AP Photo/Larry Crowe

Two days before Thanksgiving and my morning is rolling right along. I am on the road again, motoring toward a meeting with a top advisor.

When I meet Mike Volner in his West Tennessee office he doesn’t shake my hand. Not because he doesn’t want to but because he can’t. In each hand is a plate of pecan pie.

I picked a fine day to meet with Mike. It’s the annual pie day at Volner Financial Group. In the conference room, a room that sees as many as 10 client conferences on a given day, there won’t be any meetings today. Not on pie day. That would be impossible with the white boxes stacked and covering the conference table. 

In all Volner has some 600 pies piled sky high—apple, pecan and chocolate. All day long clients come in and get a pie, a bear hug and a sincere thank you for being part of the family. They stream in for hours, client after client after client.

Back in his office Volner pushes the plate of pecan pie in my direction. I skipped breakfast to get to the interview and ponder the sugar spike that will hit me from eating so much sweet goodness on an empty stomach.

“Go ahead, eat. We can get started after we finish eating,” Mike’s voice booms. It’s a directive. Eat pie!

I do as I’m told. After all Volner is a big man, huge by any standards, standing 6’5” and weighing in at 320 pounds, (I know this because he stood on a scale and had me guess his weight) and he has the physique and hypnotic personality of an aging wrestler.

After finishing off the pie I’m offered a second piece and have to decline. I can already feel the sugar buzz and don’t want this meeting getting out of hand. 

Volner tells me about his client relationships. “Not every client is right,” he says. He tells every last one of them: “I may not be right for you.” It saves both of them time. It allows Volner to be who he is. “I’m not a jack-of-all-trades. I’m a specialist.”

For Volner the specialty is annuities, in particular, fixed indexed annuities. He turns a lot of business away because it isn’t right for either party. But enough business is getting done, and then some. For the fourth straight year Volner will top $20 million in production. And that’s all him. No junior agents or down lines.

One message

“I’m real,” Volner explains in talking about his success. “I don’t tell people what they want to hear. And I don’t tell different people different things.” Maybe he sounds like a broken record but that’s OK. There’s no worry of waffling on the message with Volner. He sticks to a single note: the safety of annuities.

“I had a guy show up at a recent seminar and tell me he’d been to one of my events three years ago. He said, ‘You haven’t changed a thing. You keep saying the same thing.’ ”

Volner points to a chart in his office that tracks the results of annuities versus two other financial vehicle returns from 1998 to the present. “You can see the stock market outpaced annuities the first two years,” he says. Then the dot-com crash let the air out of the market. The market line on the graph plummeted. The annuity line kept its slow, steady upward climb. That was 2000. According to the chart the stock market hadn’t caught up yet and the gap only widens.

When I leave the interview, Volner gives me pie to share with family over the holidays. I have a few hours to drive and there are stretches of Tennessee so green and undeveloped they seem to roll on forever, with you as the only person on the road, as if the sole survivor in some apocalyptic Eden.

At least I have the radio. I’m listening to Willie Nelson’s recent song, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” when a light flashes on the rental. I don’t need an auto mechanic to decipher the message: I’m out of gas or will be soon.

I turn off the air conditioner and roll down the windows and curse all the green rolling hills. I need civilization and I need it now.

After 20 miles or so I see a road sign for gas, food and lodging. I roll up the windows and blast the air conditioner. I don’t want the pie to go bad in the back.

Wanting to be ready when I roll up to the gas station I pat my pockets for my wallet. After a frantic search throughout the rental and a quick phone call to my wife, it’s discovered that my wallet is on a bedside table an hour away.

I call AAA and they tell me they can bring me two gallons or they can tow me six miles but in either case I’ll need to pay the guy who comes out to get me.

This sort of thing happens a lot in movies. A businessman in a strange land gets stranded without gas or money. When this happens in the movies it’s either comedy or horror, funny or terrifying. Punching the steering wheel and the ceiling I try to figure out which kind of movie I’m in.

I call my wife back. “The fuel light’s on but there’s space between the needle and empty.” This is true. But maybe my lack of food and anxiety is altering my reality. “I’m going to try and make it.”

I drive on. The needle dips. I put the cruise control on. An 18-wheeler roars past, rocking the rental to the shoulder, and I get a better idea of what kind of movie I am in.

When I look again the needle is below the E.

A few miles later there is a station. It is not a name-brand establishment. It has one swinging sign that says one word: Gas. There are no other cars in sight. I’m not sure the place is operational. It has the look of the abandoned—cinder blocks and weeds.

I pull up anyway and push open the front door. A little lady sits behind the counter. “I’m in a pickle,” I say. She looks at me as if I were from another world. Or making a joke that didn’t land. There is a jar of pickled something on the counter between us—dirty water with things floating and bobbing.

I remember something Volner had told me about his success. “Be real.”

“I’m in trouble,” I say. “I’m really in trouble.”

A few minutes later I am pumping gas in the rental. The little lady had written a check for $10 and put it in the cash register.

A gift

She’d probably heard every story under the sun, stories of woe, people trying to get something for free. But she’d given $10 to a stranger—a Thanksgiving gift.

As I finish pumping gas I see the white box in the backseat and run inside with it. “It’s apple pie,” I say. “Please. Take it. It’s the best apple pie you’ll ever eat.” She recoiled at the statement I’d made. A boast? How’d I know it was better than her apple pie or her mother’s or grandmother’s?

“It’s good,” I say, tempering my comments. “It’s the least I can do. Please.” and push the pie toward her.

“I don’t like apple pie,” she says. “But my kids will eat it.”

“Thank you,” I say. “Thank you.”

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