Like father like son? Not always.
Robert Miller grew up in the life insurance business, but had no interest in joining the profession in which his father Sidney Miller made his mark. Sidney had a 60-year career, growing Miller-Pomerantz to serve 6,000 clients from its base on Broadway in New York.
But Robert pursued a career in academia before being persuaded to give the life insurance business a try about 40 years ago. He made it to the top despite being told that he didn’t have the “aptitude” to make it in the industry.
The early years were a struggle, but he found his niche and discovered the way of prospecting and selling that worked best for him. Success eventually followed and he went on to great personal and professional success, continuing to grow Miller-Pomerantz while serving a term as president of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors (NAIFA).
In this interview, InsuranceNewsNet Publisher Paul Feldman talks with Miller about his quest to make his way in the business, the lessons he learned from some of the industry greats, and how an acting class and some advice from his friends led to the change in attitude that powered his success.
FELDMAN: How did you get into the insurance industry?
Miller: Miller-Pomerantz today is a very different organization than it was when I was fully active. And I still have one or two toes in it. But it really transitioned from becoming a company that looked for large corporate cases to becoming much more of a basic insurance practice. They still believe the way I believed a long time ago that we didn’t want to be asset managers. So while they’re still licensed to do all of that stuff, we purposely have farmed that business out to other players and we stay in our lane. And our lane has always been insurance. And right now, Lloyd Pomerantz, who’s the managing partner of Miller-Pomerantz, is more like my father than I was. He’s a go-getter; he chases down leads from everywhere.
I was always enamored of all the contacts I made in graduate school who went on to Wall Street and became very wealthy. And my whole essence in the business was to write big corporate cases because it justified in my mind that I was still playing in the same places my peers were. But the mindset of the business has definitely gone back, obviously not to the kitchen table, it’s more Zoom meetings. But they’re really doing what I would call the nuts and bolts of the industry. They’re going back to a more realistic way of producing, and I think it’s the way of producing that we really need more than ever because, otherwise, the government is going to come in and take care of people.
We’re not getting enough people buying insurance. So in a way, I’m seeing that they’ve been able to go back and do that and they’re doing it very well. It’s certainly not the business I left. In a way, it’s really cool to see. I was there before. I was there during. And now I’m there to see how it’s transitioned back to the way it was. And in many ways, it’s a more bulletproof business. They’re helping a lot more people in many ways, not just doing corporate transactions. I always felt guilty that while I was making a lot of money, I wasn’t serving the basic people of the country per se, except in a corporate way.
There was a guy who owned a men’s hair salon in the town where we were living at that time. He was a nice guy and right after he started, my daughter was getting married. We took the whole groom’s party in so he could give everybody haircuts. So we developed this friendship.
One day he asked me what I did, and I said, “I work in insurance.” He said, “You know, I’m thinking of getting life insurance.” I said, “You know, why don’t we do this? One day after work, let me meet up with you. I’m going to bring my partner, Lloyd, because I’m not sure that I’ll be the one to really take care of you.” And that really brought me full circle to where I started.
We had a great meeting with him. And he expressed how much better he felt after he bought the insurance. He felt like he had taken care of something that was weighing him down. And I said to Lloyd after he had done it, “I haven’t had that much reward from selling a policy in 30 years.”
I was chasing so many big things that even I forgot how much good you could do for an individual, helping them obtain something that gives them peace of mind.
And he’s a client to this day. Lloyd has become very friendly with him. I’ll never forget how great that made me feel, doing that. That is the essence of what we do. There’s no better feeling in the world than having a client satisfied and happy that they’ve actually done something to help themselves. Not help me, but to help themselves. And, like I say, he’s a client to this day. It’s awesome.
FELDMAN: You said you had a rough start when you came into the business. What was your turning point?
