Joey Loudermilk began to look around -- and he kept seeing zeros.
Back in April, he turned 60. In June, he and his wife, Ramona, celebrated 40 years of marriage. And the third day of October marked his 30th year working as an attorney for Columbus-based Aflac.
"Thinking back on 60 years of life, 40 years of marriage and 30 years at Aflac has caused a lot of reflection," Loudermilk said last week.
That reflection has led Loudermilk to trigger his retirement as Aflac's general counsel -- the company's top attorney -- at the end of the year.
For three decades, Loudermilk has worked alongside Aflac Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dan Amos as the supplemental insurer has grown from a $329 million enterprise in 1983 into a $29 billion company today with a strong reputation for ethical business practices. Many people have played critical roles in Aflac's remarkable growth under Amos, including President Kriss Cloninger and others, but Loudermilk has been a trusted aide the entire journey.
"He helped build this company," Amos said of Loudermilk last week. "He stands for all of the right things. And he made sure we did it the right way."
Loudermilk takes his role in the ethical culture of Aflac seriously. Since 2007, Aflac has ranked among the most ethical businesses in the world, according to Ethisphere magazine. It is the only insurance company that has made the list every year since its inception.
In a presentation he gives inside and outside the company, Loudermilk shows a cartoon depicting an attorney facing two signs. One points to legal and the other, aimed in the opposite direction, points to ethics.
"The caption is, 'How to stump a corporate lawyer,'" Loudermilk said. "I show that slide, and of course everybody laughs. I tell people that I don't find this funny. And the reason I don't find this funny is because at Aflac those signs both point in the same direction."
Loudermilk sees matters as either right or wrong, Amos said.
"There is a right way to do things and there is a wrong way to do things, then there is a gray area," Amos said. "Joey does not see the gray area. He sees things as right or wrong."
Superior Court Judge Arthur Smith, who worked in the Aflac legal department for 23 years, said that stance has led Loudermilk to a lofty place among the company's employees.
"I would call Joey the conscience of the company," Smith said.
The early days
For the first three decades of its existence, Aflac didn't have in-house legal counsel. As the company grew, founder and chairman John Amos had been the attorney.
"Uncle John was the lawyer," Dan Amos said.
In October 1983, Loudermilk walked into a situation where he became the first in-house attorney to work for Aflac.
And it wasn't always easy.
"Mr. John didn't think we needed in-house counsel," Loudermilk said.
John's nephew, Dan Amos, then on a trajectory that would lead him to the company's helm, thought Aflac did need an in-house lawyer to manage the growing legal affairs.
When Loudermilk was hired, the company was caught in a legal entanglement in New England and was not selling its cancer policies in parts of that region. Aflac had filed lawsuits against a number of Massachusetts insurance officials, including the insurance commissioner, over a market-conduct exam. The company lost the suits and was facing counter suits.
"It was an absolute mess," Loudermilk said.
It took Loudermilk almost two years to mop it up, settling suit after suit in the process.
"I wanted to clean it up because I wanted Aflac to be able to go back into business in Massachusetts," Loudermilk said.
He remembers settling the final case and going to Dan Amos to proclaim the job had been accomplished.
The two men then went to see John Amos, who was in a meeting at the time.
"Dan knocked on the door and said, 'Uncle John, Joey tells me now he settled all of those cases up in Massachusetts,'" Loudermilk remembered. "John Amos turned around, looked at me and said, 'It has been good having you here.' Dan looked at me and said, 'Let's go.'"
Loudermilk can laugh now.
"It was like: 'We don't need you any more, we're good,'" Loudermilk said.
Aflac did need Loudermilk, and its in-house legal team has grown to more than 20 attorneys.
In 1991, a year after Dan Amos and his father, Paul Amos, assumed leadership of Aflac in the wake of John Amos' death, Loudermilk was named general counsel.
And Dan Amos has leaned on Loudermilk throughout the journey.
Dan Amos uses the example of the advice he would get from Loudermilk on the hiring of a sales executive.
"Sometimes with agents, we could legally hire them, but there might be something back there in their past," Amos said. "The salesman in me -- I wanted to hire good salesmen -- was willing to take a chance. Joey would be the one who would say, 'Don't you dare.'"
The logic Loudermilk would use is an old legal theory that every dog gets a free bite. But once that dog has taken the bite, you are on notice that the dog could bite someone again.
"He would tell me, 'They have already bitten someone,'" Amos said.
