How do you climb to the Top of the Table from a small town in New Hampshire? By thinking a whole lot bigger while still remaining a small operation.
Greg Gagne was struggling, as many do early in their careers. Sheer determination and hard work got him enough business to get by in the pre-internet days of the early 1990s. But that could only get him so far in Exeter, a town whose population is just a little more than 14,000.
Gagne nevertheless developed into a top-level producer, starting his Affinity Investment Group, and then racking up more than 20 years of Million Dollar Round Table membership, with four Court of the Table and 12 Top of the Table designations. He was elected the secretary of MDRT’s board in 2020.
Gagne credits being in the company of top agents and advisors for his success. He now volunteers extensively for MDRT and other organizations to give it forward to people getting started.
With the help and inspiration of mentors, he expanded his vision and grew from a scrappy seller into a business owner.
He kept his practice relatively small, with three advisors and three office personnel. He was able to scale his practice through a team-based approach. In his office, no individual person has a case; everybody has that case.
In this interview with Publisher Paul Feldman, Gagne shows how his incremental work led to big leaps in his business.
FELDMAN: How did you get started in the industry?
GAGNE: I started when I was a kid. I was working in a corporate position after graduating from college and was promised the sun, the moon and the earth — and it never materialized. That really left a sour taste in my mouth. So I began exploring what other options I might have to strike out on my own, to be an entrepreneur, but maybe not right away. All paths seemed to lead me toward the insurance and financial services industry.
It began a phenomenal career where I could be trained how to be a business owner, could be compensated in a training allowance program while getting rolling into the industry, and set in motion 28 years of being in this fantastic industry. I’ll tell you that the first five, six years of being in this industry were probably the worst ever.
FELDMAN: It usually is tough in the beginning. What were those years like for you?
GAGNE: Just rejection after rejection, peaks and valleys, wondering if I’ll make enough money to pay my basic bills to exist.
Then, all of a sudden, things started to click and it became one of the highest paying professions. It’s just been a fantastic journey. So, for anybody who’s getting started in this industry, you got to do what you got to do to get rolling. You have to persevere. You can quit all you want, but don’t actually quit. Never give up — forge ahead, keep moving forward. It’s been a blessing both for me personally, as well as for my entire family. It’s allowed us all kinds of flexibility and opportunity. And it’s been so rewarding to serve the clients that I’m lucky enough to serve.
FELDMAN: What was it that broke through for you?
GAGNE: Well, I got broken a few times first. More than a few, to be candid, but really there were a couple of turning points.
One was with one of my mentors, who was a perennial MDRT member, who got me involved with NAIFA, and wanted to get me involved in MDRT. At the time, I was having what I call under-the-table production. I couldn’t hit the bar high enough to be able to get a seat at the table.
It was in one of those failures where I was almost at the end of my rope when he decided to take me to a meeting of one of his clients.
He wrote all kinds of business on these business owners. At the conclusion of that meeting, he put me on for half of the case, something I did not expect. It completely shocked me, but gave me the staying power to make it a few more months. That was the first of a couple of major hurdles that I overcame, thanks to having somebody who took the time to reach down and bring somebody else up.
I’ve spent a lot of my time the rest of my career trying to pay it forward as much as I can because of what that gentleman did. His name is Bob Garneau. He’s been an MDRT member for I have no idea how many years, but his license plate is MDRT. I talk to him almost daily.
FELDMAN: You came into the business through the career channel. How did you go independent?
GAGNE: I came in as a career agent with a mutual company, and it merged with another mutual company. That went from 1992 until 1996. One of the other major changes was in 1996.
I was really struggling with the peaks and valleys of how our industry can be in our cash flows. So I knew that what I needed for me was some form of a recurring revenue situation, which launched me toward what I trained in college for, which is finance and economics.
For me, it was investment management. I actually formed my own registered investment advisory firm that went live in 1998. It was the next year that I qualified for my first seat at the table.
I made it to New Orleans in 1999 for my first ever meeting, and anybody who’s an MDRT member always remembers the very first meeting. It was just a phenomenal turning point to rub elbows with people that I had only read about.
I learned so much, and short-circuited the next several steps of my career by being able to talk to these people who have already made mistakes that I wouldn’t have to repeat, because they were willing to share with me.
FELDMAN: What are some of the biggest lessons you got from that first meeting that stick out today?
GAGNE: Community, we’re all in it together. That even when we think we’ve hit the pinnacle of success by earning a seat at the table, when you start looking around the room, you realize that you have so much further you could stretch.
FELDMAN: What is the focus in your practice? Do you have a specific clientele that you serve primarily?
GAGNE: We specialize in working with people who are retired. We’ve been changing that a bit over the last several years to have a combination with individuals who are maybe five to 10 years from the landing strip of retirement.
