During NAIFA’s ’07 Convention and Career Conference, held here Sept. 8-12, outgoing CEO David Woods sat down for an interview with National Underwriter Senior Editor Warren S. Hersch to explore NAIFA’s evolution, continuing challenges and the legacy he leaves to the organization.
NU: How would you assess this year’s convention?
Woods: We have a good attendance and execution so far has been excellent. The mood and spirit of the crowd is upbeat. Yes, a proposed dues increase and bylaws changes have provoked angst among some advisors. But, the negative [reactions] came from where we expected. So there were no surprises.
NU: How long have you been associated with NAIFA? How did you become active at a leadership level?
Woods: I joined the local association in Springfield, Mass. in April of 1964. I personally chaired a public service program that hosted a Valentine’s Day party for handicapped children living in a state-run institution. It was a highly successful event that generated a lot of publicity for insurance agents and that garnered a national award at the 1967 NAIFA Convention in Atlantic City.
That convention made a very positive impression on me. The people I met really understood the business and the speakers had very good ideas. So I kept coming and one thing led to next.
NU: How have NAIFA’s key priorities changed over the years?
Woods: NALU [National Association of Life Underwriters] was founded in 1890 in Boston from then independent local associations to deal primarily with regulatory and legislative issues. Sales and practice management ideas grew out of this initiative. But the primary business of political advocacy has remained job number 1 for NAIFA.
When I became CEO in 2002, the challenge was to determine what advisors wanted in a changing marketplace. The latest iteration of our strategic plan reaffirms advocacy as our top priority. NAIFA 21 also recognizes that independent agents, who represent about half the universe of producers, really have no other place to go for quality education, sales training, motivation, inspiration and networking.
A key component of the strategic plan is our Professional Development System, which aggregates under the NAIFA brand the best educational and sales programs and makes them available to members on a favorable cost basis. But we don’t just want to deliver courses. We want to be an organization that can help advisors at any stage in their career figure out what they have to do to achieve their goals.
NU: How would you compare the advocacy challenges that NAIFA faces today relative to when you began as CEO?
Woods: The tax treatment of life insurance wasn’t more than a routine issue when I started 5 years ago. Now, especially with the new PAYGO rules, it’s a major concern because Congress is going to be scrambling to find new sources of revenue. And life insurance is in the bull’s eye.
NU: During your five-year term, how has NAIFA changed its approach to advocacy?
Woods: One of our greatest accomplishments was to rebuild bridges to sister organizations like the AALU, ACLI, NAILBA and others that have advocacy as part of their mission. As a result, we collectively agreed that whichever organization went to Capitol Hill to speak about an issue would represent the industry. Previously, each organization operated independently. This was a huge change.
NU: What do you regard as NAIFA’s overriding challenge today?
Woods: Without question, it’s implementing NAIFA’s strategic plan. And execution really plays to the strengths of [incoming NAIFA CEO] John Healy. He’s a professional association manager of 25 years who is bright and very process-oriented. And we have a terrific marketing program in place to make the plan happen.
NU: What personal accomplishments are you most proud of?
Woods: I brought to NAIFA my name recognition and accomplishments as an agent and longtime association volunteer leader. I had the added advantage of having run LIFE [Life and Health Insurance Foundation for Education] for, at that point, 8 years. That organization was and remains wildly successful.
So I lent much credibility to NAIFA at a time when everyone was questioning whether the organization could remain viable. I was able to restore a significant measure of confidence in the belief that NAIFA could survive; and that there was someone at the helm who understood the organization and its membership.
NU: Are there areas where you feel you could have done better?
Woods: When I became CEO, there were unclear lines of authority and communication issues that I only saw dimly at first. I might have seen and addressed certain things a little quicker, but I’m not sure that it would have made all that much difference in the end.
NU: Has the fact that you’ve had to divide your time between LIFE and NAIFA been an issue?
Woods: Neither NAIFA’s board nor the executive committee has raised this as a concern. Also, [NAIFA Vice President and Chief Operating officer] Francesco Dea has been such a key person, handling day-to-day management of NAIFA while I oversaw big-picture kind of efforts. This partnership has worked very well for us.
NU: To what extent will the successful execution of NAIFA 21 depend on the new CEO, John Healy?
Woods: In an all-volunteer organization like ours, the CEO’s ability to get anyone to do anything is limited. The real issue is whether the volunteers will accept and act on the changes that will be necessary to make the plan work. That said, I believe that NAIFA is now appropriately structured [to achieve a successful outcome].
NU: What additional initiatives can we expect from LIFE during your remaining tenure there?
Woods: LIFE will be rolling out over the next several months a thought leadership platform that will help the public better understand what their own financial security requires, what their options are and how to address those options. Every agent in the land does this, but there is no institution that is providing the kind of broad understanding of the financial security needs and, just as importantly, the financial security resources the American people have.