Here's a little-known fact about Real Housewives of Orange County star Vicki Gunvalson: She captured the No. 3 sales spot among female agents doing business through Allianz last year. (Image: Allen Birnbach Photography)

“Woo hoo!” says Vicki Gunvalson, owner of Coto Insurance & Financial Services and star of Bravo’s, “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”

She’s standing before a vast array of cameras and lights for a photoshoot at her Rancho Santa Margarita, California office that’s been transformed for the day, replete with a Flemish-inspired backdrop that would create envy among the Dutch Masters.

Oh, and a film crew from Bravo is here, too, shooting scenes for the 10th season of Gunvalson’s hit TV show. Their cameras and lights and crew add to the sheer tonnage of equipment and people already crammed into the tight quarters. The literal weight of the hardware is staggering. So much so that the photographers on hand were unwilling to tempt the Otis elevator and its reported 3,500-pound weight limit with just one trip.

“Woo hoo!” Gunvalson exclaims, flinging a right arm in the air for emphasis. A blitzkrieg of camera flashes captures the action.

“Woo hoo!” Gunvalson goes off again like Old Faithful. I’m beginning to think she could do this all day if she didn’t have a $15 million-dollar annuity business to run.

“Slow down. Slow down,” the photographer says. “The camera’s too hot. We’re going to have to stop and reset.”

The camera in question is connected to a Mac PowerBook and photos have stopped feeding over to the computer. For the moment at least, the Gunvalson on-screen is frozen in time.

The real Gunvalson never stops moving. She drinks water from a plastic bottle and checks a clock. She has another client meeting in two hours.

“I need to make some calls,” she says and exits stage left.

“Shut it down,” the photographer says to his crew. The computer goes dark; even technology can’t keep up with Vicki Gunvalson. These days, it seems, nobody can. 

Firstborn

“I was the first born but middle child,” Gunvalson says upon her return. She’s awash in light. The photographer and his two assistants stop their work. Their faces are blue as if under moonlight. They look at each other. They look at me. We all shrug our shoulders.

“Is that a riddle?” somebody asks.

Gunvalson says it again, this time enunciating each word, the way an actor reads lines. “I’m the first born but the middle child.”

The room is quiet. The camera is still. 

“We give up,” I say. 

“My parents were unable to get pregnant for ten years and adopted twins. Later, they had me.” She stands defiant in the light, hands on hips. “You never would have gotten it, would you?”

“Never,” we say, admitting defeat. Another small battle for Gunvalson, another victory. 

A Midwest ethic

Before the bright lights, before the TV show, before, even, California, Victoria “Vicki” Gunvalson was the first born but middle child of a subcontractor father and a housewife mom in a suburb of Chicago. Her parents, like many parents in the tight-knit community, instilled strong Midwestern values in their family: Work hard; love your family and neighbor; and, on Sundays, go to church.

Vicki’s father was a well-known sub-contractor specializing in acoustical ceilings, drywall, metal studs and asbestos removal. He ran a successful construction company and often brought his five children with him to work. Whether it was scrapping jobs, or unloading materials, Vicki and her siblings all were of the mindset that working hard was the way to succeed.

Vicki helped in the construction office conducting payroll, filing reports and managing employees at a very young age. However, one day they noticed something. Their father wasn’t right and he began forgetting things. At the age of 59, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and later died at the age of 67.

“If you look at life expectancy, he should have lived to 85 or 90. He was robbed and it was hard on us emotionally and financially,” says Vicki. “My parents hadn’t planned for that. They had no long-term care insurance on him and had a very small life insurance policy.”

Gunvalson and her sister, also now an agent, talked about their parents’ retirement problems and realized that people across the country are in the same boat.

“We’re both really passionate about wanting to help people and educate them that what happened to my family could just as easily happen to them.”

