One of Dave Buckwald’s clients was fired from his job. That firing saved the client’s life and probably saved Buckwald’s life as well.
In 2001, one of Buckwald’s biggest sources of clients was Cantor Fitzgerald, an investment firm whose headquarters was in the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York. Cantor Fitzgerald lost 658 people — two-thirds of its New York workforce — when terrorists flew an airplane into the tower on Sept. 11, 2001.
Buckwald lost 51 clients that day — 30 of them were life insurance clients, while the others had only disability insurance through him.
Today, Buckwald is CEO of OneTeam Financial in Cranford, N.J. But back then, he was 13 years into an insurance career that was beginning to snowball after a rough start.
Looking back 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, Buckwald said he realized 24 hours can make the difference between life and death.
Buckwald had been scheduled to spend the day meeting with clients at Cantor Fitzgerald beginning at 8 a.m. on Sept. 12. But one of his clients there was fired from his job on Sept. 10. A difference of 24 hours either way, and both men could have been on the 105th floor of the north tower when the plane hit.
In addition, Buckwald had been married for only two weeks when 9/11 occurred. “It made me realize that in two weeks, my wife could have gone from being a bride to becoming a widow,” he said.
‘I Didn’t Have A Lot Of Options’
Buckwald had been in the life insurance business for about 13 years at that point. He started out in 1988, about six months after graduating from Rutgers University, where he played baseball. A former teammate suggested he give the business a try.
“It was not exactly my lifelong dream to be a life insurance advisor, but I didn’t have a lot of options and I saw a lot of young guys doing pretty well at it,” he said. “So I took a go at it, but it was tough starting out — a lot of cold calling. None of my friends or family had any money, so I wasn’t able to sell to them.”
After a few years, he said, his career began to gain momentum. Things took off when a friend advised him to start selling disability insurance to high net worth professionals.
Buckwald found success selling DI to attorneys before selling voluntary guaranteed-issue multi-life DI to those working at Cantor Fitzgerald. While meeting with the employees face to face to enroll them in DI coverage, he also cross-sold life insurance and other products. “So I was on the 105th floor once or twice a week,” he said.
He worked with clients at Cantor Fitzgerald for two years prior to 9/11. “Things were great,” he recalled. “Every year, we would do a new enrollment. And every time they hired new people, I would talk with them about benefits, and disability insurance was part of it.
“Every year, there would be 30 or 40 new people for me to meet with to let them know about this benefit. It was an ongoing, recurring stream of new people. And when people left Cantor Fitzgerald, they would call me to ask how they could continue this disability benefit because it was discounted, the rates were guaranteed never to go up, and it was portable. It was a great business.”
And then came Sept. 11, 2001.
Life Changed In An Instant
Buckwald was driving through northern New Jersey to an appointment when he heard on the radio that a plane had hit the north tower. Like many people, he assumed it was a commuter plane or a helicopter accident. But when a second plane flew into the World Trade Center’s south tower, he realized the U.S. was under attack.
“I couldn’t even process what that meant,” he said. “But I went to my appointment and afterward, I called a friend who had some clients in the World Trade Center, and he screamed and said, ‘The towers just crashed!’ And I just said, ‘What do you mean the towers just crashed?’ Because you couldn’t even wrap your head around it.”
Buckwald said his initial hope was that everyone he knew who worked in the World Trade Center made it out safely, but he soon realized that wasn’t so. More than 2,600 people in the towers and surrounding areas died on 9/11. “I just totally lost it,” he said when he realized how many people he knew were dead. “Everybody in my office was hoping and praying. I was crying hysterically in my office, and my manager came down and I was trying to explain to him the magnitude of what happened, of how many of our clients were dead. And I had friends who died as well. I was a mess.”
With so many of its employees dead or missing, Cantor Fitzgerald created an online survivors list where loved ones could go to see whether an employee’s name popped up as being alive. “But not many names showed up,” Buckwald said.
The person in charge of employee benefits at Cantor Fitzgerald set up a hotline where the families of those who died could obtain information on life insurance or other benefits the employees might have had. “I worked with so many other people helping all the widows who were calling and asking, ‘What does my husband have?’” Buckwald recalled.
Buckwald said the survivor’s guilt he felt over 9/11 led him to seek therapy. But he didn’t have much time to process his feelings. He had 30 life insurance clients whose families needed his help.
