Peter Browne may well be one of the most distinguished individuals on the sales side of today's financial services industry. His career spans five decades as a manager and leading producer at Union Central Life and co-founder of Price Raffel and Browne of New York and Los Angeles.
But Browne's most significant contributions to the industry may well lie in his deep and long-standing service to a raft of industry associations, foundations and institutions. These include NAIFA, where he served for nine years as treasurer. Browne has also served as president of the 4,500-member New York State Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors; trustee of the National General Agents and Managers Association and president of its New York City chapter; trustee of The American College and vice chairman of the College's Foundation board; board member of the LIFE Foundation; and numerous posts on community service institutions.
"Financial education has always been part of my work ethic," says Browne. "I got involved in industry organizations in New York because I wanted to give back what was given to me."
The American College
Browne "is pretty ferocious when it comes to the landscape of our industry," attests Larry Barton, president of The American College. "This is a very fractured industry right now. Whether it's annuities or executive comp plans or life insurance or retirement savings - there are so many products, so many providers, that it's easy to get lost. How do you keep pace with all that and know what's best for your clients?
"I think one of the most interesting things about Peter is that he is a ferocious reader; he's on the phone constantly trying to learn about what's new and what's happening - in the regulatory process, statutory issues, fiduciary issues. And that, in my opinion, sets him apart."
The Wealth Channel
One of The American College's newest financial education projects has proven to be a big hit already - The Wealth Channel, which was launched last year. It's a first-of-its-kind effort by a university to bring financial and insurance literacy to two audiences, explains Barton. The first is to help producers better understand all of the dynamics that are underway in the industry today; and the second is for the consumer.
"Not surprisingly, I think both producers and consumers are distracted right now," says Barton. "So the Wealth Channel kind of harnesses the resources of The American College. "
The Wealth Channel is a Web site - thewealthchannel.com - featuring more than 400 video interviews, all of which are available for free. A producer can view videos on a wide range of subjects involving employee benefits and listen to experts. Most of the interviews are 15 to maybe 20 minutes, and it's "just rich with good counsel," says Barton. "It's professors at the College interviewing people like Peter Browne and others - real role models talking about specific situations. It's just taken off," he reports. For example, a number of companies have asked for permission to direct-link to the Wealth Channel as part of their intranets in order to allow producers to access it.
Right now, Barton and the staff behind the Wealth Channel are looking at a variety of ways to develop the Wealth Channel's content even further in 2011. For example, several public television stations are now using Wealth Channel videos - cherry-picking specific interviews and using them in their business news programs.
Barton is quick to voice his appreciation for the things Browne does for the College. "Like all colleges in this country, we're facing enormous financial pressure today." In particular, says Barton, "Peter has provided invaluable counsel on how we can open and extend relationships with companies. He's helped me, and the College, appreciate and work closely with a lot of the industry associations - especially NAIFA, which he's very passionate about. He helped rebuild the relationship between NAIFA and the College, and encouraged the two organizations to partner on the Life Underwriting Training Council, or LUTC, program, which is one of the most important designations in the industry. He's generous with his time and has also been a very generous donor to the College. All of those things really matter."
Getting into the business
Browne got into the insurance business as a result of a family emergency. "I got out of high school in Rochester, N.Y., and went into the Navy," he recalls. About the time he was about to get out of the Navy and go to college, however, his father passed away.
"When we all sat down for the reading of his will, we found this letter that dealt with the life insurance he had purchased. My father was a very successful man - the general manager of a large company - and he had a good agent, from Mass Mutual. So my mother, my brothers and sisters, would not have to worry. It also paid for my college - everything was taken care of through the magic of life insurance and a few other assets. I said to myself, 'This stuff is really remarkable. Maybe it's something I'd like to do.' My father was a general sales manager, so I'd been around sales people all my life. So that seemed like a natural thing to do."
When he got out of the Navy, Browne enrolled in the Rochester Institute of Technology's business insurance school. At the time, RIT offered "what they called a 'cooperative work' or 'work block' program, which still exists today, where you essentially worked for three months and went to college three months. The business community provided the internships," Browne explains.
"So I met a fellow who was the general manager of the Union Central company - a company that, as of Jan. 1, 2010, I have been with 50 years," Browne notes. He went to work for Union Central as a college agent.
Browne played varsity basketball at RIT. "So we'd have an away game, and we'd be on a bus on the way to Plattsburgh or some other school in upstate New York, and I'd corral these guys in the back of the bus - there was no place for them to go," he recalls. As a result, many of those teammates became his clients. "Today there's a whole network of them that are still with me," says Browne.
When he graduated, there was little doubt about what he was going to do. Browne became a second line manager in Union Central in Rochester. Within a year or two, he became a general manager. Browne was 25 years old at the time.
As he got into the management side of the business, he learned a lot early on. "I made an enormous number of mistakes because I was young, but I was aggressive and things began to work for me," Browne remembers. "The agency grew and grew, and it wasn't long thereafter that I was asked to come down to New York and take over Union Central's C.B. Knight agency." At the time, in the 1970s, it was the world's largest life insurance agency.
