MDRT President Jennifer Borislow

The record 6,500 members of the Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT) gathered at the Anaheim Convention Center this week will, as in past years, be looking for inspiration, techniques and best practices that have enhanced the careers of countless insurance professionals. But to an extraordinary degree this year, one issue beyond the control of attendees will be of particular concern: the growing regulatory restrictions imposed by governments worldwide on advisors’ businesses.

“The top practice management issue for our members today is dealing with compliance,” said Jennifer Borislow, MDRT’s outgoing president. “The regulatory environment is impacting every facet of our businesses– from prospecting and marketing to the client engagement.

“Here in the U.S., just completing a disability income application requires, it seems, 15 signatures from the client,” she added. “The increasing compliance requirements is a universal a concern among our member countries.”

The most prominent and, for less experienced agents, onerous of government restrictions for foreign MDRT members, adds Borislow, are the near-total bans on commissions. In the U.K., all advisors are now to required derive compensation from fees–a requirement that that, by many estimates, has killed off half of the British agent workforce.  

Australia, too, has imposed restrictions on commissions. Borislow notes that agents can no longer derive compensation from multiple sources of income. Once an advisor starts charging a fee for managing investments, then commissions on product sales are no longer permitted under “phase two” of Australia’s regulatory regime.

“Agents in Australia and the U.K are facing some very tough restrictions on compensation,” says Scott Brennan, MDRT’s incoming president. “Agents in the U.S. are lucky in that we enjoy, by comparison, little government intervention.

The phase-out of agent commissions, says Borislow, were the driving factor behind MDRT’s decision in 2010 to revise its qualification requirements to permit eligibility based on income, and no longer only on the two traditional methods: commissions and premiums. In 2012, applicants can qualify for membership upon reaching the minimum threshold of $152,000 in annual income (or the U.S. dollar equivalent based on MDRT’s purchasing power parity index).

All well and good. But as Borislow points out, MDRT members overseas are facing mounting government hurdles that circumscribe not only how they can earn a livelihood, but what they can–and cannot– sell. Case in point: India. 

Just within the last year, says Borislow, India dropped to fourth place from second in MDRT’s roster of the top 10 countries by membership, having lost roughly half the country’s agent contingent, which now stands at about 3,200. 

The reason for the loss: a new regulation imposed the by New Delhi that prohibits the sale of indexed universal insurance: products that, based on a complex formula, capture a percentage of stock market gains while also offering protection of principal during market slides.

“Overnight, that rule has put a lot of Indian producers out of business,” said Borislow. “The regulatory environment there is so volatile–the new regulation literally wiped out 50% of the country’s membership. The Indian producers still with us really struggled with the new regime.”

The growing regulatory burdens on producers have not, however, contained MDRT’s ability to grow. Indeed, the association for top-producing life insurance professionals, founded in 1927, now boasts more than 37,400 members across 76 countries–up from 35,908 in 2011–the highest number in the 85-year-old organization’s history. Among these producers: 5,059 Court of the Table and 1,771 Top of the Table members, who generate the highest production levels among the rank-and-file ($534,000 and $1,068,000, respectively, in eligible premiums for the two groups).

U.S. members, who numbered 10,252 last year, still constitute the largest contingent. But a growing number of top producers–two-thirds of the rank-and-file–hail from outside the U.S. 

As in past years, Asian producers occupy the top 10 countries by membership. In 2011, these included India (6,126 members before the downsizing); South Korea (4,513), Japan (3,368), Hong Kong (2,301) and China (1,631). 

A key attraction for many of these far-flung agents, says Borislow, are the practice management techniques essential to building and maintaining a successful life insurance business; and to phasing one out. Hence, the growing demand among advisors worldwide for business continuation or exit planning strategies. 

The issue is particularly pronounced in mature markets where the average age of life insurance professionals is in the mid-50s (55 in the U.S.). And it’s squarely in this age bracket when producers need to start thinking about the transition from work to retirement. 

To help ease the transition, says Borislow, MDRT this past year kick-started a Business Continuation Task Force to explore ways to facilitate a hand-off to a successor advisor. The task force will offer guidance, for example, on how to buy and sell one’s practice; and how to mentor young proteges who, working within the firm of the of retiring advisor, are groomed to assume responsibility for the advisor’s clientele.