Miller: I was a graduate school student, studying political philosophy for a Ph.D., which has about as much relationship to selling insurance, I thought, as landing on the moon. I just thought insurance was something my father and his friends did. I never took it seriously. Before I started, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a term policy and a whole life policy. I really purposely shied away from knowing anything about what he did because I was never going to do it. And so when I came in, I had a really bad attitude. Came in begrudgingly, and while I was smart and picked it all up quickly, I was actually, if I’m being honest with myself, too embarrassed to go out there and market myself as doing this. Because I didn’t envision that future for myself. That’s about as honest as I can get.
I was pulled into the manager’s office, and that was probably the one time being my father’s son saved me. He said, “Robert, if you weren’t your father’s son, you’d be out of here. You honestly have no aptitude for selling and even when we tested you, you showed no aptitude for being what we referred to as a real insurance person.” And that made me angry. One thing about me is that I’m really competitive. And to have somebody tell me that I wasn’t good enough and I really didn’t merit any more attention, it hit me hard.
But two things happened. One, I went out and was speaking to some friends and explaining my situation. They all had started to become financially successful because of Wall Street’s turnaround. People forget that in the ’70s, Wall Street was begging anybody to come and work for them. But as the ’80s came on, it started to turn. I had friends who were starting to make some real money. I had friends from graduate school who were becoming partners in law firms.
And here I was, treading water. So they said to me, “It sounds like what you have to do is change your entire attitude about all of this. You’re holding yourself back without allowing yourself to embrace what you’re doing. But if you’re going to do it, do it. If you’re not going to do it, quit. But don’t go in between. Don’t just whine and moan about it. Stop whining.”
Essentially it was like, “Look at yourself in the mirror and figure out how to do it differently.”
Someone told me, “You should take an acting class.” I said “I can’t act. I’m shy.” He said, “No, it’ll just make you different than you were.” I took an acting class and you do a lot of stupid things, but you become much less inhibited if you embrace it. In addition to my taking acting the class, my manager enrolled me in an LUTCF class. And so, the combination of the two made me realize that I had to go out and not be scared of embracing my natural prospect list, which included all the people I knew in graduate school and the people who were doing well in their jobs.
I developed a steely drive to look at myself in the mirror and say, “OK, I’m doing all these things wrong. I have to change.” I changed myself. And it didn’t work immediately but I started to speak to people at lunch, call up friends. And I asked them to buy, but I also would say,
“Look, I have a few ideas that might be good for corporations. Think of me if you’re ready to do anything about it.” Or I called up some political connections I had in Westchester County, and I got the list of every new incorporated business in Westchester County for that month. I would just call them up simply and say, “I’m very new at this business, but you’re also very new at your business. I know you need medical insurance and all this other stuff. Maybe there’s a way we can help each other. I can help you get something you need.”
I started embracing the concept of don’t be anything that you’re not. You’re new, you’re trying to get a clientele — tell people that. What are they going to say to you? No? Who cares? So you go to the next person. But at least they understand where you’re coming from, and I understood where they’re coming from. Because they’re in the same position I am. I actually picked up a lot of business that way, by just being brutally frank with people that I was a new insurance agent and I’m green. I’m not going to know everything, but you’re going to get an honest, hardworking person in your corner.
And some people saw me, some people didn’t. There was no security in office buildings in those days, so I would go up and down elevators, go into company offices saying, “Could I talk to the people who do your medical insurance? Maybe there’s another way.” Most of the time they’d say no, but sometimes I’d get in the door and more often than not, if I got in the door, people generally found me comforting to be around. That’s where the acting class helped. No way, no how, would I ever ring the doorbell and go in anywhere. I would have been too shy; I would have probably thrown up before I got anywhere near there.
I realized that with my education, I could talk about almost anything. And the acting class brought me out of my comfort zone. I could put myself in these places and started melding the two, and I realized that I could do really good interviews just by being myself and, of course, I’d read so much and had so much knowledge about a lot of things, I could talk to anyone. And the other great epiphany was that people don’t know anything about insurance. They’re looking for you to guide them. So all of that came together.
