Tom Michel got his baptism by pandemic in 2020 when, as president-elect of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, he was responsible for NAIFA’s annual conference.
The association’s first virtual conference went well, but it was only a part of the year of the pivot that everybody experienced.
In Michel’s case, besides working with NAIFA, he was helping his agency, Michel Financial Group, cope with the pandemic. He and his wife, Kim, lead the agency they have had in West Los Angeles for several years, following Michel’s long career as an agent and agency manager, starting with Connecticut Mutual and ending up with New York Life.
As with many other agents, life insurance and finance were not where Michel’s career began. He worked in the auto aftermarket business, where he was feeling stifled. He remembered his father’s advice of being your own boss and eventually ended up in the advising business because he liked how the essence of insurance and finance was helping people.
Michel credits NAIFA with giving him support throughout his 35-year career and helping him roll with all the changes he has seen in that career. As he faces his year of leading the association as president, Michel sees a whole new world of challenges, the pandemic being only one of them.
One of the key challenges for NAIFA and Michel’s own agency is bringing in new people who will be successful. Recruiting is tough at any time, but in this interview with Publisher Paul Feldman, Michel tells how some basic values inform his recruiting and his success.
FELDMAN: How has your business been doing during the pandemic?
MICHEL: There’s no doubt it’s hurt. People just aren’t as willing to meet with you in this business. That’s a pretty big deal. We’ve even had some cases where we had people who were agreeing to buy insurance, and then they weren’t comfortable going through an exam.
But, that being said, I think it’s hurt the newer advisor more than the senior advisor, strictly because the more senior advisor has had that book to fall back on. We have a couple of RIAs who do a fair amount of business, and they’re having one of their best years ever because they’re trying to take advantage of the market.
And, all of a sudden, long-term care has become a priority. So, it took a pandemic to realize that long-term care was an issue. We even had some people buy life insurance because they felt now they were more susceptible to passing away because of the pandemic. So it’s triggered some of that thought process.
FELDMAN: Do you think you’re going to go back to in-person as much as you did before the pandemic? Or do you think that you’re going to stick to doing more meetings via Zoom?
MICHEL: I’m an in-person guy. Zoom is nice, but I really like getting to know the people as much as I can. If it’s their office, it’s learning about their business. If it’s their home, which you don’t do that much, learning about their family. Even though there are some Zoom calls where the dog runs across the back and the child wants to sit on their lap. It’s still not quite the same.
That being said, Zoom and these other platforms are here to stay, there’s no doubt. It’s definitely a very efficient way to do business. It may even be a way to do your introductory call, and then as you move along in the process be there. But I still think people want to look you in the eye and Zoom is adequate, but it’s not.
FELDMAN: What kind of challenges do you see coming up in 2021?
MICHEL: I still think some are the same. I don’t want to play doctor, but I do think this is going to linger for longer than some think. And actually, I think it depends on the ZIP code. There are some places where they seem to think it’s over. Here in California, we’re still buckled up pretty good. [This interview was conducted in mid-December.]
I do think with the vaccinations starting to roll out, that it will give people some sense of positivity that they can now start to go back to normal because there’s going to be an underlying push to get back to normal, not just going out to restaurants and not just mingling. But just doing business as we will.
We still have to be very careful. I respect this thing greatly. But I think you’re going to see a real shift, I think from the first half of the year to the second half of the year. Because I think you know and I know, really you’re talking about cabin fever. This is nuts.
FELDMAN: One of the things that we struggle with in this industry is getting new blood into it. What are some strategies that you have found to be successful over the years? And how can the industry do better at attracting new people?
MICHEL: I think for years we did not do a good enough job of being more diverse and more inclusive. We have made a conscientious effort now. But it’s just words — diversity and inclusion — and it’s got to be action.
We partner with Ohio National and a number of other carriers that have great materials, not just in language but for target markets. Ohio National has done a great job there.
First of all, we have to think more diverse and be more inclusive. People do business with people they know generally and who they like and who are similar to them. I don’t think any of those characteristics will ever change. My client looks a lot different than that of the 25-year-old new advisor in my office.
