, director of the Alabama Development Office; and Elmer Harris, president of Alabama Power Company in negotiations with Mercedes-Benz (MB) executives to build a plant in Alabama. As incentives, the state of Alabama agreed to contribute $250 million toward MB’s proposed plant. MB announced plans to open its only U.S. assembly plant in Vance, Tuscaloosa County, in 1993. Folsom lost his 1994 reelection bid before the deal closed, however, and state funds for the agreed-upon package could not be secured. Bronner saw establishing MB in Alabama as essential to the state’s future and compared the significance to German scientist Wernher von Braun coming to Huntsville to start the space industry after World War II. To rescue the deal, at Bronner’s direction, RSA purchased $109 million in bonds, the state put up the cash from its annual revenue from Tennessee Valley Authority facilities, and the State Fire Insurance Fund bought $30 million in bonds. The state also sold a General Obligation Municipal Bond to repay RSA and did so.
Without RSA financing, MB would likely have located its plant in one of the 30 other states vying for it. If Alabama had not followed through on the agreement, Alabama’s credibility in recruiting manufacturing and other industries would have suffered significant setbacks for many years. Alabama’s success in winning the MB plant spurred the establishment of the Honda plant in Lincoln in 1999, Navistar and Toyota in Huntsville in 1999 and 2001, respectively, and Hyundai in Montgomery in 2002. Bronner next developed relationships with executives of aircraft manufacturer Airbus and played a significant role in Airbus’s decision to develop its new aircraft engineering center in Mobile in 2005, its first American aircraft production plant (A319, A320, and A321) in 2012, and its new assembly plant for their A220 jet liner in 2019. These automotive and aerospace plants have led to the development of some 250 automotive parts suppliers near Tuscaloosa, Gadsden, Opelika, Lincoln, Huntsville, Montgomery, and Greenville and more than 300 aerospace, aviation, and defense-related companies clustered around Huntsville, Mobile, Decatur, and Montgomery.
Following MB’s decision to locate in Alabama and the opening of The Trail, RSA increased financing for Alabama corporations to further economic expansion. These companies included seven in Mobile, four in Montgomery, two in the Shoals, one in Tallassee, one in Heflin, and others. Under Bronner’s direction, RSA has provided financing to 64 corporations in Alabama. The industry sectors expanding the most in Alabama in recent years are the ones receiving support from RSA for recruitment and financing and includes transportation (automotive, aerospace, truck, and rail car assembly), tourism, real estate, metals, chemicals, maritime, biomedical, forest products, and information technology. Durable goods manufacturing in Alabama increased by 130 percent from 1994 to 2017. The increase in durable goods manufacturing produced higher paying jobs and overall income for the state.
RSA Buildings in Mobile Some of the more prestigious awards earned by RSA under Bronner include the 2017 Institutional Leadership Award by the International Economic Development Council for leadership in regional economic development (for The Trail, real estate in Montgomery and Mobile, and the Montgomery Internet Exchange), the International Downtown Association Special Achievement Award in Economic Development in 2008, and the American Economic Development Council Leadership in Economic Development Award in 1995. RSA received the Southeast Tourism Society Shining Example Award in 1997; was inducted into the Alabama Tourism Hall of Fame in 1999; and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alabama Department of Tourism in 2010. Bronner was named the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame Distinguished Alabama Sportsman in 1994 (for developing The Trail) and Citizen of the Year by the Alabama Broadcasters Association in 1999. Bronner was inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor in 2007. RSA’s golf courses on The Trail have been ranked highly by golf publications and considered by many to be the best public golf courses in America. RSA’s hotels have received many national and international awards by the tourism industry and media.
For many years, Bronner has encouraged Alabama to increase tax revenue to provide adequate service for mental health, prisons, public safety, Medicaid, education, and seniors. He has urged the state to reform its 1901 Constitution, which is widely considered to be the longest in the world. Bronner constantly defends RSA from frequent efforts by politicians and interest groups who seek to gain access to RSA’s funds, reduce contributions, reduce benefits, and change the plan from a defined benefit to a defined contribution fund.
- Fagan, Mark. The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail: Its History and Economic Impact. Montgomery, Ala.: NewSouth Books, 2016.
- ———. Alabama’s Public Pension Fund Growth and Economic Expansion since 1973. Pennsauken, N.J.: BookBaby, 2019.