By Linda Koco
Kim O'Brien's retirement as president and CEO of National Association for Fixed Annuities (NAFA) surprised a lot of people inside the organization and out, but the 11-year NAFA leader says the time is right.
In an interview with InsuranceNewsNet, O'Brien said she needed to attend to a medical issue and, as she reviewed her options, retirement from NAFA emerged as the best solution.
NAFA is in as strong a position as an industry trade association, she explained, so it will be able to manage a change at the top. In fact, this is a good time “to bring in new brain trust, which will steer NAFA on to the next phase of its development,” she said.
Meanwhile, O’Brien will get the medical care she needs and then look to a “new chapter” in her life serving the interests of the annuity business. She is already considering a couple of options, she said, adding that she is “ready for a change.”
About the medical matter
Executives don’t typically talk about personal matters with the press, but O’Brien consented to publication of her personal reason for retiring from NAFA.
“For the last six months, I’ve had incredible pain in both knees, to the point that it was difficult to stand for very long,” she said. At the many meetings she attended across the country, she increasingly found she had to sit rather than mill around due to the pain. Negotiating the long lines and tight quarters in airports didn’t help either, nor did taking eight-hour trips from home to destination cities, standing at podiums, or other high-visibility activities that go with the job.
Sometimes the work and travel schedule became so heavy that she said she found herself sending emails on work-related matters at 3 in the morning.
She felt she had no time to get medical treatment, so she kept putting it off. But the pain persisted to the point that, during the recent holiday break, she realized the time had come to take care of herself.
“It may seem like a sudden decision, and I’m not a brave medical soul,” she allowed. “But I need to stop.”
Shock and surprise
S. Christopher Johnson, chairman of the NAFA board of directors, is among those voicing “shock and surprise” at O’Brien’s decision. “It’s a sad day for NAFA,” he told InsuranceNewsNet. “She has been with NAFA for a long time and will be hard to replace. We will miss her.”
The necessary skillset entails not only knowledge of the industry and of annuities, Johnson said. It also entails such things as an ability to understand the perspectives of annuity carriers, distributors and producers, to advocate for the products, to represent NAFA in Washington and the states, and to have empathy for the needs and wants of annuity consumers.
The association has already set up a search committee for a successor, and Johnson said he is confident they will find the right person.
In the meantime, he said, Janet Terpening, director of operations, is taking over O’Brien’s former duties. The staff is staying on and has “stepped up to maintain continuity” and has provided “impressive” support.
“We have the same goals and mission as before,” Johnson added, noting that NAFA representatives recently met with the Department of Labor to discuss permitting fixed indexed annuities (FIAs) to be used as qualifying longevity annuity contracts (QLACs).
NAFA in a good place
The decision to retire from NAFA was helped along by realizing that “NAFA is in a good place,” O’Brien said. “It is humming along, doing well, and looking toward building awareness about annuities in banks and broker-dealers, even as it continues to serve the independent marketing channel.”
It’s financially strong, too, she said. In 2003, when she first arrived, the group had a $90,000 commitment from one carrier plus donations of volunteer time and services. By year-end 2014, its revenues were more than $1 million. It employs a fulltime staff and has others on retainer.
The organization’s outreach has blossomed too. When O’Brien first started, NAFA held an annual conference, sent out a newsletter to members, and hosted a website, she said. Today, it holds two conferences a year, offers monthly webinars, hosts a website, provides educational resources for agents, publishes responses to “negative” media articles on annuities, engages in advocacy work in Washington and the states, and coordinates with other industry groups as needed.
An MBA, O’Brien gained her annuity spurs from several industry positions. She has worked in a general agency and in a brokerage. She started up an insurance marketing organization. And she served in marketing, communications and product development positions at three carriers, one of which went through two mergers during her service there. With each change, she became increasingly involved with annuities, so that when she arrived at NAFA, she was already knowledgeable about fixed annuities — and fixed indexed annuities.
That experience stood her in good stead when the Securities and Exchange Commission issued Rule 151A in 2009 in its move to classify FIAs as securities. This galvanized the industry to take steps to block the measure, which happened in 2010. NAFA played a “big role” in that fight, she said.
“Annuities still have detractors and competitors, but the tide has shifted to more positive responses to the product among media, policymakers and regulators,” O’Brien said.
She credits NAFA’s advocacy role in the Rule 151A fight and in several other advocacy efforts with helping to turn the tide. O’Brien was entwined in all of that. Even so, she said she believes NAFA will continue on without a hiccup. It needs to do that, she said. “It has important work to do. My leaving doesn’t stop that.”
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