Five years after launching Brighthouse Financial as an independent, publicly traded company, President and CEO Eric Steigerwalt remains laser-focused on growth and expansion. That energy is pervasive across the company. This dynamic is not surprising given Eric’s prioritization of two-way communication with employees. From regular podcasts – sometimes multiple per month – to meetings with new hires, to action taken on employee engagement surveys, Eric is sharing and listening in equal measure. The result is a workforce that feels a strong sense of ownership and pride in what they are building.
Read on to hear Eric’s perspective on product development trends, how he has adapted his leadership style, and what he considers one of the most memorable moments in his career.
When you established Brighthouse Financial in 2017, you identified growth as the #1 priority for the business in those early days. Five years out, what is the #1 priority for Brighthouse today?
Growth is still a top priority for Brighthouse Financial. Our strategy has remained focused on growing sales, managing expenses, unlocking capital, and repurchasing our common stock, and we are very pleased with the progress that we have made in all those areas since our launch in 2017 as an independent, publicly traded company.
As you noted, I identified growing the business as our top priority when we launched Brighthouse Financial. I could not be more proud of the sales growth that we have achieved, which I believe speaks to the value of our products as well as the strength of the brand that we have created and how it is resonating with our distribution partners and their financial professionals and clients. Since our launch, we have continued to expand our distribution reach, and today we are proud to partner with over 400 distributors. We are so grateful for our distribution partners and all that they do on behalf of their clients and our customers every day.
As you also mentioned, we mark our fifth anniversary this year, in August. It is remarkable to look back on everything that we have accomplished over the past five years. One of the most memorable moments of my career was when I rang the opening bell at the Nasdaq headquarters in Times Square — kicking off our first day of trading as an independent, public company — and then flying to Charlotte so I could ring the closing bell the same day and celebrate the momentous occasion with our employees. This year, we are planning some activities to celebrate our fifth anniversary, and I am looking forward to joining our employees as we reflect on our many achievements and look ahead to more success in the next five years and beyond.
Great leaders are especially adept at adapting to what the business or their people need. What about your leadership style have you needed to change since Brighthouse was founded?
One of the things that I have always prioritized is regular interaction and direct communication with our employees, without whom we could not accomplish our mission. For example, every month, I meet our new employees as part of an immersion session that we have for new Brighthouse Financial hires, a practice that I have maintained since our company’s launch. The COVID-19 pandemic made employee communications more critical than ever. In turn, I adapted some of the ways that I communicate with our employees so that they would continue to feel deeply connected to our company and one another during a very uncertain time.
One of these adaptations was to substantially increase the frequency of podcasts that I used to communicate to employees before the pandemic. Previously, I had used my podcasts to, among other things, help nurture our culture and keep our employees updated on our business, including our progress toward our company’s goals. After the onset of the pandemic, I continued to use my podcasts for those purposes, but in addition, I began leveraging them to speak regularly and transparently to our employees about how our company was responding to the challenging environment. Over the past two-plus years, there have been months when I have recorded multiple podcasts to ensure that our employees remain well informed as we navigated the pandemic. I have also used my podcasts to discuss the many ways that we have been supporting our employees throughout the pandemic, to give them peace of mind in this stressful period. On one of my podcasts early last year, some of our employees joined me to share their personal experiences in the pandemic. This conversation allowed our employees to hear directly from their colleagues on best practices for maintaining work-life balance while juggling working from home with other demanding responsibilities, including caregiving duties.
Brighthouse has created an incredible corporate culture, one where people matter, and employees take pride in supporting one another. How were you able to create such a supportive environment amid such a competitive industry?
It is an understatement to say that I am extremely proud of the culture that we have built at Brighthouse Financial. I believe one key reason we have been able to build the strong culture that we have is that we ask our employees for feedback on their experiences at our company, and then we act on that feedback. For example, the responses that we have received on our employee engagement surveys have led to new offerings from our Learning and Development team, increased efforts to become even more transparent with our employees and the creation of more recognition programs, to list just some of the enhancements we have made because of feedback from our employees. Further reflecting the high value that we place on employee feedback, our Culture Action Committee, which is composed of representatives from across our company, oversees action plans targeting areas of opportunity identified in our engagement surveys. This committee’s work is among many initiatives that we have in place to make our culture even stronger.
