In Profile

Josh Becker: Strategies for Wealth

Who We Serve…

by P.E. Kelley

Mr. Kelley is managing editor of LIFE&Health Advisor and L&HA e-newsLink, our daily e-magazine. Connect with him by e-mail:

Josh Becker walked into Strategies for Wealth in 1997 and knew, intuitively he says, that he wanted to be partners with the two general agents there, Ron Rosbruch and Jerry Harnik. The firm, located in New York’s Westchester County, with branches in the City and out on Long Island, is a member of the Guardian network of independent agencies and was recognized in 2013 as Guardian’s top agency in the U.S. Its revenue is derived, roughly, from 50% life and DI premium and 50% investment advisory services and AUM. Its size, expressed in total benefit value, is $33 billion, with a target of $50 billion by 2020. In 2013 Crain’s New York Business named Strategies for Wealth as one of the best places to work in New York City, citing its commitment to career growth and fostering a comfortable and collaborative work environment.

Strategies for Wealth is a legacy agency. It was founded in 1934 and not only has survived a generational turnover, it continues to grow in an industry where distribution is an ever-evolving challenge. Becker, who oversees the agency’s ongoing recruitment initiative, spoke with LIFE&Health Advisor about an organic and ontological philosophy for succession, rooted in a core belief that while the environment can shape the integrity of the whole, it is the people within that embody, and manifest, its essential vision.

L&HA: Your agency is 80 years old. How does any company survive a change in generation, a complete change in ownership and management, if you will?
JB: I am very proud of the fact that we were around in 1934, which was such an unusual time for the entire country, and that we were aligned with Guardian. We embrace a fundamental belief in the people that make up this company, and I want to believe that this belief existed back then as well. It’s all about the people involved. My passion is recruiting, finding and developing great people, and I think that is the fundamental element of both our success and our succession. Our people are our greatest assets.

L&HA: What is the value proposition when you recruit today? Has it changed significantly?
JB: Our focus is on finding really good people and surrounding them with really great people. That requires an ability to identify talent. So, from the very beginning of our conversation, it’s not about anybody else’s offer, it’s only about the offer that Strategies For Wealth is making to this individual, which is all about the environment that we’ve created for them.
I recognize that great people who are put into a mediocre environment biologically become mediocre. But good people who are brought into a superb environment have the ability to flourish. I use a greenhouse analogy. In that environment, plants and flowers thrive, but once removed, taken home and planted or whatever, suddenly they’re not doing as well. It’s all environmental: we recognize how our environment fosters the success of our associates.

L&HA: So, clearly you bring something intangible to the recruiting equation. How do you identify this?
JB: In a business that has become so commoditized , we believe that the only way to differentiate ourselves is to not be in that business. So, our focus is not on the products, financial strategies or the mutual fund of the month, but rather on building people, working with them on an ontological level to see who they are being, when they do what they do. In this way, we create a high-performance culture. It’s not about the metrics… it’s about the people.
I learned this from my mentors, my partners Ron and Jerry. We got out of the product business and got into the planning business, and the emphasis had to be on our biggest asset, our people. So, the idea is that when people are in good order and have balance, when their focus is on what is possible, they create value in the marketplace. Without that value, they become marginalized, indistinguishable from anyone else.

L&HA: Who are today’s best candidates?
JB: I can only speak for how we answer that question, so, my best candidate is someone who has already spent some time in the industry but has not yet realized the great potential this career has to offer. This is often due to a working environment in which they simply have not yet found a way to fit. Another good candidate is the career changer, often from other segments of the financial industry. In both instances, we encounter a fundamental frustration in their efforts to succeed. These are people who believe in themselves, but for one reason or another have not found the success that they thought they would.

L&HA: What does that conversation sound like?
JB: When we meet, we do not spend a lot of time talking about what they are doing that is not working. Instead, we put a much greater emphasis on why they are doing what they do. We’re confident that we can equip them on the strategy side, using basic tools such as the Guardian’s Living Balance Sheet. However, there is an ontological side to consider as well, which focuses more on why they do what they do. We embrace a be-do-have mentality, where instead of someone saying to themselves “…one day I’ll do this or I’ll be that today” why not say “…how about being that today?” We know what successful advisors do in this business, so let’s consider the behaviors necessary to actually be that, instead of waiting for that day to occur miraculously.

