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The Many Paths to Success

What do the four men profiled in this article have in common? They all took unusual paths to becoming top producers.

By Dave Willis

Bob Parr is a superhero turned insurance agent, leading a rather traditional life under a government-sponsored, witness-protection program. Parr is not real, though. He’s a character brought to life by Craig T. Nelson’s voice in the Pixar animated film, The Incredibles. In the story, Parr, the alter ego of Mr. Incredible, enters the insurance business after people he helped save decided to sue him. He struggles through the nine-to-five routine, holding on to the dreams and passion of fighting against all that is wrong in the world.

Out of the limelight
Parr’s entrée into the insurance business may have been extreme. But he’s not alone. Many advisors have followed unusual paths to success. Edmund Nelson was a burly fellow growing up, so it came as no surprise that upon graduation from Leon King High School in Tampa, Fla., he ended up playing football for the Auburn University Tigers. Nelson earned his bachelor’s degree in personnel management and was named Auburn’s Most Valuable Defensive Player his senior year, before being selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1982 draft.

Seven years, 83 games, four play-off visits and countless blocks and tackles later, Nelson hung up his cleats and shoulder pads, retiring from the New England Patriots. Nelson, the 1986 Miller Lite/NFL Defensive Lineman of the Year, found a career with fewer physical risks, after narrowing his choices to a sales job with a major pharmaceutical firm and an agency position with State Farm.

He opted for State Farm because he saw an opportunity to be his own boss. For the past 15 years, he’s grown his multiline business to where he now serves “a couple of thousand households,” he says, in western Pennsylvania and beyond.

Sidney Louis “Hardrock” Gunter is another advisor who found success in insurance after basking in the celebrity spotlight. Gunter, who earned his nickname when the trunk lid on a 1930s-era sedan fell on his head with no obvious effect, formed a band in Birmingham, Ala., in 1938 at the age of 13. He attended school by day and played auditoriums and halls throughout the Southeast several nights a week. After serving in World War II, Gunter rejoined Happy Wilson and the Golden River Boys. Before long, though, a friend summoned him to Indiana with an opportunity to join the insurance business. Gunter saw the value of insurance—in particular, disability income insurance—and signed on as an agent.

Four months later, after returning from snowy Indiana to Birmingham for a Thanksgiving break, the then 22-year-old Gunter succumbed to the lure of the stage, and hit the road again with the Golden River Boys. He played and wrote music, including “Birmingham Bounce,” which later was covered by other artists, including Lionel Hampton, Tex Williams and Tommy Dorsey. A recording of the song by Red Foley topped the country charts and made it to No. 14 nationally as a pop hit. Later, Gunter took a gig hosting a radio music show in West Virginia. He decided, while in Wheeling, that if he did not become a national recording star by age 35, he would return to insurance and make his mark there. In the late 1950s, he started a self-study program that would lead to his passing the CLU exam and, in 1960, he was hired by Guardian Life.

Of heaven and earth ...
Not every nontraditional path to the insurance and financial services world involves fame. Some careers are borne out of simplicity, as is the case with Wayne von Borstel. “I wore bib-overalls every day of my life until I was 30,” he says. Not standard attire for an insurance advisor, but a pretty good choice for someone working the land from before sun-up to after sundown. Von Borstel worked the family farm in the Pacific Northwest with his dad and two brothers. From that upbringing and early vocation, he developed a strong work ethic—something necessary to survive in farming.

At the same time, he dabbled in financial services. At 17, von Borstel started investing his dad’s and grandma’s money in the stock market. So when he felt the drive to see what life might be like off the farm, he answered an ad for a job as a financial planner. “It said, ‘No experience needed,’” von Borstel says. “I thought, ‘That’s me.’” The first day on the job found him seated at a long table with 20 guys and 20 telephones, making cold calls to sell “hot” investments. “I grew up in a county where there are only 1,700 people,” von Borstel says. “If you tell a lie, you can’t get to the other end of the county quick enough to beat it.” So he talked with his family’s agent about a career with his company instead. Before he knew it, von Borstel was, as he puts it, “the guy who sold 200 lives of life insurance, one by one, driving into barnyards of people I didn’t know.”