“I went to a lot of funerals and then I went to work to get the death benefits delivered to the families,” he said. “I delivered more than $30 million in death benefits — mostly to widows. But I had a few clients who were single and I delivered death benefits to their parents.”
Although Buckwald had been in the business for a while at that point, he had never delivered a death claim prior to 9/11.
“Up until then, selling life insurance was just a job,” he said. “I never really understood the impact of what we do for a living. But Sept. 11 changed my life, and what I do has become my passion.”
Buckwald said 9/11 drove home his belief that everyone should plan for the unexpected.
“When I look at some of the families that did the planning — bought life insurance, had their legal documents in place — they did the right thing,” he said. “But I was selling to a tough crowd. You had a lot of 35-year-old A-plus-plus personalities, and they thought they were going to live forever and they were always going to make the money. And a lot of them would say, ‘Call me later,’ ‘I’m busy right now,’ ‘Talk to me after I get my bonus.’ That was the mindset I was dealing with. Some of them were too busy and never quite got around to it.”
Adding to the stress faced by the families of those Cantor Fitzgerald employees who died was that the employees typically were high earners with young children and stay-at-home wives.
When the employee died, the high income and the lifestyle that came with it came to an abrupt end.
Buckwald said that when he delivered the death claims, he didn’t know what to do or say to the beneficiaries. “But I just knew I had to deliver them in person,” he said. The parents who received death benefits from their children “were almost catatonic,” he said. Meanwhile, among the wives who received money, “I think some were a little surprised because they didn’t know their husbands had life insurance and some were grateful that I delivered the money to them in person.
“I look at some of the families 20 years later and for those who did the planning, their lives turned out very differently than those who did not do the planning,” he said.
Haunted By Regret
When Buckwald looks back at 9/11, he has two regrets: The first is that he was not able to sell life insurance to more people at Cantor Fitzgerald; the second is that he failed to develop business relationships with his clients’ wives.
“I’m really haunted by the fact that I was not able to convince more people at Cantor Fitzgerald to buy life insurance,” he said. “And when I think about the death benefits that I delivered — more than $30 million — really, it should have been triple that amount. A million dollars in death benefit to the family of a man who was making a half-million dollars a year and has young kids — that’s not nearly enough.”
In selling insurance to his Cantor Fitzgerald clients, Buckwald said he would meet them in their office during their workdays and their wives were not part of the discussion. As a result, he did not have a continuing business relationship with most of them after their husbands’ deaths.
“What I learned from this was, I’ll never do it that way again. Not having a relationship with the spouse — big, big mistake,” he said.
“But it’s not about how much money I paid out to families,” he said. “What about the guy who canceled his policy? Or what about the guy I couldn’t convince to buy life insurance? Those are the things that haunt me to this day.”
A Renewed Passion
When Buckwald was a senior in college, his father died unexpectedly at the age of 50. “He had no legal documents, no life insurance, no planning,” he said. Between that experience and his 9/11 experience, Buckwald said he found a passion for the industry.
“I started thinking, maybe this is my true calling — I can help many people in this world, and I can do it through life insurance,” he said. “It’s not just about selling life insurance; you’re protecting a family. And by doing that, you’re giving their kids an opportunity and their grandkids, and it goes on down the line. I love the product, but I love how it can change people’s lives.”
Buckwald founded OneTeam Financial in 2019, assembling a team of experts from a variety of disciplines to help successful professionals preserve and protect wealth using life insurance and tax strategies.
Andrew Serzan is managing partner at OneTeam and has known Buckwald for 20 years. “He is always coming up with new ideas and always looking to make life better for our clients,” Serzan said of Buckwald. Serzan started in the insurance business right after 9/11 and said he too witnessed the impact of proper planning on a family.
“Because I saw Dave’s passion for protecting families after his 9/11 experience, I also saw the importance that our industry has,” he said.
Buckwald enjoys spending time at the beach with his wife and two children. His family has taught him the importance of protecting the ones he loves.
“I always said that I never want my kids’ last memory of me to be the same one that I had of my dad — that he dropped the ball. He didn’t take care of us, and now we’re suffering,” he said. “I know people don’t intentionally do it, but I look at it as being irresponsible. You get married, you bring a child into the world — you have to take time to plan and protect those you promised to protect.”