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.
“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.