The story of Scott Brennan has almost a sepia hue to it with his comparisons of his own life to Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, in It’s A Wonderful Life. It might even be tempting to file his story and career in a metal file cabinet drawer labeled The Way Things Used To Be.
But that would be your loss. Brennan tells how he learned the fundamentals of effective sales and combined that with a genuine caring about his community in South Bend, Ind. His example tells how the best interest of the public can be served by people who sell products effectively — a very modern concern.
Although he started his career under a good mentor, he was just as hungry and scared as any young person is when starting a sales job. He began at 21 in a new city with an old car and $400 to his name.
Brennan would later qualify for the Million Dollar Round Table for more than three decades and serve as its president, but he said he wouldn’t have even qualified for an end table in his early years.
He learned the basics and trained like an athlete with Northwestern Mutual and then MassMutual. He credits Al Granum’s One Card System and 10-3-1 principle, which emphasize sales activity — every 10 calls yield three appointments, leading to one sale. Which still holds true today.
His story is infused with gratitude for a fulfilling career. In this interview with Publisher Paul Feldman, Brennan reveals the script that anyone can follow to have an equally wonderful life.
FELDMAN: For those of our readers who aren’t familiar with you, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into this business.
BRENNAN: I grew up in a home where my dad was actually in the life insurance business. He was the first one in our family to go to college and graduate.
He had a long career. I saw all sides of it — good, bad and indifferent.
In my senior year in college at Indiana University, I started selling life insurance. There was really a kind man, a great guy who gave me a contract. He was a Northwestern Mutual general agent in Indianapolis named Gene Koch. He died about a month ago in his mid-90s. He didn’t hire me for what I was. I know that he hired me for what I might be able to become.
I didn’t know anything. I was only 21. Upon graduation, he had an office ready for me and a desk and a phone. I started just like anybody else would in the mid-’70s. It’s been a great life.
I started under what was called the One Card System that a man out of Chicago named Al Granum had developed.
The One Card System — I wouldn’t be talking to you today if I hadn’t been on it. But at the same time, I needed to make some small changes to it in the way that I went about things. It was a system based on activity, and a busy advisor is a happy advisor.
FELDMAN: It is all about the activity, isn’t it?
BRENNAN: The best salespeople I’ve known in the life insurance profession — those who wrote the most — usually weren’t the greatest salespeople. They were usually the best prospectors. And that’s what really makes the difference between someone who really makes a go of it and somebody who struggles.
I tell you humbly that I’ve written life insurance on a garbage man and I’ve written life insurance on the CEO of a Fortune 100 company.
My first death claim was for $5,000. We used to write policies that size. I had a death claim a couple years ago for $5 million. The family I took the $5,000 to was more appreciative than the trustees I actually gave the $5 million to.
They didn’t teach me that in career school. That was one of the things you learn as you get older and a little more mature. I’m 64 now. I just shake my head. I’m fascinated how the way certain things remain the same and certain things really change.
I have more than 50 lawyers as clients. I have three dozen CPAs as clients. I have tried to be a business and community leader.
Everybody knows I’m in the life insurance business. Everybody kids me about it, which is great. It doesn’t bother me. Everybody knows when I call on them, it’s no mystery why I’m calling. My odds are no better or no worse than what Al Granum said they would be. Through association work, like being deeply involved in the Million Dollar Round Table, the Forum 400 and NAIFA, I learned how to add zeros to cases. I learned how to prospect for bigger cases.
FELDMAN: It seems like you are still hard at work.
BRENNAN: Do I work as hard some days as I used to? No. Do I still work as hard some days as I had to? Yes. Do I still try and call on people I’m afraid of? You bet.
Do people buy from because I’ve been president of the Round Table and the Forum 400 and the recipient of the John Newton Russell Memorial Award? No.
They know I’ve received all those nice accolades, but I still have to make the case for it. I still have to ask people to buy. I still have to ask for appointments. It’s an honor. It’s not what society owes me, it’s what I owe society.
I kind of have a bias for action. If somebody really doesn’t want to talk to me, it’s OK. If somebody doesn’t want to buy what it is I’m suggesting, it’s OK. I’m not going to chase them down and be as persistent probably as I might have been 40 years ago.
FELDMAN: What else changed in your approach over those 40 years?
BRENNAN: Sometimes when I’m visiting with people, I’ll ask, “What does contentment look like to you?” And I’ll let them talk and they’ll tell me.