Then once they’ve done that, and executed that transition, they’d like to stay there. That’s where we serve best — in distribution strategies. It’s risk management, asset protection, portfolio design, cash flow management.
One of the things that we learned through experience, especially for those who are coming in for the landing over their retirement, is so often we run into prospective clients who set it and forget it. That means when they went into the workforce, they may have signed up for the 401(k) and they put it on target date funds, so they don’t have to think about what’s going on.
Then with the airplane analogy, they get up to 30,000 feet, and they’re just cruising through their life. As long as there’s no turbulence or anything, the plane can fly itself. But when it’s time to put the wheels down on the ground, you better have a pilot and somebody who can make sure that you can land successfully and safely.
Making it more or less our niche has really been a differentiator to help us serve at a high capacity and remain very focused.
FELDMAN: Did you learn to focus from MDRT?
GAGNE: There’s a natural progression that occurs in MDRT. What happens in that process is you go from somebody who’s good at closing cases, able to write business, to somebody who’s starting to specialize. You’re finding your way in what you enjoy doing. The types of people you like to work with, the types of business planning that you’d like to be doing. Usually associated with that, but not always, the revenue seems to follow along with that as well.
Once you become an MDRT member, you aim for Court of the Table, which is three times that of a regular Round Table membership. The next jump is the Top of the Table. Once you become a Top of the Table member, not only are you a specialist, but you typically have flipped the switch and become a business owner. You’re not just an advisor who happens to own a financial services practice. You own a financial services practice, and maybe now you just so happen to be an advisor.
FELDMAN: How have you found that transition between being face-to-face, and going remote and virtual?
GAGNE: Remoting has been very efficient. There’s no commute time. We have five different offices that we usually would use. We basically stopped going to all of those.
It was very efficient, very effective but just insane. We like to shake hands. A lot of our clients, believe it or not, we hug each other and stuff. And that’s all gone out the window for now. I know we’re all desperately waiting for that to come back. And hopefully with the news that we’ve been receiving in the last couple of weeks between Pfizer and Moderna, that’s going to be a reality that will exist maybe by the end of second quarter 2021.
FELDMAN: Do you have some tips for presenting virtually that you’ve found effective?
GAGNE: There are a few things. Get yourself a decent headset so that you can be heard and listen. Keep these meetings to an hour or less, so people don’t suffer from Zoom fatigue. When possible, screen share, to show pictures of what you’re trying to explain, versus just talking.
One of the things that we’ve made a decision to do, which is costly but it’s worth it, is in a lot of our calls we will have more than one advisor on the Zoom. It just lends to a little better dynamic than just having a one-off talking head making a presentation, for an example. We found that to be really helpful.
Green screens, really helpful. I have a whole bunch of different ones. Right now, I just have my MDRT one, but I have, depending on the situation, different green screens for different events.
FELDMAN: What are some of the foundations that you’ve found over the years that have been good for your success?
GAGNE: There are some basic core values. One thing is to do what you say you’re going to do. It is really important.
This sounds so easy, but it’s easy to break a promise to yourself, a promise to family, a promise to your staff, a promise to clients. I’ve learned over the years that if you do that, if you break promises to yourself and not do what you said you’re going to do, it really leads to “should have, would have, could have,” and ultimately regret.
Going with a mind’s eye of failure is not an option. You have to find your way. If you’re going to fail, fail fast. When you make a mistake, it’s a mistake and you learn from it. But if you do it a second time, it’s a choice. We see people do that over and over again.
We study and learn — that’s another core habit. To serve our clients best, we’ve got to be educated. That’s reading periodicals like yours. That’s being active in things like Million Dollar Round Table, and making sure that we listen to people who might just be smarter than ourselves, and being open to what it is they have to say, or at least so that you could draw your own conclusion.
Never stop prospecting ever. Don’t rest on your laurels, it’s OK to climb the mountain and then camp out for a minute. But it’s only to take in the view. Don’t get complacent when you get to a level of success, because all of a sudden, things start snowballing backwards on you.
Got to keep moving forward at all times. If we’re not growing, we’re dying. This is a profession of continued and constant growth. It’s not one where you can get to certain levels and think you’ve arrived.
FELDMAN: What have you found as one of your best tools for prospecting?
GAGNE: Prospecting has changed for me over the years. When I first began, prospecting was cutting the marriage announcements out of the newspaper, cutting the birth announcement out of the newspaper. Going to condominium complexes, and taking down all the names off the mailboxes, and then going to the local mall in my community, and hopping on the directory assistance line, and getting phone numbers to all the last names.
Then going back to my office from six o’clock to eight o’clock at night and making 250 dials to have a zillion people tell me no, maybe one to three people tell me they’ll meet with me, and then not show up for the meeting.
