William D. Jelks Protective Life Corporation was founded in 1907 in Birmingham. By 1928, one year after a merger with another insurance company, Protective Life had become a small regional insurance provider. As of 2016, it had more than 2,700 employees, annual revenues of $4.48 billion, and $75 billion in assets, with business activity in all 50 states. The company has three major categories of products: life insurance, asset protection products, and retirement savings and investment instruments.
Former Alabama governor William D. Jelks organized the Protective Life Insurance Company after leaving the governor’s office and became its first president. As governor, his business acumen had resulted in adding surplus funds of $1.8 million in the state’s treasury. Applying the managerial skills he had sharpened as governor, Jelks saw the company through the difficult times of the first two decades of the twentieth century, which included World War I and the influenza pandemic of 1918. These two catastrophic events put a tremendous strain on life insurance companies because they resulted in numerous claims being paid to the families of their victims.
Protective Life Building, ca. 1927 Weathering these stormy early years, Protective Life commenced an expansion strategy in the early 1920s. In 1927, the company merged with a major competitor, Alabama National Insurance Company. Alabama National’s president, Samuel Clabaugh, became the president of the combined companies and immediately began constructing a new headquarters in downtown Birmingham. The architectural firm of Warren, Knight and Davis, which had also been involved in the construction of the Alabama Power Company building in 1925, designed the 14-story downtown landmark that later became known as the Commerce Center. By the end of the decade, as a result of its expansion strategy, Protective Life had become a regional company with $6 million of insurance in force.
Clabaugh provided stable leadership for the company during the next 10 years, as it withstood the repercussions of the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. Despite the tough economic times, Protective Life continued to grow. In 1937, Clabaugh turned over the leadership of the company to Col. William J. Rushton. Three years later, however, Rushton’s tenure as president was interrupted by military service. Rushton, who had been a member of the Army Reserve since 1926, was called up to active duty in 1940. He was sent to Washington, D.C., to help establish the nation’s Selective Service System and returned to Birmingham in 1942. Despite this interlude, during the first two decades of Rushton’s leadership, Protective Life’s insurance coverage, as well as assets and net worth, grew eight-fold.
Entrance to Protective Life In 1969, Rushton’s son, William “Billy” J. Rushton III, took over leadership. He built upon the success of his father through a series of acquisitions over the next 20 years that brought Protective’s line of products into all 50 states. He also expanded Protective Life’s involvement in the Birmingham community and its support of the United Way. His leadership also earned him membership in the Million Dollar Round Table, an exclusive association reserved for the world’s most successful life insurance sales professionals, as well as in the Society of Actuaries, an organization for the leading professionals in the management of financial risk and uncertainty.
Nabers Jr., Drayton In 1976, Protective Life’s home offices moved from its location in downtown Birmingham in the Commerce Center to its current location in the suburb of Mountain Brook. Drayton Nabers Jr., formerly Protective Life’s general counsel, succeeded Billy Rushton as chief executive officer (CEO) in 1992. (Nabers had served as law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court justice Hugo L. Black and was later appointed Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court by Gov. Bob Riley in 2003.) Nabers continued Protective Life’s growth with significant acquisitions, while at the same time promoting internal growth and the expansion of specialty insurance lines.
When Nabers retired in 2002, John D. Johns, a Harvard Business School graduate and an employee since 1993, became Protective Life’s CEO. The company, while still headquartered in Birmingham, is truly a national company, distributing its products across the country through subsidiaries such as West Coast Life Insurance Company acquired in 1997, Lyndon Property Insurance Company acquired in 1999, and Protective Life and Annuity Insurance Company, which was acquired in 1983, during Rushton’s tenure.
To give back to the greater community of Birmingham, the company established the Protective Life Foundation, which focuses upon the education and healthy development of at-risk youth. The foundation also contributes to cultural organizations, civic and community initiatives, human services groups, and the United Way.
O’Donnell, Joe. The Forge, Metal to Medicine: Birmingham’s Business History. Birmingham, Ala.: Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, 2007.