Duane Johnson sold $4 million in annuities in the past year. If that doesn’t sound like a huge amount, keep this in mind. Johnson spends three hours every Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoon hooked up to a dialysis machine while he awaits his third kidney transplant. He only gets to work part time as a result, so he doesn’t sell as much as some other advisors.

But don’t feel sorry for Johnson. He doesn’t. He was excited to let me know his treatments had been shortened by 30 minutes recently, down from three-and-a-half hours. It’s that feeling of optimism that makes Johnson a pleasure to talk to.

The 15-year industry veteran had a big decision to make. It was March 2000 and he found out he had to start dialysis three afternoons a week. He decided he had to find a boss who would give him all that time off and still pay him. Johnson decided the best person to work for was himself, so he started his own business, Duane Johnson and Associates in Menifee, Calif. For the last six years, Johnson has concentrated on the senior market, and it has been a good match.

In just the last five years, his life has been on fast forward.

“Before this business got started, I was actually renting a room from a friend in San Diego,” Johnson says. “Over the past five years, it’s been a whole whirlwind. Within that five years, I met Laura [his wife], started a business, had a baby [Alyssa, 21/2], bought my first house and have a second child on the way [another girl, due Jan. 17, 2007]. It’s just a real testament as to what can happen in this business.”

Now, Johnson spends much of his time planning for the future, when he is off dialysis and can work full time, which may come soon. He’s been called about possible transplants four times this year. He is at the top of the list for a new kidney and expects, with any luck, to have a third transplant by the end of the year. Maybe then he can get back to doing some scuba diving, which he loves to do, and helping even more seniors, which he lives to do.

SMA: What can you tell me about your health status?
DJ: I’ll give you a rundown. I’ve had the problem since birth, renal failure. I actually had my first kidney transplant back in November 1991 that my sister gave me. That lasted a couple years until January 1997 and that’s when my dad gave me my second kidney. It wasn’t until March 2000 that I actually began dialysis.

SMA: So you are coming up on almost seven years. Do you have just one kidney?
DJ: That’s the funny thing. I actually have four kidneys in me because when they put them in, they don’t take them out. They just stick them in the front because they can put them in there.

SMA: So you have four kidneys in your body right now?
DJ: They’ve all shrunk down and shriveled up. None of them work; they’re basically shriveled up right now. That’s why I’m on dialysis.

SMA: How many hours a week would you say you dedicate to your business?
DJ: Let’s see, I would say maybe 15 to 20 hours a week. I do not work weekends. Very seldom.

SMA: Does that short time frame give you any sense of urgency in your seminars and in your face-to-face meetings and your sales process? Or are you as patient as you need to be.
DJ: I’m as patient as I need to be. I’ve always been a very positive, patient person.

SMA: I’m sure that’s gotten you through a lot of this then. Six years ago, you find out it’s dialysis time and you say, “Well, what better time to start my own business?” Did everybody think you were just crazy?
DJ: No, because when I started to do that, I pretty much knew that I was going to be doing dialysis three times a week, so I needed to find something that I could do on my own terms, because it is hard to work for somebody and tell them, “Hey, I need off three days a week.” It’s not going to happen. So I had to come up with something that I could do with my life on my own terms.

SMA: And it’s worked.
DJ: I actually partnered up with a guy and we just started as an insurance agency. It’s what we did. It didn’t take us very long at all to realize that this is not what we want to do because the advertising costs were phenomenal and I kind of told him that we need to look at the senior market. I had heard quite a bit about it, so we actually attended a seminar in Arizona. That’s how I kind of got started. I met my mentor there who had been in the business 35 years. He took me under his wing.

SMA: So you had to find a boss that was understanding and decided you were the guy?
DJ: I was it. And I needed to make a good living for my family.

SMA: Any moments of doubt since then?
DJ: Never. This past five years has been a total whirlwind of excitement that has changed my life.

SMA: As you’ve changed other people’s lives.
DJ: That’s the beauty of it.

SMA: Let’s talk a little bit about a mentor. What can a mentor bring to a person new in the industry?
DJ: A mentor just basically gets you through your rough spots. If I ever have questions on anything, I can call him and sit down with him and ask him what I need to do here or ask him to help me draw out a plan. Basically, he had 35 years experience he could give to me, and within a couple of years, I had 35 years experience working with him and that’s really what it can bring to you. You’re not out there by yourself trying to figure things out, which is very important, because when you are working with people’s money, you don’t want to do things wrong.

SMA: You do seminars two or three times a month and see prospects only a couple days a week. What makes your seminars as successful as they are that you can support you and your family just from those few touches?
DJ: I think the biggest thing that makes my seminars successful is the seminar actually attracts most all seniors because we talk about many, many things that seniors are interested in and things that are on their mind. We’re not just talking about annuities or just trusts. We cover the whole gamut of things when we do our mailers. The seminar, I think, is a very educational and it’s entertaining and it presents the person giving it as a teacher, not a salesperson. That’s the biggest thing. Another big thing is the presentation is no pressure. We do not pressure anybody during the seminar. That’s one of the biggest comments we get.

SMA: So you’re an educator up there.
DJ: Absolutely.

SMA: Do you go beyond financial products and talk about health care issues and diet issues and things like that?
DJ: We cover everything. We talk about trusts, we talk about long term care, pensions, 529 plans, funeral planning, we talk about everything. Those things that I cannot do, I have people within my group that can. I link myself with professionals to do the things I can’t do.

