For our first annual Life Insurance Power List, the staff at Senior Market Advisor shook the bushes, so to speak, to find five key individuals, people who have helped shape, and continue to finely tune, the industry.

We relied on our own experiences and relationships, as well as the input from other industry leaders, to come up with this list of standouts.

Our criteria were simple: Who are the movers and shakers in the business of serving the senior market’s insurance needs? Who are the industry’s biggest difference-makers? Which select few have consistently looked beyond their own bottom lines to the greater good of seniors and those who serve them?

In compiling the list, we found the sledding easier than we had envisioned. In such subjective undertakings, politicking and infighting can often take center stage.

That did not happen here for a simple reason: When looking for feedback on who to include on this list, we received many, many deserving candidates, but also repetition in the responses. These select five kept popping up again and again, making our final selections much easier.

So turn the page and meet the folks who have earned the right to be called life insurance icons.

The Executive
Sy Sternberg

As one industry expert told us, “A life insurance power list without Sy Sternberg is incomplete.” We agree. Sternberg, chairman and CEO of New York Life Insurance Company, carries an influence within and beyond the industry. His achievements are numerous. He was appointed by President Bill Clinton as one of three United States representatives to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Business Advisory Council, a position he held through 2002. This January, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City appointed Sternberg as co-chair, along with former NYC Mayor David Dinkins, to the Mayor’s task force on Career and Technical Education Innovation.

Sternberg considers his biggest achievement in life insurance as “having the good sense to stay with what we do best at New York Life. This involved several key decisions over the 11 years I’ve been CEO, and the foremost decision was to maintain our career agency system as our primary distribution channel. This was important because life insurance is not a commodity sale – it’s personal and it takes a trained professional sitting down with a client to tailor the right product to their need.”

Sternberg says that contrarian decisions have been a big part of his success as well. “We remained focused on life insurance when others were adopting a broader financial services model. By doing that we kept the torch lit for life insurance – the single most important purchase a family can make for their financial security.”

Another important decision includes diversifying the portfolio “by taking what we do best – manufacturing and distributing life insurance – and transferring those capabilities to fast-growing markets outside the United States, including India and China.”

Sternberg says a major turning point occurred when the firm chose to “remain a mutual when others were going public. This keeps our focus on operating the enterprise for the long-term benefit of our policyholders, and not subjected to the short-term demands of Wall Street. Our agents say this has proven to be a key market differentiator that consumers understand and appreciate.”

The Insider
David Woods

If you need a question answered or need to locate a key contact in the life insurance industry, look no further than David Woods, principal at Woods Financial Group and Woods Enterprises. The founder and former president of the Life and Health Insurance Foundation for Education, Woods also served from 2003 through 2007 as CEO of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors.

Whenever posed a question about the industry, no matter how mundane or complex, Woods invariably seems to have the answer.

Even with all his accomplishments in the life insurance world, Woods remains grounded when discussing his achievements. “The mission of the life insurance business is to provide financial security when someone dies, becomes disabled or retires,” he says. “My biggest achievement was as an agent, helping many hundreds of families and small businesses create that kind of financial security.”

However, Woods says, the industry is falling behind in carrying out the mission of financial security. Roughly “68 million Americans have no life insurance of any kind, with 70 percent of workers saying they could not go longer than a month without their paycheck. And we all know the retirement savings crisis in our country.”

His goals for the industry this year include “a return to basics and the beginning of increases in overall individual life insurance and disability income coverage.”

Woods would also like to see consumers begin to do a better job of integrating their financial security needs at death and disability with their retirement needs.

He believes the industry could get a needed boost by doing a better job of hiring and properly teaching new agents. “A national recruiting and training center would provide a big assist in that effort.”

Moving forward, Woods says the biggest challenge life insurance faces is refocusing the entire industry to recognize that “we must provide security to all people, not just the affluent.” A “virtual abandonment of the middle market,” is inexcusable and Woods says his challenge is “to use my experience, knowledge and connections to assist in that process.”