"I wasn't even 30, and I thought, 'Am I ready for this?' But the great thing about this business is that your success is not dependent on what somebody else thinks, or whether they like you, or how you dress. It's simply dependent upon you and only you. You dictate where you're going in this business."
That marked the beginning of Browne's career-long desire to give something back to the industry. "Life insurance and health insurance made a difference in my life because it's resulted in my education, resulted in my business acumen," Browne attests.
"I work very hard to keep up with education and change so that I stay - hopefully - on the cutting edge. At Price Raffel and Browne we do a lot of the more sophisticated legitimate premium financing types of cases and whatever else seems to be changing in today's financial services world. It changes daily, it seems. That's why I'm so active with the American College - because of their involvement in financial education."
In for LIFE
Browne also serves on the board of the LIFE Foundation, which has offered programs providing next-generation education for almost 24 million students over the past few years. Says Browne, "A lot of these kids are seven or eight years out into the business world now, and we should be trying to find a way to track them because they got a lot of their education in financial matters back in high school and in community college using material from LIFE. That, to me, is financial literacy - we're trying to teach these kids about our industry. It goes much further than that, in term of continuing education, for example."
While the LIFE Foundation's primary goal is consumer education, they also offer a wealth of information for brokers and advisers. Marvin Feldman, LIFE's president and CEO, explains: "In consumer education, we have to start with the companies and the financial advisers, the professional agents, to give them the tools so they can then turn around and educate the consumer."
One of the Foundation's current goals is to revamp many of the educational and motivational pieces that were designed specifically for the group insurance, benefits, worksite marketing arena. "Starting soon, we'll be releasing a total of 16 repurposed pieces as 2011 progresses. These can be used by a benefits specialist to help reach benefits and HR people with the message, 'Here's why we need to do this, and here are the resources we have to then reach out to your employees to motivate them to make good benefits decisions,'" Feldman explains.
Browne joined the LIFE Foundation's board in 2010. "We're very pleased to have him on because of his level of competence, his skill - and the fact that he knows everybody," says Feldman.
How are the organizations that offer professional designations doing at the task of keeping people in the industry ahead of the curve in terms of financial education?
There are many sources of financial education, Feldman points out, starting with the American College, which offers the CLU, CFP and CHFC designations, among others.
"If you're looking at professional financial education, you need to be going out to those organizations, like the American College, or the College for Financial Planning, or something through the Executive Employee Benefits Group. You need to target the type of organization that serves your practice, and then design the program to enhance your professional abilities according to what is available out there.
"So if I wanted to be a specialist in employee benefits, or executive benefits, I'd start researching the various options available to me to generate that level of expertise. That might be the American College, or I might go to the Wharton School of Business for an advanced degree, for example."
Professional financial education is "a very dedicated, sophisticated educational process that really brings that professional individual up to a different level over a period of time," Feldman explains. "That's the whole purpose of receiving that financial designation. It's not just to have something at the end of your name, it's to demonstrate that the individual has taken the time and the effort to enhance his or her professionalism so they can do a better job for the client."
A return to in-house training and education
Browne asks a key question: "If we don't have the education, how are we going to market the products in the right way?" To succeed in the insurance business today, says Browne, "It's not just learning how to sell insurance, it's learning the application of that process that you could define and determine what the needs are for these people through financial literacy."
Years ago the large carriers provided robust training to their agents, Browne recalls. Later, those people went out on their own - joining agencies or founding their own firms - so there was a flow of people from the carriers into other parts of the industry who brought all that knowledge with them. Over time, however, many of those in-house training programs suffered cutbacks or were eliminated.
In the last two or three years, however, Browne has seen a resurgence in carriers' in-house training programs. "What I see in dealing with the major carriers, like Northwestern, Mass Mutual, and other companies, is that they are actively pursuing getting new people in this business, and the promise to educate the new people is part of their efforts. And so those robust training programs are coming back strong. Those companies that continued to recruit and hire, albeit sometimes in a different form and fashion, continued their training programs. What they began doing is outsourcing some of it to places like the American College.
"Also, we can't overlook the need for sales education. That need is on an ongoing basis. I find myself having to continually study to keep abreast of what's going on and what's coming next. A case in point: the emphasis on transparency, on disclosure of fees, for example, that we see today. And it's not just from the Department of Labor in Washington - here in New York State, for example, we're facing a new commission disclosure requirement and we're all scrambling trying to deal with it. How can you disclose things like attendance at a firm meeting because of sales performance, if you can't even put a value on it?"
In Browne's view, all this emphasis on disclosure brings us back to the education process. "The products we are selling are transparent so clients can see what expenses are being charged. To me, it's all part of an educational process. From an agent's point of view, the whole thing just folds back into the need to continually keep yourself totally abreast of things, so you can explain expenses, fees and commissions to clients.
"Clients are much smarter than you think they are. If you can't answer their question, the sale is doomed - that's always been my philosophy."
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