Sometimes I’ll ask, “What one word would you use to describe the life you now have?” They’ll think about it and tell me. When people look like they’re upset, or they’re having a hard time, or they’re making a move like they’ve left an employer or a career after many, many years, I’ll ask, “Is there peace in your heart?”
I’ll listen. I’ve probably become a pretty good listener. A lot of people in our profession talk too much.
I like to pick up the phone and be a ray of sunshine for people. I’ve got a list of about 35 names I call, especially during this pandemic, where I just talk to them, check in with them, sometimes leave them a voicemail.
FELDMAN: Are you reaching out to fellow life agents in those calls?
BRENNAN: Yes. I think when you concentrate on something, it expands. So, if you’re homeless, you know a lot of homeless people. If you’re a supermodel, you know a lot of beautiful women. If you’re a great baseball player, you know a lot of other great baseball players. If you’re really good at writing a lot of life insurance, you know others who are really good at it.
We don’t keep a secret very well. We tend to talk to one another. We tend to go to meetings with one another. We like to eat lunch with one another or dinner or breakfast with one another, and we cheer each other on.
This is a hard-won dignity. It’s hard. It’s tough. I know some days a lot of people in this profession feel like they’ve been beaten up or mugged.
But the truth of the matter is to just hang in there and have positive expectation, which means I expect to meet good people. I don’t expect to meet people who aren’t going to show up. I expect to meet really good people. I always think abundance is a state of mind. It’s not hard for me to be upbeat and in a good mood.
I’ll say to people, “I don’t want to be the king of good intentions, but there’s something about your situation that bothers me. Could we sit down for a minute?” And I’ll have an idea for them.
I’ve built this clientele, and it’s been block by block, person by person, one file at a time. I know it’s been a good one if I have to think, “Were they a friend first and a client second? Or were they a client first and a friend second?” I think optimism is an intellectual choice.
FELDMAN: Do you have some tips that can help younger agents?
BRENNAN: A couple of things have really helped through the years. One is if I’m not early, I’m late. I’m always early for stuff. It’s a great stress reliever.
The other is knowing my purpose. Occasionally there are moments of great clarity when certain things happen. I had six death claims last year. I’ve had four this year. Every time I’m delivering money like that — and I don’t care whether it’s $15,000 or $15 million — I know why I was put on this earth.
FELDMAN: How were you able to get as involved in your community as you have?
BRENNAN: I don’t think anybody’s geared to do this selling of life insurance or prospecting for life insurance 24 hours a day. Some days, it just beats me up too much. I have to lean on other things in order to adjust my brain so it’s always in a good attitude. I’ve been president and chairman of all kinds of volunteer things just because I love doing them.
I’ll tell you one quick story. I was flying through Nashville about 25 years ago, and I saw the wealthiest woman in our hometown sitting there waiting for the plane. Her father had started the biggest bank here and owned some other things, one of them you’d be familiar with. And I went up to her and said, “Thanks for all you do for South Bend. I really appreciate it. I love the way you lead from in front.” She said, “Well, aren’t you nice?”
We smiled, and I went over and took my seat. When they were calling rows, it was my lucky day, I got to sit next to her. She had a lap full of work she wanted to do. I said to her, “Before you start, I need to borrow your brain for a few minutes.” She said, “What’s on your mind?”
I told her that I wanted to be a business and community leader, but every time I ended up calling on people, they practically turned and ran the other direction.
She asked, “Tell me again what it is you do? I know your face, but I can’t remember.” I told her I was in life insurance. She said, “OK, this is easy. Learn how to raise money.”
I said, “That’s it?” She said, “That’s it.”
I took her advice and worked on a lot of campaigns. It has been an honor to ask people to do the right thing. It’s more like selling life insurance than anything else I’ve ever known. It’s the same set of reasons why they want to do it, and it’s the exact same set of reasons why they don’t want to do it. That part of it has been fascinating.
FELDMAN: How do you prospect?
BRENNAN: I would always look for people who were doing well, who I could meet under favorable circumstances. I’d hear something about somebody building a building, or I’d be driving by and I’d see a sign, and I would think, “Geez, I don’t know that person; I’ll bet I know somebody else that knows them,” and I would try and warm it up a little.
I had certain clients who really seemed to know what was going on. I’ll tell you who they were: commercial printers, loan officers, funeral directors. They really know what’s going on in town. I’d written all three of those. We’d be somewhere and they’d say, “Do you know Harry over here? No? Boy, you got to get to know him. He’s really doing good things.”
