The worst day in Ryan Smith’s life turned out to be the day he found his mission in life in one of those transcendent moments that put ordinary people on extraordinary paths.
For Smith, that moment came as he peered into incubators holding his premature twins. One would hold on. The other would not be coming home with him and his wife, Katrina.
The couple, steeped in grief, looked around to see other parents enduring the same heartrending process. And here is the thing that separates them from almost everyone else: Instead of giving into their grief, they turned their sorrow into a way to help others.
This was a turning point that was a theme for many of the advisors who told us about their inspiration. The low points in their lives led them to the higher road of their future.
InsuranceNewsNet Magazine explored the topic of inspiration with advisors on all points of the age spectrum and in several different areas of practice. What inspires them to persist in this business? Why do they get up every morning and do what they do? How do their life experiences carry over into what they tell their clients and prospects?
If you ever are at a loss for getting the conversation moving with a prospect or client, ask them how they got started in their current business or occupation. Ask them why they continue doing what they do each day. The words will start to flow as they recall their own stories of inspiration.
Everyone has a “backstory” — a tale of how they arrived at where they are today and what incident marked a turning point in their life. For some, that turning point provides the fuel to continue propelling them forward in their profession.
Others are still looking for that “something” that will motivate them to continue making calls and seeking out prospects despite rejection and discouragement. This is especially true of new advisors.
The topic of inspiration is crucial in getting new advisors past what Emily Tracey of LIMRA terms “that initial burnout period” — typically the first two years in the business.
Tracey, who is an analyst in LIMRA’s distribution research department, conducted a study of advisors age 40 and younger who have been in the business at least two years. The study attempted to find out what attracts young adults to the life insurance business and what motivates them to stay in the business. She found that young advisors are attracted to the profession mainly for the earning potential. But she was a bit surprised by what keeps those young advisors going — and it isn’t money.
Young advisors “are very drawn to the fact that they can make a difference in people’s lives,” Tracey said.
After conducting in-depth interviews with the young advisors, Tracey said, “Something we got out of that was hearing that although they may have started with the goal in mind to kind of have that income potential, a lot of them said it’s extremely rewarding to see the difference that they’re making in people’s lives — and that has actually risen to the top as being the most important thing that they’re getting out of their careers.”
Tracey continued that many of the young advisors surveyed went on to tell LIMRA that they were inspired by the clients they have helped. “It was people saying to them, ‘Because of you I was able to send my children to college’ or ‘Because of you, I can retire when I want to.’ ”
Also inspiring young advisors, Tracey said, is the belief that although it can be difficult to start out in the financial services business, the eventual rewards are worth it. “They recognized they had to put in all that extra time at the beginning but it was going to pay off,” she said.
Ultimately, for the young advisors LIMRA surveyed, inspiration and passion go hand in hand.
“Our young advisors told us that the people who are going to succeed in this career should have a positive attitude and be a people person and just truly be passionate about building their career,” Tracey said.
Another LIMRA study, “Translate From Insurance To English,” revealed that advisors who suffered an unfortunate life event — such as the death of a parent or a spouse — frequently are inspired to use their experiences to help their clients protect their families from financial hardship.
In the case of one advisor LIMRA surveyed, her experience of having lost her husband at a young age “just adds that much more to her conversation with her clients, and she’s able to bring that in and talk about the experience and how life insurance made a difference,” Tracey said.
Rod Rishel, U.S. Head of Life Insurance for AIG Consumer Insurance, has spent much of his career developing strategies to bring the next generation of advisors into the insurance world. He cited “empathy” as the factor that inspires and motivates young advisors to succeed.
“It’s really about putting somebody else first, trying to do the best thing for the client and letting that pay dividends in the long run,” he said. “The younger generation of advisors is not worried too much about hours worked per day or the paycheck but more concerned about ‘What do I do to help society?’”
Rishel said that his own family experience shaped the way he thinks about the impact that insurance products have on clients.
“My mother died at a relatively young age — she was 56,” he said. His mother had tried to do the right thing for Rishel’s father, but he said she had bought some insurance that was really not appropriate for her.
