In his prosperous 32-year insurance sales career, Lawrence Geller, President of Campbellville, Ontario based L.I. Geller Insurance Agencies Ltd. has had a clear and unwavering approach to product choice. "If it is guaranteed, I'm interested. If it is not guaranteed, I'm not. If it downloads risk to the consumer, it is not for me."
The products he will sell include whole life non-par where cash values are guaranteed and term and disability where the premium is guaranteed. "The premium is the premium. The benefit is the benefit and it is all in the contract."
This also means that he stays clear of universal life. There are too many variables to this product in his opinion. "If I don't understand what the ramifications are, then I can't explain them to the client." He adds that he is yet to meet "an actuary or anyone else who has worked on universal life and who subsequently said, ‘It worked out the way I thought it would.' Not a single one. So why would I sell something that downloads all the risk on the client?"
Mr. Geller emphasizes, "I'm selling security not securities. I'm not selling risk. I'm selling solutions to risk. If I wanted to sell risk, I'd be a stockbroker. I'm an insurance agent. That's what I sell for a living - insurance, not investments, not speculative investments, I sell security."
What has the stock market crisis taught people in the insurance business? "The grass is not always greener," remarks Mr. Geller.
He says one problem in the insurance industry is that instead of selling tried and true guaranteed products, advisors are often looking for "the latest greatest.
Everyone's always looking for some advantage. My advantage is I've been consistent for 30 odd years. That's the only advantage I have. It's a lot easier to go in a straight line than a zig zag."
Colleagues in the industry have been expressing increased interest in his approach of selling guaranteed products, he notes. Industry sales results are also showing this trend with companies selling more permanent insurance. He adds that insurers are even coming out with fully guaranteed universal life.
"Explain to me how that's universal life and not whole life non-par? It's just what they call it. They say, ‘These agents want to sell universal life, but they want guarantees, so we'll call it universal life, but we'll guarantee it the way we guarantee T100 or whole life non par." So it is a marketing spin? "That's all it is," he says.
Mr. Geller graduated from York University with a degree in International Relations, Jurisprudence in the late 1970's. Uncertain what to do as a career after graduation, he followed the advice of a cousin to try insurance because he could get paid to learn the business while he reflected on his options. He started his career at Colonia Life and after nine months moved to the Toronto Uptown agency of Imperial Life.
Mr. Geller started to enjoy the business and decided to stick with it. What does he like about it? "I like talking to people, I like helping people solve their problems and when I got into disability [insurance], I really liked being able to help people and make sure what we sold them works."
He explains that it's tough to believe in life insurance until you pay your first death claim. "Until then you just believe in selling insurance. Once you pay your first death claim, you believe in the insurance." The same is true of selling disability insurance, he adds.
He stayed with Imperial Life for five years until 1982. Then he moved to Creative Planning which he describes as the "first true independent brokerage agency".
The experienced managers at this firm helped him develop his abilities a great deal. Eventually he moved out of Toronto to Campbellville, Ontario and started on his own. His clients live in all parts of Canada and even some outside of the country.
Mr. Geller is also well known in the industry through his participation in associations such as Advocis and its predecessor organization the Life Underwriters Association of Canada (LUAC), some involvement with the Independent Financial Brokers of Canada (IFB), one of the founders of Disability Insurance Agents Council of America, and one of founding members of International DI Society. He is also the founder of www.foradvisorsonly.com - an online discussion board for members of the financial services industry.
Choose your clients
Mr. Geller has built a thriving practice by working with clients that he likes and with whom he connects on a personal level. He also focuses on a certain kind of professional, primarily lawyers, bankers and securities dealers.
"Essentially I deal with moderate to high income professionals, preferably people who deal with words or numbers. I don't deal well with doctors, dentists or chiropractors."
Why? "You specialize in talking to different types of people. He says he likes to work with words and numbers professionals, "Because they read contracts. When you say, ‘I want you to look at these two contracts. I want to discuss them with you,' they actually read them. When I say here are the differences between them, they analyze them."
Mr. Geller does not want to work with people "who say ‘You tell me what to do.' I want people who are grown up enough to make their own decisions. I'm happy to advise people but I'm not going to tell them what to do.
That's not my job. My job is to help people get to a point where they can make an informed decision."
When he shares career advice with younger advisors, he asks them who their favourite clients are and why? "Their favourite clients are not necessarily their biggest clients. They are the ones they enjoy dealing with the most. It never hurts to specialize in dealing with people you like."
This makes working with his clientele a pleasure, he adds. "When my clients call, I like them. I have thousands of clients and I like them all. I talk to them all. I'll happily go out for lunch with them. I'll even pay for lunch. They're good people and I like spending time with them."