Prospecting now is quite different. Prior to the pandemic, we would do a lot of public speaking engagements, normally about 40 of them a year. This year, they were all wiped out. We could hardly do any of them once this all started. We have executed a few socially distanced ones, better than none but not that great. I took them to Zoom. I took them to Go to Webinar.
What I decided to do for this whole year was not worry so much about bringing in business as I was worried about planting seeds for future business. Roll up my sleeves, serve my clients that I have to the best of our capacity. Make sure that they know that we are there for them right now during this crazy time. Reach out to those that aren’t working with us yet and just let them know when it’s time for them we’ll be ready for them.
That approach has been bountiful. Those seeds have germinated. What’s coming at us now from all the work that we did from March until today is bearing its fruit. It’s only going to catapult us into next year.
Put the majority of your emphasis for your growth strategy on the clients that you serve, and serving them well, and letting them know that you’re prepared for growth.
Then they will start referring people to you without you having to ask for referrals. We get inbound referrals every single week.
Part of that process is making sure that we have a clearly defined communication calendar, touch points with our clients throughout the course of the year for no reason at all. At least they don’t think it is but there is. There’s always a reason behind it. It is so we will be top of mind, so that when something comes up, and they run into somebody who needs some help, they’ll ask, “Have you contacted Greg Gagne of Affinity Investment Group? That’s what I would recommend you do.” And that happens daily now.
FELDMAN: One of the things that was a big turning point for you in your career was adding investment advice. What would you say to an investment advisor about adding insurance to their practice, or vice versa?
GAGNE: There’s a symbiotic relationship between the two. There really needs to be. If we’re going to be holistic in the approach and the clients that we serve, we really need to be looking at several different core competencies there. Risk protection just has to be one of them.
Portfolio design, portfolio management is another one, tax is something to be thinking about. Then cash flow strategies for retirement. How do you spend your money without running out of money? And how do you spend your money, the most cost-effective tax-efficient way possible during your retirement?
At the end of the day, how do we help our clients have a less worry-full retirement lifestyle? Insurance is a leveraging tool.
FELDMAN: What are some strategies you have that you find effective in selling life insurance?
GAGNE: A lot of times, we are positioning it in an estate plan, where Mom and Dad want to have equality for all of their beneficiaries. So, let’s say they want to leave each of their three children a million dollars, but they don’t have a million dollars to leave all three of the children. Insurance can be used and leveraged to make that a reality.
Life insurance is really important now as a result of the SECURE Act. If people aren’t looking at life insurance as part of their strategy, they probably need to dust it off and pull those things out again. Stretch IRAs are now down to a 10-year situation. That’s a heavily taxed asset waiting to transfer. For a lot of the clients that we serve, one of the largest assets they have in their quiver is their retirement account, because they were trained to defer and postpone and delay.
Traditionally, we used to do a ton of conversions to Roth IRAs. And that’s still very viable. We still do it today. But I will tell you that with some of our higher net worth clients, and those who have a higher income stream, and they’re not in the lower end of the tax brackets, life insurance is the perfect vehicle as a means to get assets out of the estate non-tax and the ability for the trustees to distribute those funds over whatever period of time the family has chosen, versus a 10-year window.
The other one is long-term care insurance. A lot of our clients, we call them middle-market millionaires, have enough to be dangerous but not enough to be all set. One pothole on the road of life and the system is coming after all their money. They’re going to lose it to a long-term care crisis. Really prudent to put it into long-term care insurance as a defensive mechanism.
FELDMAN: You mentioned that you have a communication calendar. I think that all businesses and agents should have a communication or marketing calendar. What does yours look like?
GAGNE: It’s about 21 touches per year. We do quarterly reports, we typically would do quarterly videos. We do a newsletter that goes out in between each quarterly report; or every other month there’s a newsletter going out. We do birthday emails.
From time to time, if something’s happening that we think is warranting of outreach, we’ll do what we call an action alert. When we do those, the clients know that this is not just a typical thing that Gagne is sending over, this is something we actually need to spend some time and look at what’s going on here. We’re asking them to take some action, whether it’s a portfolio change, a strategy change, a tax law change. We might be seeing some of those coming in the next six, seven months.
The other thing we like to do is think outside the box when it comes to our clients. Like, I got a referral the other day from a client to a prospective new client. He ended his email with, “So I suppose this probably earns me like a lollipop.” He thought he was just cracking a joke. Well, what’s on its way to his house right now is a whole big bag of lollipops with a thank-you card.
Not a huge investment, but it’s definitely going to land when it hits his house and he opens it up and there are all these Tootsie Pops rolling out. So those little touches make a huge difference, just shows people that we’re people too.