Author: Charles McNair

Published

"Dan Amos has a black belt in persuasion."

Audrey Tillman knows. A few years after she hired on as an attorney with Columbus-based Aflac, her boss called.

Amos dangled a new job, a promotion to head the human resources operations of the world's largest provider of supplemental insurance policies. A plum. Still, Tillman (JD '89) felt unsure about leaving her familiar legal duties. She cross-examined the CEO. "How do you know it's the position for me?" she asked.

It's a gut feeling, she remembers Amos telling her. You'll be good for our company. And I'll have your back.

Presto! Aflac had a new senior vice president-director of human resources.

Amos (BBA '73), the 56-year-old head of Georgia's fourth-largest public company — and a perennial Fortune magazines choice as one of the best places to work in America — has made a career of his powers of persuasion.

As a kid in his family's variety store near Pensacola, he talked customers into swapping hard-earned nickels for snow cones.

Amos was able to persuade his senior class at the University of Georgia to elect him president in 1972.

While still in his twenties, Amos persuaded so many customers to buy Aflac policies in thinly populated Alabama and north Florida that he carved out the top sales territory in the company.

Named CEO at a tender 39, Amos has persuaded his field sales force through example, inspiration, and sharp decision-making to outperform themselves year after year. Aflac has seen 18 consecutive years of 15 percent (or better) earnings-per-share growth.

Further proof of his business genius can be found half a world away from Columbus — in Japan, of all places, where Aflac has now supplanted 100-year-old Nippon Life as the country's top-ranking insurance company.

Amos is so successful — and so confident in the rightness of his corporate mission — that he has done a radical about face when it comes to his own pay check. In February 2007, he persuaded his board of directors that the right way to proceed in this era of uber-compensated CEOs was for the Aflac stockholders to determine his annual compensation, based on how the company performs in the marketplace.

Perhaps most remarkable of all, Amos persuaded his board to take a flying leap with him back in year 2000. That was the year Amos dared to air an offbeat new ad on nationwide television. In it, a pushy, accident-prone duck made fun of the most essential element of the company brand — the name on its headquarters building.

Admit it now. You've quoted The Duck yourself: Aflaaaaaaaaaaaaaaac!

Aflac headquarters stands on the highest hill in Columbus. It's taller by one prideful story than the city government building downtown. The fine homes of mill owners and cotton merchants once topped this same promontory.

Today, Columbus' red-brick textile factories and cotton warehouses have mostly gone the way of the steamboat. Now the city of some 200,000 people 90 miles south of Atlanta runs on white-collar enterprises like Aflac and Synovus, and also on the fortunes of Fort Benning.

All the city's commerce and energy goes on under the watchful eye of a huge duck head, grinning down on Columbus from its tallest building.

In fact, it's ducks unlimited at Aflac HQ. There's a life-size brass duck on Dan Amos' desk, ducks on neckties, stuffed duck toys hatching from bulky cardboard boxes. There's an autographed picture of Yogi Berra coddling The Duck. There's a framed letter from the first President Bush requesting plush ducks for Millie, the family dog, who happily chews them.

Yes, Millie loved the duck, and so does the whole wide world. In 1999 B.D. (Before Duck), one in 10 Americans recognized Aflac's oddly fricative company name. Eight short years A.D., nine of 10 Americans know Aflac. The Duck has a higher recognition rating than Ronald McDonald or the Energizer Bunny.

Return on the original duck commercial, which cost just $1 million to make, has been astronomical. The first week The Duck ran, Aflac got more hits on its website than the entire previous year. In The Duck's first year, Aflac sales leaped nearly 30 percent...and the same thing happened the next year. The spokesfowl appears on the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and in commercials with Chevy Chase, Wayne Newton, and Melania Knauss, aka Mrs. Donald Trump.

The phenomenon isn't just American. A duck jingle is the number-one cell phone ring tone in Japan.

"The duck was a gamble," Amos admits. "It was impossible to explain the appeal of the ad to people, that we had this duck and he waddled around and said our name — Aflac. So I never even told the board of directors what would be on the air. I just asked them to trust me.

"For me, the decision went back to the principles of risk management that I learned at the University of Georgia. What was the risk, really? Nobody knew our name anyway. No guts, no glory."

Amos reflects for a moment. "Of course, nobody really expected all this to happen...at least not to this degree."

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