The Healer
Frank Keating

The national spotlight first found Frank Keating in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. At the time, he was serving as the state’s governor and he helped that area recover by implementing policies that would raise more than $6 million to fund scholarships for the children of parents who died in the tragedy.

Today, Keating serves as president and CEO of the American Council of Life Insurers. In his role at ACLI, Keating is the chief representative and spokesman for the life insurance industry in Washington, D.C., and all 50 state capitals. At the time he took the helm in 2003, “the organization was facing some serious challenges. We were losing members and were seen by many in Congress as being too partisan. The organization represented only about 70 percent of the industry. I knew that to be a leading advocacy organization for life insurers, we needed to represent a united front.”

Keating says his political background has served him well. “I made a concerted effort to meet face-to-face with our constituents – in this case our member companies – to ensure we, as their trade association, were serving their interests.”

The effort paid off. “Today, we represent 353 companies that account for 93 percent of the life insurance industry’s total assets in the United States, 93 percent of life insurance premiums and 94 percent of annuity considerations.”

He is keenly aware that the industry faces major challenges. “The first challenge is to educate consumers about the vital role our products play in meeting their retirement security needs. Our second challenge is addressing our regulatory system. The outdated system we operate under now prevents us from bringing to market the innovative products that consumers want and need in an efficient and timely manner.”

The Distributor
Bob Kerzner

As president and CEO of LIMRA International, LOMA and both groups’ parent organization, LL Global, Inc., Bob Kerzner leads the world’s largest association of life insurance and financial services companies. Combined, the organizations have more than 1,200 members in over 70 countries. Kerzner considers the merger of LIMRA and LOMA as one of his crowning achievements. “This is something many in the industry believed should have occurred many years ago, and I was glad to be able to make it happen on my watch.”

He says that throughout his career, which spans more than 30 years and includes time as an executive at Hartford Life, Inc., “distribution has been one of my hot buttons. Before joining LIMRA, I had a major role in creating a unique wholesaling model that many in the industry have tried to emulate. This group of individuals achieved great results and helped create new distribution for life insurance products with stockbrokers, banks and financial professionals. It also proved to others that these individuals could indeed sell our product, with the right assistance.” In 2008, Kerzner’s goal is to continue looking for ways to “bring more value to member companies, and to realize the great synergies we have identified between LIMRA and LOMA to help our industry continue to grow.” As with many of the Power List members, Kerzner shares a growing concern over who will sell risk products in the years ahead. “We are facing a shortage of distribution, but at the same time we are also dealing with a public that does not believe they absolutely need protection from the risks they face of dying too soon, living too long or becoming disabled. So we have a supply and demand problem.

“We as an industry must do a better job of helping people better understand the risks they are facing.”

The Closer
Van Mueller

What would a power list on life insurance be without a master deal closer? Van Mueller fits that description. The Wisconsin-based Mueller is a long-standing member of MDRT and a charismatic speaker who crisscrosses the country to sing the praises of life insurance. “I am honored to carry the banner extolling the benefits of this product to both other agents and registered representatives and to my clients, who I feel are better prepared for what is about to happen in this country and this world,” Mueller says.

He truly practices what he preaches. Years ago, he purchased cash value life insurance for himself and his kids when they were born. “It is simple to show my 21- and 23-year-old children this piece of property that they now own. Life insurance gives my children a chance to be in control of their financial futures.”

Mueller is intent on continuing to push the envelope. “We know that taxes are going to be dramatically higher in the future and benefits are going to be dramatically lower,” he says. “My goal for the industry is to show the [significant] leveraging capabilities of life insurance.”

His personal mission is simple. “I want to make sure everyone who comes into my purview knows that income taxes are historically low at present. Wouldn’t it be wise, if you think taxes will be much higher in the future, to create a fund that you can access without taxes in the future? And I will be using pennies to buy dollars and one dollar to do the work of many dollars. There is no other financial and protection vehicle like it.”

Mueller says, unfortunately, most Americans don’t know these benefits exist. “It should be the goal of myself and my industry to expound these benefits over and over again.”

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