A change in plans

By 2008, much had changed in Gunvalson’s life. Having launched her insurance career in 1990, she’d slowly built up her book of business and seen it hit new heights; she was a few years into a popular TV show; and, she’d earlier made the big move from Illinois to Orange County. Life was rolling along. She was the breadwinner in the family and already lived in the 6,000-square-foot mansion in Coto de Caza that she still calls home today. But she was hungry to take her practice to the next level. An opportunity arose when an insurance veteran tracked her down after watching an episode of the Housewives.

“My main focus at the time was selling Internet term life insurance. It’s where you’re talking to one person at a time.”

That call, from a marketing organization owner, sent her focus in another direction.

He asked her: “Instead of talking to one person at a time, how would you like to talk to 30 people at a time?”

“That’s when I started doing seminars,” Gunvalson says. “And I started selling indexed annuities.”

She hasn’t looked back since, booking 2 to 4 educational seminars each month with retirement age folks looking for safety in retirement.

“We’re not a quick fix,” she says. “We’re not the right business for everyone.”

But they’re the right business for a lot of people. According to Gunvalson, she counts 6,000-plus clients in her stable. Some find her from watching the show, but most prospects she reaches through direct mail invitations, sending out thousands each month. For those that respond, they can expect a great meal from a five-star restaurant in The OC.

“It’s not cheap. It’s at least $50 a plate.” But the adage of spending money to make money is paying off. She typically books between 70 percent and 80 percent of attendees for follow-up interviews and her annuity business topped $15 million last year, with a goal of $20 million this year.

A woman thing

For Gunvalson, the ideal client is 60–65 and has money in a 401(k) or another investment instrument, with an eye on rolling it over to something safe. “We look at their complete setup,” she says.

“We look at their home and car. We set a budget. We do everything we can to make sure people are safe in retirement.”

Within that demographic, there’s a more specific niche that’s close to Gunvalson’s heart: women.

“I also do single women workshops. I cater to single women — divorced, widowed, never married. I relate to them because I’m a single woman.” She can speak their language and understand their concerns.

Recently, a nurse attended one of Gunvalson’s workshops. “She came up to me after the session and needed to talk.”

The nurse, according to Gunvalson, was 67 years old and working 7 pm to 7 am — the graveyard shift.

“I’ve been doing this 30 years and I’m exhausted,” she told Gunvalson. “I don’t think I can do this anymore.”

“We made an appointment right away. We analyzed her situation. She had $480,000 in a 401(k) and her house was paid for. She thought she was going to work until she was 70 or 72, but after going through her assets, we worked out a plan and she gave her notice the next week.” 

“If you’re not first, you’re last.” — Ricky Bobby, Talladega Nights

The insurance industry is littered with the bodies of agents who didn’t make it. The failure rate is massive, with upwards of 80 percent of agents making a career change within the first five years of entering the business. The struggles were no different for Gunvalson.

“I’ve definitely gone through my highs and lows in the business, but what I want to educate other agents on is this: If this is your true passion, you’re going to go through some bad times. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”

And, it’s never easy, she adds. “I feel the pressure of being the breadwinner in my family. I feel the pressure of making sure the 12 people who work here get their paychecks.”

If she’s feeling the pressure, it doesn’t show in her production. She tells me she finished number three in sales among women agents doing business through Allianz this past year.

“That’s a huge accomplishment,” she says, “because I don’t spend full time on this job due to the obligations with Bravo.”

Ah, yes. Bravo and that “little” TV show she has on the side. Gunvalson didn’t get paid for doing the show the first few years. Now, she’s the top paid housewife in the franchise, and the only woman left standing from the original cast. On June 8, the 10th season premieres on Bravo. I tell her I read a Yahoo TV poll that ranked her as the number 2 housewife of all time.

Can I get a Woo Hoo?

Not this time.

“Ahh,” she groans. “I contacted them and fought with them about that as to why I wasn’t number one. I started the whole franchise. ‘Hello!’ I said to them. ‘I’m over here and I’m not happy about that.’ As far as I’m concerned, you’re number one or you’re nothing.”

Real housewives and insurance agents alike—consider yourself on alert. Vicki Gunvalson is staring at the pole position and she doesn’t lose many battles.