TAMPA — It's a good thing Don Salama has a background — and continuing passion — as a race car driver and strategist.
As head of the Tampa operation for New York Life Insurance Co., he'll have to be nimble yet decisive steering the company through a new growth spurt that could lead to hundreds of additional local jobs … and perhaps a new headquarters as well.
Salama expects to add between 200 and 300 employees over the next three years, outgrowing the company's current West Shore office complex, which houses about 900 workers. He said he likes the West Shore area, but isn't sure yet whether the company will eventually move to a different site or stay put and open a satellite office nearby. An active real estate search will begin next year, he said.
Salama, 52, who came to Tampa 21/2 years ago, notched two championships as a driver in Grand Am racing. He has continued to be active in NASCAR as a crew chief and strategist while juggling his New York Life responsibilities.
A good chunk of New York Life's growth is tied to a relatively new direct sales unit, an online and over-the-phone channel that markets life insurance policies directly to consumers, bypassing the customary use of an independent agent.
Begun as a pilot program in January, the direct-sell program is now going national with a marketing program to bolster its appeal.
Salama downplayed concerns his unit is in direct competition with some 12,000 agents who sell New York Life policies face-to-face. Rather, he said, it's a way to expand the overall pool of New York Life policyholders.
His call center will still steer more sophisticated policy needs directly to agents while handling more simplified life policies requiring minimal underwriting.
The goal, he said, is to cater to customers that want "a virtual relationship" in buying insurance. "We believe the world will move that way," he said.
The Tampa operation is used to being the launching pad for bigger and better things for its New York parent.
It began in 1994 with a couple of dozen New York Life staffers and a new contract to sell life insurance to AARP members. Today, it boasts 900 employees and $1.4 billion in revenues, more than 90 percent of it coming from that ever-growing AARP business. Since 2009 alone, the operation here has added about 250 employees.
The AARP contract was recently extended until 2022, guaranteeing the insurer exclusive rights to provide life insurance products to 37 million AARP members. NYLife also sells annuities on behalf of the retiree organization.
The AARP niche has continued growing, though at a more measured 5 percent clip the past couple of years. Salama sees the direct sales unit growing at a much faster pace going forward.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or [email protected]