SMA: What kinds of professionals do you feel are important to ally yourself with?
DJ: An attorney for trusts. That’s very important to have that. You need to have a reverse mortgage specialist to talk about reverse mortgages, someone who can talk about Medicare, Medi-Cal and doing that. I also have a broker that I am aligned with for someone who is interested in the mutual fund part of things. I don’t believe everyone should have everything tied up in fixed accounts.

SMA: With all the contact you have with seniors today, what do you find seniors want and need to hear from financial professionals? What’s worrying them?
DJ: I think the biggest worry is safety of their money. They’ve worked so hard to earn the income they do have and they don’t want to lose it by putting it in market gains and losing it to the market or whatever. The safety of it is one of the biggest issues. Another big thing is they are scared of all the scams out there. That’s a big issue to them. That’s why even in my seminar, I lay everything on the line to them. I belong to the National Ethics Bureau, the Lions Club. I tell them everything I belong to. I tell them to call the Department of Insurance, the National Ethics Bureau. I give them those numbers right in the seminar to satisfy their worries there. I think that is a real big issue with them is being scared of scams. Other than that, protecting their money, but knowing what they should do with it and leaving it to their heirs in the best way they can to avoid taxes.

SMA: What product developments do you see as having the biggest positive impact for seniors?
DJ: I think the biggest one is the EIA account – the index annuity. It allows them to still protect their money and participate in some of those market gains. The beauty of it is when it goes down, it still allows them to participate without that loss. As long as you are being ethical and honest in telling them. One of the big things I tell them is that these are not designed to make you rich, because they are not going to. I tell them flat out that if you are looking to make 15 percent or 20 percent, you might as well kick me out the door. That’s not what I do. My job in estate planning with seniors is to make sure you keep what you have, No. 1, and that it is going to be there when you need it for their monthly income. The EIA does a wonderful job with that, and yet, it allows them the opportunity to possibly make some better returns when the market does go up. I think that’s one of the better things that had come out in the past several years.

SMA: How aware of EIAs are seniors?
DJ: They’ve become better known. When I talk to seniors, one of the biggest things I hear is, “Why haven’t I heard of these?” That’s one of the biggest things they ask me. I think one of the biggest reasons they haven’t heard of them is because a lot of times they are working with brokers who are not going to tell them about EIA accounts, because, obviously, they don’t want to lose their commissions and trailing fees.

SMA: Is it a matter of much of the media not embracing EIAs, as well?
DJ: Absolutely. It’s like I tell anybody, when you read articles – I don’t care if it’s bad press on mutual funds, annuities, whatever – you’ve got to look at who is writing that article. In general, if it is a bad press about the EIA, it is probably a broker writing the article. If it is bad press about mutual funds, it could very well be a fixed-side person. You’ve just got to take those things into consideration when reading those things.

SMA: In your seminar, do you cover issues like that before they can be asked?
DJ: I do cover that. I do cover simply what friends and family say, what you read, what you see on TV.

SMA: Tell me a little bit about your lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the Davida Patient Citizens Group, and if it has borne any fruit.
DJ: Every year, Davida Patient Citizens Group has a group of actual dialysis patients go and lobby on the Hill and talk to congressmen and congresswomen. A couple of years ago, when I went with them, I spoke to [Reps.] Darrell Issa and Mary Bono. We also spoke to the staff of [Sens.] Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein. It actually worked out very well because Issa signed the bill after we left. He became part of it and sponsored the bill for the dialysis group.

SMA: And you were lobbying for funding for dialysis.
DJ: Yes, that’s exactly what we were there lobbying for. What it really is all about is hospitals, nursing homes, things like that get an automatic increase every year. Dialysis centers do not get that increase every year, the cost-of-living expense increase. What happens is since dialysis centers are not getting that is RNs and techs are leaving the dialysis centers to go work at the hospitals and things because they can get better pay. So in turn, what can that do for a dialysis patient? When you are getting stuck every day, you want the same people sticking you. People who are familiar with you. It just makes it more dangerous to the patient. So it’s very important to get these kinds of things passed.

SMA: How do you stay motivated every day to do your job when there is so much going on in your life right now?
DJ: One simple thing: I love what I do. No other reason. I absolutely love what I do. I’ve never had a problem. If you ask Laura, she’s amazed how I can pop up in the morning and get out of bed and go to work. She’ll tell you, I never put off appointments because I love what I do.

SMA: What advice would you offer to other advisors to finding success in the senior market?
DJ: No. 1, they need a system that works and I think a mentor is a big issue. It is scary getting into the senior financial market if you are going to do seminars and things like that. It is expensive to get started. If you are going to do it, I think the best way to do it, again, is to find a system that is proven, get a mentor, because that is going to help you through the rough spots and guide you along the way in doing that. It’s a phenomenal market to get into because you can earn a lot of money. The biggest thing is you are helping people. If you don’t feel the need to help people, I don’t think you should get into it. You’ve got to be honest and you’ve got to feel that passion to help them. You’ve got to remember that they work their whole life to get what they have.

SMA: What are the personal characteristics that it takes to work in this market?
DJ: You’ve got to really care for the people. Have an honest care for them.

SMA: What is your vision for your professional future after your new kidney gets here? What do you see for yourself?
DJ: Hopefully increasing the size of my business. I just want to increase what I am doing. The big thing is that’s why I’m doing the seminar system. I’m never going to quit doing seminars because I love what I do. We’re putting this seminar system together so we can go in that route and go with that, too, and start mentoring people. I’d love to start mentoring people, get them a system that works that is proven. It’s exciting to see what all we can do when I’m able to go full time.