To Jay Wintrob, the incoming chief executive of SunAmerica Inc., operating in a changing financial services environment means playing down what he calls "the i-word" - insurance.
"We don't define ourselves as an insurance company. We don't want to be thought of as providing a narrow product line," he said. "We want to be thought of as the retirement specialists, and we want that to be defined as broadly as possible."
"If you go back 20 years, insurance companies offered insurance, mutual funds companies offered mutual funds, banks offered trust services, and securities firms offered investments," he said. "That is not the case any more. The whole world of financial services convergence, it's here."
Mr. Wintrob was named CEO of Los Angeles-based SunAmerica, a subsidiary of American International Group Inc. of New York, on Sept. 14, effective Jan. 1. He got the promotion after working for the company since 1987, most recently as president and chief operating officer.
Eli Broad, the chairman and CEO who built SunAmerica during the past two decades, remains chairman. The company manages about $139 billion of assets.
Mr. Wintrob is also a board member of AIG, which bought SunAmerica in 1999. And last week at least one analyst mentioned him as a possible candidate for president and chief operating officer of AIG, posts vacated Tuesday by Evan Greenberg, a son and the designated successor of his father, chairman and CEO Maurice R. Greenberg.
Though SunAmerica offers some traditional insurance products in partnership with AIG, "our focus is in the retirement savings area, both in terms of products and services," Mr. Wintrob said.
The company's products include variable annuities, fixed annuities, mutual funds, trust services, and corporate financing products, which are sold through banks, securities firms, financial planners, insurance agents, and the company's wholly owned network of broker-dealers.
Retirement planning "is really the best and fastest-growing market within the financial services arena," he said, because of demographic changes and the erosion of traditional safety nets like Social Security.
Programs such as Social Security and Medicare will not be as dependable in the future, Mr. Wintrob said, because "the math doesn't work. The number of people contributing into the system is shrinking, and the number of people extracting from the system is growing."
SunAmerica data show that in 1960 there were eight workers for every person receiving benefits but that by 2010 there will be fewer than four workers for every person receiving benefits. "That theme is being repeated internationally," he said, so safety net programs in other countries also are eroding as their populations age.
These statistics - as well as front-page coverage of issues like Social Security - mean people are becoming more concerned about saving for retirement, Mr. Wintrob said. A SunAmerica survey in 1998 found that 80% of all Americans 25 to 55 years old thought that they would not have enough money to live on when they retired and 40% believed their retirements would be less comfortable than their parents'.
Another 1998 SunAmerica survey asked 1,004 adults: "What do you daydream about more? Sex or retirement?" Perhaps surprisingly, retirement beat out sex, 52% to 37% (11% refused to answer).
"These themes aren't undiscovered," Mr. Wintrob said. "That's why it's a competitive marketplace." SunAmerica is trying to position itself as the premier company for retirement savings through every major distribution channel, including banks, he said.
"We've been committed to bank distribution through our financial institutions division for several years," Mr. Wintrob said, "and we've been supporting it with an increased number of product wholesalers." The company offers both its own products and AIG's through banks.
An April deal with Bank of America Corp. will put SunAmerica products in the banking company's branches this fall, and it is courting more banks.
The company also owns its own network of broker-dealers, which it built through a series of acquisitions. These broker-dealers offer products from various carriers, not just SunAmerica, but owning the brokerages gives SunAmerica a great opportunity to market its products to the reps who sell them, he said.
"We have a very broad-based distribution," Mr. Wintrob said, adding that though many vendors create financial products, it is more important to "get them into the hands of consumers - and into the hands of the brokers and the financial planners and the agents and the bank employees who have the actual relationships with the consumers."
SunAmerica is also building its brand in part through materials that target what it considers its true competition for customer dollars - not other companies' investment products but rampant consumer spending and debt accumulation.
"If you look at the total amount of dollars spent on advertising savings products compared with the amount of money spent to induce people to basically borrow money - through credit cards, loans, and mortgages - it's an unbelievable disparity, even though the need for savings is probably the most urgent need," Mr. Wintrob said.
The company's marketing materials compare the cost of luxury items such as fine jewelry and fancy cars with what that money could earn if invested for retirement. "We're not trying to be preachy, and tell them what to do with their money," Mr. Wintrob stressed. However, he added, SunAmerica wants people to realize how important retirement savings are and to turn to it with their questions and concerns.
SunAmerica's growth position is also bolstered by its relationship with AIG, Mr. Wintrob said. AIG's "unquestioned financial strength and its unparalleled relationships with the largest corporations, including financial institutions," have opened doors for SunAmerica, he said.
Mr. Wintrob refused to comment on Evan Greenberg's resignation from AIG. Most reports have said there are few obvious successors to the younger Mr. Greenberg, but Merrill Lynch & Co. analyst Jay Cohen did bring up Mr. Wintrob as a potential candidate last week.
Mr. Wintrob stressed the importance of the team that has built SunAmerica, many of whose members have been with the company several years. "We have an absolutely incredible group of people here," he said. "We've grown up together, we're very competitive, we're driven to be successful, and we don't mind being a little bit out of the mainstream, hard to pin down, and hard to characterize."
Despite working in an increasingly competitive financial marketplace, he said, "more of the competition is trying to look like us than the other way around."