Shane Westhoelter started his insurance career selling small policies door to door until the death of a young boy in a drive-by shooting made him realize his “why.” And it inspired him to start a practice that has grown nationwide. Today, he is president and CEO of Gateway Financial Advisors, with 180 offices around the country.
Endurance, persistence and focus are the qualities of a good advisor. And they also are the qualities of a top athlete. Before Westhoelter found his calling in the insurance business, he was an elite athlete who qualified for the 1980 Olympics. He took the lessons he learned from his athletic career and applied them to his work in helping his clients prepare for the “ifs” in life.
In this interview with Publisher Paul Feldman, Westhoelter describes his focus on quality life planning and how he took his practice to Olympic levels.
FELDMAN: Tell us about your practice.
WESTHOELTER: We started Gateway Financial Advisors in 1990 and did door-to-door, individual sales. We have grown to 180 offices nationally, and we have about $2 billion in assets under management on the financial services side. We do full, comprehensive planning. Our focus is quality life planning, taking the “if” out of life so you can live. We focus on: What if I live? What if I linger? What if I leave? What is my legacy?
FELDMAN: What does quality life planning mean, and how does that work for your clients?
WESTHOELTER: Quality life planning actually started when I got into the business in 1988. I was going door to door, selling $5,000, $10,000 life policies. I delivered my first death claim check to a mother who had lost her 7-year-old son in a drive-by shooting. As I delivered that check, we reminisced and laughed and cried, and she shared stories about her son. Then she said something to me that really changed my life: “Thank you for delivering this $10,000 check to me. It may not be a lot of money to you, but for me, this check allows me not to have to ask my family, my friends, my church for the money to get my son the send-off he deserves. So thank you for allowing me to keep my dignity.”
With that, it resonated with me that we’re in a business that provides people with dignity when it matters most. That kind of built its way into quality life planning. It’s making sure that, as I like to say, we plan for the expected and ensure against the unexpected and make sure that we have money to pay for the things that we need when it matters most.
We focus on what if I am sick or disabled? Do I have the means — either insurance or wealth — to provide for the quality of care that I desire? If something were to happen to me unexpectedly, will my family have proper coverage in order to maintain the quality of life that they’re accustomed to?
FELDMAN: I understand that you trained and qualified for the Olympics. How has that impacted and influenced your career and work?
WESTHOELTER: I was all around sports growing up, and I was very competitive — basketball, football, track, soccer, baseball, swimming. In high school, I was a wide receiver in football and was good in track and cross-country. When I was a sophomore in high school, my football coach said he wanted me to start on the varsity team, but he wanted me to cut my hair. I also played drums, was in a band and loved my music. And I said I wasn’t cutting my hair. So the coach told me, when you cut your hair, you can come back.
But the track coach said as long as I wore a bandana, he didn’t have problems with my long hair. So cross-country and track became my focus. When I was a junior in high school, I qualified for the Junior Olympics, kept focusing on running track in college and eventually made it into the U.S. Olympic qualifying team. But that was the year the U.S. decided to boycott the Olympics.
So it was a slap in the face for my teammates and me. It changed my life, and I had to make a decision: I’m either going to continue on for another four years to see if I can make it to the Olympics, or I’m going to give it up. I gave up at that point because other things were happening in my life, and I decided to move on and focus on those things.
From sports, I learned discipline and determination, the agony of defeat, and some degree of success. But my takeaway from all this was not to worry when something doesn’t work out. When one door closes, another one will open, and that mindset is probably why I am successful today. I don’t worry about rejection. If something doesn’t work out, I’ll find another way to make it happen.
FELDMAN: You work with some professional athletes. What are their needs?
WESTHOELTER: Financial literacy. They’re not taught on the front end how to manage their money, what to expect. I’ll use the NFL as an example; even on the practice squad, people are making $600,000, maybe even $800,000 a year. So they’re right out of college and making that kind of money, and they think life is great. What we find is by the second or third year, they’re playing to pay off the debt they incurred in their first year. I found that a lot of athletes realized that when they stopped playing, they stopped getting a paycheck. They have to file for bankruptcy because they’re broke.
