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EPISODE 190: Legendary Insurance Sales Leader Alan Meltzer Shares How Philanthropy, Deep Relationships, Hard Work and Surrounding Yourself With Really Smart People Can Lead to Sales Success
ALAN’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “One, get smart, read, study. Two, there’s no substitution for perspiration, work your ass off, it’s that simple.“
Alan Meltzer founded NFP -The Meltzer Group in 1982 as a single insurance agen.
He has since grown the company to one with over 200 dedicated employees across five divisions.
Alan has earned MassMutual’s highest honor, Agent of the Year, an unprecedented 18 times in his career.
Find Alan on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us a little more about you that we need to know?
Alan Meltzer: Fred, thanks first of all for asking me to do this, I’m very honored. I grew up in Massachusetts, had a wrestling scholarship to American University, came down here in 1969. It’s hard to believe it’s been so long. I went to American and frankly, my family didn’t have much money, I had to work literally the first day I went to college. I started working at the mail room at American University picking up mail for the university down on Wisconsin Avenue in a truck that I don’t think had brakes, a stick shift, didn’t know how to drive it. I’m pretty lucky to be alive now.
In October of my freshman year I started washing dishes at a restaurant down the street, a place called Mr. Henry’s, there was about 5 or 6 of them. The first night I was a dishwasher, the next night I was the head chef so you can imagine how bad the food was. To make a long story short, worked at Mr. Henry’s all through college, wrestled, went occasionally to classes and really got involved in the restaurant. Ended up buying the establishment in probably 1971, I had saved $13,000 dollars while I was in college and two friends of mine owned I think a sixth of the restaurant with me. We bought it and the place did fabulous. Bought another place, bought another place, and really that’s where I learned about sales. I’ve read a couple of your podcasts, you used to be a bartender, I was a bartender, if you made people happy, if you make them enjoy the experience they come back, they tell their friends.
We had a lot of fun at Mr. Henry’s, we worked hard and the place did fabulous. In ’73, six young ladies came into the restaurant and one of them I thought was absolutely stunning so I waited on the table. They all worked for Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, I was very interested in one of these young ladies, her older sister told me she was engaged to be married so ‘stay away’. Anyway, I kept on calling and made the best sale of my life, started going out with her and in 1978 after dating for 5 years she said to me, “Either you sell this dumps and marry me and do something else that’s conducive to a happily married life or the heck with you.” She didn’t say it near that nice, so to make a long story short, right around the beginning of 1978 I realized that I wanted to get married. I started studying about the insurance business, I had met a lot of people through Amy who’s now my wife 40 years later.
I enjoyed meeting these people, thought that the really successful insurance agents cared about their customer, cared about what they were doing. They were quality people, not like the stereotype insurance person I had read about. I studied, got ready to go into the insurance business, got married September 16th, 1978, went in the insurance business a little bit before that, sold the three restaurants and went into the insurance business.
The first big sale I made was with the local owner of The Stroh’s Beer Distributorship. I was a customer of his and he was nice enough to meet with me. I learned a lot about sales with him, good looking, big guy came into Mr. Henry’s maybe in 1974 and said, “Look, I want to put Stroh’s beer on tap.” I didn’t even know what Stroh’s beer was, I’m not even sure the still make it, it came from Detroit. To make a long story short, I said, “I’m not going to put it on tab.” This guy was about 6’6, 290 pounds so he comes into the restaurant and he says, “Look, I want to put Stroh’s on tap” and I said, “I’ll buy some Stroh’s, but I’m not putting it on tap.”
He brings in a case of Stroh’s right away, he starts buying anybody in the place a Stroh’s beer. I start calling people up, “There’s a guy here and he’s crazy, come on in and get free Stroh’s all day.”
To make a long story short, he was a great salesman. By 2 o’clock in the afternoon I had bought 100 cases of Stroh’s, he was sitting at the bar with his partner, 6 o’clock at night comes by and I had a great day because of him. He says, “I still want Stroh’s beer on tap.” Mr. Henry’s is an outdoor cafe, I went outside with him and by that time he had probably had a case of beer himself, I had two beers. He was Irish Catholic, I was Jewish, I was drunk, he was sober – two beers for the little Jewish guy, a case for the older Catholic guy drinking beers all day long. He picked me up and proceeded to threaten to throw me in the traffic on Wisconsin Avenue unless I put the Stroh’s beer on tap.