“I didn’t have the expertise at the time she bought it, but had I been involved at that time, she never would have spent the money on that product,” he continued. “So whenever I work on developing a new product or whatever the case may be, I think back to that and ask, ‘What if it were my father or mother buying this product?’”
Rishel said there is a difference between those who ended up in the industry by what he called “happenstance” and those who made more of a conscious decision to enter the industry. But what keeps advisors from both of those camps inspired to persist in the business is when they say they know they are helping people.
“What keeps people in the industry is knowing that day in, day out — and this takes a long time — you know you’re doing the right thing,” he said. “It can take upwards of years, but then you experience delivering that first death benefit check. And you realize we deliver checks that people can use at the time they need it most, and that’s a powerful place to be. That’s inspiring.”
Some advisors said they had a life experience that provided them with that moment of transcendence. Others credit a mentor who walked with them through a rough patch as being their reason for staying in the business. Still others said they are inspired by a client whose financial situation was made brighter as a result of an insurance benefit. No matter their age or where they practice, insurance professionals find many paths to inspiration. Here are some examples.
Turned heartache into hope
Ryan Smith and his wife, whom we met earlier, rode a rollercoaster of emotions along their journey through infertility, premature birth and the death of their infant son, Grady. Smith is a private wealth advisor with Mosaic Wealth Consulting in Erie, Pa.
“What class do you go to or what book can you read to help you prepare to deal with infertility, to lose your baby and how you go on? How do you face the world?” Smith asked as he recalled his emotions following the twins’ birth and Grady’s death. Gianna, who had underdeveloped lungs as a result of her early birth, came close to death several times but ultimately survived. Grady, who weighed about two pounds at birth, had underdeveloped lungs and suffered from multiple brain hemorrhages before he had to be removed from life support.
“We have witnessed both the heartache of losing a child and the miraculous turnaround of a miracle that could only be explained that God still does miracles in this day and age. And so we got to witness something really bigger than us, and we don’t feel like we deserved it. We don’t feel like we are better than anyone. It’s just that we were caught up in a bigger story,” Smith said.
Even while dealing with their grief over losing Grady and their concern over Gianna, the Smiths noticed that other families were dealing with similar situations — worrying over dangerously ill babies or mourning for infants who left this world too soon.
“So at that moment we realized that other people were really struggling. We realized that there’s a lot of help for the babies who are in the hospital — there are doctors and nurses — but there really isn’t anything out there to support the families emotionally, spiritually and financially,” Smith said.
“Right then and there, in the hospital, we decided that we would start helping other families,” Smith continued. “There were a couple of other families who had stories similar to ours, and we helped them — we prayed with them and we helped them heal and we helped them say that life was going to be OK. And so we started this concept of bringing love to families who have babies in the hospital.”
The Smiths established a nonprofit charitable organization, Grady’s Decision, in honor of their son. “Our foundation is called Grady’s Decision because it was ultimately Grady’s decision to let his life be about something greater than being on this earth,” Smith said.
More than $600,000 has been raised, and more than 600 families have been helped in the six years since Grady’s Decision had its start.
“We do things like pay for parking passes and gas cards and put families up in the Ronald McDonald House, and we try to remove all financial barriers so that they can just focus on their baby,” Smith said. “We see to it that if they have to take time away from work, their paycheck keeps coming so that they can just focus on loving their baby during this time. It would break our hearts to know that babies would pass away and the families couldn’t be there because the rent needed to be paid.”
“Our goal is to touch and bless as many families as we can with the resources that keep coming into our organization,” Smith said.
The impact on Smith’s business: Smith was a baseball coach before he entered the insurance business. He said that his family experience and his baseball experience have led him to consider himself less of an advisor and more of a financial coach for families.
His experience with Grady’s death has helped him emphasize to families the importance of life insurance — especially the importance of obtaining coverage for young children. Grady died before he would have been old enough to be covered by life insurance, Smith said, so the family had to dip into their own financial resources for his funeral expenses.
“I just have a much deeper understanding of the death of a loved one and how that could absolutely wreck your life at that specific point in time, and the importance of life insurance and how it provides you time to heal,” he said. “Without life insurance, you have to get back to your normal life and your work, even though you’re hurting and need time.