In 1999, Loudermilk recommended that Columbus native Robert Wright, a former city councilor, optometrist and successful businessman, be appointed to the Aflac Board of Directors.
Wright served 13 years and is now a director emeritus. He describes Loudermilk -- a close friend -- as calm, deliberate, thoughtful and professional.
"And that is the way he has gone about taking care of Aflac's business," Wright said. "... With Joey it is either right or wrong. That has been effective for him, and it has been effective for Aflac. ... He doesn't believe in skating close to the line or bending rules for the moment. It is going to be straight up -- and it is going to be proper."
Smith puts it this way: "You knew that you didn't take anything to Joey that was of a questionable nature. He wasn't going to approve it."
Relationship with Amos
Loudermilk remembers the first time he met Dan Amos. It was at Dinglewood Pharmacy during lunch hour.
"He is someone you remember in a first meeting," Loudermilk said.
Loudermilk was in private practice and having a scramble dog with his boss, David Hirsch.
"Dan came in and I had no idea who he was, but David knew him," Loudermilk said. "Dan was still in sales and I don't think he was even an officer in the company."
Amos sat with them, quickly ate a scramble dog, and was gone.
"As he walked away, David -- who I guess was a prophet -- said, 'He is the heir apparent at American Family,'" Loudermilk said. "I remember thinking: 'So what?' I had no idea that he would be my boss or he would be the heir apparent."
Dan Amos has been the only boss Loudermilk has had in his Aflac tenure.
Now, Dan Amos and Loudermilk both use he word "brother" when they describe their relationship.
"I love Joey like a brother," Amos said.
The feeling is mutual. "I tell people Dan is the older brother I have never had," Loudermilk said. "And I have told him that. He is not much older than I am -- about a year and a half. But as soon as we started working together, it just clicked. Although I was an awfully young lawyer at the time, it seemed like every bit of legal advice I gave Dan was right on the money."
Others have seen how it clicked. After spending more than a dozen years inside the company, Wright understands why Amos and Loudermilk have made a good team.
"There have not been many moves Dan has made that did not have Joey's fingerprints on them," Wright said.
The two men have similar characteristics and Amos has relied on Loudermilk's straight-laced judgment, Wright said.
"Joey has the highest ethical standards, and so does Dan," Wright said. "Joey has dealt with so many aspects of the company -- regulatory issues, Japan issues, Congressional issues, you name it. In doing that, he has played a huge role in where Aflac is today."
Loudermilk is keenly aware of his reputation for ethical behavior and decisions.
"I can't tell you how humbling that is," Loudermilk said. "But I also have to really watch myself. If I were ever to do something stupid or unethical, it would destroy my reputation."
Looking to the future
The reflection that Loudermilk has done in the last year has led him to retirement. He doesn't anticipate retreating to a golf course or an island.
He is a Harris County commissioner and writes a weekly general interest column in the Harris County Journal.
"I love writing that column," he said.
He also has a large and growing family. He and his wife, Ramona, have six children, ranging in ages from 19 to 36, with the three youngest being mixed-race children the Loudermilks adopted. They also have nine grandchildren with another one on the way.
Loudermilk is not sure where he goes next, but he is looking. He is one of 20 attorneys who have interviewed for a part-time Juvenile Court judgeship in the Chattahoochee Circuit.
He has also expressed political aspirations beyond the county commission but has yet to act on those urges.
He is financially secure. In 2012, the last year that executive compensation figures were available, Loudermilk's annual financial package was valued at $4.35 million, according to the company's proxy statement. He has also accumulated a great deal of Aflac stock.
"Frankly, I couldn't tell you how many shares I own," Loudermilk said. "I know I have been blessed greatly. And I know I have great resources, but that is not what I focus on."
Dan Amos suspects that the way Loudermilk is grounded will lead to great things in retirement.
"Joey will be the happiest retiree," Amos said. "There are some people who can't retire. Joey won't be one of those people. His life has never been centered around his work or money. His life is centered around his Christianity and his family. Work followed."
Wright said a lot of Loudermilk's success is tied to his deep Christian faith.
"Joey doesn't make a move without going into prayer," Wright said. "He makes sure the way he is going, what he is thinking and the moves he is making he has discussed with the Almighty."
Wright is interested to see what Loudermilk does in his retirement.
"I really believe that Joey will use his time and resources to make this a better community," Wright said. "He truly wants to make a difference in the lives of people. You can see that in his own family."
Loudermilk is trying to figure out the next step.
"I know I have to do something -- I can't just sit around," he said. "But it has to be something that is worthwhile."