Retirement investments represent half of Bellevue insurance company Symetra’s revenue.

Share story

In the world of insurance, people can often rattle off jingles, name the famous NFL player spokesman and quickly recognize national brand logos.

All that makes it harder for the smaller companies to gain national attention and market share. But that is Bellevue-based Symetra Financial’s plan — to become a national player in all three of its divisions — individual life, benefits and retirement — in the next five years.

“When I say national player, you may not know a lot about our business, but I know you know the names of our competitors,” Symetra CEO Thomas Marra said about companies like Nationwide, MetLife and Prudential. “These are iconic brands that have been around, most of them, over 100 years.”

What sets Symetra apart

Retirement investments represent half its revenue.

But the question Marra had to tackle when he joined the company five months after it went public in 2010 was: “How do we — a medium-sized company situated here in Bellevue — attack those markets?”

Most Read Business Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Symetra is on its way. Its financial performance in 2014 was strong enough to put the company at No. 2 on The Seattle Times’ 24th annual ranking of publicly traded companies based in the Northwest — jumping from 40th three years ago. Since going public, Symetra’s revenue has increased 16 percent to $2.2 billion and its profit has increased 31 percent to $254.4 million.

Taking over a financially stable company, Marra said he was asked to find opportunities for growth. His first step was to leverage the strengths of Symetra’s three divisions, making each stand alone as a platform to launch new products.

Best of the Northwest 2015

Click here or on the photo above to see The Seattle Times’ 24th annual ranking of publicly traded companies based in the Northwest.

“You have to declare what you are, declare what you are not and then do it,” Marra said from his 14th-floor office — with views of Lake Washington and the Olympic Mountains — in the shiny 24-story Symetra building in downtown Bellevue.

When Marra came on board, the benefits division already stood separately from retirement and life-insurance lines. Benefits is primarily made up of medical stop loss insurance, which covers employees of a self-insured company who need expensive procedures, such as a heart transplant or delivering a premature baby.

Symetra, originally founded in 1957 as Safeco’s life-insurance business, helped pioneer the medical stop loss business and estimates that it has a market share in the range of 8 to 10 percent. The benefits division also offers group life, disability income and limited medical insurance, mainly to employers.

While a leader in medical stop loss insurance, retirement investments are the moneymaker, bringing in 49 percent of the company’s revenue, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Separating retirement from life insurance, and making the three divisions stand-alone was better for risk management, said Marra, an actuary who came to Symetra after 29 years at The Hartford Financial Services Group.

To attack the three different markets and expand its business, Symetra has rolled out new retirement and life-insurance options and expanded its network of broker agents who sell Symetra’s plans.

Symetra at a glance

CEO: Thomas Marra

Headquarters: Bellevue

What they do: Provides life insurance, employee benefits and retirement investments through brokers, agents and banks.

Employees: 1,400 (900 in Bellevue)

Symetra is not a direct-to-consumer company; all its plans are offered through agents and banks.

“It is important that we have a brand so when the producer suggests to their clients, ‘Hey, I’ve got this individual life product. It is by Symetra,’ ” Marra said. “We are working so the customer then says ‘Oh, yeah — I like those guys.’ ”

Marra said he would like to have Symetra products sold on every street corner, so people can walk into a bank, ask if they sell Symetra annuities — retirement investments — and be handed a brochure.

It’s branding efforts include a new logo in 2011 to include a Swift — a bird that is “quick, energetic and nimble,” according to a news release from the time.

Symetra also has grown steadily its national advertising campaign over the past three years to include Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Wimbledon and Major League Baseball.

One of its largest moves was to sponsor the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Futures Tour beginning in 2011, effective for the 2012 season — it is now known as the Symetra Tour — Road to the LPGA.

“American culture loves sports,” Marra said.

Colin Devine, an analyst with Jefferies, wrote in a research note that Symetra has good growth potential, but that other than stop loss and bank annuity sales, Symetra still needs to get much bigger to achieve any scale.

Marra said he has a five-year plan to expand.

“I expect retirement to continue to grow, but the other two (divisions) to grow faster. I want more of a balance … but I don’t want retirement to slow down. So that means retirement has to grow and the other two have to grow faster, and I think we can do that.”