“Francis Bacon said that it’s not what we eat, but what we digest that makes us strong, not what we read but what we remember that makes us learn, and not what we profess, but what we practice that gives us integrity. I believe these principles.”

And, Solomon Hicks, might have added, he also lives by them. More than 7,500 life insurance and financial services professionals from across the globe–the largest turnout ever for the Million Dollar Round Table–sat transfixed as Hicks, an agent for Newark, N.J.-based Prudential Financial, recounted how he had overcome prejudice in a segregationist South during the Civil Rights Era to establish a career in life insurance and, ultimately, achieve preeminence in the profession by becoming an internationally sought-after speaker, coach and consultant. Joining Hicks among MDRT’s roster of motivational speakers at the opening general session was Mary Lou Retton. The 1984 Olympic Gold medalist told how, inspired by her Hungarian coach, she has recovered from surgery performed on a badly injured knee just 6 weeks prior to the games to achieve a perfect 10 score–and win the gold medal–during her final gymnastics performance.

The inspiring stories of Hicks and Retton dovetailed neatly with the theme of this year’s annual meeting: changing lives. MDRT’s program development committee chose the tag line to represent both the way MDRT affects members’ lives and the change members make in their clients’ lives.

The changes on view in Toronto extended to the structure of the conference itself. Jettisoning the format of recent years, MDRT created a schedule that allowed attendees to see the same number of focus sessions in 3 days, instead of just 2. The more leisurely pace afforded participants more time for networking and socializing. But the sessions mirrored the wide-ranging content of past conventions, encompassing tracks dealing with business insurance, core and ancillary products, estate and financial planning, practice management, sales ideas, the whole person and “special interest.”

As it did last year, MDRT boosted its membership requirements for 2008, mandating that applicants earn $81,800 (or the foreign currency equivalent) in eligible commissions paid or $163,600 in premium credited to the agent’s account. Those members aspiring to MDRT’s exclusive Court of the Table and Top of the Table clubs, which offer members additional benefits, must submit 3 times and 6 times, respectively, the MDRT base production requirements.

While upping the benchmarks, MDRT is also leveling the playing field for its worldwide membership, which comprises more than 35,000 life insurance professionals across 78 nations and territories and 479 companies. The organization is now into its second year of a 5-year plan to phase in the World Bank’s purchasing power parity index, which equalizes the purchasing power of different currencies for a given basket of goods–in this case, membership requirements.

The phase-in has inevitably entailed “winners” and “losers.” While agents in certain nations, such as the Philippines, enjoyed declines in requirements, others faced steep increases. Among them: Mexico (up approximately 26%), Chile (31%) and Jamaica (64%). MDRT outgoing President Jim Rogers emphasized, however, that the transition to the new regime will be gradual for those subject to substantially higher benchmarks. And he noted the PPP phase-in has not negatively impacted membership.

“We frankly anticipated a decline in membership, but to our very great and pleasant surprise, we enjoyed an increase,” said Rogers. He added that MDRT’s advance planning–the organization’s leaders “encouraged members to pursue the new qualification requirements” and traveled to those countries that were most affected by the increases–aided in facilitating a smooth transition and keeping the membership numbers high.

Rogers acknowledged, however, a continuing difficulty in recruiting young and Internet-savvy insurance professionals who, as a group, seem less inclined to attend professional development events than do older generations. To win over these “Generation X” and “Generation Y” agents, MDRT is upgrading its communications technologies to meet their information needs.

He pointed specifically to MDRT’s “more user-friendly and interactive” Web site, which the organization revamped this year to provide streaming video and audio content, including educational workshops delivered via Webcasts. The technology overhaul also includes MDRTV, which provides live broadcasts and snippets of past conferences and is accessible through laptops, iPods and other portable devices. MDRTV complements a new online video club where members can view main platform and break-out sessions in their entirety from nearly 40 years of annual meetings. Rogers added the technology initiatives aim in part to lower the average age of members, which stands now at 56.

To be sure, MDRT continues to enjoy high recruitment levels, particularly in Asia, where the organization is growing fastest. Indeed, Asian countries (including China and India, where growth is particularly rapid) account for 8 of the top 10 by membership and collectively account for more of the organization’s advisors than the U.S., which in 2007 had just under 14,000 members, or approximately 40% of the total.

With respect to emerging markets, Rogers added that he doesn’t see as much potential in Central and South America as one might expect. This is in part because many insurance agents and financial service professionals in these regions are employees of their firms; MDRT, by contrast, focuses on entrepreneurs.

The outreach efforts extend to “Experience” meetings that MDRT is bringing to cities in the U.S. and internationally to avail prospective members of a taste of the educational and motivational content that are staples of the annual meeting. Rogers said that two are now planned for January of 2009: 1 in New York City (January 21-23); and a second in Los Angeles (January 25-27). He added the organization is increasing the number of Experience meetings from once to twice per year in 4 or 5 major geographic areas, including Asia, which served as host to shorter 3-day gatherings in 2007 (Bangkok, Thailand), and this year (Chiba, Japan).

“The meetings in the U.S. are an extension of what we have been doing in Asia for almost a decade: insuring that agents and company officers in both mature and emerging markets worldwide understand the value and benefit of MDRT members,” said Rogers. “We need to bring a more balanced approach to our outreach efforts, which means spending more time in the U.S. so that hopefully we can emulate the success we’ve had in Asia.”

“Our U.S. membership has declined by about 800 individuals per year over the past couple of years,” added MDRT President-elect Walton Rogers. “We want to stop this bleeding, some of which is demographically imposed; new advisors are not joining our ranks at the same rate as those who retire. Our goal is to solidify our North American base at 15,000 members.”

Still other components of MDRT’s programs efforts, Walton Rogers added, are an enhanced focus on aiding older advisors with succession planning; and mentoring of MDRT aspirants by existing Round Table members.

“We’re planning to take a global and electronic approach to this initiative,” said Rogers. “Mentoring has traditionally been a one-on-one, relationship-built process. But it can be in done in groups and in many other countries. We are, for example, developing training materials to promote mentoring on MDRTV.

“With respect to succession planning,” he added, “we’re developing an audio CD that will be inserted into our Round Table magazine.”

MDRT is also expanding on its “Boomertirement” initiative. An outgrowth of its Boomertirement Summit, held in New York City in 2007, the endeavor will comprise a series of road shows, as well as the development of point-of-sale materials and tools to aid advisors in servicing older clients with income distribution and legacy planning needs.

Rogers added that MDRT has invited “4 or 5″ sister associations to help co-sponsor the road shows, 3 of which–the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, Falls Church, Va.; the National Association of Independent Life Brokerage Agencies, Fairfax, Va.; and the Society of Financial Service Professionals, Newtown Square, Pa.,–have agreed to participate.

Rogers also noted that MDRT is planning a Top of the Table tour to 3 or 4 locations in Mexico in September. In contrast to the Experience meetings, which are open to all advisors, insurers (including New York Life and MetLife) will be sponsoring the tours for their Mexico-based agencies. Currently, Mexico accounts for some 500 MDRT members; up from less than 100, 10 years ago.