“And so my experience allows me to speak on such a level about losing a spouse or losing a child or losing a loved one and what life insurance can provide to someone, because we didn’t have the ability to have life insurance on Grady,” he said.
Fighting for the client
Melissa Mlasko said her family could have used someone to fight for them when her father was killed in an accident, leaving her 39-year-old mother widowed with two children to provide for. Mlasko is an advisor with Futurity First Insurance Group in Medford, Ore.
It’s not that her father didn’t have life insurance. As Mlasko explained it, her father had life insurance coverage through his union, but his employment was seasonal. During the off-season, the family relied on unemployment compensation and didn’t have enough money to pay the life insurance premium. At the time of Mlasko’s father’s fatal accident, her mother had mailed the check to put the life insurance coverage back into effect, but the check was not received in time to activate the coverage. As a result, there was no insurance in place to help the family.
“They actually would have put the coverage back into place if they had received the check before he died,” Mlasko recalled. “I think it was $50,000. That would have made a big difference to my family back then.”
Mlasko said her family had no money to pay for a burial, and her mother had to return to school to gain the skills needed to provide for her children.
The impact on Mlasko’s practice: Mlasko said that her experience with her father’s death has inspired her to become an advocate for her clients. One example of this is when she helped a married couple obtain Medicare Supplement coverage. “Then I helped them with some annuities for IRAs and talked to them about life insurance,” she said. “I came to find out that the wife’s life insurance plan through her employer was ending Dec. 31 because she was being terminated from her job.”
The wife also told Mlasko that she had been diagnosed with cancer and the prognosis was bad. Mlasko suggested that she explore whether the life insurance coverage could be extended past Dec. 31 if the wife paid the premium on it after that date.
“And so I called the carrier probably four or five times and got a different answer each time,” Mlasko said. “Finally someone told me that the coverage could be continued but it would cost $700 per month.”
“So I was lying in bed one night, worried about her situation,” Mlasko continued. “And I was thinking, well, is there maybe an accelerated death benefit rider on it? And I know there’s not always with the group policies. So I called the carrier and was told there was no accelerated death benefit rider. And I said, ‘We would really like to look at the policy; we’d like to get ahold of the policy.’ And they said we could go ahead and get that from her employer.”
After obtaining a copy of the policy from the employer, Mlasko found that page 53 of the policy contained an accelerated death benefit rider. Mlasko helped the woman file a claim, which paid 90 percent of the benefit.
“My favorite thing in the world to do is to be an advocate for my client,” Mlasko said. “I can be extremely aggressive in helping them get the benefits they are entitled to. I fight for them the way I wish that someone would have fought for my family.”
A near-death experience taught a lesson
Kenneth Lindbloom has been a businessman since he was 11 years old and selling newspapers in his hometown of Lincoln, Neb. Lindbloom is the owner of Lindbloom Insurance Service in Urbandale, Iowa.
By the time he was 16, he had amassed enough funds to open his own checking account. Soon after that, his life changed forever.
“My dad was kind of a smart aleck, and one day when our insurance agent was at the house, the agent asked my dad, ‘Who do you know I can sell some life insurance to?’ And my dad just went ahead and pointed to me,” Lindbloom recalled. “We sat down and the agent explained that if something happened to me, $10,000 would be payable to my family to take care of my funeral and all that stuff. And it just appealed to me, so I bought it. Then I got into a car accident two years later and was unconscious for 28 days.” Lindbloom’s family came dangerously close to having to file a death claim on the policy that he had bought when he was only 16.
Lindbloom eventually recovered from his serious injuries and went on to college. But he found that despite working full time while he was attending school, he needed to earn more money. Enter the life insurance agent who sold him a policy years earlier!
“He stopped by to pick up the premium, and he said, ‘Well, you know you like this stuff; why don’t you sell it to your friends and relatives?’ You know, the old story,” Lindbloom laughed.
So Lindbloom left college and began his insurance career when he was 20 years old, servicing debit accounts for National Life and Accident. He returned to college and completed his degree at the age of 42. His insurance career included selling products for TIAA-CREF and serving “orphan” accounts with The Achievement Group, as well as owning his own agency.