I’ll still pick up the phone or write somebody a letter and say, “I’ve heard great things about you, and I’d love to come over and visit with you.” It’s never easy, but it’s probably the best way that I know.
Most people don’t want to refer you to others. However, they usually will introduce you. I would always use the word “introduction.” I would always also say, “I’m going to call on Steve; would it be OK, Paul, if I said to Steve you and I do business together?” It wasn’t like I said, “Steve,
Paul told me to call on you.” But I would say, “I’d love to visit with you someday. I’m pretty sure you know Paul, and he and I have worked together for a long time.” Little things like that.
I would always try and work up, not down. I’d love to get to the top — the nicest people are always up there. They had the sharpest assistants. It doesn’t mean they’re all going to buy whatever it is I have, but it just means they probably have the means to buy it if I can make a case for it.
FELDMAN: What would you say to an agent who is thinking about quitting?
BRENNAN: I would say, “I’ve thought about it, too.” I’ve thought about it hundreds if not thousands of times. I would just say, “If I make a list of all the great things in the life insurance profession on one side of a legal pad, and you make a list of all the things you don’t like on the other, my list is going to be a lot longer.”
When I first started, the list of things I didn’t like was very long. The list of things I did like was pretty short. Today, the two lists have flipped. All the things I didn’t like early on, I got used to, or I figured it out.
I’ve gone out many times to talk to groups, especially young people, MBA students or undergrads in business school, and I start out by asking them, “How many of you value your independence?”
Every hand goes up. Then I’ll ask, “How many of you think that will change when you’re my age?”
I value my independence. I don’t think I would’ve been very good working for someone else. But it is hard, tough, and it is demanding. It’s basically a job of prospecting. Al Granum was right — activity breeds activity.
If I’m an old agent like I am and I have a new agent in the office looking at me, I’m going to ask, “Let me see your book,” or “Let me see your schedule,” because an unhappy agent will have a very short list of appointments.
A happy producer is a busy one, and he or she will have had a lot of appointments. I had a young man in my office in December; he’s a sharp young guy, he’s 31 years old. Within five minutes, he came to me for advice, and in the first five minutes he said, “I want you to know I have no intention of working as hard as you have.”
I said to him, “Are you kidding me?” Every person I know who has really done well in the life insurance profession worked at it like a second religion.
I mean, I still look for good clients the way I’d look for a piece of lost jewelry. I’m thinking about it all the time. I work at it all the time.
FELDMAN: How do you keep your enthusiasm up?
BRENNAN: I’ve had four death claims this year, and all that money was really important to those families that were involved. The six I had the year before, all that money I brought in, it was really important.
Do I try and deliver them in person? I do. I love MassMutual, it’s my primary company, but they’re not too crazy about sending money to agents anymore. Even though I wrote it, they’d rather send it to the beneficiary, and I’m sure the legal department has a million reasons why.
FELDMAN: Yes, I also can imagine the company has many reasons not to send the check to the agent. But it really is severing a connection, isn’t it?
BRENNAN: Yes. A widow or the child of a person who thought enough of them to leave this behind, this love letter, I think they want a human being to go out and explain it.
One day I was getting ready to put the key in the door at about a quarter to six, and the phone rang and a woman was on the other end who said, “I’m so upset with MassMutual I could scream. They won’t do what I’m asking.”
I said, “What is it that you’re asking?” She said, “I want to cash my policy in.” I asked for her name, and I brought it up.
I told her, “Well, your father still owns it.” She said, “He’s been gone.” I said, “Well, you should own it.”
I asked her if she needed the money. She said, “Not really.” I said, “Can I ask you a question? Did you have a good relationship with your father?”
There was a long silence, and then she said, and she was choking back tears, “I guess so. Why do you ask that?”
I said, “Because your dad loved you. This is living proof. This is written proof that your dad loved you. He bought this for you when you were two months old, before he even really knew who you were.”
Then the tears flowed.
“I’d hang on to this if I were you,” I said. “The dividends are three times bigger than the premium, and if you don’t need the money, the gain on this is in double digits. Let’s make you the owner. Let’s come up with a new beneficiary, but let’s keep it in force.” She said, “OK.”
Those little victories, which I can afford to do now, it’s very tough when you’re trying to make a living. When you don’t have any money, any amount is a fortune.
I cannot tell you how difficult it was to do things like that when I was a brand-new agent, but as an older producer, as a middle-aged man, it’s my honor to do things like that.