Irwin C. Cohen got his start in the insurance industry by selling accident insurance door-to-door for seven months when he was just 20 years old. “It was an absolute miserable way to make a living,” Cohen says. But it also taught him a valuable, if painful, lesson: If he worked harder, he made more money.

Thirty-six years later, Cohen is still in the industry and has worked hard to carve out a tremendously successful career selling disability and long-term care insurance. Cohen is president of Affiliated Financial Specialists, Ltd., in Chicago, where he is one of the most trusted and referable insurance advisors in the area. His company specializes in individual disability income protection and long-term care insurance programs tailored for attorneys and other professionals.

As a five-time speaker at MDRT annual meetings, he is a well-recognized expert who inspires fellow producers. Fellow DI expert Larry Schneider of Disability Insurance Resource Center calls Cohen “a natural, Babe Ruth salesman.”

Early on in his career, Cohen doubted he would last long in the insurance business. He worked for a couple of years at both Prudential and Aetna, and became a sales manager at Pacific Mutual. He was doing “OK,” but felt he was struggling and didn’t really know what he was doing.s

“The business was just miserable, and I thought, ‘I’m not going to do this for the rest of my life,’” Cohen says. He set a goal to get him out: Work really hard and put away $100,000 a year for 10 years, he’d have a cool million put away, “and I could then have enough invested income that I could get out of this miserable business.”

A funny thing happened while trying to execute that plan. His hard work made him really good at what he did, and the dollars – including renewals, naturally – started rolling in. It wasn’t a miserable business anymore.

Another key for Cohen was specialization. He recalls meeting one of the industry’s legends, Peter Mullin, and asking him what the difference was between the two of them. “His answer was, ‘If you look at the most successful people in the industry, they all specialize,’” Cohen says. He was then fortunate enough to find a mentor in Eugene Cohen (no relation), president of Eugene Cohen Agency, who helped him learn the ins and outs of the disability insurance industry (and remains a close friend of Cohen’s today). 

A lesson from “The Greatest”

Cohen began selling DI in 1985, selling exclusively to physicians and dentists. Everything went swimmingly for a while, as the policies, underwriting and compensation all continued to improve. And Cohen was improving, as well, and doing it by outworking the competition. Inspiration to do so came from what might be considered an unlikely source: Muhammad Ali.

Cohen remembers when Ali regained his heavyweight boxing title by beating George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974. Much was written and filmed about that fight, and what Cohen took from it was Ali’s will to do whatever it took, even though Ali said he hated every bit of the training.

“He decides that if he wants to get his title back, he must be willing to suffer every day by doing more road work, more sparring, more jumping rope,” Cohen recalls. “Suffer now, and you’ll reap the rewards later.”

Cohen took a page from Ali. “I decided if I was willing to suffer every day and take more rejection and make more phone calls than anybody else, that ultimately I could build some renewals. In the willingness to give way to the suffering, I got good and no longer wanted to get out of the disability business.”

He would set a goal of talking to 75 physicians and dentists per week. “I would call three nights a week about 25 a night and I’d get my teeth kicked in, but the byproduct of this was I’d get appointments.”

By the time he was 40 in the late 1990s, the renewal income from selling disability far exceeded the investment income he would have had from his initial goal years before. “The willingness to pay the price – the willingness to suffer and the understanding that I was going to have to work harder than everyone else – by happenstance – I got really good. I didn’t know that was going to happen.”

He thought he was always going to be suffering and would always want to get out. “But then when you get good, you’re like, ‘Hell, I don’t want to go anywhere. This is a pretty good way to make a buck.’”

Into LTCI and back to DI

Along with the rest of the industry, Cohen’s DI career got sidetracked in 1994 when the disability insurance industry started falling apart and carriers were leaving the business right and left.

“I had to reinvent myself. I could still write a lot of disability, but I couldn’t get it issued,” Cohen says. So I reinvented myself with long-term care. And the good news is that by necessity I got good at long-term care and wrote a lot of it.”

As the disability insurance market gradually resurrected itself, Cohen again found himself back in the business. But this time it was not by focusing on physicians and dentists, but rather lawyers.

“I thought geographically it would be nice to work in a concentrated area where I didn’t have to drive around. I liked dealing with attorneys, and downtown there are a lot of attorneys,” Cohen says. “I still have some physician and dentist clients. I love doing business with them. The cases are still bigger. But I find I can do a lot more business in the legal market.”

These days, Cohen has a large client base that generates many referrals. But he also continues to be a strong believer in the power of the cold call. “One of the greatest myths in the industry is that cold calling is ineffective and doesn’t work. I find them to be extremely productive. After years of making calls I’m very good on the phone,” Cohen says. “People who say cold calls aren’t effective say that for two reasons: They don’t want to deal with rejection, and they’ve never made enough cold calls.”

Cohen says too many people in this industry have not learned how to deal with rejection. “Financial advisors will do anything they can to avoid rejection. They’ll have dinner seminars where they’ll spend $50 a plate to find a prospect,” Cohen says. “If people will digest the idea that you have to earn money, and the way to earn money is to take the hits, that’s the shortest shortcut there is.”

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