James Street The All-American Settlement Planner

For 20 years, my definition of a true Texan has been James Street. Fun with boundless ambition and the ultimate competitor.

When James suddenly passed away at the age of 65, it was a major story around the globe. Almost all of the ink focused on his success as one of the greatest sports legends in the history of Texas. The stories usually stopped when James was 22 years old. They missed the great story of what James accomplished after sports ended and business life began. He built one of the most successful structured settlement and settlement planning firms in the United States.

The structured settlement industry has an interesting history.

Although structured settlement annuities have been called “one of the greatest financial planning tools ever invented” because of their ability to provide tax free income, offer lifetime payments and be set up in a flexible fashion, the people who invented the concept in the early 1980s were executives in major insurance claims organizations and saw them strictly as a tool for settling claims.

Financial planners were strongly discouraged from being involved in structured settlements. I was lucky that I did not know that. I came out of graduate school at Vanderbilt in 1982 and entered the financial planning business. I got into structured settlements the next year and one the first attorneys to send me business was one of America’s greatest trial lawyers, Peter Perlman, from Lexington, Kentucky.

After a decade, without associates or a larger organization, a visionary Californian named Dave Snyder called me. Dave found most of the financial planners in the country active or interested in structured settlements and organized a group.

That is where I met James Street.

Being a Kentuckian, 11 years younger, I really didn’t know who Street was. I heard he had played football, but a lot of people play football. Not many played it like Street did.

I learned a lot about the 1969 Texas-Arkansas game in a section of Bill Clinton’s autobiography and a terrific book called Hogs, Horns and Nixon Coming: Texas vs. Arkansas in Dixie’s Last Stand by Terry Frei.

James went to great lengths to avoid talking about his football days. I think it was beat into his head by his mentor, the great Texas football coach Darrell Royal, that you put the past behind you and think about the future.

James loved to talk and it was not unusual for him to call me as his car pulled out of Houston and still be in the phone, sitting in his driveway in Austin, four or five hours later.

One of the most charismatic leaders I have ever met, Street was driven by the absolute self-confidence that he could achieve anything he set his mind to doing.

He and I were working together on an extremely difficult and large mass tort claim and it looked like we had hit a roadblock. In one of the rare times he referenced his football days, he looked at me and said, “I decided when I was a junior in high school that I would never lose another football game and I never did. We will get past this, too.”

We did. I couldn’t quite believe that he had never quarterbacked a losing football game. I looked it up. He never did.

That extreme self-confidence also allowed him to beat back a bigger opponent than football: alcoholism. His obituary in the Austin newspaper referenced that James had been a recovering alcoholic for the past 35 years.

Having spent a lifetime fighting food addictions and developing an affinity for people with their own addictions, I long suspected that he was recovering, but he never mentioned it once.

The James Street Group is now one of the largest structured settlement firms in the country. I wrote a book called Life Lessons from the Lottery about why people like lottery winners and professional athletes run through their money in a short period of time.

It stunned me that so many professional athletes went broke.  I guess I was expecting them all to be like James Street. His took the leadership skills and confidence and used them the rest of his life. He knew how to find good people and was generous in sharing money and glory. I had a lot of business deals with him and all were on a handshake or a phone call.

Several documentaries studied why athletes go broke. They may want to go back and study James Street on what to do right.

James and I shared a common vision of where we thought the structured settlement business would go and in the late 1990s, several of us concluded that the National Structured Settlement Trade Association needed someone who worked with plaintiffs and plaintiff attorney on its Board of Directors.

Street was the obvious person to run, but convinced me to run instead. He was instrumental in helping me get elected. Each year, more like-minded people stepped forward and within a few years, the entire industry had accepted the concept.

I suspect that one of the reasons that James stayed away from industry politics, and politics in general, was that he understood how valuable his “brand” was. James was as comfortable having dinner with Texas Democrat Governor Anne Richards as he was with her successor, George W. Bush.

The one time he did weigh politically was when it came time to craft legislation to deal with companies that advertise on television to buy up structured settlements. The first state to pass legislation was my home state of Kentucky and I helped  other structured settlement people as their legislative battles came up.

As the Texas legislature was dealing with the issue, some kind of surprise hearing came up, launched by people opposing the bill. Street raced over to the capitol to testify and the legislative experts and lawyers from Washington came flying in to help.

One of the lawyers told me that when they got to the legislature, a security person stopped them. He asked, “Are you with James Street or with the other side?” They said they were with Street. The guard said, “Those other boys are going to take a whooping today.” (Which they did.)

As my friends walked forward towards the hearing, the security guard called to them.

“You know, he is an All-American.”

Yes he was. In more than just sports.

Don McNay, CLU, ChFC, MSFS, CSSC is the Chairman of the McNay Settlement Group in Richmond Kentucky and has written seven best-selling books. www.donmcnay.com.