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Time For A Fresh Start

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One of the most disturbing problems of the past 10 years has been the decline in membership and influence of the American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI) and the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors (NAIFA). These two vital organizations have been and continue to be our best hope for the stability of our business and its product base, both always subject to assault by regulators, legislators and the media.

Attending the Association for Advanced Life Underwriting annual meeting in Washington earlier this month afforded me the opportunity to meet with the new president of the ACLI, Gov. Frank Keating. To say the least, it was a most reassuring meeting. Gov. Keating is, I believe, the right man for this job and at a critical juncture as far as the future of that association. He is serious about rebuilding the organization to its former strength and hopeful about bringing back some of the key players that have played such an important part in the ACLIs history.

Companies have left the ACLI for a variety of reasons, but I believe the presence of new and strong leadership will provide a compelling reason for them to return. The ACLI is itself a form of insurance, offering a measure of protection from unseen perils posed by forces that would do us in. And so, I would ask the age-old question–which is the greater risk, paying the premium or going without coverage? If we believe in our calling, the answer is obvious.

Attending the AALU meeting also gave me an opportunity to visit with David Woods for the first time since he became CEO of NAIFA. Again, the right man for the job has arrived on the scene to start the rebuilding of that organization.

The membership of NAIFA today is less than it was in 1956 when I entered the business. Bringing the organization back up to previous high levels is a formidable task, but I believe it can be done over time. Woods is a past president of NAIFA (when it was the National Association of Life Underwriters) and is thoroughly steeped in its history, structure and mission. Woods chaired NALUs first strategic plan and understands the consequences of change or standing pat.

Well, we have in place two top guys leading these important organizations, and both are intent on a growth-oriented future and more effective activity to protect our working environment. We wish them the very best of luck in this endeavor.

Gratuitous suggestions or advice are seldom welcome or appreciated. However, not being one to remain silent when an opportunity arises, I will nevertheless offer some to both organizations knowing full well that I may tread upon some tender feet.

As I see it, and from personal experience, not gossip or second-hand stories, the ACLI for years has been the victim of malicious attacks from people and organizations pursuing their own self-interest.

The first rule of Washington lobbyists is to secure the client, and that can best be done by discrediting the trade organization that represents the client. I have dealt with these people, I have seen them at work, and I know that over the years they have done great harm to the ACLI by destroying or damaging member confidence.

Sad to say, I have also observed company people, presumably to justify their own existence, also unfairly disparage the work of the ACLI. I am not saying that the ACLI is perfect at all times, but I do believe that it has been unfairly criticized on many occasions. Keating will need to find a way to choke off these attacks from within–we have enough to deal with from outside attackers.

A Congressional committee chairman once said to me, somewhat in anger, “Quit using my committee as a battleground to settle industry disputes. Settle your differences among yourselves and then come to my committee.” In recent battles companies have painted bleak pictures of opposition companies before legislative bodies. This conduct is always reciprocated by the target company. The result is that legislators get the dirt on all parties and then we wonder why we all lose.

The CEOs who are persuaded by their lobbyists, internal or external, that their position will prevail and they will emerge from such a skirmish unscathed, are in most cases, being deceived. Politics is the “art of the possible” and more is possible when we are united than when everyone is doing his or her own thing.

NAIFA has made some mistakes–some are correctable, others are not, and it is best to acknowledge it and move on. For one thing, dues are too high, making it harder to justify membership. A major cause of this is the inclusion of monthly meals at local meetings. Rising costs at eating facilities should not govern dues.

The original idea was to increase attendance at local meetings. The cost has been declining membership. Dues have been raised to meet budgets as membership declined. Reminds me of Herbert Hoover raising taxes to balance the budget as the United States entered the Great Depression.

NAIFA should return to a calendar year billing for membership. Membership does not happen automatically. It takes a well organized committee making calls on every agency to get the job done. Such a committee cannot function for 12 months. Rather, two or three months of concentrated effort works better than 12 months of hope and neglect.

My experience has been that breakfast meetings work better than lunch. Breakfast is cheaper and does not disrupt middle-of-the-day schedules.

Rethink the annual meeting. I do not believe NAIFA should be running a “career conference.” The annual meeting is about governance and leadership development rather than personal business growth. Member dues should not be used to send delegates to a career conference. Sales training is best delivered at local meetings or other forums not subsidized by member dues such as the Million Dollar Round Table.

ACLI and NAIFA have established a great relationship under new and capable leadership. The member potential is there for both, but work will be required to attract them. To paraphrase an old saying, we need to hang together or the Wall Street Journal and others will hang us separately.

Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, May 26, 2003. Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved. Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.