Retired Army Maj. Gen. Josue "Joe" Robles has guided USAA through some of the most turbulent times in economic history. While other U.S. banks and insurance companies were drowning in a sea of their own toxic assets, foreclosures and government bailouts, USAA was posting record growth and first-in-class customer-service ratings. Last November, the member-owned company - which offers a full range of financial services, including insurance, banking and investments - expanded eligibility to anyone who honorably served in the U.S. military, regardless of rank or date of service.
On Nov. 29, 2010, The American Legion and USAA launched a new and historic relationship. Whenever a new USAA member joins and purchases insurance via The American Legion or USAA websites (www.legion.org or www.usaa.com/legion), or calls toll-free (877) 699-2654, USAA will contribute funds to Legion programs that help veterans, troops and communities nationwide.
Robles, named the No. 1 Veteran in Business by the Christian Science Monitor in 2009, recently spoke to The American Legion Magazine about the strength and value of joining services.
Q: The American Legion and USAA were both founded on similar principles after World War I. How do those principles still apply?
A: USAA was founded in 1922 in San Antonio by 25 Army officers. They came from all walks of life, but they had some important things in common: core values, a community that takes care of its own, and each was facing personal financial risk. Nobody wanted to insure them - or else wanted to charge them way too much - because nobody understood who they were. So they decided to pool their money and insure each other. Like The American Legion, the core values that mirror those of the U.S. military guide USAA's mission: helping military families toward financial security.
Fast-forward 88 years. Today, USAA serves 7.8 million members from all walks of life - but still with very important things in common. All have served, or come from military families. Many have been hit hard by this latest recession. Many have come to realize that other financial-services companies don't appreciate, don't care about, or don't understand them like USAA does. In fact, last year, we returned $1.2 billion to our members in the form of dividends, distributions, rebates and rewards.
Q: Can you explain how the company has grown over the years, especially since 1980, when membership climbed from 1.2 million to more than 7.8 million?
A: Since our founding, USAA has expanded eligibility for membership a number of times as we've had the financial strength and operational capacity to do so. As of Nov. 5, 2009, USAA is now open to the entire U.S. military community - anyone who has ever served honorably - and as soon as they join by purchasing a property and casualty insurance product, their children are eligible as well.
Prospective members are drawn to USAA because they want to do business with a financial-services organization that understands their unique needs, appreciates their service and is committed to doing the right thing because it's the right thing to do. Because USAA is one of the few organizations offering a full range of financial services - insurance, banking, investments, retirement and advice to go with it - we are uniquely positioned to handle the needs of Legion members.
Q: When eligibility expanded to include all veterans, the company issued a statement that this was not "growth for growth's sake." What does that mean?
A: USAA is member-owned, so growing to boost stock price is not a concern for us. Our mission directs us to be the financial-services provider of choice for the military community, and we've been expanding membership to serve more of the military community since those Army officers invited Navy officers to join back in the 1920s.
Q: Why should a veteran previously not eligible for USAA become a member now?
A: USAA is known for great customer service. We're also known for being customer advocates. We know the military better than any other financial-services company, and understand military benefits and what else you might need.
USAA is the only property and casualty insurer with the highest ratings for financial strength from Moody's, Standard & Poor's and A.M. Best. We're proud that 75 percent of living members who have ever joined USAA are still active members, as are 90 percent of living officers.
Q: New veterans often struggle with financial issues. How can USAA help?
A: Servicemembers, like many Americans, often have little personal-finance education or experience. They suddenly have a great job, a steady paycheck, but may not be equipped with the tools to make smart financial decisions. Worse, they may become prey of unscrupulous payday lenders, auto dealers and the like.
When you speak to a USAA representative, you're speaking to someone who is paid a salary and not commissions, so their motivation is to recommend what they believe the member really needs to help build a strong financial future. On USAA.com, our members can find additional advice on how to manage debt, improve credit scores, or make the right homebuying or renting decision.
