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The behind-the-scenes rainmaker

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The fast track to business growth often comes from developing key relationships, and for life insurance specialist Josh Sterling, there are no better relationships than those he has made in the worlds of accounting, law and financial planning.

These centers of influence have exponentially expanded Sterling’s advanced insurance planning practice within Asset Protection Strategies Group Inc., a wealth management firm based in Windsor, Calif., in the heart of the Sonoma County wine country.

“It’s about building trust and casting a wider net,” according to Sterling. “We can talk to one prospect, or we can talk to somebody who can talk to 500 people. It’s a win for everybody. We win because we get new business, the professional centers of influence win with our advanced planning, and the clients get a win.”

A big opportunity for Sterling lies in the education gap he sees between wealth management and life insurance planning.

Whether working with certified public accountants, attorneys, certified financial planners or insurance professionals in property & casualty and health and wellness, Sterling offers his knowledge about advanced strategies such as executive bonus plans, leveraged benefit planning, tax-free life-insurance retirement plans and key man insurance with “golden handcuffs” that protect against the loss of a key employee.

For example, Sterling may receive a call from a CPA or a CFP seeking a review of a client’s life insurance policies. Asset Protection Strategies Group will then step in and offer its expertise to the accounting or planning firm, which doesn’t employ any insurance professionals. Once APSG has provided a few advanced insurance-planning options, its advisory role is complete.

“In other words, we’re not stealing a financial planner’s clients,” Sterling said in a recent phone interview. “One of the things we tell our centers of influence is that we want them to be the hero. We stay behind the scenes and help them bring value to their client base.”

Team building

Of course, this team approach brings business advantages to Sterling and his wealth management firm. After earning his California life insurance license five years ago, Sterling got involved in advanced planning three years ago, and Asset Protection Strategies Group then provided advanced life insurance to all of its existing clients.

Sterling, 41, comes naturally to taking a team approach. Before joining APSG in 2009, he spent eight years as an assistant coach for the men’s soccer program at Sonoma State University, a team he himself had played for while a student. He was on hand in 2002 to help the Seawolves claim their first National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s soccer championship in a 4-3 victory over Southern New Hampshire.

Sterling was busy running Sterling Soccer, his youth soccer program for 2,500 kids ages 8 to 18, when his former Sonoma State teammate and APSG co-owner and president, Dan Ott, got to talking with him about how the wealth-management firm didn’t cover “late stage” college planning for families who don’t have much time to save.

Those discussions led to Sterling’s decision to join APSG, and he passed his certified college planning specialist exams in January 2009. The firm’s college-planning business grew as he started offering workshops all around Sonoma County. As a result of his efforts, APSG gained a raft of new wealth-management clients.

APSG Chief Executive Joe Gass then asked Sterling to help the firm’s clients buy term life policies as part of their overall wealth-management and financial-planning strategies. Sterling found that he enjoyed the insurance side of the business, and so he got licensed in 2010 and found a life-changing career path.

“I hung up everything I was doing in the soccer world and dove in full time into the insurance world,” said the father of 9- and 5-year-old sons who now play soccer instead of their dad. (Sterling’s wife, Kristy, also has roots in soccer and was a collegiate player.)

Finding new centers of influence

In just the last year and a half, Sterling has increasingly focused on a new passion: finding new centers of influence. So far, he has developed 10 or so relationships with CPAs, attorneys, financial advisors and insurance professionals.

His new career path challenges Sterling to find ways to bridge the educational gap, because life insurance planning is not a mainstream business practice. “You don’t read about it in the news or in financial magazines,” Sterling said. “Wall Street and moving into different mutual funds are in your face all the time, but we have to spend time on education about advanced insurance planning.”

Currently, Sterling is focused on providing life insurance reviews for Asset Protection Strategies Group’s wealth-management clients. Policies that are five years or older are analyzed for their internal costs, performance, interest rates and policy crediting rates, he said.

For a relatively young newcomer to the insurance industry, Sterling has chosen a business model that doesn’t depend heavily on technology. While he’s happy to maintain a web presence and to use PowerPoint slides for demonstrations, he is careful not to spend too much time in front of his computer.

“We’re working with high-net-worth individuals and business owners who want to sit down and talk,” he said. “We’re not selling mass policies here. Social media, websites and the Internet are great, but you can lose sight of the human contact. This business is about building relationships, and it’s hard to build them in the e-world.”

Working with mentors

For his own continuing education, Sterling has connected with two life insurance experts who are mentoring him in advanced life planning.

Rick Bailey, a former estate-planning attorney, now serves as president at Camas Consulting, Inc., South Jordan, Utah, where he provides advanced case design that addresses issues such as estate planning, taxes and trusts. Tom Webb, a chartered life underwriter since 1970 and a chartered financial consultant since 1983, is president and CEO of the Webb Agency Inc., with offices in Salem, Ore., and Vancouver, Wash.

Webb is a life member of the Million Dollar Round Table, and along with Bailey, they have taken inspiration from MDRT in bringing together 10 insurance planners, attorneys and product specialists from across the country twice a year to network, brainstorm and study advanced strategies.

“These two took me under their wing and started to educate me on planning opportunities. There’s a huge educational gap between advanced insurance planners like me versus what the average consumer knows, and I mean even high net worth individuals and business owners,” Sterling said.

Every four to six weeks, Bailey will swing into town to work on broadening his and Sterling’s professional network. Recently, the two organized a lecture for 15 CPAs and a handful of attorneys and other planners about how to use advanced life insurance planning and tax benefits for business owners.

“It’s a big team approach,” Sterling said. “I coached for so long that I understand the makeup of a team and how powerful it can be.”

Ever a competitor, Sterling is currently working toward a CLU designation, and he aspires to become the leading advanced life insurance planner in Sonoma County.

“When people say, ‘Hey, I have a winery or estate [and need planning help],’ I want them to think of me,” Sterling said.