Gayle O. Averyt | Legacy of Leadership Profile

Gayle O. Averyt

(Born October 13, 1933)

In 1995, Gayle Averyt retired as chairman of Colonial Life & Accident Insurance Company, a company his father co-founded, ending an active career that began more than 35 years earlier. Business associates remember him as a dedicated, well-organized, focused executive who was never satisfied with the status quo. Gayle Averyt constantly tried to improve the company and its goals and his own spiritual and family life.     

Gayle Owen Averyt was born October 13, 1933, in Montgomery, Alabama, the second of three children of Edwin Franklin and Asenath Murfee Averyt. Sisters Ella Averyt DuBose and Dorothy Averyt Poston completed the immediate family.

His parents, both Alabama natives, moved the family to Columbia, where his father co-founded Colonial Life & Accident Insurance Company in 1937.

Gayle Averyt grew up in the insurance business, working summers while attending Columbia and Dreher high schools, Davidson College, and Harvard University. He received a cum laude bachelor's degree from Davidson in 1955 and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. After graduation, he served as a second lieutenant in the Army but received a medical discharge after six months. Averyt then entered Harvard Business School and received a master's degree in business administration in 1958.    

Averyt's father and J. Clifton Judy founded what became Colonial Life & Accident Insurance Company with capital of only $5,000 and little knowledge of the insurance business. Through trial and error and support from the South Carolina Insurance Commission, they prospered and expanded.    

Averyt joined his father at Colonial in 1958 and was promoted to vice president in 1960. Father and son were opposites. While E. F. Averyt was a born salesman who thrived on marketing and thought in terms of doubling the business annually, Gayle Averyt was more reserved and conservative in his expectations, thinking more in terms of annual growth of 15 percent to 20 percent.    

E. F. Averyt, who was inducted posthumously into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 1989, relinquished chairmanship of the business to his son in 1970. He died in 1978.

Once in charge, Gayle Averyt realized that the entrepreneurial momentum driving Colonial was no guarantee of success. Leon Goodall, who had been successful at Allstate Insurance, had joined the company as vice president in 1959 and was promoted to president in 1970, remaining in that position until 1979. Goodall provided the leadership during what is considered Colonial's second phase of growth, and Averyt guided the company during its third phase of growth and success.

When Averyt joined Colonial, the company operated in five states and had about $700,000 in annual earnings and premiums of $4.5 million. In 1993, Colonial merged with UNUM Corporation. At the time, Colonial was represented in all states except New York and had a market value in excess of $600 million. Following the merger, Averyt joined the board of UNUM Corporation and remained on the board through June 1999.    

The UNUM-Colonial merger was beneficial to both companies, and Robert E. Staton, who succeeded Averyt as Colonial chairman, believes Averyt enjoyed the merger as the fulfillment of a responsibility and obligation his father had passed on to him. To Averyt, Colonial and UNUM together represent the best company of its kind anywhere.    

Averyt has gained recognition in business and many other areas of his life. In 1989, The Wall Street Transcript, an investment industry publication, named Averyt a winner in its recognition of industry chief executive officers in the United States.    

In 1989, the University of South Carolina awarded him an honorary doctoral degree, and in 1993, Averyt received USC's Distinguished Service Award. Colonial established the Gayle Owen Averyt Scholarship at Davidson College in 1995, and, that same year, he received Davidson's Distinguished Alumnus Award. The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce named him its Businessman of the Year in 1989, and Governor Carroll A. Campbell, Jr., awarded him the state's highest accolade, the Order of the Palmetto, in 1994.    

Averyt was a member of the South Carolina State Ports Authority from 1995 to 1999 and was on the board of Citizens & Southern Corporation of South Carolina and its successor, NationsBank. He was a member of the South Carolina Insurance Commission, president of the South Carolina Orchestra Association, and president of the Rotary Club of Columbia.    

Averyt was a leader in the development of the Republican Party in South Carolina and suggested in an interview that he was driven by "youth and exuberance." However, he "resented the idea of a one-party state," which would offer little choice at the polls.

He and a few friends encouraged Charles Boineau to run for a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1960. Boineau was successful and was the first Republican in nearly 80 years to be elected to the Legislature. A year later, Averyt served as campaign finance chairman for the unsuccessful attempt by Columbia newsman and Republican W. D. Workman, Jr., to unseat United States Senator Olin D. Johnston. Nevertheless, Boineau's victory and Workman's defeat were significant factors in South Carolina's becoming a two-party state.

A member of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Averyt has served his church in several capacities. He was chairman of the board of visitors of Heathwood Hall Episcopal School for more than 20 years.

Averyt and Margaret "Peg" Finlay were married June 15, 1963. She is the daughter of the late Kirkman and Catherine McCarrel Finlay and granddaughter of the late Episcopal Bishop Kirkman G. Finlay. They are the parents of three daughters, Caroline, now Mrs. W. Leighton Lloyd III, Margaret, and Elinor. They have two grandsons, Will and Owen.

Averyt was inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 1998.

© 1999 South Carolina Business Hall of Fame