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The Cream And The Milk

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Speaking to the MDRT annual meeting in 1983, as NALU president, Rice Brown used two metaphors, cream and milk, to discuss one of the important segmentations that exist in the insurance field force. Rice talked about growing up in Kansas where every morning the milkman delivered two bottles of milk to their home. This was in the days before homogenized milk and so at the top of each bottle there were three or four inches of pure cream. The rest of the bottle contained the milk.

The cream was the most prized content of the bottles and was often used for special treats. But, the cream also served an important function – it helped to preserve the milk – keeping it from going sour.

Rice offered this as an analogy to point out that the MDRT members were the cream and therefore, also most honored and prized in the industry. But, he also pointed out that as the cream, they have a duty and responsibility to protect the rest of the field force, the milk. The majority of the field force falls into the latter category, but they are equally important in their own way. They are the pool from which future MDRT members and leaders arise and it is important they be nurtured in the process.

I was told, at the time, that Rice’s talk was the highest rated speech by an NALU president up to that time. It was obvious that the MDRT leadership took Rice’s message to heart because of subsequent programs they either initiated or strengthened. The MDRT mentor program is a case in point, along with their efforts to encourage their members to become more involved in local association programs – both as speakers and by their attendance.

Rice’s message is also good advice for other field organizations and companies. It is a mistake to focus only on the cream in an organization. It’s alright to recognize, or even glorify, the accomplishments of the cream, but the milk is where the future lies, and it needs all nourishment it can get. But, the milk is important for other reasons that we sometimes forget.

For example, I remember being confronted by the association executive of one of our large states with a king sized beef. He complained, “I’m sick and tired of chasing membership – why don’t we just raise the dues to cover expenses and live with what we have left”. It was obvious that he had no appreciation of the importance of the milk by wanting to cater only to the cream. It is the milk that serves the lower echelons of the economic pyramid – families and small businesses.

Tax preferences and other considerations that our products receive, either by law or custom, derive from our service to this segment of our population. It is the milk that gives us our most potent legislative punch. Not many members of congress lie awake at night worrying about the problems associated with the people at the top of the economic pyramid. But, they are sensitive to the needs of working families who need to protect their families from the economic disaster of premature death and disability through the use of our products. Happily, these same products, because of their tax favored status, can also be used by the well-to-do, even if in different ways.

Anything we do that squeezes out the milk not only dooms the future production of cream, but it also handicaps our legislative agenda. High production requirements at the company level can often squeeze out a slow starter that might otherwise have become a future star. Most people who do not at first succeed in our business are just inches below water before they are tossed aside. Just a little more investment might have saved not only a future good producer – but recaptured the initial investment lost when an agent is terminated. Cutbacks in training can also cause the milk to sour – costing more dollars in the long run and tainting our business reputation with the acts of poorly trained representatives.

Raising dues of an organization to “cover expenses” is another sure fire way to squeeze out the milk. It is worth noting that it took more than 100 years for the dues of NALU (now NAIFA) to raise to thirty six dollars a year. Those were also the years of growth, not only in numbers, but also in legislative influence.

As a postscript to Rice Brown’s message, it is important to recognize that today our milk is homogenized with all parts of it indistinguishable from all other parts. But, that is not true of our field force, and it is a big mistake to assume we all need the same stuff. Most top producers require little help from their managers – in fact, some even shun it. The focus may be better applied to the milk for, in most cases, the cream can not only take care of itself, but can offer much to care for the milk.

Rice’s message was important in 1983 and it is still valid today. The cream and the milk while still separate in our business, still have an important symbiotic relationship. It is a relationship that is vital to the future of the agency system.


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