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Remembering a Diamond in the Industry

EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Barton has retired from his position as president and chief executive officer of The American College and is now chancellor. He is still representing the college at industry events and on regulatory matters.

My first job, at the age of 16, was writing obituaries for my hometown paper in Massachusetts. 

I hated it. A sophomore in high school, I would spend three afternoons a week working for Kathryn “Kay” Jorgensen, the publisher of The Arlington Advocate.  She was a superb teacher, mentor and skilled journalist. But after a few weeks, she would watch me call funeral directors, family members and friends of the deceased. They would cry, I would cry. They would talk about Mom and Dad, their interests and accomplishments, and how they died. It was more depressing to me than algebra.


One day, I asked Kay if I could begin to blossom out into covering politics and sports. She replied, “Larry, you are looking at your job the wrong way. Don’t you understand? You are writing the single last thing that will ever be published about that person’s life. It will go into family Bibles. People will treasure it. The news passes. Lives are remembered.”

Her words smacked me in the face then and they still smack me in the face as I remember them. I was looking at my job the wrong way. Remembering a life is important, and in that spirit, I’d love to share with you a life that changed our industry.

Nearly every notable insurance agent has heard of, or adopted, the One Card System. The system articulated the science of how to manage prospects so they could eventually understand the importance of life insurance. We lost the founder of that system in January, but it is his life, and not his passing, that is worth recounting.

Al Granum’s story is one of unwavering belief in the importance of the work of financial professionals, of uncompromising commitment to always doing the right thing for the client, and of unquestionable generosity to share everything he learned for the benefit of the industry.

Born just a few years before the Great Depression and World War II, Al Granum grew up in a small town in northern Wisconsin. He was passionate about education and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1943, simultaneously earning his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in Life Insurance. After graduating, Al served our country for three years by joining the U.S. Navy during the height of World War II. Upon returning home in 1946, Al contracted with Northwestern Mutual in Amery, Wis., where his legacy was born.

After a mere eight years as a life insurance agent with Northwestern Mutual, Al qualified as a life member of the Million Dollar Round Table. He was then appointed managing partner in Chicago in 1963. During his tenure as managing partner, his agency with Northwestern Mutual became the first office in the industry to write more than $150 million of new business in a 12-month period, ranked first in company volume and/or premium a staggering 37 times, and qualified 42 of his 45 agents as MDRT members. It was during that period that he conducted his groundbreaking research, which ultimately led to the development of the Client Building and the One Card System.

This ingenious system is a proven track to success for financial services professionals – providing both the art and science of building a clientele. It is arguably his most influential and important contribution to the industry. After 23 legendary years, Al Granum retired from his managing partner position, but he continued his work – traveling around the world to teach his Client Building system to help strengthen the profession on a global basis.

Al was awarded a chair in practice management at The American College, endowed to him by his peers in 2001. This made him one of seven to be recognized in this way in the college’s history. I am honored to serve in the chair that bears his name.

In June 2012, to honor his legacy and commitment to lifelong learning, Northwestern Mutual and The American College formally launched the Northwestern Mutual Granum Center for Financial Security. The center, led by Sharen King, leads original, cutting-edge research, thought forums, webcasts and advisor resources. I urge you to research what has emerged from the center at no cost to the entire industry, as Al encouraged.

Of all the accomplishments and accolades we can pin on his lapel, it must be said that Al Granum was rarely driven by recognition.

On a tombstone, we remember the essentials of a life – name, lifespan and, if we are fortunate, a quote or simple tribute. The virtual capsule for Al Granum would have the names of tens of thousands of agents who brought life insurance to millions because of the unique tools he created.

On the web site at The American College, where people began to post messages within hours of Al’s passing, what struck me was that peers from New York Life, Prudential, MassMutual and MetLife as well as many independent insurance agents dropped by to offer a personal thanks. The rope of competition drops when we remember a jewel. This one was a diamond.

Larry Barton, Ph.D., CAP, is Chancellor of The American College. Larry may be contacted at [email protected] [email protected].

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