The spiritual path
Richard Andersen took an equally down-to-earth road to insurance, although it could as easily be called heavenly. The Minnesota-bred son and grandson of Lutheran ministers, Andersen felt a natural draw toward spirituality. Fresh out of high school, Andersen studied locally and in Germany, before coming home to answer to the draft for Vietnam. “When I came home from the Air Force, I was more mature,” he says. So he finished college and graduated from Luther Seminary. The interruptions, he says, gave him a chance to think about his career and what he wanted to do. “I was very motivated to serve in the church and become a minister,” Andersen says. That’s just what he did.

While in the seminary, Andersen became interested in what he calls alternative ministries. Before accepting a local parish assignment, he helped build an ecumenical retreat center, serving there for five years. Then, after a year of ministering in the church, he completed chaplaincy training and worked at a local medical center. He soon realized, while ministering to the sick and their families, that he was frustrated because he had no sustaining relationship with the people. A friend suggested that he look into what was then called Lutheran Brotherhood—now Thrivent Financial, because he could form relationships that would be maintained over his career. Andersen interviewed and agreed it was a good fit, and he’s been an advisor ever since.

Starting out
As advisors know, careers are built around life experiences. Sometimes, though, these life experiences are something to overcome. That’s what Gunter found. When he began his 30-year insurance career, he was well known as a radio show host—and a funnyman of sorts. People had a tough time taking him seriously. So he set out to prove them wrong, finding opportunities to speak before agent groups in the greater Wheeling area, demonstrating that he was more than just an entertainer. Gunter, a CLU who retired to New Mexico in 1989 from his position as a Denver-based broker, used these speaking engagements to share his expertise and develop partnerships with other agents.

Nelson, who runs his own State Farm agency in Pittsburgh, found that clients took his notoriety in stride. Before he even signed on with State Farm, he accompanied another agent on a sales call. After the sale was closed, the client turned to Nelson, who was observing, and said, “Edmund, back in ’86, when you guys were so and so ...,” Nelson recalls. “It was then that I said, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’” The agent who made the sale left the business, and Nelson took over his agency. To this day, 15 years later, Nelson still serves the client.

Endearing skills
Advisors who took nontraditional paths to the business agree that skills they learned and traits they developed in their previous endeavors have played a critical role later in life. Gunter, for instance, believes that the self-confidence he developed in his years as a performer enabled him to build his career and his business to where, on his retirement in 1989, he says, he did $6 million in written premium. Nelson, who today runs a four-person agency in Pittsburgh and is looking to expand, says the competitive nature of insurance is easy to manage after taking part in rather intense competition on the college and NFL gridiron.

Relationships are a valuable asset
Andersen, CLU, ChFC, FIC, a senior financial consultant for Thrivent Financial in Minnetonka, Minn. and a Twin Cities AIFA member, sees several parallels between what he used to do and what he does now. Relationship-building and counseling are two natural similarities. Also, the keen listening skills he learned as part of his chaplaincy training prepared him for factfinding, the niche he holds in his firm, where he probes purpose, values and vision. He also leads family retreats to discuss planning and legacy issues.

And von Borstel, CLU, ChFC, CFP, MSFS, president and founder of Oregon Trail Financial Services in The Dalles, Ore., and an Oregon AIFA member, learned how to handle the unexpected and to realize it’s impossible to control all circumstances. “When farming, you can plant a crop, but you are never sure what will grow,” he says. The same holds true for advisors, and it’s important to nurture relationships, just as it’s important to fertilize and tend to crops.

Passion pays …
Regardless of how advisors entered the business, they point to similar success factors. Passion is one such factor. Nelson attributes his success to what he calls “want to.” “I just want to get out of bed and come to work,” he says. “I’m excited about my business. I’m as excited today as I was the day I started.”