It is a purpose-driven culture, comprised of thousands of conversations taking place every day in our office; some we participate in, some are taking place at the water cooler, some are happening in the heads of our associates

L&HA: Was this an organic process that grew out of your partnership with Ron & Jerry?
JB: When I walked into their offices 17 years ago to discuss joining them as a partner, I recognized something dramatically different. They were really, really smart people. It was immediately apparent to me that the entire firm was engaged in a transition from a product-oriented culture to one that focused instead on process. They were asking some very fundamental questions about themselves: ‘…who are we being for our clients?’ ‘who are we serving?’ and ‘…what is our purpose?’

It is this sensibility that permeates the entire company. It is a purpose-driven culture, comprised of thousands of conversations taking place every day in our office; some we participate in, some are taking place at the water cooler, some are happening in the heads of our associates. But it is a common sense of purpose that binds this firm together.

L&HA: What forces were influencing the way business was run in 1997, or even before that, and how did your model evolve from that?
JB: When you look back to the mid 1980s, something was going on in this industry, where everybody was starting to do everyone else’s business, and by 1997 it was blatantly clear that the fundamental system was not really working. We recognized that many of its practitioners, advisors who believed in the promise that the career was offering, had become quite disenchanted. We saw the job becoming commoditized, and the success of these advisors suffered as a result.

L&HA: How did that happen to a career-model that was so simple in its value proposition?
JB: We can trace it, in part, back to 1985 or 1986, when the financial services industry as we know it really came into being. We had legislation that eliminated the barriers in between industries, which allowed banks to own insurance companies, insurance companies to buy brokerage firms and brokerage firms to buy credit card companies. But by 1997, it all blew up.

L&HA: What does your ‘purpose-driven culture’ feel like from the inside?
JB: At the risk of sounding over-the-top, what this company has is a ridiculous amount of leadership coming from within the ranks of our advisors. I avoid comparing our firm to others… it is not my place and it is something I feel I don’t have to do. Still, if you look around at the model for leadership in so many firms, in so many industries, leadership is very often concentrated at the top, often located in some remote corporate office somewhere. But here, leadership comes from our advisors, where they collaborate. They play a huge role in creating those daily conversations, and are a tremendous resource for one another.

One of our advisors gave a presentation at 8:00am this morning on, of all things, the importance of personal liability insurance. One of his clients is worth $20,000 million but has only a $1 million umbrella. Now, we have nothing to do with liability insurance, but the advisor realized that within the total picture of this client’s financial well being, it was a very important element. This illustrates the lengths we know we have to go to truly do what is right for our clients.

L&HA: This sounds like what you call your 360-degree concept of client service.
JB: Precisely. What it seeks to do is determine not just what is important to the client but what truly matters to them. Anyone can do a decent fact-finder, looking at things like 401(k) balance, whether the client has a will or how much life insurance they own; and they educate them about what they might need going forward. But then you have to uncover what really matters to the client, what is relevant to them. And this has more to do with feelings than facts. Only then can you move them from education to transaction, to move the needle in a way that is meaningful to them.

L&HA: You make a distinction between ‘execution’ versus ‘conceptualization’ which speaks to a client’s inherent grasp of some very esoteric financial concepts. What is the learning curve when it comes to educating your clients?
JB: It’s hard to answer that in general terms, but I can say that whether we’re working with senior associates or new advisors, we recognize that clients do come to us with wholly disparate, and at times distorted, sets of stories about what success and wealth actually look like. Here again, what they read in magazines may just not be appropriate for them. We have to determine what truly matters to them.

L&HA: The underlying premise, of course, is income planning, particularly with the emergence of longevity and health as critical financial factors. Within this context, how prepared do you find your clients to be for retirement?
JB: I think people are getting it. I think they understand the longevity risk and they are looking very carefully at the equation of making it last. And the majority of them do not want to take on more risk, nor do they want to curtail their lifestyle. Naturally, today’s new annuities, with guaranteed income throughout retirement, have become a bigger part of the conversation.

L&HA: At this point, how do you engineer continued growth?
JB: Our most senior advisor, George Handler, has been with the firm for 42 years. Another broker, Lenny Seigel, has been affiliated with the firm for 60 years or so. We are a firm that is dedicated to growing people as the assets. It’s all about finding talent, and then determining if that talent is open to a conversation with us. It’s a process, a conversation really, that allows them to assess us as a firm and allows us to assess them as a candidate.

In this regard, when you consider how much has changed in the industry, this conversation has not. It is still the greatest profession, an honorable profession that allows us to help our clients take care of themselves, their families and their money. It takes good people to do that.