It was an easy sale, I decided to put the beer on tap.
Four or five years later I called on him for insurance. I talked to him as a business person and apparently his father had signed a note so he could buy the beer distributorship. If something happened to his dad or something happened to him, the bank could call the note so I insured his father for quite a lot of money, his father was wealthy. Potentially, this was before the unlimited marital deduction which basically meant that if he died there would be an estate tax. Now you can leave everything to your spouse.
To make a long story short, March 21st of 1980, my wife gave birth to twin daughters Elizabeth and Jennifer. I went out and had a couple of beers with my friend who owned the Stroh’s beer distributorship. Around 11 o’clock at night he calls me up, he was distraught. His father had been shot to death in New Orleans, five young men tried to rob him, he was a big guy like his son, protested, they shot him like 15 times.
All of a sudden, my life changed dramatically because when I went in the insurance business I was doing it to earn a living, I wasn’t really doing it as a calling, so to speak. About 3 months later I’m with my friend and he told me, “You selling me the insurance saved our company, allowed my mom to live her life out in a manner that was wonderful in Colorado” and my friend said to me, “People say to you, ‘what do you do for a living?'” and I’d say, “I used to own Mr. Henry’s.” I didn’t say I’m an insurance agent. He said, “You’ve got to be proud of what you do. Look, if it wasn’t for you, if you hadn’t sold me that insurance I would have lost a beer distributorship to the bank because they did call the note. My mom wouldn’t be living the way she is.”
My life pretty much changed there on the dot because all of a sudden people would say to me, “What do you do for a living?” and even today I say, “I sell life insurance.”
Fred Diamond: Alan, we have a lot of Sales Game Changers listening around the globe who are starting out their sales career or they’re in their first job and they’re making a living. What do you say to the young people out there who are listening or even people who are established in their career? How do you communicate that message to them that they need to view what they’re doing as their calling, like you just said?
Alan Meltzer: That’s a great question, Fred. Let me say this to you: we have too many people that come in our business and want to know what’s the commission rate, what’s this, what’s that. I look at what I do, I sell health insurance, life insurance, disability insurance, home owner’s insurance, we advise people on 401K. If you first ask me what am I going to make on the sale, I don’t really want you to work here, I want you to make sure what you’re doing for the client is in their best interest. Hindsight’s always 20/20, it’s like buying a TV in 1978, people say, “Why do I need a new TV now?” because things change. You never know 100% whether you’re doing the right thing for somebody, but I can tell you this: the most important thing in our company and what I’ve done in my business is tried 100%, 180%, 200% every day to do what’s right for my clients and then the money just comes.
Fred Diamond: Obviously you’re at the top of your game. Tell us another story about that, you mentioned the guy from Stroh’s, is he still around? Do you still keep in touch with him?
Alan Meltzer: Unfortunately he’s deceased. We kept in contact.
Fred Diamond: How about some other customers? You said you’ve been doing insurance since 1978 – by the way, for the Sales Game Changers listening around the globe we’re doing this interview today at 6:30 in the morning at your office in Rockville, Maryland. You’re well known to be an early riser, as I am. Tell us what your day looks like, do you get up at 4 in the morning? You’ve been doing this for 40 somewhat years, tell us what your hustle looks like.
Alan Meltzer: I’m committed to my business. I got four great kids, a great wife, 41 years of marriage this year, 5 grandkids which is the best thing that ever happened to me, much better than children. I love what I do, I believe in our company. Integrity, honesty, we’re philanthropic. I get up every morning pretty much 4:30, work out, try to get here between a quarter to six or 6 o’clock every morning. I have a dear friend, Steve Niel who is not listening to this probably but he’s out on Tuxedo Drive and Prince George’s county and he and I talk a lot early in the morning. There’s three or four people that I know get up early in the morning, I like talking to them.
