Thank you for joining me Ron. Please tell us about your early career in the industry and how you got to American Equity?
“I’m actually in the insurance industry purely because of a fluke. I graduated from college in 1985, and a general agent from Northwestern Mutual approached me to tell me about being a life insurance agent. He talked about the great income you could make and the quality of Northwestern Mutual. I thought “Wow, this is great. I can make money talking about a great company. Sure I’ll do it. What the heck? I don’t have a job.” And that’s how I got started in the business. I wasn’t however a very good agent at that time because as a 23 year old I really didn’t believe in my product. I looked at it more as a product to sell versus a product to help people, and I believe that probably showed. I worked hard but at the end of the day, I didn’t close very many cases and my career as a life insurance agent lasted about a year, and I had to hang it up!”
How did you end up getting to American Equity?
“After Northwestern Mutual, I then moved to American Life and Casualty, which was a Dave Noble-run company. I was there for 10 years when Mr Noble had a vision to start American Equity, with the intent to get back to the basics of service and relationships, and asked me if I wanted to join him. Of course I said yes. That was in 1996, and I’ve been at American Equity since its inception. 22 years later, I’m still here and I’ve worked my way through the marketing ranks, which is a bit of unusual for a company president. Usually presidents are lawyers, actuaries or a CPA type. I feel very fortunate to be in my position at American Equity.”
What would you say are the key differentiators that make American Equity stand out?
“That’s a question I’m very passionate about, because when Mr Noble interviewed me for the job, he laid out his vision. He said, “We’re going to start this insurance company from scratch.” He said, “We don’t have any agents yet, but we’ll get those. We’ll get agents to sell our products. And we also don’t have any policy holders. We’re only licensed in one state, but we’ll get more. We’ll develop products, that’s not a problem.”
He said we have to have a product that’s competitive in rates, in compensation, and in features, but where we need to be the best is in customer service and in developing relationships. He was a man that was way before his time, and was truly brilliant. You have a competitive product that’s just as good as everybody else’s – but good customer services is still a key differentiator for us today.”
Tell me what good customer service looks like to you?
“It’s little things like answering the phone in 60 seconds, issuing policies in 24 hours, and penalty-free withdrawals processed in 24 hours. These are just things that are a part of our normal DNA, but things that a lot of other companies really struggle with. It’s the habit of doing the right things and doing things right.”
When you think about some of the most successful agents that are affiliated with American Equity, what have you observed are two or three qualities of your top performing agents that they have, that others do not?
“There really isn’t a magic bullet other than you have to work really hard and see enough people. That’s number one. You’ve got to put in the time and effort, five days a week, sometimes six. Secondly, you must have a good system to use, or multiple systems. As one of my associates used to call it, when you’re an insurance agent, you just can’t rely on one fishing pole when you’re fishing, you need two or three lines in the water. You can’t rely on one method for your prospecting and your closing, and your presentations. You should have two or three different systems that you use for generating prospects, but use one system for presenting and closing, and do it consistently the same way all the time. Lastly, have a really strong marketing system that helps you with your presentation and your track to run on, so to speak, to try and turn those prospects into clients.”
There’s a lot of talk of technology and robo advice in our industry. Do you see the role of the advisor changing within the next three to five years, and what major shifts do you see coming in our industry?
“There’s going to be changes, there’s no question, and I think for advisors and companies to be successful, you have to adapt. The iPhone is barely 10 years old, and everybody has one. What is technology going to look like in the next 10 years? Advisors have to take into account that many consumers want to do research online, and they want to do it anonymously. But at the end of the day, they’re going to need to speak with an advisor to answer those questions and form a relationship with an advisor, to help them make sure they’re making a decision that’s suitable for them based on their financial projectors and what they want to do with their money in the future.”
If you look at your FMO partners, how do you think the FMO fits in with American Equity? What is their value in the future?
“Our FMOs are our partners. They recruit agents to American Equity. We don’t do any recruiting, so that’s the first important component. But more importantly, FMOs are companies that specialize in marketing. Companies like American Equity are not marketers, we’re product manufacturers that deliver a good product and then service that product after it’s sold. We do some marketing because it’s necessary to maintain a presence, but our marketing companies are our first link to the agent and then therefore, to the customer, because they’re introducing us to their agents with their marketing systems and then recommending us to the agents based on what their agents are trying to solve for their prospects.”
From the prospect perspective, we have got about another 10 to 12 years of Boomer retirees capturing the attention of the market. What conversations are there now at American Equity to look towards the up and coming Millennial market?
“I think the Boomer retiree market has longer legs than just the next 10 years. I’ve seen statistics where people aged 65 and older are going to continue to grow for the next 20 to 30 years. That being said, Millennials will be retirees in the next 30 years. We have to think about how to engage them and their lifestyles when they’re ready to retire. To be honest, since our products are single premium type products for the low 60 age bracket, our experience with Millennials at this point has more to do with our workforce. Half of our current employees are Millennials.”
This leads me to an interesting question. Are you doing things differently in the home office because of your younger employees?
“Absolutely. In our office we have a diverse group of employees, from Baby Boomers to Gen Xers, Gen Yers and Millennials. With Millennials being half of our workforce, we absolutely have to change the way we think about our workforce. What motivates a 20 year old today isn’t the same thing that motivated me as a 20 year old. They are great workers, but their needs are just a little bit different. They value flexibility and time off more than perhaps a pay increase. Their influence is also seen in the physical workspace. We are currently remodelling our building, to generate more “we” space versus “me” space, so people can collaborate, and work collectively to improve processes and products.”
If you’re standing in front of a room full of producers and they’re thinking about the next three to five to 10 years of their business, what does American Equity mean for them?
“Since day one we’ve been in the fixed index annuity business. That’s what we do. We don’t get distracted with life insurance, long term care, or health insurance. Fixed index annuities is what we do, and we think we do them pretty darn well. Our products are always going to be competitive, but our difference is that we’re going to deliver the best service, both to the advisor and to the end consumers.”
I really appreciate your time and insights. Brokers International has a very special relationship with American Equity, and thank you again for everything that you’ve done on behalf of Brokers, and on behalf of the industry, because I think you guys have always been and are still one of those companies that people live up to.
“Same back to you! It’s because of companies like Brokers International who are bringing in people like you, Mark, that are full of vitality and vision. So many of our top marketing companies have brought in young talent. If we have young talent at those marketing companies, they’re going to attract young talent into the business too, through their advisors in their workplace. I’m very optimistic about the independent channel because of people like you, Mark.”
Well, thank you very much. I appreciate that.
“You’re welcome. Thanks for the opportunity Mark to visit with you. I’m honored that you asked me to be one of your interviewees.”