As I write this – my last column – I’m flooded by memories of the state of the industry when I took this job in January 2008.
In short, the industry had a trust problem.
This was before the great market crash later that year. While the mainstream media would find a myriad of villains from the fallout of that catastrophe, they didn’t have their Bernie Madoff yet. Instead, they found their whipping boys in retirement advisors, particularly the ones who favored annuities as a safe product for aging Americans.
Dateline NBC was figuratively at the doorstep when I started. My bosses pulled me in from day one and said, “They’re planning a story about annuity advisors. We don’t know what they’re going to say. We don’t know when it will air. We only know it won’t be flattering. For the sake of our industry and the advisors who are doing the right thing, we need to get out in front of this story.”
A day into this job, I didn’t know the advisors. I didn’t know the industry. I Googled “annuities” and didn’t like what I found. Story after story hammered annuity advisors, claiming they were “out to get grandma.”
Meet the Parents
In those early days, I tried to get my head around the trust problem. When I spoke to industry folks, they admitted that, “Yes, there are a few bad apples out there, but you have bad apples in any industry. The problem is the media makes headlines out of our bad apples.”
I read past issues of our publication. The magazine did a great job of producing stories about successful advisors. These advisors had been vetted by Steve McCarty’s team at the National Ethics Association, who conducted background checks on our cover subjects.
Our guys were shiny red apples with great success stories to share with other advisors. And yet, amid all the rags to riches tales, there was something missing. The stories talked in great detail about the money top producers made, but they rarely spoke about trust.
In Meet the Parents, Jack Byrnes (played by Robert De Niro) talks often about “the circle of trust,” an unbreakable bond that binds loved ones together. When Byrnes becomes disappointed in his future son-in-law Greg Focker (Ben Stiller), he tells him in a threatening way, “I’m waaatching you!”