I sat down with Vicki Gunvalson recently to get her thoughts on building a successful practice, being a woman in a male-dominated insurance industry and being the star of a hit TV show. Gunvalson is the owner of Santa Margarita, Calif.-based Coto Insurance & Financial Services. Season 10 of her show, The Real Housewives of Orange County, premieres June 8 on Bravo.
DANIEL WILLIAMS: Few advisors are TV stars and even fewer have catch phrases. What’s the origin of yours?
VICKI GUNVALSON: My “woo-hoo”? I have no idea. About nine years ago, something just struck me, and the next thing you know, I’m saying “woo-hoo!” everywhere I go.
DW: You juggle a TV show and an advisory practice. What’s a typical day like for you?
VG: I try to get to the gym by 6:00 am. I’m home by 7:30 and usually at the office by 9:00. I see clients every two hours. We’re doing either reviews or first or second appointments. Typically, I see clients twice before we go into a close or a recommendation plan. We’re not a quick fix — we’re going to be there for you through your lifetime. I think that’s unusual for many advisors. They want to go in and fix it and then walk away and never talk to their client again. So I consider my agency more of a boutique agency. We’re really specialized to take care of our clients. That means a lot to me.
DW: Your father’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s had a huge effect not only on your family but on you. It led you into this industry.
VG: My father was diagnosed at 59. If you look at life expectancy, he should have lived to 85 or 90. He was robbed. He died at 67, and my parents hadn’t planned for that. They didn’t have long-term care insurance. They had a very small life insurance policy, and my sister and I looked at that and talked to each other and said “Wow, there are a lot of people in a similar retirement situation.” She has her own practice in Illinois, and I have mine here. We’re both really passionate about educating people about what could happen. If it’s not an illness, it could be a death.
DW: And you also speak to groups of people.
VG: My main focus had been selling Internet term-life insurance. You’re talking to one person at a time. Now I talk one time to 30 or 40 people. And we do that through educational seminars. From those workshops, we’re able to set up appointments where we can go over people’s plans in a one-on-one setting. We go over their red flags, find out about their concerns and see how we can help.
DW: According to the latest statistics, only about 15 percent of agents are women. And yet women tend to be better listeners, more empathetic. What advice do you have for women in the field?
VG: Women producers, they’re shy about getting into the industry. They don’t feel confident about entering a male-dominated industry. For me, it’s not gender-specific. I’m out there to do the right thing for the client. And I want to get as many women advisors out there, because I do think we’re more empathetic. I do think we’re more compassionate. I’m not in it for the sale. I’m in it to earn the client’s trust, and I think that’s what’s different sometimes.
DW: Social Security is another big issue for people. How do you help with that?
VG: Social Security is one of those deposits that you can rely on, whether you’re working or not. My mom lived on Social Security alone. She depended on it. The problem is people don’t know when to turn it on. There are more than 400 different options you can take when you claim Social Security. Should you claim it on your spouse? Should you claim it on your ex-spouse? Should you claim it on yourself? When you’re 62? When you’re 66? We have a software program that can show the client the best option. After age 66, there’s an 8 percent increase. Where can you make an 8 percent return on your money right now? So we sometimes encourage people to access money from another bucket first and then turn on Social Security later.
DW: The industry is facing an aging advisor base. You’re in your early 50s. Do you have a succession plan for your business?
VG: My succession plan is my son. He’s the VP of the company. He handles only life insurance, but he’s hungry now to get into the retirement-planning side of it. If my son doesn’t want to take it over, then there might be an option for my daughter to do so down the road. If that doesn’t work, then I’ll sell the business. But I don’t plan to stop for a while. My goal is 65 and then to go to three days a week.
DW: You’ve been building your business for 10 years. What does the next 10 years like?
VG: I still want to grow. I wrote about 15 million last year on FIAs, and my goal this year is 20 million. I’ve got a goal board, and I work against that goal board. My son is going to start shadowing me on the workshops. By having him shadow me, in every appointment — the first appointment, the second appointment, the close — he will learn how the process goes.
DW: We talked a little bit about marketing, but not the social media side of it. What role does social media play in your overall marketing plan?
VG: Social media is very important because the Baby Boomers are going to the Internet for information. So I have a strong presence on Facebook, LinkedIn. I’ve seen a lot of clients who have lost their jobs or have 401(k)s they need to rollover. So we have a strong presence on LinkedIn, and we’re building new clients from that.
DW: Regarding seminars, how many of those do you do?
VG: We do 2 to 4 a month, depending on my calendar. I do a women’s workshop every other month. We always have a great turnout at those because women like to be around other women. We like to know that we’re not alone if we’re single. So I cater to single, widowed or divorced women, and it’s nice. They have a little bit of a synergy between them going in. Maybe they own their own business, or maybe they’ve been employed by someone and have a pension coming in. It’s been a really nice, easy way to get into the women’s market.
DW: We conduct a poll each year, and the number one thing that keeps advisors up at night is getting in front of qualified leads.
VG: It’s always about having enough prospects to keep the business going. We have a lot of overhead — 12 employees, payroll taxes, federal and state taxes. It’s definitely a lot of pressure. But I can handle it. It’s about continuing to do the right thing for the client. I get referrals, so that helps. But really, I’m consistent with my seminars. Every single month I book 2 to 4 seminars. That’s my staple business. From there, we have the branches: LinkedIn, social media, referrals.
DW: How about client-appreciation events?
VG: We actually do two a year. One of them is a cruise. I take all my clients out on a yacht out of Newport Beach. It’s about nothing more than thanking them and educating them on where we’re going with the economy. Beyond that, it’s just dancing and nice food. They look forward to it. We did a holiday party last year with a shredding truck. We rolled out a red carpet with a little Santa, and the elves unloaded documents from their trunks and shredded them. We had beautiful music and catered food. It was like an open house — really lovely.
DW: Advisors just starting out have a high failure rate: about 80 percent. What advice can you give new advisors?
VG: I’ve definitely had my highs and lows in this business. To new advisors I would say, if this is your true passion, you’re going to go through some bad times. This is not an easy career. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. You’ve got to have a strong team behind you. And I believe in mentorship. So find somebody who is successful in your area and latch on to them. Learn from them. I didn’t have that. I did it all myself. I knew what I had to produce every single month in order to make my bills, and I never ever stopped until I made those goals. So on my board in my office, I have a goal sheet and I hit those goals every month. That way I never fall behind.