The 7,500-plus attendees here for the annual meeting of the Million Dollar Round Table heard from Rafe Esquith, a Los Angeles teacher who turns 10-year-old children from low-income families into Shakespearean actors, and from Miles Hilton-Barber, a man who climbs mountains, races cars and pilots airplanes even though he is blind.

Those main platform speakers and others urged the attendees, who came from 63 countries, to embody the official motto of the 2006 MDRT meeting: “Be the change.”

Elsewhere at the meeting, during focus sessions, experts talked about topics such as business insurance, employee benefits, retirement plans, estate planning, financial planning, practice management technology, sales ideas and the “whole person.”

MDRT President Stephen Rothschild kicked off the opening main platform session at the 2006 meeting by describing the organization’s recent accomplishments and changes planned for 2007 and beyond.

Among the chief accomplishments, Rothschild said, was an MDRT meeting held in February in Bangkok, Thailand, that attracted more than 9,500 life insurance professionals.

MDRT held a similar event in Hong Kong in 2004.

The February 2006 “MDRT Experience” meeting “was the largest gathering ever under our banner,” Rothschild said. “It was an amazing experience. We’re going to do it again in 2008 in Japan.”

In an interview, MDRT First Vice President Philip Harriman, who is scheduled to take over as president of MDRT Sept. 1, said the success of the Bangkok meeting reflected in part the growing impact of technology on agents’ practices–and on MDRT’s ability to serve members worldwide.

“Between the Internet and cellular technology, MDRT is uniquely positioned to help agents serve the needs of clients who operate in different countries,” Harriman said. “If my client who makes footwear in Falmouth, Maine, has a factory in China, India or Singapore, I now can connect him with an MDRT member in one of those countries to deal with local insurance and financial planning issues.”

Financial services professionals attaining MDRT membership in 2006 can expect to see some changes in operations.

Members of MDRT’s executive committee reaffirmed the group’s mission statement in September 2005, during a summit in Chicago. Executive committee members also reaffirmed the group’s commitment to insurance products and its increasingly global focus.

But executive committee members changed MDRT’s bylaws to permit a doubling of the number of at-large members who can join the group’s member nominating committee.

The MDRT executive committee also adopted a new governance model, in an effort to enable the executive committee to spend less time on minutiae, communicate better with MDRT’s 35,000 members and act more quickly on outstanding issues.

In an interview, Rothschild said the executive committee now will decide questions that in prior years were left to the president.

“The advantage of this change is that we won’t have as much shift in direction from year to year because of the governing president’s priorities,” Rothschild said. “So, we’ll have progress, but decisions will be made on the basis of concerns of all stakeholders.”

Other changes will affect the MDRT’s 2008 annual meeting–in Toronto–and efforts to reach out to members.

In 2008, MDRT will return to a four-day annual meeting schedule, from the three-day schedule the group adopted in 2003.

The four-day schedule will be better for members, particularly those based outside the United States, who have to travel far to get to the annual meeting and who want to devote more time to educational sessions and to networking, Rothschild said.

MDRT also has updated its information systems. The group has spent more than $2.5 million on technology over the past year to increase its ability to share information through its Website. MDRT is using the Website as a vehicle for distributing committee meeting minutes, technical information and productivity-enhancing sales concepts.

MDRT is setting up a software system that will give the Website the ability to translate 12 languages. The site now can handle five languages: Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean and Spanish.

MDRT is getting the new translation system ready to go live by filling the system’s dictionaries with insurance and financial services terms, Rothschild said.

Rothschild also talked about a related matter: MDRT’s efforts to reach out to financial professionals around the world.

Although MDRT continues to enjoy strong growth in Asia–nine markets there are home to nearly half of MDRT’s members–MDRT’s membership numbers are small in Latin America and Europe.

MDRT is concerned about the lack of stable governments, the rule of law and generally accepted accounting principles in Latin America, Harriman said.

In Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom, in contrast, an overabundance of regulation stemming from past financial scandals has prompted many insurance professionals to leave the industry, Harriman said.

“The regulatory [clampdown] was so harsh and so swift in terms of reporting, due diligence and document filing that it evaporated the business practices of many former MDRT members,” said Harriman. “This was most poignant in the U.K., where our membership has dropped by half during the past several years.”

MDRT’s core U.S. membership has leveled off at about 15,000 individuals, most of whom are age 50 and older.

To boost growth in the United States and other markets, Harriman said his presidency will emphasize efforts to spread the philosophy of MDRT, renew acquaintances with “old friends” and develop relationships with “new friends.”

MDRT already has partnerships with The American College, the Society of Financial Service Professionals and the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, Harriman noted.

Organizations with which MDRT is now in active discussions include Advocis, the Financial Advisors Association of Canada, and the National Association of Independent Life Brokerage Agencies.

“With respect to Advocis, our hope is that we can develop a joint strategy during the next two years to collaborate with the Canadians’ legislative priorities, industry and sales practices and marketing methods,” said Harriman. “We seek a relationship with NAILBA because we want to more effectively distribute life insurance products through the banking and stock brokerage markets. Also, many of our new members are not coming out of career agencies but rather from accounting firms, brokerage houses, banks, and independent insurance and planning firms.”

While seeking to boost its membership, MDRT remains committed to maintaining stringent membership requirements, Harriman said. MDRT is once again increasing its qualifying production quota.

For 2007, aspiring U.S. members will need to achieve $75,700 in eligible commissions paid or $151,400 in eligible premiums paid or new money invested.

At least 50% of the requirement ($37,850 in commissions or $75,700 in premiums) must come from sales of the types of policies listed in the “Unlimited Credit” category.

For international members, MDRT’s executive committee is trying to establish a methodology that will limit membership to a small percentage of the top income earners in each market, Rothschild said.

“We have established [international membership] requirements, but the currency conversions needed to arrive at a U.S. dollar equivalent do not take into account country differences in the cost of living,” said Rothschild. “So, we’ve hired a consultant to assist us in devising new requirements based on income and purchasing power.”

Harriman added that advanced credentials will not be required of MDRT aspirants. But he noted that a significant percentage of MDRT members already have one or more professional designations.

A 2005 Membership Profile Survey of U.S. members shows that 53% of MDRT members hold the Chartered Life Underwriter professional designation, 38% hold the Chartered Financial Consultant designation and 25% hold the Life Underwriter Training Council Fellow designation.

About 70% of the survey respondents hold at least one of these five designations, and 49% have more than one credential.

One-third of members have pursued graduate study, and 90% hold an undergraduate degree.