Andersen, who also holds a Certificate in Life Coaching from the Life Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif., shares a similar passion for his firm’s values. “The direct connect for me is that Thrivent Financial—its full name is Thrivent Financial for Lutherans—is a fraternal benefit society that was created 100 years ago for Lutherans,” he says. “The core values of this company, including things like faith, family, finances and philanthropy, are compatible with the work that I’m doing, and my work is compatible with their values.”

And so does hard work
Hard work and long hours also come into play. “There’s no secret to sales,” Nelson says. “Sales takes hard work. You’ve got to put in the hours. You’ve got to make the calls. There are a lot of guys who are a lot smarter than I am, and a lot more savvy than I am, but I don’t think there are many out there that work as hard as I do. That’s the great equalizer.”

Von Borstel describes it as not giving up. “There’s only one person who can fire you in this business, and that’s you,” he says. “And I refuse to quit.” He believes the company that gave him his start in the business didn’t want to hire him. “I walked into the office, and they told me if I ever showed up dressed like that again, they wouldn’t talk to me,” he explains. “I didn’t get a good score on their tests, but I refused to go away. They told me to go do something and come back in a week. I came back in two days and I had it done.”

Choose your niche
Gunter says it’s important to identify and focus on a market. “I found the retirement market,” he says. “I did a lot of seminar selling.” Gunter used his expertise in that market to build his business with several companies and to develop partnerships with other advisors. “I became a specialist,” he says, “And because other agents didn’t specialize in that particular phase of the business, when they would have a case that would include retirement issues, they’d call me in.” Generally, Gunter would earn first-year commissions on the sale and the partnering advisor would service the business from there, and get the renewals.

Client focus is something he’d take further if he were in the business today. “Finding a market is one thing,” he says. “But rather than working in just the life business, which I did, I’d represent all lines of insurance, and securities.” That way, he could strengthen his ties to customers and broaden the diversity in his revenue streams.

Give your best
Von Borstel’s client focus comes out of a personal business goal. “I’ve always had a dream,” he says. “I want to be the best financial planner in the Northwest. There’s probably no way to measure that, and I don’t know if there ever will be.” But if he can find a better way to do something or something more to offer his clients, he does not care what it costs or what has to be done. His focus manifests itself in a passion for detail.

Clients notice that von Borstel is good at sweating the small stuff. “I do things that other people won’t do,” von Borstel says. “All I have to offer people is service, knowledge and caring.” He thinks he might care about his clients’ particulars more than they do. “People never assume anything is gonna go wrong,” he says, but he does. “I drive my clients nuts, because I want copies of everything.”

Keep learning
According to Gunter, professional development is another critical success factor. “You have to stay educated,” he says. This goes beyond earning your continuing education credential, though. “The kind of education required to keep your license current isn’t enough to keep you well honed on things. Never quit studying,” he adds.

Von Borstel agrees, and proves that agreement with an example. “I believe in charity a lot,” he says. “Every client I talk to I talk about charity. Very few of my clients don’t leave something to charity in their wills because I’ve talked them into considering that.”

But von Borstel believes that to really address charitable giving properly, he needs to understand the issues better. So he has committed to spending about 300 hours of his time enhancing his education in that area.

The more things change
They say you can take the boy out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the boy. The same holds true for advisors, who tend to stay close to their first love. Nelson is a Steelers analyst, working for a local CBS TV affiliate. Gunter, now 80 years old, still performs at rockabilly festivals each year. Andersen volunteers for the retreat center he helped build and still performs pulpit supply when asked to do so. And von Borstel just bought a 1,000-acre farm in Oregon.

And Bob Parr? Well, telling what he did would spoil the rest of the movie, wouldn’t it?

Dave Willis is a New Hampshire-based business and financial services writer and a regular contributor to Advisor Today.


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