Waiting in the cool, sleekly retro offices of the Texas Life building, one could be forgiven for expecting the imminent arrival of deeply serious men in dark suits. After all, the company’s president and CEO is on his way.
But this is Texas — Waco, Texas — and the top gun, Steve Cates, is a boot-clad, jeans-wearing native son.
Begun in 1901 and marking its 110th anniversary, Texas Life traces its roots back through the Mayfield family, which migrated to Waco in the late 1800s from the Carolinas. They first opened a pawn shop, and their business interests quickly evolved into banking, then insurance.
“Texas Life was granted Charter No. 1 by the oldest legal reserve in Texas,” said Cates as he kicked back in his chair.
“In fact,” added marketing director Mark Cool, “the charter was granted by the banking commission, because there wasn’t yet an insurance commission in Texas.”
Founder William Mayfield already had been busy starting a bank, as it happened, even before Texas Life was conceived and the charter granted.
“That bank became Texas National,” Cates said. “The bank was eventually headquartered right here at 900 Washington, and eventually sold to Compass Mortgage.”
Tradition and family are so important to the Mayfields that Cates is only the second CEO in company history who isn’t a Mayfield.
Cates shows a striking portrait of William D. Mayfield, founder of both the bank and Texas Life, resplendent with the full beard fashionable for men at the turn of that century. A chaplain in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, Mayfield migrated with his family from Laurence County, S.C, to Waco in 1886.
“I would describe the family as money lenders,” said former Texas Life President and CEO John Mayfield, great-grandson of founder William D. Mayfield. “Upon arriving in Waco, they opened a pawn shop and offered private loans. Within a short time, they used the profits from that enterprise to begin City Savings Bank (since acquired by Compass Mortgage), and then, in 1901, Texas Life — incidentally the first legal reserve life insurance company west of the Mississippi River.”
Succeeding William D. Mayfield upon his death in 1915 was son John, then in 1944, grandson William.
“You already can see why this is a good gig,” Cates said. “The average tenure of CEOs around here is at least 20 years.”
Following the younger William’s untimely death, the only non-Mayfield CEO apart from Cates was appointed: Paul Dickard served from 1959 until 1969, and was followed by John Mayfield in a term spanning 27 years, until the time of Cates’ arrival to succeed him.
Cates was beating the streets of Manhattan for MetLife, working out of two to three offices and loving it, when he got the call to come to Waco.
“Texas Life sold to MetLife in 1988,” Cates said, “in a deal I happened, only by chance, to have helped facilitate in my work for MetLife. It was years later, 1995 I think, when a MetLife executive vice president and chairman of the board at Texas Life recruited me to come to Waco and become CEO here.
“What was funny was that he kept emphasizing to me that I could move the company headquarters if I wanted — to Dallas, maybe, or Austin — because, of course, he thought I’d never want to live in Waco after living in Manhattan.” Cates chuckles at the memory before delivering the punchline — one as unbelievable as it is true.
“He truly had no idea I just happened to be a Waco native. I went to Lake Air Junior High; I went to Waco High School,” he said. “I loved my life in Manhattan and New Jersey, honestly ... but I couldn’t pass this up.”
Cates took over at a time when the company was successful, but Cates felt its focus was too broad.
“When I was a kid, a man with a briefcase would come and sell middle-class folks life insurance at the door. That’s expensive for a company — beating the streets, finding a time when you can get both adults in the family sitting down to listen and to sign,” he said. “Life insurance began to focus more on the affluent, who were buying much larger policies.”
In the process, Cates said, hardworking people were getting left behind.
“When I got here, Texas Life was doing some of that, selling higher-dollar policies, while still trying to reach the middle class,” he said. “I felt strongly that if we focused all our efforts on an effective, economical way to reach the middle class, we’d be a stronger company for it.”
Cool agrees, adding that “50 percent of middle-class worksite employees at that time had no life insurance.”
Asked what Texas Life does sell, Cates is glad to expound on a topic he clearly relishes.
“We sell one kind of insurance: life insurance. We sell one kind of life insurance: permanent, not term,” he said. “We work primarily through individuals’ places of employment. And among places of employment, we work mainly with primary and secondary schools.”
Cates’ modest explanation belies the fact that Texas Life serves not only the majority of public schools in Texas, it also has a presence in every U.S. state and the District of Columbia. It works through wholesalers and independent distributors to bring what Texas Life does best to the rest of the nation.
And the company, which was sold to Wilton Re in March 2009, is consistently ranked among the top three nationwide in its specialty.
“Now our focus, our measure of success is not the amount of premium in each policy, but the number of policies we sell, and how affordable we can make them to our customers,” Cates said. “These are good risks already, because they’re working folks. We help them insure their families as well as themselves.”
John Mayfield, the most recent former CEO, remains a dynamic presence in Waco. He is lauded by both Cates and Cool, particularly in advocating for the renewal of downtown through the renovation of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and myriad other efforts — a passion that is part of the corporate mission at Texas Life.
“You have to understand — we don’t sell a tangible retail product here,” Cates said. “Our primary need in advertising is classified, for job openings. What we’ve chosen to do is to showcase our drive for deep involvement in downtown Waco through supporting different nonprofits here locally.”
In advertising, time and dollars, Texas Life digs deep for numerous nonprofit organizations, among them the Family Health Center, Boys and Girls Club, various local school districts, Fuzzy Friends Animal Rescue, Lake Air Little League and the Providence Foundation. Cates serves on the Providence Healthcare Network’s board of trustees.
Cates also chairs the marketing committee of the Public Improvement District, a group of property owners in a specific geographic area that is permitted to self-tax to improve the security, attractiveness and sustainability of the area.
Cates and Cool agree: Texas Life is on track for great things. The sluggish economy doesn’t appear to dampen their clear enthusiasm for their missions, whether business or civic.
“I see continued stellar growth in our future,” Cates said. “We’re positioned as a good corporate presence — a good sponsor of what’s important to Waco, and that’s important to us.”
Founder William Mayfield (center) and son John (left) with an early Texas Life board of directors.