Flynn Foster is on TikTok.
Don’t be fooled by the way he talks about it, like it’s some sort of disease—“I’ve been exposed to TikTok”— because the 52-year-old president of Guaranty Corp. willingly signed up for the social media app known for its Gen Z appeal. Foster’s two sons were only so helpful in explaining exactly what to do with his new account, but he got on the app anyway because he understands why it’s important to be there.
“Broadcasting has changed over the past several years. Print has changed. … If we’re not online, one way or another, our customers are not going to find us,” Foster says.
Foster spends a lot of time reading, and here he’s half-quoting something he picked up recently about how consumers no longer go online, they live online.
“We’re trying to live online with our customers, our viewers,” he says.
At the core of that idea is the one thing Guaranty has long sought to do. As Foster puts it, “our mission has always been to serve others.” But how the Baton Rouge family-owned company has attempted to accomplish that has changed drastically in its more than 90 years of history.
Founded as an insurance company in 1926 by George Foster Sr., Guaranty’s business holdings have expanded and contracted to include, at various times, a tugboat operation, an energy company, a senior living facility, a TV station, a number of real estate holdings and five radio stations. Two years ago, Guaranty bought the digital marketing and web design agency Gatorworks. Most recently, the company grew to include chef Jay Ducote’s line of products and his Mid City taco restaurant.
It might be easy to look at this list and consider it erratic. But dig a little deeper, and a pattern emerges.
Take, for example, the two-year period it took to close a deal that would end with the sale of the Guaranty Income Life Insurance Company, which Foster estimates represented more than 90% of the company’s assets when it sold in 2016. It was during that window of time, when Foster and his compatriots were about to be handed the financial keys to do just about anything they wanted with the rest of the company, that Guaranty’s top brass were mulling over a new direction. They got together in a room and wrote a dozen or so names of digital agencies on the wall. The choice was important.
“We were asking ourselves, if and when the closing of the insurance company happens, we have an infrastructure here we need to support, and how are we going to grow?” Foster says. “It goes back to us wanting to be here in the year 2119.”
On Foster’s reading list is The Infinite Game, released in mid-October, by Simon Senac. Its big idea is that running a company requires more than a long-run view; it requires no end goal.
“We’ve been here for 93 years, and my thought process is … not just how are we doing this month, this quarter, this year?” Foster says. “We’re trying to play the infinite game. … We’re just trying to keep going.”
History of evolution
A resident of the small Grant Parish town of Pollock, George Foster Sr.’s early business dealings include starting the LaSalle Fire & Casualty insurance company in 1920 and working at the Bank of Pollock. When Foster’s partner wanted out of the insurance business, Foster Sr. got some other investors together to create something for himself: The Guaranty Income Life Insurance Company, which opened its doors in 1926 on Third Street in Baton Rouge.
Despite the tumultuousness of the times, not to mention raising a family in Pollock with his wife, Claudia, Foster Sr. kept GILICO stable through the Great Depression and World War II. It wasn’t until after he died in 1961 that Guaranty diversified.
After graduating from Pollock High School in 1941, George Foster Jr. was sent to the Georgia Military Academy because Foster Sr. thought “he hadn’t learned anything,” according to the younger Foster’s obituary decades later. While there, Foster Jr. proved quite the athlete, but he ultimately turned down a football scholarship with the University of Georgia to enlist in the U.S. Army at the start of World War II.
Eventually, Foster Jr. returned home to graduate from LSU and begin his career with GILICO in 1949. He rose to serve as its president and CEO, as well as chairman of Guaranty Corp.
In 1964, a friend stepped into Foster Jr.’s office with a proposition: Buy WAFB-TV, which at the time was a tenant of Guaranty, or someone from New Orleans would. Company history says Foster Jr. had to make the $3 million decision within 24 hours.
He accepted, and suddenly Foster Jr. was running Baton Rouge’s channel 9 TV station.