I get a lot done early in the morning, I get my day planned, make sure that I’m ready for the day so I’m here between 6 and 7, that’s my quiet time for myself. I can say this to anybody listening to this, it caused havoc in my marriage, you give up a lot when you work as much as I did. I can remember never seeing my kids in the morning and my wife was fabulous doing that. We probably fought more the first 10 years of our marriage than we’ve fought the last 20 because I love my kids but I probably wasn’t as good a father as I could have been because I worked and worked and worked. You give up a lot when you work as much as I did. I look at athletes, we have a lot of athletes that work here. I looked at that tennis match yesterday with Nadal and Medvedev, I don’t know how many people watched it but it was unbelievable. They played for over 5 hours, unbelievable game.
I’m very competitive, I do want to win, I was a college wrestler. Everybody knows if you’re a wrestler who wins or loses, there’s only one guy with his arm raised. In my business coming in second doesn’t pay the bills so we’ve absolutely tried to win all the time. We try to outwork people, we have fabulous people working here, best places to work every year for the last 15 years, people have been here for 20, 30 years, that’s very important to me. It’s a corporate culture of working hard. I always say this is a difficult place to work but a great place to work.
Fred Diamond: Talk about philanthropy for a little bit, I know you’re on a bunch of different boards, you can even mention a couple of them if you want. How has that played in your sale success? Tell us why you’ve gotten involved with various charities. You’ve been involve with tons of them, you’ve been on tons of boards, you’ve been recognized by a number of them. Again, we’re doing the interview here today in your office, there’s a number of awards around. Tell us what philanthropy meant in your sales career.
Alan Meltzer: Many years ago a thing called DC Cares had some sort of a symposium that I actually spoke at the same time with Hillary Clinton. It was about doing good and doing good, and basically it was about giving back to the community and the community taking care of you, too. In 1974 I didn’t have any money, I owned this bar, I had a beard, a mustache, a Jewfro, whatever you want to call it. I didn’t know from philanthropy, I didn’t know from anything, my family didn’t have money, it was that simple. My lawyer’s father asked me whether I was philanthropic. I’m not even sure I knew what philanthropic meant but he told me that once you achieve a little bit of success financially it’s important to give back.
He said, “Alan, nobody ever went broke giving money away.” I started giving money and in all honesty I didn’t even know all the causes that meant something to me but then all of a sudden you start seeing something that matters to you.
My youngest son has type 1 diabetes, we’ve literally given millions of dollars personally to type 1 to help cure it, to find a better way of living and our friends have been extraordinary. Our friends have probably given 5 to 7 million dollars to diabetes over the last 31 years, it’s probably my biggest cause that I really care about because I get to see, unfortunately, my son literally taking his blood sugar 10 times a day times 7 days a week, that’s 70 times 52, you figure out the math. He’s probably taken his blood count 3 to 4 million times over the course of his life and given himself injections of insulin, which if he doesn’t do he can die.
You start looking at that, you look at charter schools, what they do. It’s easy to look at cancer, diabetes but then you look at even what happened in the Abacos. My wife and I have been fortunate enough to spend time in the Abacos, not only are they the most beautiful place but even more importantly, the people there are beautiful so we’re going to give money there. We’re trying to figure out frankly the best way to do it right now but it’s something that will happen this week.
There’s a story about a guy named Reichmann who has a big philanthropist, a Jewish real estate developer. When he dies at 85, he’s probably worth 4 or 5 billion dollars. There’s two wills and the instructions were to his children, “Open up the first will, this one first and 30 days later open up the second one.” The instructions were, “My children, I love you, please bury me in my socks.” In Jewish religion you can’t do that, it’s just a simple shroud. The children knew their father to be a pious man and they consulted with different rabbis and they said, “What do we do?” they said, “You can’t bury him with the socks.” 30 days later they open the second will and it says, “My dear children, now you know that no matter who you are or what you are you can’t even take your socks with you. Give it all away while you’re alive, give back.”
We’ve tried to do that as a company, we have a giving fund, I think the people at the company are charitable, we give time and it’s worthwhile for us.
Fred Diamond: For someone who’s listening to the podcast who might not be familiar with it like you were 40 somewhat years ago, what would you tell them to do? Just find one, get started?