The work of the task force will thus overlap with a long-standing project of MDRT: to establish teams of mentors and “aspirants” (mentored agents) among MDRT’s members. These pairings currently number more than 2,500 worldwide. 

“That has been a huge initiative for us around the world,” said Borislow. “The number one thing that veteran agents want to talk to us about is mentoring: how it works; what role the mentor plays in the aspirant’s life; and tools that are available to ensure progress towards key objectives.”

 

Borislow observes, however, that the goals of the mentoring, and the degree of understanding as to their value, varies by country and region. In nations of the Pacific Rim, where the average age of mentors is in the mid 40s and where most aspirants are part-or full-time career agents working for a major carrier, the mentoring tends to have as an overriding objective the expansion of the carrier’s producer workforce.

In developed markets like the U.S., Canada and the U.K., by contrast, the focus tends more towards helping veteran advisors in independent insurance and financial planning firms transition their practices to a successor.  

Whatever the end goal, says Borislow, a growing number of companies with MDRT members are looking to the association for access to tools and resources to help them with mentoring, as well as other professional development initiatives. The organization is obliging them with a beefed-up budget for training and other materials.

“We’ve allocated $1.5 million on top of an existing $1 million-plus budget this year to translating our educational materials and resources–conference speaker info, our magazine, meeting proceedings, focus sessions and more–into the languages of the top 10 countries” says Borislow. “This is a very significant commitment on our part.”

MDRT is also committed, she adds, to sustaining the upward trajectory in membership by exploring ways to enhance the benefits of membership. To that end, the association has launched an Innovation Division (of which the Business Continuation Task Force is a part). 

But because MDRT spans so many countries and cultures, the association has to be mindful of the fact that techniques and educational materials used to impart best practices suitable for one market may not be a good fit for another.  

“Our International Division has multiple committees that are constantly seeking feedback from the membership,” says Borislow. “Because our markets are so different, our leadership is composed of members from as many countries as possible. What’s important to U.S. members may be irrelevant to those in Singapore or Hong Kong or Australia.

“Our U.S. members tend to be independent advisors looking for technical knowledge, such as life insurance-funded wealth management or business planning techniques,” she adds. “Our international members largely want practice management ideas and skills sets to help grow their businesses. Part of this difference reflects the fact that the U.S. is a more mature market.”

Whatever the need, says Borislow, members are likely to find answers not only at the 2012 annual meeting’s main platform and focus sessions, but also at a newly launched ConneXion Zone. Dubbed a “meeting within a meeting,” ConneXion Zone features more than 200 exhibitor-sponsored sessions and 350 speakers in five specialized areas. 

These include: (1) Exhibitor Zones with “ConneXion pods” where attendees can learn about new technologies and solutions; (2) Speaker Zones, or small theaters where advisors can listen to 15-minute presentations (including previews of afternoon focus sessions) by members and prospects; (3) a Big Ideas Theater or screen that displays “conference buzz” from Twitter and daily video recaps; (4) Great Conversations, where prominent members can “hold court” to take questions from attendees; and (5) a Technology Zone, stocked mainly with Apple iPads, where attendees can get hands-on demos and presentations of various solutions, as well as Tweet and check e-mail.

“ConneXion Zone is the result of a two-year effort by our Exhibit Task Force, which was charged with making exhibitors more an integral part of the the conference programming,” said Borislow. “We spent an enormous amount of time and energy on this project, which will be one of the highlights of this year’s annual.” 

Also new to this year’s annual meeting (though a feature of MDRT’s 2011 Growth Summit) is a session designed for brokerage general agencies (BGAs). The session aims in part to introduce MDRT’s value proposition to BGAs who may be more familiar with other industry events that cater to their ranks.  

“Many of these individuals are not aware of what MDRT does,” says Borislow. “More than 50 BGAs will be attending our special intro session for them; they’ll then join us us for the annual meeting.”

Still more initiatives are planned for 2013. 

Brennan said that a new Task Force for a Big Life will identify steps that young professionals should pursue to achieve long-term professional and personal objectives. A second newly launched committee, the Bottom Line Force, will publish next year the results of a study detailing best practices among the association’s top performers.   

“We have members in some of the most exclusive zip codes in the country who say that business isn’t good, said Brennan. “But other advisors in small towns are enjoying their best year ever. With this study, we’re going to discover what successful insurance professionals do each day to build the careers they enjoy today.”