He says enjoying his clients' company is important to him because the relationship will be long term. "If I am going to make a commitment to people for the next 20 or 30 years to provide them with service, to help them when they have a claim, to help them when they have a problem, it helps if I like them."
What happens if he doesn't like a client? "Then I won't let them be my client. I won't work with them."
Asked whether he has ever decided to drop a client because of a negative relationship or experience, he says it has happened only very rarely. "If you're judicious when you make clients, you don't have to be judicious when you get rid of them...It's a question of judgment up front. It's like when you drive; it helps to look down the road."
When he talks to potential clients on the phone for the first time, he gets a feeling for whether he and the other person are on the same wavelength, whether they're interested in the same types of things. In particular, he is interested in helping people protect themselves and their families against the unforeseen. He expects his potential clients to share that interest. "If I have to convince someone that they should think about the unforeseen, they're the wrong person for me. I don't sell, I advise."
Does it take specialized knowledge to work with a niche such as lawyers? "It takes a lot of time to learn how to deal with them. You have to be very thorough. You have to paper everything over."
Lawyers, however, aren't really a more difficult clientele than others, he adds. With any client, the key is to give them a higher level of service than they anticipated, he explains. "Always provide more service than anybody expects. Faster, quicker, more. You have to be responsive to your clients' needs and anticipate their needs, and you have to be available to them. Our rule is whatever the client wants, the client gets, as long as it's legal, ethical and they listen to our advice first."
Mr. Geller describes his typical client as "a partner in a national or multi-national law firm, or a senior employee of a securities dealer or a vice president in a bank."
What are their needs? "We always talk about disability, we always talk about critical illness, we always talk about long-term care, we always talk about life insurance. I don't do accumulation, I don't do payouts, I don't do RRSPs, I don't do annuities. I refer people for that. I don't touch it myself."
Are the policies he sells big? "I don't think they're big. I don't do anything in the ten or twelve million dollar range. I do stuff in the two to five to seven million range for life insurance. For disability, my average case would be between $10,000 and $15,000 per month. For critical illness, probably about $250,000. People don't buy a lot of critical illness."
Mr. Geller runs his own agency but has administrative assistants and relationships with other advisors specialized in other areas.
An example is group insurance. He does a fair amount of group insurance but does not do it all himself. He has a relationship with a firm specialized in group services.
This is not a client referral strategy. "What we do is we work together on cases. If they have cases that I'm interested in, I work with them and if I have cases they are interested in, they work with me. We split commissions at source. I don't pay anybody and they don't pay me. The insurance companies pay us each our shares."
Does he believe in having a specialization? "It's the only way I know. Some people think they can know everything about everything. I'm not smart enough."
At this point in his career Mr. Geller runs what he calls "a pull business" not a "push." He does not look for clients, the clients are recommended to him by other clients. This is different from referrals. "Referral implies that I call somebody and say, ‘John told me to call you.'" In Mr. Geller's model, "John says to them, ‘You should call Geller and so they call me.'"
Essentially he deals with his clients by internet and telephone. When he has a claimant, he has a telephone number that reaches him 24 hours, seven days a week and he answers it. Even when he was in the hospital recently he answered the phone about claims.
During a year long health crisis which began last April, Mr. Geller was pleased that his business ran smoothly. He is recovering now and explained what made his business work while he was dealing with his health issues.
In about 1980, he moved from high low commission to level commission for virtually all his business. "The reason I did it is that it meant that I was being paid every year to provide service to the client rather than taking it all up front." This means that when a client needs service years after they bought the policy, he doesn't mind providing it. "I look at it as all these clients are paying me a retainer to provide service on an ongoing basis."
During his health crisis, he was also pleased to see that his own disability insurance worked just like it should. Insured by RBC Insurance (he had an old Paul Revere policy) he said the insurance "performed exactly to my most favourable expectations. They've been wonderful to deal with."
Is it important for advisors to get involved in industry associations? Yes, he says, for two reasons. "First, there are all sorts of people who are very bright, who have done all sorts of interesting things and you can learn from them. They're not necessarily just in Canada.
They're around the world. Second, probably the most important reason is that unless we participate in associations that advocate for us, we're just lone voices in the woods crying on our own. Once we get together and have strength in numbers, and there is enough money with our dues to provide services, then we have a much louder and more meaningful voice."
He joined LUAC after being in the business for two weeks. Joining an association is a great opportunity for new advisors to meet successful people in the business, which is an important component of success, he explains. "It's the first thing I recommend to everybody. Find people you can respect. Look at people's practices and say you know what, ‘I'd like to be doing things that way,' and then talk to them. ‘Can you tell me how you did this? Can you help me figure out how I can do it? I don't necessarily want to compete with you, but I like your way of doing things. I want to learn to do things that well.'"
Are established advisors happy to share that information? "I've never met one who wasn't."