The second thing we have to do is we have to let people understand how important this is and understand what a fulfilling life it is to help people every day.
I think we talk too much about if you do this and you do that, then you will make this. And the problem we have seen over the years I’ve been recruiting is you get some pretty sharp people coming out of colleges, and there is a sense of immediate gratification. They want to be successful now, and the thought of building something is foreign. So you have to show them the importance of building something. And I think a lot of my peers sometimes don’t focus on that. I don’t want to throw them under the bus.
I’ll give you a perfect example. In our agency, we just recruited four individuals with basketball backgrounds, African American gentlemen who all played college basketball, all played in Europe. And they were triggered by the fact that they saw a lot of their pals blow the money they made.
So they were looking for a profession to say, “Hey, let me help you out. If you take this money and put it away now, you’re going to make your life a lot easier down the road.”
It’s been so enlightening to watch these guys and sometimes do joint calls with them. We’re really enthused. We’ve got a couple who are doing really well. They actually got their own DBA called LAB, Life After Basketball.
What were they attracted to? Helping people. So, if we go in and say, “Here’s what we do. Here’s our insurance portfolio. Here’s our investment portfolio,” I don’t think that resonates with anybody.
Are you talking about helping people? When you do that, you’re getting the right person in the door anyway. If you get someone who’s only focused on making money, they usually don’t make it because they don’t get it.
We are an industry of people who care. We really are. We care about our clients. We care about our carriers, for the most part. And we care about each other. And if you can’t bring that care to the table and that care to your daily efforts, then you’re probably not meant to be in the industry. I tell people all the time, “We are an industry that at our core cares about other people and about each other.”
FELDMAN: How do you get new producers to join your agency?
MICHEL: We have used all kinds of techniques over the years from some of the employer-based search engines that search people’s resumes, advertising.
But the one that we’ve used the most has been the one that’s been the most successful — referrals. I know it’s an old-fashioned tune. And we’re not looking to grow by leaps and bounds. I think if it’s another firm that’s looking to add 20, 30, 40 people a year like some do, you’re going to have to have more legs on your stool, if you will, than we have.
We’re really looking for people who we think we can help. We use the old line that if we don’t think we would want to have lunch or dinner with you, you’re probably not good for us. So we’re not into the numbers game anymore that I think some are.
FELDMAN: Is it tougher to get younger recruits used to the idea that it takes patience to get started in this business?
MICHEL: You tell someone, “You’ve got to have patience,” and they look at you like, “Are you nuts? Don’t you know who I am? I graduated with a 4.0, I should be making 150 grand tomorrow.” We’re always going to have that hurdle.
FELDMAN: What’s attractive about this industry is that there’s an upside. You come out of college, you take a job for $150,000. That’s a job. You might go up 3% a year, but you’re not going to be able to double, triple, quadruple, make seven figures a year with that particular career. The insurance industry can be one of the least profitable businesses and also one of the most profitable businesses.
MICHEL: Absolutely. I really do believe this isn’t really a job. It’s a career. If you can wake up every day and enjoy what you’re doing, that’s going to make your life so much better. There’s just something about helping people that I think makes it more fulfilling.
FELDMAN: How can the industry evolve? How do we fix this recruiting problem in this business? Do carriers need to step up? Who steps up to do this?
MICHEL: I think carriers are doing everything they can. Obviously, they all think they can do more, but they can’t go down to the battlefield for you. They can provide all the tools and incentive programs. I think most of them do a pretty good job of it.
It does fall on the leaders of the industry to recruit and spread the word, and therein lies part of the problem. I think we can do a better job of educating prospects on the beauty of this profession.
It is noble what we do, and it is fulfilling. People need to hear that as opposed to when they walk in, they want to know how much they can make and all that. If someone walks out because you don’t give them that answer, they’re not your person.
I don’t know if getting people in it is as much the issue as keeping people in it. I think a lot of carriers and agencies would tell you that the people-in-the-door number is maybe the same or up in some cases. But it’s all about retention, and teaching people that you must have a little patience.
People who belong to an association and also educate themselves, they’re the ones who tend to stick around.
