Still On Message

A lot of industry people were happy to see Bob MacDonald’s back when the former CEO of LifeUSA decided to retire a few years back. In his time, he kicked up a lot of dust and much of it stuck in the craw of other industry execs.

These people’s opinions will no doubt be reinforced when they learn that MacDonald has written a new book called “Cheat To Win.” Yep, they’ll say, he’s still up to his old tricks and has always been one to ?pater le bourgeoisie.

But as one who has kicked up some dust himself, I decided to find out what Bob was up to with his book and spoke to him a few days ago.

When I asked him about the title, he insisted that it was not a gimmick or mere attention-grabber. “I’ve been using the phrase for 20 years,” he said.

But he did say that using the word “cheat” in the title caused problems in the book world and is the reason that major publishers were afraid to publish the book. This fear of theirs, in fact, validates the message of the book, MacDonald said. That message, according to the book jacket, is that “the honest way to live is to break all the false rules, artificial expectations and archaic limitations imposed on us by others.”

When I asked Bob if you could really teach people how to act differently by reading a book, he said, “You don’t read this book to make you successful. The idea is to get people to question and challenge the rules. You have the opportunity to be successful if you’re willing to challenge and question.”

The single most important lesson in the book, Bob said, “is to do the right thing.”

“Creative thinking wins,” he continued. “If you’re willing to do the right thing, you’ll likely be a winner. But the rules in business prevent people from doing the right thing, so you have to be strong enough to do it.”

I asked him whether, now that he’s retired, he feels he changed the industry at all. I thought his answer was pretty honest. “It’s hard to measure whether what we did had some impact or changed the industry. It’s fair to say we had some impact on distribution [with LifeUSA], but whether we caused change or not, it’s hard to say.”

What he did say was that the insurance industry has tremendous potential to lead the financial services industry but has abdicated that leadership role to the likes of Fidelity.

When asked what three things he would change about the business, MacDonald was pretty quick with his answers. First, he said, “We should be proud and should publicize the strength the industry has to develop products that meet modern needs.”

Second, “We need to get the industry to focus on the opportunity in the decumulation of [baby boomer and retiree] assets. What we’re seeing from the industry is shallow commitments or lip service, but not belief, in what needs to be done.”

Third, he said, “The business needs to focus on distribution. When product margins started to shrink, the industry cut expenses rather than make better products. It needs to regain control of production going forward.”

Was the industry doing anything right? Here there was a much longer pause and even then he couldn’t quite get himself to deliver anything but another warning. “The business is in a holding action right now,” he said, “and you cannot be in a holding action when you’re being attacked or challenged. The industry has lost focus on what it can do and what it’s about. There’s no mission, no passion.”

Some people would say that retired or not, Bob MacDonald has stayed on message.

Steve Piontek

Editor-in-Chief

When I asked him about the title of his new book “Cheat To Win,” he insisted that it was not a gimmick or mere attention-grabber. “I’ve been using the phrase for 20 years,” he said.