The impact on Lindbloom’s practice: Lindbloom said he frequently tells the story of his near-fatal accident to prospects. He finds that the story serves as an icebreaker and it gives him additional credibility.
“I find when I tell that story, [prospects] just kind of sit back and relax, because they now know that I’m just not a hack out there trying to sell them something just to line my own pockets,” he said. “After I get them to relax, then they can open up and tell me what’s really going on in their life and what they’re looking for.”
“My experience taught me that these things can happen in a moment’s notice no matter who you are and what your age is and what you’re up to,” he continued. “So you better be prepared for the future.”
Keeping it in the family
To Christine Pikutis-Musuneggi, the insurance business is family. She, her husband, her mother-in-law and her cousin are in business together at The Musuneggi Financial Group in Pittsburgh.
Pikutis-Musuneggi said she had always been attracted to a career in finance. But two incidents that occurred in her family when she was young cemented her belief that all families need to plan for the future.
“When I was 9 years old, our family moved for the purpose of my mom being able to take care of her mom,” she recalled. “My grandmother had had a series of strokes when she was in her early 50s. She was a quadriplegic and couldn’t speak. My grandfather actually had to retire early as well to help take care of my grandmother. As I got further into finance, I realized that it would have been different if there had been some resources for my grandfather to take advantage of or even if they could have had long-term care insurance if it was available then. I began to realize that there were things that probably could’ve helped both generations a whole lot more.”
The grandmother had two brothers who owned a service station and a towing business that served motorists and truckers traveling the Pennsylvania Turnpike. “Eventually the brothers passed away,” Pikutis-Musuneggi recalled. “My mom and her siblings inherited the business, and other than pumping gas on the weekends or during the summer, they weren’t prepared to take it over and run it. So at that point they were the third generation to inherit the business almost by default. They ended up selling off the assets, having auctions, finding someone to buy the business. There was a lot of emotion involved. I was a 20-something at the time, and I thought all of that could have been prevented. There could have been a plan to keep the business in the family.”
The impact on Pikutis-Musuneggi’s practice: Families, and particularly family-business owners, are the focal points of Pikutis-Musuneggi’s practice.
“I spend a lot of my time looking for businesses to work with, working with business owners, doing their succession planning, specifically making sure they have life and disability insurance for themselves and their partners, and then also working with their 401(k) plans,” she said. “I work with the business owner who needs to stop and pause and think about what happens to my business, what happens to my family when I am not here. If I can’t work, what happens to my employees?
“I prepare my clients for any kind of extended problem that’s not going to allow them to work, and I want to make sure they have a lot of savings on hand. And that’s cash in the bank; that’s keeping their bills low. I want to make sure that life can be as easy as possible if something were to happen to one of my clients.”
Empowering women financially
Jocelyn Wright’s interest in financial services began when she was a young girl and always wanted to be the banker in Monopoly games. As she grew up, she learned that life is a lot more complicated than the game of Monopoly.
Wright has her own financial advising practice in Jenkintown, Pa., and serves as director of the State Farm Center for Women and Financial Services at The American College.
Wright’s financial services career has had her working with people at both ends of the money spectrum. Her first job after college was working in the collections department of a credit card company, talking with people who had fallen behind in their payments. Later on, she worked in the private bank division of JP Morgan, managing the bills on behalf of ultra-wealthy clients.
But it was an experience in her family that taught her the importance of planning.
“When I was a sophomore in college, my grandmother passed away,” Wright recalled. “And I come from a relatively large extended family on my father’s side. All of our cousins are from the Philadelphia area, and we found out that she only had a $5,000 life insurance policy. Even in the 1990s, $5,000 was not enough to bury someone and certainly not someone who’s the matriarch of your family. And with our family being from the South, we had a service in Philadelphia and then took her body to South Carolina. So, as you could obviously tell, that $5,000 was depleted very quickly.
“I’m sure my parents and my dad’s siblings had to go into their own savings to make sure that the money was there to lay my grandmother to rest,” Wright continued. “And it just struck me: How many other families might this be happening to?”
The impact on Wright’s practice: Wright said her experiences with people in so many different financial situations have helped her relate to her clients. But her grandmother’s death impacted her the most. “I just think about my grandmother and ask myself what can I do to help and continue to help families through that process,” she said.
