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With Deep Union Roots, a New CEO Takes the Helm

June 13, 2024

As a child growing up in rural Tennessee, Brian Hale vividly remembers getting into the car, looking in the back window and seeing the numbers “386” on his father’s hard hat. At the time, James Hale was the Business Manager of Laborers’ Local 386, just like his grandfather, H.O. Hale had been.

Brian grew up watching his father and grandfather fight for working people. As a third-generation union member, he experienced the tangible benefits that a union card provided for workers and their families. Hale is quick to point out that the union transformed his family’s trajectory and offered them a middle-class living. Now CEO and President of Ullico Inc., Hale is determined to bring the benefits of a union card to a new generation of working people.

Union Roots

Hale’s family wasn’t always with the union. After returning home from serving in World War II, Hale’s grandfather, H.O. was a farmer and construction worker striving to support his wife and six children in Alexandria, Tennessee. They were a working-class family who were making ends meet but often lacked the comfort of economic security.

That began to change with the arrival of a large public works project near the family farm. Situated along the Cumberland River, the Cheatham Lock and Dam was designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of a broader plan to generate hydroelectric power for the region. Critically, the federal project offered H.O. the opportunity to join Laborers’ Local 386. The higher pay and generous benefits that came along with the status of union member provided some financial breathing room and a middle-class existence for the Hale family and other working people in the region. Over the years, H.O. earned the respect of his peers and was eventually elected as Local 386 Business Manager.

That union tradition carried forward with H.O.’s children. Brian’s father, James, graduated from high school on a Friday night and walked onto a concrete pour the following Monday morning. James took over as Business Manager at age 29 when H.O. stepped down following some health complications.

Many of the Hales were active in the local union. His uncle Bob was Local 386’s Secretary Treasurer for a time and his uncle Kerry served as Business Manager years later. Beyond the local, his Aunt Faye worked for the Laborers’ International communications department. Unfortunately, H.O.’s eldest son, John William Hale, was killed in an accident while working on a union construction project in 1969. Alongside his father, Brian co-founded the John William Hale foundation in his honor. The non-profit corporation provides monetary assistance to union Laborers who are injured or killed while working.

Growing up in this environment shaped Brian’s worldview tremendously—each day provided a practical example of how unions helped people. His father’s job was a major part of that. As Business Manager, James wore a lot of hats—he was responsible for growing the union, attending to the members’ needs, responding to contract issues, and servicing the work they already had. Local 386 was central to the identity of the union’s members and James’ ability to problem solve on their behalf made him a pillar in the community.

Brian Hale with his father James.

“I grew up in a home where we would get calls at all hours of the night,” said Brian. “Sometimes they were angry calls. Sometimes they were happy, but my dad had to take them, because he served as the Business Manager and in those days, the Business Manager was the CEO of the union.”

Decades after H.O. first got his union card, the Hales are still active in their local union. Brian previously served on the executive board and now his nephew Noah is an organizer for Local 386.

A Career Fighting for Working People

After graduating from high school, Brian continued his family’s commitment to organized labor, though he took a new approach in doing so. Interested in business, Hale wanted to serve organized labor in the boardroom and create opportunities for union halls across the country.

He studied finance at the University of Tennessee and completed an internship at the Tennessee Valley Authority. Upon graduation, Brian joined the Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust (LECET), where he was tasked with marketing the value of union construction.

“I’d meet with public officials and sell the merits of using union labor on a big public works project,” said Hale. “Instead of just doing low-bid contracting, I’d urge them to choose best-value contracting, which took care of workers by offering health insurance and providing training to limit accidents on the job.”

Hale’s Southern upbringing informed these negotiations. Unlike union strongholds on the East Coast or Chicago, Hale grew up and went to college in Tennessee where unions were less established. As a result, he often found himself defending the importance of living wages and project labor agreements in university courses and everyday life. These encounters sharpened his critical thinking as well as his ability to talk with all kinds of people, find common ground, and win them over to his cause. To this day, when Hale shows up to an event, he thinks “who in this room is skeptical about the value of unions and who do I have to convince?”

While working at LECET, Hale put himself through business school. He’d thought about going to law school, but Jan Jennings—an attorney and close family friend—offered some advice that has stuck with him ever since. “There are a lot of great labor leaders that have law degrees, but I’d love to see the next one have a business degree,” said Jennings. “We need someone who can talk to business leaders and effectively communicate the real value of being aligned with organized labor.”

Jennings also left Hale with a book about capital stewardship and suggested he read it before deciding on law school. The book, Working Capital: The Power of Labor’s Pension, had a huge impact on Hale and informed his decision to ultimately pursue his MBA. Notably, there was a chapter on “J for Jobs,” a Ullico investment product, that inspired the young Hale. “I remember being amazed that Labor was using pension funds to invest in construction that put union members to work,” Hale recalled. “I was so impressed and just thought it was the greatest idea.”

