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Industry Spotlight > Wirehouse Firms

How to fix the insurance industry's reputation

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Editor’s Note: This article originally published in September 2015. Dates and other data points have remained unchanged from the original piece.

Brian Willet was not one of those kids that go to their parents and say they want to work in the insurance industry when they grow up — it might be that there are very few of those kids — but his interest in the industry peaked when it came time to pick a career.

He knew a few financial firm managers in his town and had spoken to them. But it wasn’t until he started interviewing at different companies that he understood why the industry has a reputation problem: The emphasis was too much on selling, not enough on serving. At first frustrated, it was Willet’s father who told him to “go fix (the insurance industry).”

And so, he is fixing it. Willet, who is a CMFC and associate managing principal at Waddell & Reed, Inc., is working towards improving the industry’s reputation by injecting passion, his own hard work ethic and leadership to the teams of advisors he manages, one advisor at a time.

We sat down with Willet to find out how he is helping improve the industry by helping increase advisors’ success ratios, hiring key players — and why robo-advisors aren’t that much of a threat and millennials prefer the real deal.

LHP: Why did you choose a career in insurance or financial services?

BW: I never planned on it. I was an accounting major in college. I grew up in the blue collar industry of construction, so the financial industry was a totally different world, but I knew a couple of guys like the manager of a financial firm here in town. So then I started interviewing, where I thought was everywhere, at all the wirehouses and insurance companies. I remember going home and told my dad, “I don’t think I can do what they’re asking me to do. I don’t think I can get into that industry.” But the one part that made me get into it was when he said, “So, go fix it.” Ever since then, that’s what I’ve been doing.

I kind of developed this passion of really wanting to make a big impact in the industry, and influence it and try to fix some of the reputation issues it is going through.

LHP: Describe what you do.

BW: The best way I can describe what I do is that I’m trying to positively change this industry. It’s more than titles, it’s more than job responsibilities, that kind of thing. I’m trying to positively change this industry and the way how it works.

My official title is Associate Managing Principal. I cover the state of Nebraska outside of Omaha, all the way out to Colorado. I have about 40 advisors that I lead. I’m a full-time manager, but I don’t work with any clients anymore. I did start in the industry as an advisor, so I built my book of business first.

But I really saw this need for financial planning and providing a different definition of what a lot of my industry peers use for financial planning. I understood that there is a bigger need to make an impact and change this industry quicker if I could become a leader and start influencing others who are in the industry and change the way they do business. 

LHP: Share an achievement you are especially proud of.

BW: My retention rate. I’ve been in a leadership role with Waddell & Reed coming up on six years and I have a 78 percent retention rate with anyone that I’ve hired over that whole time-frame. They’re not employees; we hire independent contractors. They are all independent advisors, they own their business with Waddell & Reed.

The industry average for new advisors’ success ratio is 11 percent. It was my own nightmare that got me into leadership because I started as an advisor in 2007 and, even with all the struggles that came with that, I was still successful. I look at that and the 11 percent ratio of people who aren’t successful and … it’s not that hard to succeed. The big reason I got into leadership was to fix that ratio.

It’s an ongoing daily battle. Just because I’ve done it so far doesn’t mean I can let up, but that just proves that we’re making progress.

The other one that sticks out is I qualified for Chairman’s Cabinet in 2013. In our organization, we have three levels that you can qualify for: Circle is the lower level where the top 600 people of our firm qualify. Then, Crest is the second level, which includes the top 100 people. And then Chairman’s Cabinet is an extremely small group. They don’t give me an exact number, but when we got together, there were about 20 of the top people in our firm. I don’t think that there were any other people younger than 40 in that room but me. 

LHP: What is the biggest challenge that you see in our industry or what is one thing you would change?

BW: I would change our reputation as an industry. We actually have the reputation we deserve because of the way we have treated people, but that’s what I would change. If we don’t fix the reputation, we’re in trouble. It’s a huge thing that we’re trying to work on.

This year, is — by far — the year I’ve heard the most people that I thought should be in the industry say, “I’m really not going to join the industry because of its reputation.” This year has been the worst in those terms.

We’ve been having a great year at our firm; I brought in seven people and six people have already hit their goal for the year and are successful. But, until this year, I’ve never heard people in general or people I’m recruiting say that they’re not interested in the financial industry because of its reputation.

That comes from the 11 percent: They always have this story of that person who started in the insurance business that was there for three months. Then, this manager came along with them and sold life insurance, but the new agent failed out of business and has been burned. That is killing our reputation.

I just hired my district manager who is coming from one of these insurance companies and he can speak from that level. He says, “Just go higher X amount of people (to sell to).” It’s not quality, it’s quantity. And I’ve always had a different philosophy.

If we’re going to fix that 11 percent, we have to have retention, we have to hire quality people, we still need quantity too because we have to fix the 43 percent of advisors over age 55, but you don’t fix quantity by hiring 20 people. You fix quantity by hiring great people and help them be successful in the industry. 

LHP: What is the biggest opportunity that you see in the industry?

BW: Bill, who was here for 30 years and was the manager before me, had the vision of a lot of this stuff, but didn’t have the opportunity to change it because all these guys have always done business a certain way. But now, we have the opportunity to change it because a lot of clients are going to lose their advisors to retirement in the next ten years. Talk about opportunity!

And you think about that opportunity that’s never been there before for somebody like me, in my role. All those clients are currently working with a product-sales advisor. They’re not working with an advisor that is helping them with a written financial plan.

Here’s the chance to completely revamp the financial industry, change the reputation and, more important than the reputation, is changing people’s lives.

LHP: What do you think millennials are looking for in an insurance advisor? How can advisors best serve this market?

BW: I think that millennials are misunderstood because they are a diverse group. You can’t put them as a unit as you can with boomers. There’s a diverse mindset there, from my experience.

The other thing is you have to have technology up and running. They are looking for tech integration in their life, and everything they do is somehow connected to an app or technology in some way. It is for me: I don’t keep anything in paper; everything is connected electronically.

Our firm is doing a lot of work to be a leader in that and making sure that we have all the technological tools to work with that. Millennials will want constant access to their financial plan. If you have can make it so that they can have instant access to their financial plan and can update it live with their advisor, that’s what they’re going to pay attention to.

I think a lot of millennials are really not looking for robo-advisors because they get the importance of a person and they actually enjoy the social part of it. But they expect everything to be done electronically. 

LHP: What is the No.1 piece of advice you would give to a young person looking to enter this industry?

BW: Make sure they don’t fall for old tricks. If you go back and look at the history and the evolution the industry has been through, companies are constantly rebranding the same thing, which is: We will pay you to sell your products. Now, they don’t say that, but that’s all it is. 

They say the words “financial planning” right now and a young person thinks, “Wow, I get to do financial planning.” But the problem is they’re just rebranding the same thing which is you’re going to be paid on selling products, therefore, you’re a product salesperson, you’re not really going to be doing planning.

Make sure you know in-depth what you’re getting into and that you actually have this passion that you want to help improve this industry and take on that challenge. 

On the more positive side, make sure you work as an independent, so that you’re in control of your situation. That fixes a lot of the issues because when you’re independent, you’re not given quotas or forced to do certain things. And make sure that you are going to get trained.

Editor’s Note: Brian Willet was featured on LifeHealthPro’s list, 30 under 30: Meet the millennials who are transforming the industry.  


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