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2010 Advisor of the Year: Van Mueller

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Spend some time at an event where Van Mueller is scheduled to speak and you’d get the impression you are waiting for a rock star to arrive. At this year’s MDRT conference, held in Vancouver, British Columbia, there was a palpable energy in the air as Mueller readied to make his presentation. But ask the down-to-earth Milwaukee resident about his appeal and he’ll downplay the whole thing with his self-effacing charm. The secret, he says, is that the advisors he coaches know that he truly walks the walk, with a sales record to back up his words.

In addition to making dozens of public speaking appearances, Mueller (pronounced, as he says, like Miller beer) maintains an active client base of about 3000, with his wife and daughter helping with his website, newsletter, marketing and his monthly column for SMA, and Laurie Kim, his ever-vigilant office manager/sidekick, keeping his schedule in order.

We’ve selected Mueller as the 2010 Advisor of the Year for his hard-working spirit and his dedication to developing and improving the life (and business) of those in the industry. Mostly, it’s the story of his personal reinvention and the success he’s enjoyed in the days that followed that make him an advisor to emulate.

SMA: What is it that you’ve done to become such a star in your speaking engagements?

Van Mueller: It’s pretty simple–what I do is talk about things that can be easily transferred into action, immediately, under any company’s system. The problem with most speakers is that they talk about their own special market or their particular seminar … that’s not the case with me. I could move to New York City, Los Angeles or Atlanta, and it wouldn’t take me long to catch on. I’d use the same ideas and I’d have had the same success I’ve had in Milwaukee.

People know that I’m really doing what I say, going out and knocking on doors, sitting in households and talking to people. I don’t talk a lot about myself, I mostly talk about the transferrable ideas … and that’s why I keep on getting invited back to events. And it also works with my own clients, as well. They always ask, “Will you talk with my mom and dad or with my kids about the same solutions?” And that’s great–I don’t have to prospect, I have so many people ready to see me.

SMA: You credit a job loss as one of the best things that ever happened to you. How did that occur?

VM: Change takes courage and I wasn’t very courageous. I worked selling health insurance for 16 years but I was a coward, happy just making $30,000 or $40,000 a year, figuring that if I just stayed put, no one would bother me. But I had a totally negative attitude–I was the cancer of the office, the guy that always said that everything sucked and everything was bad–and because I was 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, nobody wanted to deal with me. It was so hard to replace an agent back then that they were willing to live with me.

Finally, I got fired–and I still fall to my knees, thankful that this happened, though at the time, I didn’t know what to do. So I picked up the phone and called James Gaylord, who was VP of training for a life insurance company, and I asked for help. He told me, “Van … you’re a moron. But I can fix your career, if you do exactly what I say.” He told me I needed to take care of people and not worry if what I did was going to earn me a profit. It needed to be about them, not me.

Almost immediately, I began public speaking and learning to put my information out there and let people look at it. I thought I was going to starve to death, but in my 17th year in business, I made the MDRT, and now, in my 37th year, I’ve been Top of the Table for 20 years. Much later, I asked him, “Jimmy, what can I do to say thank you for what you’ve taught me? He told me, ‘just pass it on.’”

SMA: Which of your roles do you enjoy more?

VM: At my core, I’m an insurance and financial professional, but speaking and writing enhances what I do. I love it all, but if you asked me what I would do if I could only do one thing, I would do the advisor business. I might have a week where I’ve done 50 appointments and I’m tired, but I arrive in Dallas to do a speech and I’m in my hotel room, and I’m re-energized. These jobs feed into each other and rejuvenate each other. I just think, I need to let people know that this is the greatest time in history to do what we do and offer the advice that we do. You’ve missed the point if you don’t realize that.

SMA: And what is that message?

VM: My message, and my mission, is to let people know that in the 21st century, you don’t have to be dependent on government, on unions or on pensions, that you can be financially self-reliant. So many Americans, and even financial professionals themselves, don’t understand what a serious place we’re in. You have to get in front of people, and you have to be able to ask them, “Do you understand how Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and the new health care reform really work?”

You need to let them know a couple of important bits, but the most important thing is that it’s all manageable if you understand what’s going on and you develop some strategies to deal with things. If we don’t tell them the truth, the politicians will tell them otherwise. There will never be another time like this; we have an opportunity to significantly change their lives.

SMA: How do you go about explaining that to clients or to other agents?

VM: Here’s my simplest sales idea. The goal of every presentation should be to make sure that clients understand that taxes will be higher in the future, that benefits will be lower and that the government will have to inflate the money supply to keep up. It’s as simple as that. We, the advisors, are your only hope. We have strategies that will help you deal with and even thrive in the future. It’s really that simple. People would be so much happier if they knew that and could start to prepare.

On a practical note, I also have five simple “elevator talks” that I share with agents and advisors. Boil your message down to that level and you’ll always be the hit of the cocktail party. But I can go up to practically anyone, a lady working in a gas station, and start into one of those speeches–”If I told you you could win by not losing, would you be interested in hearing what I had to say,” for instance, and they’re hooked.

SMA: With such a busy schedule, do you have any downtime?

VM: I have plenty of downtime. I’m a season ticket holder to the Milwaukee Bucks, I like going to Packers games, I love going to movies and I love to be around crowds, at state fairs and festivals and events like that. My wife Pamela and I have lived in downtown Milwaukee for 12 years and we’ve decided that we’re permanent city dwellers–we love living here, and we love going out to eat. She also manages my newsletter and my website, so we get to spend a lot of time together doing this work. I also love golfing, and I get to do tons of business when I’m out on the golf course. And I like to collect Beatles memorabilia; I’ve got tons of photos and I’ve seen “Love” at the Mirage in Las Vegas 10 times.

SMA: Who are your own mentors and where do you find your inspiration?

VM: I’ve always felt that in order to be successful, you have to offer something unique–this is what Dan Sullivan says about developing your own unique abilities–so I love to read, a lot. I became known for all that information that I’ve gathered. And I try to emulate the best … Tony Robbins, Zig Ziglar, Tom Hopkins, Ed Slott, all of the MDRT, NAIFA and GAMA leadership. You just have to remember that the secret of life is what you give, not what you get.


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