We also continuously seek to promote our culture to help maintain and increase its strength. Among the ways we do this is through our annual Values Award. This award celebrates employees who embody our core values of collaboration, adaptability, and passion in extraordinary ways. One of the highlights of the year for me is getting to have lunch with our new Values Award winners to congratulate and thank them for everything they are doing for Brighthouse Financial. In addition, during the pandemic, we took a variety of steps to preserve and enhance our culture and support our employees. To name a few, these include allowing for flexible work schedules to help employees manage personal responsibilities, providing extra vacation days to assist employees with avoiding burnout and not suspending our regular match for employee 401(k) contributions as a result of the pandemic. Our employees are foundational to our success, so we continue to work hard to further enhance our culture and ensure that our company remains a great place to work.
The last two years have seen a renewed emphasis on DEI across US businesses. How does Brighthouse intend to keep this priority front and center for its executives and its employees?
Diversity, equity, and inclusion has always been a priority for us, and we remain firmly committed to further advancing DEI at our company. As we have said, we believe that by creating an inclusive workplace, we are better able to attract and retain talent and provide valuable solutions that meet the needs of our distribution partners and the financial professionals who sell our products, as well as their clients.
We continue to take steps as part of our efforts to foster DEI. These include our ongoing focus on increasing representation of underrepresented groups across our company, including seeking diverse candidates for open positions. In addition, our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council creates and sponsors programs and development opportunities with the aim of further advancing DEI at Brighthouse Financial. More recently, in January of this year, we launched a variety of employee network groups, or ENGs. We are excited by the launch of our ENGs, which are open to all employees and designed to offer opportunities for networking, development, learning and allyship, as well as drive additional employee engagement.
We also recognize the importance of doing our part to help drive DEI within our industry and the communities where we live and work. To that end, last year, Brighthouse Financial proudly joined forces with other leading financial services firms and industry resource groups to create the Coalition for Equity in Wholesaling, which aims to increase diversity among insurance wholesalers. Additionally, grants from the Brighthouse Financial Foundation, as well as volunteering opportunities offered to our employees, are focused on breaking the cycle of generational poverty, advancing racial equity, and supporting women, children, underrepresented populations, and low-income families.
How is Brighthouse’s product portfolio evolving to meet consumers’ needs? What product development trends are you excited to explore in the coming years?
We know that many consumers saving for retirement are interested in participating in growth opportunities while enjoying a level of protection in down markets. Our flagship Brighthouse Shield® Level Annuities are designed with those consumers in mind. Last summer, we announced the launch of new enhancements to our Shield annuities. These enhancements are designed to give consumers saving for retirement even more ways to tailor Shield annuities to their individual needs to help them achieve their retirement savings goals.
In addition, the rising costs of long-term care and increasing life expectancies are two key retirement trends that are impacting many people and families. To help address those trends, in 2019, we launched Brighthouse SmartCare®, a hybrid life insurance and long-term care policy that gives protection in two ways, by providing your loved ones a death benefit and offering you long-term care coverage if you need it.
Another trend that we continue to see is consumer desire for purchasing experiences that are quick and frictionless. With that in mind, Brighthouse Financial offers consumers a life insurance purchasing process that is designed to be fast and simple. For example, while our industry has traditionally required medical exams and lab work as part of the life insurance application process, Brighthouse Financial does not require most applicants to undergo invasive testing, whether for SmartCare or our newest product, Brighthouse SimplySelect®, a term life insurance product that we launched in 2020.
At Brighthouse Financial, we are proud to be one of the largest providers of annuities and life insurance in the U.S. and of the role that we play in helping people achieve financial security. It is that sense of pride and purpose that drives us every day to focus on how we can even better serve the needs of our customers and their families.