Helping women clients — especially single women — is Wright’s passion. “A lot of advisors may not see the benefit in working with a single person,” Wright said. “We have needs, and in many cases those needs aren’t being met by the industry because they don’t always think we would be good clients.”
Wright also uses the story of her grandmother’s death to emphasize to clients the importance of having their affairs in order, so that their death doesn’t turn an emotionally stressful situation into a financially stressful situation for their families.
Finding inspiration overseas
Katherine Durham said she is happiest when traveling with a passport into a culture that is unfamiliar to her. Durham is vice president of individual disability insurance and corporate marketing and communications for The Standard.
Durham’s curiosity about other lands inspired her to join the Peace Corps, where she taught school in Thailand. “I taught school in the middle of nowhere in a tiny little village,” she recalled. “I taught school in this room that had no walls, just a thatch roof and some poles and a dirt floor that got flooded during the rainy season.”
She said it was a remarkable experience that gave her a deeper perspective.
“I think the most profound thing that impacted me was that it was a very humbling experience. It was incredibly inspiring, and I took away how connected humans are.”
Durham’s marketing career began in the high-tech realm, but she soon became inspired by the “financial wellness” that she said insurance provides. “There is a huge need for that in our country where most people tend to not do a very good job of planning for themselves and for their families.”
The impact on Durham’s career: Durham said the time she has spent working and traveling in developing nations has taught her that different cultures have different views on money, but they all have the same needs and desires.
“I’m from a modest background, but by Thai standards, I lived like a queen,” she said. “I hadn’t realized how lucky we are in this country — how many opportunities we have.”
She said she also learned that people all want fairly basic things: “We want a home We want family. We want to be able to pay for our food and shelter and those fundamental things. I think you can see how happy people can be when they are able to cover the basics.”
Durham said that concepts such as financial planning are difficult to understand in a country where most of the population is just trying to survive. “Back in Thailand nobody talked about their financial lives. They were trying to get through the day,” she said.
Learning from his clients
Robert Frank said he owes his longevity in the business to two things: his mentors and his clients. Frank, who lives in Salem, Ohio, had a long career with the former Equitable of Washington, D.C., and with Western and Southern Life before moving on to a career in teaching continuing education classes to insurance agents.
“Robert Truman was my first sales manager when I was with Equitable,” Frank recalled. “He took me out in the field. I traveled throughout the community, as we were a home service company, and I collected premiums as well as sold insurance. So I was in a lot of homes talking to people.”
Frank said that starting out was difficult but Truman encouraged him along the way. “He always said he would be there for me, and when I was hitting some hard times he would always say, ‘You have to pay your dues upfront and then the rewards will come later.’ He was right.”
Frank traveled around his community, visiting clients and prospects in his small town and the surrounding countryside. He soon found that he was inspired by the amount of trust that his clients placed in him.
“Eventually, I had second- and third-generation clients,” he said. “I didn’t know there were so many nice people in one area. They were not rich, but they treated me like family. Just listening to them telling me stories about their families and their hopes and dreams inspired me to do all I could to serve them. My clients would tell me things they wouldn’t tell their own families — such as what problems they were facing.”
Frank served many elderly clients who lived alone. When he stopped by to collect payments, he said, they often told him he was the only person who visited them.
“I didn’t serve a big-money type of clientele. These were people who go to work every day and take care of their families,” he said.
The impact on Frank’s career: Frank travels all over Ohio presenting CE classes to life insurance agents. Stories about his time spent serving small-town “Main Street” clients frequently illustrate the points he makes in teaching his students.
“I often tell my students about the support I had from my first sales manager and how that made such a difference in my career,” he said. “I also like to use a story from my time in the field to help my students grasp a more difficult concept that I am trying to teach in the CE class.
“One of the most important things I tell my students is something that was told to me, which is that it always comes down to the clients. Agents must always remember clients long after the sale is over.”
We want to hear your own story of inspiration. Who or what inspired you to get started in the business? What inspires you to continue serving your clients?
We invite you to tell us your own inspired story for our next “Inspiration” issue. Share your story here.