FELDMAN: How do you think agents and advisors could do a better job of recruiting and retaining?
MICHEL: Recruit from the heart. Show your passion. Tell them stories. I tell people stories all the time and, unfortunately, they’re sad stories. Like the one about selling group life policy in a blue-collar work environment. Twenty years ago, I had a 401(k) client and I recommended a group life policy, which the commission couldn’t fill up a tank of gas.
But two years later, two gentlemen died in a car crash and I show up with $50,000 for each family. You’d have thought someone said they would name their kids after me. It shouldn’t be that way, but I think we need to sell with a little bit more passion and more from the heart. And if we do, I think we’re going to recruit the people we want to recruit.
FELDMAN: What do you look for in your candidates?
MICHEL: The first thing I already told you. Would I like to have dinner or lunch with them? I know that sounds really funny, but if I can’t wait to get them out of the office because every sentence starts with “I,” I tend to think they’re not for us. That doesn’t mean they’re not right for the industry.
I want people who care. Tell me about your life. How do they talk about their family? Are they respectful of their significant others? I look for more of the intangibles. At the end of the day, we do ask them, “Why do you think you would be successful?” And that’s an important question.
We’ve had some people that we thought were brilliant. We asked them, “Well, whom do you know?” And they said, “Well, I don’t know anybody.”
You better be upfront with them and say, “OK, this is going to be difficult. But if you’re willing to be told no, then we think you can make it.”
I can easily tell within about five minutes if that person’s right for us, just based on their general demeanor. And in many cases, I don’t even look at their resume until after the meeting because I don’t want to have a preconceived idea.
I actually love it when you talk to someone and they’ve told you how they’ve had some trials and tribulations in their life and how they bounced back from it. That tells me ... because another thing you’re looking for is character. And if someone says, “I was down and out and came back,” you go, “Whoa, give me some of that.”
FELDMAN: Well, as far as NAIFA goes, how do you see your role with NAIFA going into 2021 and some of the missions you’re hoping to accomplish?
MICHEL: First of all, I hope I can get out as much as possible because part of what this role entails is to get in front of people and talk a good fight, if you will.
As far as 2021, we’re really, really excited and have a lot going on. We’re embarking on a new five-year plan, 2025.
We’re starting to see huge success in a lot of stuff we’re doing, from membership growth to amplifying our brand to producing better educational resources. The member experience is going way up. And in all honesty, what we’re trying to do is to keep that ball rolling forward.
On advocacy, we’ve got some real critical issues here as a function of the increased deficit. Congress can raise money, and one of the ways they’re going to it is by raising taxes. But that’s not going to cure the deficit.
So, we have to be at the top of our game in educating. And then on top of that, you’ve got a brand-new legislature with a lot of new people. We’ve got to educate these people on all that we do and how we help society and how we keep people off the public dole.
FELDMAN: Is NAIFA planning on having an in-person conference?
MICHEL: Yes and no is really the truth. We are planning on it. But we’re also planning on virtual because I think one thing that the pandemic has taught us is you got to be able to pivot.
In NAIFA, the president-elect is in charge of the conference. So I was in charge of our conference last year. And it was pretty funny how it evolved. We had all our speakers lined up in January or February. And we were really excited. And then all of a sudden, the pandemic starts to catch momentum and then you know what happened.
We were able to pivot and do a virtual conference, which turned out unbelievably. First of all, most of our sponsors, if not all of them, stuck with us. Attendance was virtually the same, and our reviews were off the charts [regarding] quality of content and all that. And as I always told people, “Hey, we got no complaints about the food, beverage or their rooms.”
But that being said, there’s no substitute to being in-person. As you go through life, you have your grade school friends, high school friends, college and college fraternity friends — you always have these friends who are from different circles of life. Well, your NAIFA relationships extend for a lifetime, and you go to these conferences and you see people who were in study groups together, took cruises together, and they’re best friends and become godparents of each other’s children.
There’s no substitute for getting together, even if sometimes those things are expensive to put on. And if we can, we will. But if we have to do it at the risk of someone’s health, we won’t.