by Carolyn Ellis
Dave Porter is managing partner of Baystate Financial Services in Boston, the erstwhile New England Financial boutique agency he acquired in 1996 at the age of 35. At the time, the agency had about $1 million in commission and fees, which he has grown to more than $65 million, representing the largest financial services agency in the U.S. At a time when the traditional agency system was failing many of the recruits coming into the financial services career, and as the brokerage channel began to eclipse the traditional distribution flow, Porter recognized the need to create a stronger support system for advisors, one founded on the seemingly counter-intuitive premise that they are the ones who should be accountable for their own success. We spoke with him about how he applies this principle of accountability to running his organization.
L&HA: Insurance is a people business. To what do you attribute your interpersonal skills?
DP: I grew up with nothing, but I had awesome parents. I rely on my emotional intelligence, and I believe these things are important: Treat people the way they want to be treated. Start with please and thank you. Do what you said you were going to do, be on time, and finish what you started. I also write three thank you notes every business morning of my life.
L&HA: Who receives your handwritten notes?
DP: The manager of a restaurant, one of our advisors, or a client of ours. I have drawers full of thank you notes from other people. I don’t care if they are from a seven year old or a business person, I judge myself by these letters because I know I’m making a difference in someone’s life.
L&HA: Besides your parents, who would you credit with your success?
DP: I credit my mentor, Tom Quirk. I joined his agency when I was 26 years old. He set me on a path: It’s not about what you accumulate; it’s about what you give. It’s not about what you earn; it’s about what everyone around you earns. If you live like that, everything gets taken care of.
L&HA: You also believe in unlimited possibilities.
DP: Anything is possible when you hold yourself personally accountable. If I said to you, “I want to exercise three days a week or build a $100 million business, or I dream about having a whole floor of the Hancock Tower which we now have,” when you look in the mirror and you own the outcome, the possibilities are endless.
L&HA: You success story has been told many times and writers often highlight your internship in Washington D.C. during the Reagan Administration. Was there a takeaway from that experience you still hold onto?
DP: When I arrived at the White House my 31-year-old boss explained we were going to work from 7 AM until the work was done. I got the idea that yes, the job was sexy and fun but we were going to work hard. My father taught me something else. He told me when you’re in a receiving line get the guest of honor’s attention somehow in a very gracious way. I had been a TKE in college and Ronald Reagan was a TKE, too. The third night I was there we were having dinner with the president and Nancy Reagan, and when I went through the receiving line, I gave President Reagan the TKE handshake. Ten minutes later he came back to me and said, “Young man, where were you a TKE?” Before I knew it, I had walked down the hall to the Oval Office and had my picture taken with him.
L&HA: Baystate Financial has extraordinarily high retention rates for new hires. What’s your secret?
DP: I view our 200+ advisors as my customers and my clients. If you looked at our organization chart, I am at the bottom. We have over 100,000 customers, but those are the advisors’ customers. If your desk chair is uncomfortable or you’re struggling to put together the right presentation for a prospect, I’ve got to find a way to help. Otherwise I’m a commodity and you can move on to the next Baystate-type organization. I think of it as being like Nordstrom’s. It may be a little more expensive, but it’s a great place to be. Advisors only get paid when they are face-to-face with their prospects and clients. We’ve built an internal infrastructure that’s huge, bigger than some mid-size insurance companies, that does nothing but cater to the advisors’ needs. We have 70-plus internal support people including attorneys, our pension group, product specialists, sales and support desk, and financial planning specialists.
L&HA: So, dothe he results speak for themselves?
DP: We did a million dollars of commission and fee revenue in 1996 when I bought Baystate, and we did over $60 million last year. We have about 450 people, and our average production per advisor is almost $300,000. We’ve grown from one location in 1996 to ten today, ranging from Colchester, Vermont to East Providence, Rhode Island. Our retention rate is over 74 percent after four years for new hires. The industry average is 11-12 percent. We started a charitable foundation 14 years ago, and today we’ll give away in excess of $300,000. We target children who are disadvantaged in some way by supporting organizations like the Police Athletic League and Access Sports.
L&HA: Your book, Where Winners Live, is now required reading at The American College. What motivated you to write this book?
DP: Early in my career, someone suggested I start keeping track of how business was going, so I have kept notebooks with quotes, articles, and books I liked. Someone asked me how I went from selling insurance door-to-door at age 22 to having the largest agency of any company in the United States. It came down to accountability. I found a co-author, Linda Galindo and with our editor the book came together. The first printing was 15,000 copies. The president of The American College just called me to say the book is required reading for new students in the Capstone program.
L&HA: Today we’re bombarded with media messages that we deserve this and are entitled to that. How does that square with personal accountability?
DP: Here’s an example. Today one of our advisors emailed me about a problem with a split commission. I told him he was accountable for filling out the form first. He had made a mistake and needed to stop blaming everyone else. That said, he is my client so I will do what I can to help him.
L&HA: Will the industry be able to replicate your process or does it take a Dave Porter to make it work?
DP: I think it comes down to execution and treating people the right way. I was the classic C- student but I worked hard. Family, business, and philanthropy are important. I can tell you every single person in our organization’s definition of success. It’s not money. It could be coaching their child’s Little League team or attending every one of their daughter’s ballet recitals. When you know that, it helps you motivate people.
Editor’s Note: Reference for Mr. Porter’s recently published work
Where Winners Live: Sell More, Earn More, Achieve More through Personal Accountability,
By Dave Porter and Linda Galindo with Sharon O’MalleyJohn Wiley & Sons, 2013