Joining Ullico

Hale was working at LECET in 2003 when Terry O’Sullivan, General President of the Laborers’, stepped into a leadership position at Ullico to help guide the company through a difficult time. Curious, Hale researched Ullico and ultimately liked what he saw—characterizing it as the white-collar company for the blue-collar worker.

At the time, Hale daydreamed about O’Sullivan calling and asking him to join Ullico to help turn the company around. “I always felt Ullico was a place where I could put my skills, my talent, and my passion to work in a way that would affect working people,” said Hale. Ultimately, O’Sullivan left the CEO position in 2006, while retaining his role as a Ullico board member, and Hale continued his work at LECET.

As fate would have it, however, another prominent Laborer, Ed Smith, moved to Ullico in 2008—giving Hale another bite at the apple. This time around, an invitation to join Ullico did come through and Hale joined Smith at the company as Director of Market Development.

Hale’s union roots and business background made him an asset for the company. When sourcing new business, Hale could earn the trust of union leaders and build lasting relationships, because he understood the job they did every day. During tense negotiations, he could serve as a translator of sorts, explaining what labor needed and what the business side of Ullico could provide.

Smith eventually took over as CEO of Ullico Inc. and took Hale under his wing. As a close friend and mentor, Smith saw potential in Hale and empowered him to help guide Ullico through some high-leverage moments over the years.

Brian Hale with his close friend and mentor, Ed Smith.

As Smith’s right hand, Hale assisted the property and casualty division as they transitioned away from an insurance carrier model to a managing general agency—working to maintain current clients while establishing a relationship with the company’s new carrier, Markel.

In the wake of the Affordable Care Act, which made union health and welfare funds vulnerable to high-cost claims, Hale helped The Union Labor Life Insurance Company navigate the changing landscape—working alongside colleagues to promote the protection provided by Medical Stop Loss coverage to key stakeholders in the Taft-Hartley marketplace. Stop Loss continues to be a cornerstone of Ullico’s Life and Health division.

Brian Hale with Ullico business unit leaders: (from left to right) Tina Fletcher, Stephanie Whalen, and Joe Linehan.

Hale was also an advocate for investing in technology to modernize Ullico. These investments in technology proved essential, equipping the company to better navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing transition to a hybrid work model. Ultimately, Ullico emerged from the pandemic a stronger and more dynamic company.

With great mentorship from Smith, as well as the lessons he learned from his father, Hale moved up through the Ullico ranks over the course of 15 years—from VP and Assistant to the CEO, to Senior VP and COO, and eventually to President. When Chairman and CEO Smith was sidelined due to health complications starting in April of 2023, Hale stepped forward and took a more active role in operations.

Following Smith’s passing in January of 2024, the Ullico board of directors voted for Hale to step forward as CEO—just as Smith had hoped would be the case. Now, over twenty years later, Hale is leading the company he once dreamed of working for. Fittingly, Terry O’Sullivan joined him as Chairman of the Board.

Brian Hale and new Chairman of the Board, Terry O’Sullivan.

The Road Ahead

At Hale’s first shareholder meeting as CEO, he celebrated the company’s impressive results while noting what makes Ullico special. “You don’t have to be a bad corporate citizen to be a profitable corporation. You can thrive and improve your community. And I think that’s what’s powerful about Ullico—we are proof of that,” said Hale. “We’ve never been more successful than the last five years, but we’ve also done it the right way. We are a mission-driven company that honors our shareholders while also supporting our employees, our clients, and the communities we do business in.”

Brian Hale at the 2023 Ullico employee holiday party with (from left to right) Aisyle Deriquito and Tracy Coker.

Looking ahead, Hale sees a lot to be optimistic about. “I’ve seen how much we’ve been able to achieve, but I’ve also seen that we haven’t even come close to meeting the potential we have at this company. Ullico has so much more runway.”

Labor’s company has a long list of clients in the building trades, but there is certainly room to expand. “Success breeds success,” Hale says. “When Ullico is successful and meeting its mission, that success will bring more clients and unions into the fold. They’ll see the value, and that cycle will continue. When those numbers grow, that’s when we start to meet the potential Ullico has.”

The Honor in Work

As a father, Hale is passionate about passing on the union tradition to his teenage son. The family’s union heritage has had a big impact on the boy from a young age.

Brian Hale speaking at a 2023 worker appreciation event in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The Hale family has a tradition of saying what they are thankful for before bed. On one occasion, his then four-year-old son said, “I’m thankful for workers who build the things we need.” As Hale tells it, “he didn’t have any idea what his great grandfather did or what his grandfather did, he just knew in his head that you should honor working people.”

For Hale, this job isn’t just a paycheck, it is about continuing his family’s commitment to the union cause. “When I lie down at night, I know that my grandfather, my father, and my entire family would be proud. I can sleep at night knowing that what I’m doing is positively affecting the lives of working people, not just my life and my family’s life. There is honor in that, and I want to continue to do it for the rest of my career.”