How do you take someone who might be making millions of dollars a year and then, say, five to seven years later, your job’s over now and you have the rest of your life to live?
We work with them to help them plan what they will do for the second half of their lives. I think the other side of that is we have a perfect opportunity for them to come into the industry, and they’re great role models. And so if we can help them transition into a post-career, whether that’s in our industry or something that they have a passion for, that’s a great service that we can all provide to them. And we have those contacts in our industry to help them find that second career.
FELDMAN: You started out selling life insurance door to door. How did you get involved with that?
WESTHOELTER: I was in college, planning to go into corporate law, and I was in sports as well. But after two years, I left school, started a family and became a cable lineman. My brother had been in and out of the insurance business, and he told me he thought I would be good in the business.
I started out selling $5,000, $10,000 face value policies door to door in inner-city St. Louis. I had to go back every month and collect the premiums. After four months in the business, my manager said he wanted me to study for my LUTCF designation and said it would get me on track to become a professional in this industry. So I started down that path.
While I was working on my LUTCF, one of my classmates asked whether I wanted to work nights and weekends to pick up some extra money selling ordinary insurance. And I joined Franklin Life. I worked the debit business during the day and worked with Franklin Life on nights and weekends. Eventually I reached the point where I could get out of the debit business and go full time in the ordinary business, which is what they called it back then.
I had great mentors. NAIFA and some other industry organizations were instrumental in my career. I would go to meetings and listen to all the greats in the industry tell their stories. What really resonated with me was the passion they had — the belief that what we do can change people’s lives forever. We bring money when it matters.
This industry is totally misunderstood. After I started in the business, I began to believe that the No. 1 course everyone learns in college should be why insurance is relevant, but we’re still not there 30 years later.
FELDMAN: What did you find most influential in your early years in the industry?
WESTHOELTER: One of the mentors who was instrumental in my life was Norm Levine. He was an amazing guy and was always there to tell us great stories. Also, people like Al Schulman with Franklin Life back in St. Louis. He would go with me to prospects’ homes on nights and weekends and help me by telling great stories.
Al was a devout Jewish man. I took him to the home of a Baptist pastor who was a friend of mine. At the end of the presentation, the pastor said, “Mr. Schulman, I like what you’re telling me. But I really need to pray about it to make a decision.” Mr. Schulman was sitting at the kitchen table with us and he asked, “Well, pastor, where do you pray about things?” And the pastor said, “Normally, I pray in my study over there.” Al said, “Why don’t you take a moment and go in your study over there and pray about it?” The pastor got up, went to his study, and came back about five minutes later. He said, “The Lord has told me that I need to put this off until Tuesday of next week. If you guys come back Tuesday, we can pick up this conversation again.”
Mr. Schulman said, “Pastor, do you mind if I use your study for a minute?” Mr. Schulman went into the study and two minutes later, he came back and said, “Pastor, I have good news and bad news. The good news is you definitely got some directions, but the Son gave you the wrong information. The Father would like to speak to you.” And the pastor just kind of laughed and said, “OK, where do I sign?”
We don’t have that kind of mentorship anymore because the industry has changed a lot. And we don’t have the guts or the fortitude or the conviction to sit there and say, look, I’m not leaving until you make a decision. And if you make a decision that you don’t want to do it, that’s fine. Then please sign here to release me from all liability going forward.
FELDMAN: When did you make the transition from focusing on life insurance to becoming a financial advisor?
WESTHOELTER: When I was doing what we would call ordinary business, the industry began to change. I was lucky in the sense that as new products such as variable life came out, we had to get our Series 6 license. Then we had to learn about mutual funds, and 401(k)s were becoming popular.
It was the time when the industry was developing new products, and the equity and security side of the business began to cross over into the life insurance side of the business. I got my Series 6 and my Series 7. I got my principal license for some fee-based business, and nobody thought we would do fee-based business. We thought it was just a fad. But we started to grow in that direction, and we are probably doing more of that than we are the commission-based business.