Alan Meltzer: Have a passion. I’ll give you a great example, Mary’s Center, Maria Gomez is an amazing woman. I met her maybe 20 years ago, went over to her place at Mount Pleasant and I didn’t have money then, we started giving time. For the last 26 years in a row on Halloween we take out 300 young folks and their families to Butler’s Orchard, Hope and a Home, Mary Center. We rent the buses, my whole company comes out there, we cook hot dogs, it’s unbelievable. We’ve never had the press there one time, I can’t even understand that. 26 years in a row, 300 people and it’s unbelievable.
Now Mary Center is a huge client of ours so if Maria was here she would say, “Alan has been very generous” but I think she’d also say that we’ve done a great job as a steward of her insurance needs. We got in there because frankly we started giving time and effort into it, not just money. We didn’t do it for that reason, it’s an amazing place. You go to places like that, Jewish Social Services, AIPAC, the Holocaust Museum, you just think of that, these people do wonderful things. When I was in college I used to work at the DC Juvenile Center out in Laurel, I’m not sure it’s even there anymore. I chose capitalism instead of socialism so I want to give back financially, I’m trying to do the best I can.
When you’re as family-oriented as I am you might be on these different boards but frankly, family first and doing what you can financially.
Fred Diamond: A lot of the Sales Game Changers listening to the podcast like to hear about mentors, maybe that the guest that we’ve had has had a mentor along the way. Then I’ll ask the question slightly differently but is there a mentor or two that you’ve had along the way that has significantly helped you as a sales leader?
Alan Meltzer: It’s interesting, when I first came into the insurance business it was a man named Webb Sinclair that was agent of the year for Mass Mutual in 1979. Webb told me that his wife wouldn’t allow him to come home on a Friday night unless he sold one policy a week. I’m not sure that my wife ever was quite that crazy, but Webb was a mentor. There’s a guy named Rudy Arcan, there’s a guy named Vernon Holleman, these are all insurance agents that were very successful when I was younger and I would look at their reputation. I didn’t know exactly what they were selling – there was a guy named Mel Culloden that sold me insurance. The way people spoke about them, they had esteem, they were thought of well. I’m quite sure that early in my career I was very aggressive and probably am still very aggressive. I know I am, but hopefully I’ve tempered that with a way to relate to people so that they don’t feel pressured. I know that my clients that know me love our business, love me. There’s a fine line as a salesperson to irritating people and driving them crazy to make a sale or to convey that you’re trying to do the best for them, that you care about them.
I can tell you this, in my career I probably had 25 death claims. When I walk into that house and meet the widow, the widower, nobody wishes I sold them less life insurance, it’s nobody and I’m very proud of what I do. I believe in what I do because I’ve seen the difference between what I do and a widow and her children living in a lifestyle that their spouse had – because it’s not always men making money, women make money too – they live in a wonderful world because of what I do.
Fred Diamond: Alan, before we take a short break and listen to one of our sponsors I want to follow up with that question. A lot of the people listening to the podcast are striving to become Sales Game Changers. You’re obviously at the top of your game, you’ve been a Mass Mutual million dollar seller for decades now. What is it specifically about you, do you think, that has led to your sales success? Obviously you’ve done so much good for so many people. If you had to really nail it down to one or two things – is it your hustle, your aggressiveness, your intelligence, your love for people, your love for insurance – what do you think has distinguished you as a Sales Game Changer?
Alan Meltzer: One, I’m crazy, shrinks would have a great time with me. I’m driven, I’m scared about being poor. If I had a billion dollars I would think I’m poor. I surround myself with really wicked smart people. I didn’t do this myself, I didn’t do almost anything myself, I’m a huge delegator. I have a fabulous team that surrounds me, some of these people have worked for me for 35-40 years – not for me, with me. There’s Greg Caroll, there’s Stuart Tauber, there’s Jack Abel, there’s Ethan Foxman, there’s Beth Robertson, Tom Cogan, Andrew Prevost, Billie Karlin. All these people have loyalty to this company, loyalty to our brand and make me look better. You’ve got to be an idiot not to hire smarter people than you and then get out of the way.
Gillette sells 30% of their sales in new products every year, so you say, “How can you do new products in insurance?” There are new products in insurance, the life insurance products from today are light years better than they were when I came into this business. Health insurance, different ways to save money on prescription cards. We just saved a client literally $700,000 dollars by changing the way they do their prescription card. The CFO sent me an email, “Probably the best decision I’ve made since I became CFO was to hire you guys.” This was a thousand person company.
