Date Published: April 8, 2016
John Ridings Lee, one of the first freshmen at the University of Dallas, recently
spoke to students in the business foundations course taught by Greg Bell, Ph.D, about
what he’s learned during his 50-plus years in the insurance industry.
Lee’s first job, following a short military career in the U.S. Army Special Forces, was working for London insurance syndicate, Blackwell and Green. They assigned him
to work on the offshore oil rigs near Aberdeen, Scotland. “I think Scotland is about
the coldest place in the world, so I was ready to head back to the states,” he said.
Betting on A New Business Trend
Upon returning to the U.S., Lee took a job as a salesman at Southwestern Life Insurance
Company. “After a couple of years, I realized the janitor was making more money than
I was,” he said. “Because he was a better salesman.” In hopes of improving his bottom
line, Lee took a look around the industry and determined that he should head in a
different direction. “Employee benefits was just beginning to break through,” he said.
“So I decided to start my own company as a benefits administrator.” That company,
Employee Plans Management, administered group health and life insurance plans for
After about four years as CEO of Employee Plans Management, Lee decided to sell the
company and start a holding company that could serve as an umbrella for other businesses.
Over the next several years he founded a succession of companies that provided the
insurance industry with new and innovative tools. For example, Lee’s North American
Risk Services was one of the first to spread the financial risk of large life insurance policies
to more than one company. “My dad told me I was a glorified bookie,” he said. “But
we paid back our initial debt in the seventh year, and the company sold recently for
$770 million in capital and assets.”
That wasn’t the only bet that paid out for Lee. In 1982, he and a partner started
Management Compensation Group, a company dedicated to compensation and executive benefit
planning. The company, which grew to twelve offices and over 400 employees, sold in
2013 to insurance giant, Prudential.
Lee also holds patents on unique financial instruments including a product which pays
salaries to the survivors of deceased employees. In addition, he invented a product
that offers a paid-up life insurance policy to retiring employees. As a result of
his patents, Lee receives royalties every time a new one of these policies is written.
Lee credits his ability to stay on top of industry trends to his moving around from
company to company. “Don’t stay with one company your whole life,” he advised students.
“Look for a different hill to climb. Look for a different way to skin a cat if you
want to improve your personal bottom line.”
Lee said another crucial component of success is to surround yourself with the right
team. “There’s no substitute for smart people,” he said. “Your math-inclined people,
like actuaries, keep your business running. And your ‘people-people’ can get more
you more yeses than anybody else.”
Lee also advised students to trust their first instincts when trying to solve a problem.
“If you’re sure you’re right, don’t let anybody talk you out of what you know to be
true,” he said. “Whether you end up being right or wrong, you’ll learn something.”
Finally, Lee told the group to be aware of wolves in sheep’s clothing. “Somebody is
always going to be trying to sell you something,” he said. “So do your homework and
know what it is you’re buying.” Good advice from a man who built an enormously successful
career around making the right bets at the right time.
The University of Dallas Executives on Campus program was founded to further the University’s
mission of providing practice-based education, by inviting successful business leaders
to share their experience with graduate and undergraduate students in the classroom.
Through this program, alumni, business leaders, and their companies are invited to
partner with the University in our shared pursuit of management excellence.