By my seventh year, I had hit it big. I hit it big when all the stuff came together with a gigantic case, and I’ll give you two sides of that story. Two things hit that year. One was that, if you go back 40 years, commissions were a lot different. So my first year, I earned $13,000. I thought I was doing well because as a graduate student I was earning nothing. So $13,000 in 1982 or whatever seemed like a lot of money to me. And then, I got a lead from somebody. It was an elderly lady in Greenwich, Conn., who wanted to buy life insurance, but she had a lot of health issues.
And one of our clients was the chairman of the board of New York Life. My father was very friendly with the chairman of the board. I became very friendly with him. And so, this lady was never getting insurance except with special exceptions. After a month of negotiations, I called up this guy; his name was Don Ross. I said, “Look, this is a big case. It’s a ton of money, but this woman isn’t getting any insurance unless you make an exception.” And because of our friendship in those days, we were able to get medical exemptions done, insurance issued. It showed me how much connections can help you get the business. But we were always honest.
We never tried to pull anything over on anybody, either. Our reputation was pristine in terms of underwriting. So he did me a favor.
I went up for the meeting in Greenwich, the lawyers were there, the accountants were there.
Everybody stated why she needed the policy. Lo and behold, she rejects it. She said, “I decided I hate all my grandkids, I’m not buying the insurance.” I drove back into the city, I was really depressed, but you have to keep going.
Months later, one of my old friends from graduate school who had become a partner wanted to bring me in on a corporate case that he was representing. I had to hire an actuary to help me out.
And it worked. In one fell swoop, I insured 10,000 people, made a ton of money, more money than anybody in my family had ever made in their lifetime. And I was off and running. When it came together, it came together big. I don’t know what else to say. It just came together.
FELDMAN: Yeah, it’s interesting. Everyone fails before they succeed.
Miller: It was six years of doing what I didn’t want to do. But it got me to where I wanted to be. And a lot of people played a role in it. I don’t even know if they’re alive anymore, but there were these two insurance people in New York named Roger and Harry Phillips and they were Penn Mutual agents, and I met them through the association at that time. And interestingly enough, they were what I wanted to be. My father wasn’t what I wanted to be. They were what I wanted. And I called them up with so many dumb questions. But they mentored me and helped me, and they had the patience to answer every single question that I had. They had all the patience in the world to talk to me.
They’re as responsible for my success as Stan Liss and Ben Feldman were. And that’s why if somebody calls me up and asks me questions, I’ll always have time for them. Here in my office, on my desk, is a picture of those insurance giants that I keep with me.
So it’s not like they’re just faded away from me. They actively live in my life still. This was just an amazing group of people. I think about them a lot. I think about these guys, along with my father; they still are very much in the front of my mind.
I’m not one of those who says the old ways are the best ways. They’re not. But if the business loses the ability to build relationships, it’s going to lose something. I used to tell people that we have to sell, we have to sell to everybody, and we have to make sure we’re hitting a good majority of the country or someone’s going to step in and do it for us.
FELDMAN: So, you came into the business following in the footsteps of your father. What were some of the things that he taught you that you probably disregarded and then thought, “I wish I would have taken that advice.”
Miller: I really didn’t disregard any of his advice; I just couldn’t act upon it. But one of the funniest things was, when I was becoming NAIFA president, they do these film introductions about you. Well, my father and I told the exact same story — but neither of us knew. We were asked the same question and the story was, I called up somebody very early on in my career that I knew from college, and he really was nasty to me. And I was really, really depressed.
And in those days, I was in the bullpen. My father was on a whole different floor, and he came down just to say hello and I was sitting like this. And he asked, “What’s wrong?” And I said, “Nothing.” He goes, “No, tell me what’s wrong.” I go, “I really don’t want to talk about it today.” “Nope, I’m not leaving here till you tell me.” “All right, all right.”
I told him what happened and he said, “You are such a spoiled brat. Everything has come easy to you. As soon as someone says boo to you, you curl up like you’re dead. You’ve given up, you’ve quit. You don’t have the guts to do it. I don’t even want to be associated with you.” He stormed out of the room. And I was just stunned.
And my father’s version of it, when I was listening to it, was that it broke his heart when he left the room, seeing me suffer. What it made me think was, “I’m going to show him!” And I went out and I called people for hours.