Hire slowly, fire quickly. Once you get somebody that’s smarter than you working here let them do their things, delegate, give people respect, financially take care of them. Nobody has ever left this place because they didn’t make enough money. They might not like working here because it’s a tough place, they might not like me but nobody that ever produced here left because of lack of money. I do think it’s a different world right now, I can tell you that my son work very hard but he’s a much better father than me. He’s home at 5:30, 6 o’clock most nights, he wants to be with his kids. My daughter owns a restaurant, shamelessly plugged that in Silver Spring, fabulous restaurant, she’s got a little boy, she works probably 50 hours, 60 hours a week but she’s still a great mother.
It’s a little different than when I started, people my age – I’m 68 – we used to walk to school up a hill both ways with snow 12 feet high. It’s a different world and I think it’s better that way in many ways. I didn’t see my kids for breakfast ever, my son does, my daughter does. I have another daughter that is a real estate agent with two kids, works her butt off and I have another son that’s working hard as a personal trainer and detailing cars. Everybody finds their own way in life.
Fred Diamond: Alan, we’ve got a couple last questions here. You’ve given us a lot of great ideas, a lot of great tips along the way. We have Sales Game Changers listening around the globe, what would you tell somebody in their mid-20’s that they should do to take their sales career to the next level?
Alan Meltzer: One, get smart, read, study. Two, there’s no substitution for perspiration, work your ass off, it’s that simple. I know one thing, at 5:30 in the morning there’s not many insurance agents in their office. At 8 o’clock at night there’s not many insurance agents in their office. Study, learn what you do for a living and be proud of it. There’s too many people that just expect things to be given to them. I make a living on commission, it’s that simple and when I own the company it’s real simple. We made money, we paid out our employees, whatever was left was mine, it was a simple formula. If there was nothing left over, I made nothing so there’s a great incentive to work hard and to work with the right people.
I’ve also been fabulously blessed by my friends who refer me to everybody, to lawyers and CPA’s in this city. I can tell you that the lawyers and CPA’s that refer us business on a daily basis, I love them, I thank them. There’s too many to name but basically we have people that look at us as a trusted adviser and that’s fabulous for us.
Fred Diamond: Alan, before I ask you for your final thought to inspire listeners around the globe I want to thank you for the great insights today. Again, you mentioned how much the industry has changed, every industry has changed, yours has definitely changed. What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Alan Meltzer: What we’re doing now is constantly looking at how we can help our clients and because of different changes and the tax laws, president Trump’s 2017 tax bill has given us a great opportunity with nonprofits. We’re working with most of the major hospital chains in Washington DC on that right now. It’s us realizing the opportunity and going for it in a strategic way to help make a difference for the client and our company. I always look at life, we want to make a difference.
Here’s a story that illustrates that. There’s two women walking on a beach and they’re maybe a mile away from each other and they’re getting closer and closer together. One of them keeps on reaching down and throwing something in the water. Finally they get together and one says to the other one, “What are you doing?” She says, “The tide has brought in all these starfish and they’re on the beach and if they’re not in the water, they’re going to die” and she reaches down and throws a starfish in the water. The friend says, “There’s a million of them, you’re not going to make a difference.” She reaches down again, she throws a starfish in the water, she said, “I think I made a difference for that starfish.” That’s how we run our business, we want to make a difference for everybody that we touch. I hope today I’ve made a difference for your audience.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you give us one final thought? You’ve given us so many great ideas today. Just give us one final thought, maybe something that you live by to inspire the Sales Game Changers listening around the globe.
Alan Meltzer: Everything for me is family and money does not buy you happiness, not even close. When I can do certain things for my family financially because of my hard work, it makes up for all the hours that perhaps I didn’t spend with them. I’m trying to do a much better job with my grandchildren, I probably see my grandkids three to four times a week, I think my children think I stalk them. For me now I’m working for two reasons, Fred it’s real simple: philanthropy and family. That’s it, and I enjoy it more now than I’ve ever done, we do a better job than we’ve ever done. If I could die with one penny in my checking account and give everything away to both my philanthropic ventures and my children, I’d be a happy guy.