“Insurance is great. … I don’t want to say it’s boring, but my dad got to go to the CBS convention in Hollywood for 25 years. He had dinner with Lucille Ball and Andy Griffith and Tom Selleck and all those stars that were on CBS in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s,” Flynn Foster says. “That’s probably more fun than looking at insurance premiums.”
It’s not that GILICO didn’t have its star turns—Flynn Foster can happily point to the life insurance plan his family’s company sold Shirley Temple when she was a child actress—but the WAFB years marked more than a bit of fun. They were the Fosters’ first steps outside Guaranty’s traditional business.
“My dad was always willing to take a calculated risk. I saw that as a kid growing up. My dad got into the tugboat business when I was a kid, and at first it didn’t work out,” Flynn Foster says. “And then it worked out. I got to see the stress and anxiety with it not working, and I got to see the good side.”
The WAFB years lasted until 1988 when the American Family Corp., which is now Aflac, purchased the station. It was the first example of what Flynn Foster would come to call “a Godfather offer”—”it’s too good to refuse, you know?”—and Foster Jr. could see the writing on the wall.
“He said, ‘cable’s getting really popular, I think it’s going to erode broadcast television,’” Flynn Foster recalls. “… My dad was real practical and was able to look at things unemotionally.”
The sale, however, didn’t include everything the Fosters had gotten when they first bought WAFB. That purchase had come with a then-undeveloped FM signal, which didn’t seem to mean much back then because few people used FM radios. But a couple years after acquiring it, Guaranty developed WAFB 98.1. Today, the station is the classic rock station Eagle 98.1.
When Foster Jr. sold WAFB, his son, Flynn, was still in college.
“His succession plan was, ‘I’m going to live forever, we’ll deal with that later,’” Flynn laughs. “I kind of had to go prove myself on the outside to prove I could do it, so I took a job (selling mortgages) on 100 percent commission. If I closed a loan, I ate. If I didn’t, I didn’t. That’s a little bit of pressure with a wife and two kids.”
While Flynn Foster has had a few different tenures at Guaranty, including a gig as a runner when he was fresh out of high school, shuffling commercials on tapes between different TV stations, he’ll celebrate the 10th anniversary of his most recent turn here on Jan. 1.
“My dad got sick, and that was it,” Foster says of his choice to re-enter the family business.
George Foster Jr. announced his retirement in 2011, saying it was “an honor for me” to have taken the business over from his own father. He paid the favor forward, formally handing the business over to Flynn.
Still, that didn’t stop Foster Jr. from expressing his opinions on the business when the next “Godfather” offer came along.
The Chicago-based Kuvare Holdings appeared a few years after Foster Jr.’s retirement to express its interest in taking over GILICO. The nearly 90-year-old insurance company by then was licensed in 31 states and had more than $500 million in assets.
“Are they crazy?” Flynn Foster remembers thinking when the Kuvare offer rolled in. “It was double what anybody had ever approached us about. My dad was 90 at the time, and I told him what the offer was, and he said, ‘If you don’t take it, I’m coming to the office to take it myself,’ so I knew we were on the right path.”
Negotiation of the sale and the state regulations surrounding it took nearly two years. It meant, however, the disappearance of one kind of safety net. Guaranty’s radio stations and senior living facility were a tiny portion of the company, comparatively, so it was time to start thinking about what would come next.
In 2014, Flynn Foster and Guaranty Media Vice President and General Manager Gordy Rush flew off to a radio conference in Indianapolis. During one presentation, a financial analyst threw the 10-year projections for media up on a projector screen. None of it looked very good.
It was time to shake things up.
“We made a commitment,” Rush says. “We needed to be more than radio stations.”
They started talking to anyone they thought could give them new ideas. Rush now attends digital media conferences—-not to talk about where companies are, but to figure out where they’re going.
