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Steve Spector: The $2 billion activity man

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In 1980, Steve graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with law school in his sights. But something quickly changed. “I had a burning desire to find a career where I could make a difference in people’s lives, and help them,” Spector said. He never had that “a-ha!” moment where he knew life insurance would be his lifelong career. No, Spector never even thought about such a job while in college. But now, the “$2 billion activity man” can’t even envision retiring from the industry.

The beginning

Armed only with the desire to help others, Spector decided to give the industry a chance. He joined Northwestern Mutual’s headquarters office in Milwaukee in 1981. He immersed himself with not only learning about the industry, but with others in the office his age. As a young 22-year-old, he felt an important part of learning would be to surround himself with young professionals who he could grow with over time, and build long-term, professional relationships with. This mature, career-focused mindset made Spector who he is today, though he nonchalantly gives credit to the “stars lining up from day one.”

As a young man, Steve developed his leadership acumen. He played on three state championship tennis teams for Nicolet High School in Glendale, WI. He also co-founded a successful tennis coaching business, The Court Jesters, with a friend during high school, which carried over into his college years. It was this first taste of business that gave Steve the entrepreneurial chops that got him where he is today. Little did Spector know at the time, the tennis coaching company led him to feeling very comfortable talking to anyone once he started in the insurance business.

Spector’s first months with Northwestern Mutual were anything but dull. Soon after he started his position, the legendary Al Granum made an office visit, sharing his views on the insurance business, which Spector remembers vividly to this day. “I was awestruck,” Spector said. “Wow, his One Card System really works! I will never forget the 10 minutes I got to spend with Al and our general agent. The one piece of advice he gave me was that if I could sell 100 lives per year, every year, I would be successful in this business. From that point, I decided I would structure my business by meeting people only through referrals and never making one cold call. I would focus in on making at least 10 sales per month.” It worked. From then on, Spector used the Granum system religiously and, in return, his average lives written while at Northwestern Mutual were 300-400. Fast forward to today and Spector has insured more than 7,800 people on more than 12,000 policies – and all because of constant activity. “Activity is the route to take should a young agent want to write a lot of lives,” he said.

Career choices

Many agree that agents fall into two categories: those that want to sell 25 or 30 lives per year, but focus in on larger size cases, and those that strive to sell 100-150 lives per year, but focus in on smaller sales. As a young agent, Spector felt drawn to the lives route.

“I surrounded myself with young professionals, like attorneys, CPAs, physicians, dentists, veterinarians and business owners,” he said. “I spent many hours in hospital café’s meeting with medical and dental residents, earning their trust and establishing our relationships.”

As time passed, their incomes increased, families grew and their need for life and disability coverage did as well. They naturally turned to Spector, who wrote lives this way his entire time at Northwestern Mutual. Up until his retirement in July 2003, he led the entire Northwestern Mutual field force in lives sold with 377.

Even with such accolades and accomplishments under his belt, Spector was not yet ready to leave the industry completely. In fact, he wanted more. So after a short break in 2003, he built a boutique practice serving more than 7,000 clients nationwide.

“At that time I felt that a change would bring new opportunities to both myself and my clients,” said Spector. “I felt that for the next 20 years or so, I wanted to be able to offer a more diverse product line as my clients aged and grew. I also wanted to do something unique, something that many insurance agents don’t do.”

Spector & Associates was born. “My clients were thrilled that I did this, but knew it was not my last stop,” he remembered.

His clients were right. Just one month into running his own practice, Spector got a call from a CPA client asking him to join forces. “I was shocked, because I did not know that there was such a thing as an insurance specialist inside an accounting firm,” he recalled. “But, the idea intrigued me, so I did some research and met with the two agents who were running the existing practice, and decided in March, 2004, to join them.” After one year, he knew knew the independent market very well, and also knew how to work inside an accounting firm, which is no easy task. “Gaining the trust and confidence of the CPA’s takes time and effort,” he said. “In March, 2005, however, I wanted to lead the charge. So, I made one phone call to one of my oldest friends, Mark Miller, who was the director of tax at Kolb & Co., the largest independently owned accounting firm in southeast Wisconsin. It so happened that they had a division of their firm called Kolb Financial Advisers, LLC. This was comprised of a wealth management arm and an insurance arm.”

