UPDATE: Aflac’s employees in Japan OK after quake, company donating $1.2 million

Aflac, a Columbus-based company that employs about 5,000 people in Japan, is donating $1.2 million to disaster relief efforts following a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami there today.

Dan Amos, chairman and chief executive officer of Aflac, headquartered on Wynnton Road in Columbus, said he plans to personally deliver the 100 million yen donation to the International Red Cross. His flight on the trip to Tokyo, booked before the disaster, leaves Sunday morning, with the CEO returning here Thursday.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Japanese people during this very difficult time,” Amos said in a statement issued early Friday. “We stand ready to assist in the healing process and are pledging these funds to ensure that basic needs are cared for during this crisis.”

The CEO, in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, said there have been no reports of major injuries to the company’s work force in Japan or significant damage to the firm’s office buildings.

“We’ve been able to talk to all our employees. We know they’re safe,” he said. “We had a few minor scrapes and bruises and stuff, but nothing of any significance.”

The magnitude-8.9 quake occurred about 100 miles off the coast of Japan, causing damage to structures and generating a 23-foot tsunami. There also have been dozens of aftershocks.

Amos, who has been CEO of Aflac for 21 years, recalled the magnitude-6.8 earthquake that slammed the Japanese city of Kobe in 1995, killing more than 6,400 people.

“But it was in the city, so you had a lot more people die,” he said. “It also happened at night, so we couldn’t find out exactly what was going on until the next morning.”

There is a 14-hour time difference between Columbus and Japan. Today’s quake occurred around 2:45 p.m. Japan time, with Amos receiving a call 15 minutes later, around 5 a.m. in Columbus.

“We first heard that all of the airports in Tokyo were closed; we heard all the trains were down,” the executive said. “Now we know that some of the trains are running again ... So things are beginning to get back on track in the Tokyo area. Now the area that was hit so hard, it will be who knows how long.”

Aflac has two primary campuses in Japan, one in Tokyo and another in Osaka. The operations include administrative offices, a customer call center, information technology departments and a training facility. The company also has about 100,000 independent sales agents, or contractors, scattered throughout the country.

“We don’t know how many of them were affected,” Amos said. “We can’t reach them as fast as we can all of the employees.”

The Associated Press so far has reported 137 deaths in the Asian nation, with more than 500 people missing. There have been reports of 200 to 300 people washing ashore following the tsunami, which can push water far inland before receding back into the ocean.

Aflac, which employs nearly 4,000 in Columbus, does about 70 percent of its business in Japan. The company is the top supplemental life and health insurer there in terms of policies in force.

“We’re going to be prepared to pay benefits to our policyholders who have been affected by this,” said Aflac spokesman Jon Sullivan. “Bear in mind we’re a not property/casualty insurer. Ours is going to be relegated to injuries and life insurance policies.”

Amos, discussing the quake’s potential impact on his company’s revenues and earnings, said such losses are factored long-term into its financial models. Even the Kobe disaster had very little impact on revenues and sales, he said.

And while the CEO does expect the human toll in Japan to mount in the coming days, he does believe the situation could have been much worse.

“I’d like a little more time to unfold to be absolute on everything,” he said. “But, all in all, I’m very comfortable that as bad as this is, we have dodged a bullet on what the potential disaster could have been.”

Founded 55 years ago, Aflac insures more than 50 million people in the U.S. and Japan.