“In the year 2000, the Fortune 500 companies, as of today, 52 percent of them are disappeared,” Rush says, citing a Constellation Research study. “If you don’t want to evolve and diversify; I don’t want to be the next Blockbuster. Our goal is to leave this company to Flynn’s kids, my kids, to whomever wants it. … Yes, monthly numbers count. Annual counts. But we’re building something that can go on forever.”
It’s why, when they saw the growth of digital media, they didn’t just contract a digital agency; they bought one.
Brian Rodriguez started Gatorworks as a high school student, and by the time Flynn Foster approached him about buying it in 2016 he was so deep into the company he didn’t even realize how much time he spent just making it function. He waffled for months before committing to selling it under terms that essentially let him maintain control while turning over day-to-day headaches.
“At night, when you’re in bed and can’t go to sleep, you’re not worrying about the line of credit and making payroll,” Rodriguez says. “It’s not in my head anymore. It’s, what’s the next strategic hire to grow the business?”
When Guaranty acquired Gatorworks, Rodriguez says, they didn’t lay off any of their seven or eight employees. Now they have 23, and the business will end 2019 with 130% to 140% in year-over-year growth.
“Now we’re two years later, and it was the best decision of my life,” Rodriguez says. “They are fantastic people. They’ve lived up to every single bit of what they said they would.”
The success, Rodriguez says, is due in large part to transparency—the company shares quarterly financials with employees—and what he calls the “vulnerability of leadership.” The people at the top admit when they’re wrong.
“Really good people can make crappy decisions. Just because you’re a nice person doesn’t mean you can run a successful company. But Flynn is a fantastic leader who has a really good pulse on things,” Rodriguez says. “It’s a servant leadership style. He’s like, ‘I am here to serve you. I’m the CEO of Guaranty, but I’m just here to make sure you have what you need to succeed.’
“People love to work for someone like that.”
Flynn Foster really likes Govt Taco.
“Unbelievable, oh my God,” he’ll say if you ask about them. “They are so good. My lord, I can eat three of them in like five minutes. I feel like a pig.”
This is not, however, a good enough reason to buy a taco restaurant.
Still, Guaranty bought one, and it started with one of Jay Ducote’s annual chats with Foster over Ducote’s then-weekly radio show on Talk 107.3, one of the company’s five Baton Rouge radio stations.
“I was just leasing that air time from them,” Ducote says of the years since 2011 that his Bite and Booze show aired on weekends. “As long as I was paying my bills for the air time, I’d go out and sell to advertisers, so we never really had anything to talk about. … Everything was great.”
But, slowly, Ducote built his brand. Now, you can see him beating Bobby Flay on a Food Network cooking show. You can see his smiling mug when you spill barbecue sauce over your dinner plate. You can get his recommendations for where to eat next if you’re one of his thousands of social media followers, or you can take his word for it and eat at Govt Taco, his White Star Market outpost.
“If you have local influencers, people are going to follow them for whatever platform they’re going to be on,” Rush says, citing Matt Moscona on Guaranty’s local ESPN affiliate station. “… We’re able to monetize and sell because his advertisers are going to go wherever he is, and we hope to accomplish the same thing with Jay Ducote.”
And as Guaranty looks to the future, the media company is betting big on the idea. Besides taking on the behind-the-scenes work of Ducote’s company and handing him a weekday Southern lifestyle talk show, Guaranty is preparing to move Govt Taco to a full-size location while already chewing over location ideas for a second restaurant.
“We bought Gatorworks two years ago, then we bought (Ducote’s company), so we joke that we have two years to find the next one,” Foster says. “We have enough to say grace over right now. However, if something were to come along that made sense … then we ask ourselves, how much does it tie into what we’re doing?”
That calculation isn’t always straightforward—Foster estimates Ducote’s company only connected to about half of Guaranty’s dots—but then, a lot of it also comes down to instinct. It comes down to trusting crazy ideas, to trusting in the future.
“There’s got to be sort of a gut feeling on it,” he says. “This transformation that we’ve been going through was just a realization that if we want to survive, we couldn’t do it with just traditional radio.”