Kolb & Co. did not have an in-house insurance specialist, but used two independent agents to help with the firm’s insurance opportunities. So, as Spector puts it, the stars lined up once again. “I knew in my heart that this was a great fit for me; to lead the insurance division of a major accounting firm, to work with CPA’s who are extremely well respected, and to take the practice to a national level,” he said. “It was my time.”

In June, 2005, Spector became the director of risk management services at Kolb & Co. The Kolb CPA’s embraced this wholeheartedly. The philosophy that made it work was collaboration; to make sure that Spector and the accountants were very consultative and thoughtful in the approach to total tax and financial planning. “What we had was very unique, and if we worked together we would be hugely successful, and our clients would be the big winners,” he said. “Let’s face it, there are very few accounting firms that actually hire insurance agents. Agents are either selling for a captive company, or independently.”

At this time, Kolb was the only firm in Milwaukee that had a dedicated insurance specialist that was proactive. But how did they make it work? First, their partners and management team believed in the value of insurance services and demonstrated that belief to the rest of the firm. Second, they worked as a team, and Spector respected the CPA referrals.

Third, they communicated with each other daily, so the trust between them grew very quickly. Fourth, all of them worked together to strengthen and educate their mutual referral sources about the value their insurance services could bring to their clients. By following this approach, Spector and the CPAs began to gain support. “In fact, the referral sources of estate planning attorneys, local banks, financial institutions and property and casualty firms embraced our structure wholeheartedly.” Since Kolb was the largest independently owned accounting firm in Wisconsin, it was an attractive acquisition target, which is exactly what happened Aug 1, 2014. Sikich, one of the top 30 CPA and advisory services firms in the country, with revenue of over $100 million, was the acquirer. With both firms having the same culture and similar services – the move made perfect sense to both parties. And now, Sikich has a dedicated insurance services area, with Spector at its helm.

“Over the last several months, I have, once again, been very fortunate to have shared our philosophy with all of our CPAs across the country,” said Spector. “Because this is a new service, Dave Laske, one of my tax partners in Milwaukee, and I gave ‘road shows’ to all of our Sikich offices, educating them as to how we approach insurance services.”

These road shows revealed to the entire company how top management viewed the value of insurance professionals teaming up with CPAs. In addition to accounting practices, Sikich has a wealth management division, and Spector works very closely with the financial reps when they have clients who need independent, unbiased reviews of their insurance programs.

Family tradition

In December, Spector brought one of his three sons on board to join the practice. Andrew Spector is now on the Sikich teams as an insurance specialist with a focus on Wisconsin and Illinois.

“He reminds me a lot of myself in the younger days; the way he connects with people, handles himself, and the way he presents,” said Spector. “Although, I think he does it much better! Andrew understands the value of insurance and what we do, and how hard we work. He is a 2004 individual doubles tennis state champion, so he knows the thrill of victory, and how to be a leader. Certainly, over time, we will continue to expand our area, but for now it is the two of us.”

The elder Spector is not only teaching his son the ways of the business, but also about giving back, both in business and in the community.

“I’ve felt very strongly, even in the early days, about giving back to my peers,” Spector says. To help others in the industry, he has given presentations discussing the overall sales process and what techniques have worked for him. He has presented to Northwestern Mutual general agencies, other insurance agencies, various sales forces and to companies in the private sector. He has also written articles for various insurance publications. And let’s not forget the new recruits. “I still meet with young agents, when asked, to provide them with sales help and motivate them to become more successful.” Sikich and Spector are also heavily involved in philanthropic activities, participating in many organizations with worthwhile causes, such as juvenile diabetes, breast cancer awareness functions, Ronald McDonald House, Wheaton Franciscan hospital boards and functions, and the Milwaukee Symphony, to name a few. Spector himself is also heavily involved in the Chron’s & Colitis Foundation of America and the Milwaukee Heart Institute. And in his spare time he works on insurance reviews for the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Marquette University.

Spector plans on continuing as the Partner-in-Charge for Sikich Insurance Services until it’s Andrew’s turn. For Spector, quitting is not an option. “I love what I do so much, and still have the passion to help people protect themselves properly,” he said. “I have been fortunate to have practiced what I preached. I tell my clients the same thing: Put yourself in a position as you get older to work because you want to work, and not because you have to. I can’t see myself totally retiring anytime soon.”

Famous words from the $2 billion activity man.

See also:

Northwestern Mutual boasts increases in revenue, surplus

The secrets to your success(ion)

Al Granum: 1922-2014


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