I actually got to a point where I took a policy application two days later and I threw it at him. I said, “Here’s your sniveling failure. I’ll do this yet.” And I stormed out on him. And then his story goes, “I knew he could do it after that.” And my story was that, I stayed angry for a really long time. For him, it was over. “Oh, my son is really going to be able to climb this mountain.”
To me, it was like, “I’m going to show him I can do this.” But either way, it was just amazing to me that they got us both on tape talking about the exact same moment.
I was very, very close to my father. And there are just some things you can’t do as a son because he is your father. They have to get it from other sources. But as I got older and more mature, I learned to always listen to his advice.
FELDMAN: What piece of advice would you give to somebody coming into this business?
Miller: You have to be very tech savvy. You have to be able to market yourself on social media. If I was going to prospect today, I would get all my tech savvy friends together to help me put myself out there.
I think prospecting today would be so much easier than when I had to do it — with the Yellow Pages, the white pages and the phone book and a phone, a dial phone. No computers, no nothing. Rate books, had to figure out a rate. I would go right into that world. I would zip in there quickly and get in. I would get all the licenses I can. I would look at asset building, I would look at insurance. I wouldn’t leave any stone unturned in that respect. I’d find out what everybody’s doing in terms of where they’re selling, and I’d do it differently. That was another motto I had. Look at where the herd is running and run the other way. I want to go where there’s not that many people.
New York Life told me I had to call 100 people to make 30 appointments to see 10 people to make 3 sales. Robert Miller was not going to call 100 people to make 30 ... the numbers didn’t work for me. So there had to be a better way to do it. But you have to think of the better way to do it. You have to take that paradigm and you have to run with it.
Looking back, I was lucky I couldn’t get a job in the academic world. I would have died in that world. But in the business world, you have the chance to mold your own essence. You can make your own paradigm work for you.
Rubbing Shoulders With Industry Giants
From a young age, Robert Miller was acquainted with some of the giants of the life insurance industry. Here are some of his memories.
Robert Miller: Here’s a great Ben Feldman story. Back in the 1960s, “Hello, Dolly!” was playing on Broadway. It was a huge hit and Carol Channing was a huge, huge star. Ben and his first wife, Kristin, were in town, and my mother, my father, Ben and Kristin, my sister and I went to see the show.
Intermission comes and we all say, “Oh wow, this is great.” But Ben says, “This has no meaning to me. I need to go prospect.” And he literally left in the middle of the show to go prospect. So we’re done with the show. We go up to Ben’s hotel room. There’s Ben on the phone saying “I’ll be there. I’ll be there.” He just can’t get off the phone. He’s prospecting. Now, I didn’t really know what it was in those days. I was probably all of 13 or 14 then. But I’ll never forget that drive to prospect.
My father had a great story where he was working on what was a large case for him. This was long before I entered the business. But he brought Ben in and Ben said, “We made a mistake.” He goes, “You need to do five times the amount of insurance.” Father was too shy; he couldn’t see that vision. But that’s the way Ben worked.
On one of my early big cases, I had Ben Feldman in mind. These people had worked their entire lives to buy out a bankrupt company called Petro Oil. And it ended up being the biggest home heating oil company in the country. I went to Park Avenue to see these people. I wrote the application and got it issued, underwriting done.
I came back and I used the Ben Feldman term. I said, “You know, you guys put in for this amount of insurance, but realistically I did a terrible job and I got you underwritten for twice the amount. Because if you go through the numbers, this is what you really need.” I swear to God they ripped up the check they wrote for me, gave me twice the amount. So, some of his stuff worked.
The advice that Ben Silver gave me was never be afraid to approach anybody. Always take a chance. If you don’t take a chance, you get nothing. And honestly, the more successful I got, it was more like they have to come to me. I switched the paradigm around. It got more like, “I don’t need your business, but I’m really good at what I do. And if you want to get straight information with no ulterior motives, no hidden agendas, here are references, call them up. And if you want to meet, great. If you don’t want to meet, great.”