It was never by design, but it was more by default in that the industry required it and my clients want it.
We started picking up business on the 401(k) side and doing some life insurance for executive business owners. They said, “Can you take a look at my 401(k)? Can you take a look at my health insurance?” So we did that. Then clients asked, “Can you take a look at my workers’ compensation insurance and what about my commercial insurance?” So we got into the property/casualty business. Gateway now is property/casualty, life insurance and securities.
That’s the holistic approach we take.
FELDMAN: How did you build your practice to the level it is today? What are some things you learned along the way?
WESTHOELTER: I was very strong in marketing. I always liked being out there in front of the public doing workshops and seminars. In the insurance side of the business, I was doing client seminars, and I also had a radio show called “Healthy, Wealthy and Wise” that ran every Saturday morning. That was the way to stay in front of people. And that led to my having more clients than I could keep up with. So I started recruiting people to come work with me.
I did a few things that really took off. I would do seminars and have 30, 40 people show up, and 10, 20 of them would become clients. And I did that every Wednesday at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. three weeks out of every month, 10 months out of every year for seven years. At the end of that period, I had so many clients that it led to me being invited to do seminars in other states. Then we had people on the West Coast asking to merge with us. Over time, we ended up with 180 to 200 offices, and people are still gravitating to us. They say, “Shane, I like what you do. I like your concepts. How can I join your organization?”
At one point in my career, I said, “I’m going to do what I know works very well.” And I guess the law of attraction kicked in, and people were attracted to it.
FELDMAN: Do you recruit new agents or look for people who already have experience?
WESTHOELTER: Probably 80% are people who have five years or more of experience but maybe are not happy where they are. The other 20% or so are new agents coming into the business. We work those new agents in with more senior advisors who might be looking to retire in the next three to five years or maybe are looking to expand their business and they need a kind of junior partner.
We’re not necessarily looking at college students, and we don’t have a program where we can put someone in and finance them. But we do look at bringing somebody in and putting them into a senior office. We’ve found that to be a lot more successful because it’s kind of old-school, where they’re getting that one-on-one mentoring from someone who’s already a success.
FELDMAN: What is your advice to agents who are looking to bring somebody new into the business?
WESTHOELTER: Does the new person need a financial runway? Can you provide some type of a salary with commission or bonus programs? Or do you have a book of business that maybe you can spin off a couple of hundred households or $10 million, $20 million of AUM and help get them started? I really think the way I started in business going door to door doesn’t work anymore. I think we must be more creative. Can we find that same type of opportunity by using LinkedIn, doing Facebook posts, doing a podcast? Absolutely. I don’t think anything has changed in our business and how people will do business. I think what has changed are how we market and how we find those who need our services.
FELDMAN: I know a lot of people don’t like thinking about scripts. How do you develop scripts, and how do they change over time?
WESTHOELTER: I was brought up on scripts. Everything in my training was scripted — here’s what you do, here’s how you act, here’s how you do it, here’s what you say. And we’ve trained that way in our office. We have a form for everything. This is the way we meet clients, this is how we close the office — everything is standard operating procedure.
With sales scripts, it’s the same way. I don’t want to sound like a robot. You have to personalize the script, but you have to have a track. So before the client comes in, I know exactly what it is I want to accomplish. I want to ask the client what they want accomplish, and then I make sure we stick to those points in the time frame that we have. And if we need more time, I simply say, “Our time has run out for today. I’m going to have to reach you for a second interview. Can we set another time when we can continue with the next things we need to discuss?” I don’t want them to feel rushed.
FELDMAN: You often tell clients the hundred-person story. What is it?
WESTHOELTER: The hundred-person story came from the Social Security Administration taking a look at 100 average Americans from the start of their careers until they retire 40 years later. One will be wealthy, four will be financially secure, five will have to continue working, 36 will be dead and 54 will be dead broke.
So the question to ask someone is, in which of these categories would they like to end up. And that leads into the next phase of your presentation, which is I have some solutions for how we can talk about that. I think it’s a very powerful tool.