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Rookie’s Regret

People learn from their mistakes, but sometimes the lesson comes at too high a price.

By Chuck Jones

In 1989, Mike Nichols, RHU, LUTCF, now an employee benefits specialist, was a 28-year-old insurance salesman trying to find his niche, but he hadn’t yet learned the value of persistence. He was about to receive a crash course.

By the late 1980s, Nichols had been an agent for a few years, kicking up business in the working-class waterman’s town of Panama City in the Florida panhandle. Before long, he was making friends with small-business owners—people who owned blue-collar, mom-and-pop operations such as trucking companies, boat builders and paint manufacturers.

One couple he had been friendly with, Bob and Janice, owned a small print shop. The shop was a success by small-town standards, printing letterhead, business cards and the like. The couple had been in business for five years and employed nine people. Janice worked the counter and kept the books, while Bob ran the presses and kept the machines in good working order.

“Bob was a worker,” Nichols recalls. “He came from a blue-collar background and knew that hard work leads to success. I knew him to still be at the shop at 2 o’clock in the morning, making sure a job was finished for a customer.”

Nichols, too, worked hard for customers and had a knack for appearing at the right time to talk. “Many times, I’d just drop in on Bob at the shop, sometimes at 11 o’clock at night. I’d bring coffee and doughnuts and some story or another I’d heard. And we’d just sit and talk.”

It was in the middle of the day when Nichols made one of his visits to the shop and found Bob in the back, as usual, running a print job. Nichols had brought his customary coffee and doughnuts. When Bob saw Nichols’ familiar face, he declared a coffee break and the two began jawing. “It was time for me to talk to him about insurance,” Nichols explains. “He was married, owned a business with his wife and had three children.” Bob and Janice also had a combined annual income of about $65,000.

“I said to him, ’Bob, we’re friends, and I always talk to friends about their insurance,’” Nichols recalls.

“’Talk to my wife,’ he said. ‘She knows what we got.’”

Nichols found Janice in the office and broached the subject. He found out that Janice and Bob both had life insurance, and the business was placed with another agent. “I let it go at that,” he says sadly. “I was green in the business. I didn’t ask any further questions about their life coverage,” such as how much coverage the couple actually had. He did, however, manage to sell them a cancer policy and some property and casualty coverage.

Three months after Nichols’ sales rebuff, Bob drove his motorcycle to the beach to spend the day with friends. On the way home around 9 o’clock that night, with the sky clear and the air moist, Bob approached an intersection, where he had the right-of-way. On the crossroad to his right, sitting at a stop sign, was a Chevy Camaro. Bob entered the intersection just as the Camaro pulled out to make a left turn. Bob hit the driver-side door, and his bike slid sideways under the car. The impact severed Bob’s spine.

“It was a freak accident,” Nichols says. “He had the right-of-way; he was wearing his helmet. He was doing everything you’re supposed to do, yet he died anyway.”

But Bob didn’t die immediately. He spent three days in the hospital. “I went to see him the next day, after I got a call from one of his employees,” Nichols recalls. “Lying there in the hospital bed, he wasn’t conscious at all, but he was all hooked up” to a ventilator and other medical equipment. A few days later, Bob died at the age of 36. In addition to Janice, he left behind a 17-year-old stepdaughter, a 5 year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son, Robert Jr., whom everyone called “Little Bob.”

“I was a pallbearer at the funeral,” Nichols recalls, “and it was well-attended. Bob was one of those friendly guys who knew everybody.” At the funeral, Nichols offered his help to Janice, who was an emotional wreck. That’s when he found out that, while Janice had $150,000 in life insurance, Bob was insured for a mere $25,000.

“That hit me hard,” Nichols says with regret. “I had that opportunity to set this family up right, but I didn’t push hard enough. If I had known Bob had only $25,000 in coverage, I would have recommended he buy at least $300,000 worth.”

In the year following her husband’s death, Janice’s life deteriorated. The loss of Bob hit the print shop hard financially and emotionally. Business dropped off and the bank called in her loans. In addition, about a year after his father’s death, Little Bob, all of 3 years old, was diagnosed with leukemia. A month later, the boy was dead.

“Janice couldn’t function,” Nichols says. “ Six months after her boy died, the bank foreclosed on the shop and her home.”

“That family was in shambles,” he says sadly. “And this is partly because I stopped at the first objection. I should never have let it go.”


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