In Profile: Chris Whittle

 November 2012

‘Veteran Presence’

Chris Whittle, a sales manager for 1847Financial, Penn Mutual’s Philadelphia agency, joined the financial services industry after five years with the US Navy in helicopter search and rescue. We spoke with Whittle about how military experience contributed to his success in financial services.

L&HA: What was your work experience in the Navy? 

CW: I went into the Navy in 1994 as an aviation warfare systems operator. I was a helicopter crewman and worked all on-board systems including radar and sonar. I was also a rescue swimmer so I jumped out of helicopters and swam after people. We supported ten different ships in the fleet. However, there’s more to it. Helicopters only fly for four hours at a time and up to two flights a day. When not deployed we spent hours training and making sure every pilot and crewman was combat-ready.

L&HA: How did you end up as a rescue swimmer?

CW: I am the third of four kids from a blue collar family in Philadelphia. After a moderately successful attempt at college for two years and running out of funds, I was looking for a job. I saw a “Help Wanted” sign in a Navy recruiting office. They gave me some testing and asked what I wanted to do. I was thinking something cool and interesting, so I said I wanted to fly. The recruiter said the only way you can fly is if you can swim. “What does that mean?” I asked. There were openings for rescue swimmers, he explained. I had never been on an airplane but the criteria looked pretty neat, so I hopped on a plane to boot camp.

L&HA: How did your experience in the US Navy prepare you for your current line of work?

CW: I came to financial services in 1999 after my five-year enlistment in the Navy. I knew I couldn’t ride a desk; I like to take risks, have some fun, and meet people, so the idea of sales came up. If you’re a good salesperson you’ll never be unemployed, and in financial services there’s always a need for help. People continue to have children and get mortgages so I gravitated toward the protection side of the business. I did plenty of training and operations in the Navy, and early on I moved into district management.

L&HA: What in your military background has contributed most to your comfort in financial services and your success?

CW: Veterans’ job descriptions don’t do justice to what they are trained to do. If you look at my resume and see helicopter crewman and rescue swimmer, you’d say why would he be successful in financial services? Actually my duties included managing the training department for 50 pilots and 100 air crewmen. I prepared and delivered hundreds of hours of training lectures and briefed officers from lieutenant through captain on procedures and training changes. I worked with people of every socioeconomic background because the military is truly a melting pot and dealt with people from SVP and CEO-type levels through the ranks.

L&HA: Did the training and certification for financial services seem like a deterrent or an asset?

CW: I wanted to be in the industry so there was no deterrent. When I was leaving the military I saved up 30 days of leave and took a month to look around and talk to employers. One insurer offered me an inside sales job at 15th and Market in Center City Philadelphia. They would pay for all my licensing and give me a salary, 401k, and benefits. At age 25, that would have been a pretty big deal. I also had an offer from Mutual of Omaha that said no salary, no benefits but you make your own way. As hard as you work, that’s as hard as you’re going to get paid. I chose that one.

L&HA: Tell us about your work with veterans’ organizations.

CW: I am part of the Greater Philadelphia Veterans Network (GPVN). We help veterans see that just because they served in the Army they don’t have to become a security guard or be in law enforcement. When I look at a military resume I say, so you drove tanks, but what did you really do? How many people reported to you and how did you manage that? Maybe a veteran should be in a training program for a Fortune 500 company or get into financial services. We use relationships to get veterans in front of the right people and we teach resume-writing and networking skills.

I love what Penn Mutual is doing for veterans. With the Penn Mutual Center for Veterans Affairs at The American College, the company is building an excellent program to assist veterans who want to work in our industry. I spread the word to every veteran I meet.

L&HA: Financial planning involves responsibility for your clients’ financial wellbeing, but that seems pretty mild compared to search and rescue. 

CW: This job is much safer than what I used to do! Like search and rescue, in financial services you’re there to help people out of a bad situation and get them to where they should be. Whether it’s protection products, investments, or college planning, there’s a team that goes into any exercise. It’s like knowing I can swim but I’m not flying the helicopter. I can get my clients to the right people because it’s going to take a team to get them to the right products.

L&HA: I understand you participated in a life-saving rescue.

CW: I was on a ship crossing the Atlantic for an exercise with other NATO countries when we hit rough seas. Someone on a British oiler fell down a flight of steps and was banged up pretty bad. When the NATO doctor determined that the fellow needed to be evacuated, I was the wet crewman, the one actually on the hook. We got the guy out for surgery and later found out he was going to be okay. It was amazing.

L&HA: As we celebrate Veterans Day this month, how can we be more responsive to our military veterans?

CW: If our industry really wants to hire veterans, we need to educate ourselves about what our veterans actually do in the military and put programs in place to attract and retain quality veterans. The Penn Mutual Center is a step in the right direction, and it’s bringing more attention nationwide for veterans and their spouses.