Additionally, the USAA Educational Foundation offers resources to help consumers make informed decisions regarding financial management, safety concerns and many significant events in our lives.
Q: On the other side of the demographic spectrum is health-care coverage for older or retired Americans. What does USAA offer for veterans who want more than Medicare?
A: Keep in mind, "older" or "retired" doesn't just mean those over 65. Health care is a major concern for veterans, and especially those who retire early or otherwise need health solutions prior to being eligible for Medicare.
With health-care costs growing and potentially threatening the financial stability of our veterans, we help members manage their health-related retirement costs by providing guidance, as well as life insurance and health-care solutions that include a full range of Medicare solutions for those eligible. We also work with preferred companies to make long-term-care insurance plans available to members.
We understand military benefits and can help veterans with nearly any health-care and long-term financial decision by discussing the full range of options available.
Q: In 2009, as other major financial and big insurance companies were melting down, USAA had a record year of performance, increasing its net worth to $18 billion. How?
A: Our focus is on Main Street, not Wall Street. We manage our business for the benefit of our members. That allows us to make decisions based on long-term strategy and doing the right thing for those we serve.
Q: In 2008, USAA suffered like most investors but opted to stay the course on its investment strategy. Why?
A: Our focus has been, and still is, on prudent investment strategies with steady returns that provide income for product development and innovation to make our members' lives easier. We manage our balance sheet with very little debt; we don't invest in anything we don't understand, and we treat cost management as a religion, not a fad. As a result, since the end of 2004, our assets have more than doubled.
Q: USAA returned $1.2 billion to members in dividends, distributions, bank rebates and rewards in 2009. How are those returns decided, and why did they increase by 39 percent?
A: USAA is different in that we return to our members any capital in excess of that required by regulatory authorities or for the financial stability of USAA and for operating our business. Our very capable board of directors determines the distribution using a formula based on many factors.
2010 is on track to be another strong year, thanks in large part to prudent and disciplined management. USAA weathered the turmoil in the financial markets and posted its best year ever in 2009, which allowed us to return that $1.2 billion to our members.
But the real secret to our success is that, because USAA customers are military families, we have the best customers anywhere.
Q: Many big financial and insurance companies took advantage of federal programs to help them through these recent difficult times. Was government money available to USAA and, if so, why not take advantage?
A: It was available, but we didn't need it. We make it a practice to keep our debt and expenses low - and that's worked well for us and our members.
Q: Many Americans are used to having a local insurance agent down the street, but USAA does not have agencies everywhere. How does the company maintain a personal connection?
A: I believe we know our members and care about them more than just about any financial-services company. We stay close to our members and communicate with them frequently. And after 88 years, there's a huge trust factor. Our members turn to us for financial help and advice, and they have come to rely on us for just that reason.
And we not only provide that advice when our members ask for it, but also when they don't. When the recession began, we noticed many of our members were in financial trouble and were having problems paying their bills. We created a team of debt-solution professionals to provide extra assistance, and proactively reached out to tens of thousands of members to offer financial advice and help them get back on track. When mortgage rates dropped, we quickly ramped up our mortgage operations so we could help more members refinance and start taking advantage of an average monthly savings of $200 - real money, especially if you're on a budget. Same with our insurance reviews - we reach out to members to make sure they have the appropriate coverage - not too much or too little.
Q: What is the value of a military-to-military, veteran-to-veteran business relationship, outside of simple camaraderie?
A: For starters, we understand military benefits and can factor those into helping you chart your path toward financial security. Just as important, USAA shares the same core values: service, loyalty, honesty and integrity. We are uniquely positioned to handle the needs of patriotic veterans organizations like The American Legion. We say "We know what it means to serve." And we do: one in five USAA employees is a veteran, military spouse or in the Guard or Reserve - and many, many more have an immediate family member who has served.
By joining forces with the Legion, we can assist in fulfilling both of our missions while increasing our service to the military community.