I grew up in a small town on the Ohio River called East Liverpool. It is located in Ohio at the intersection of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. When I grew up it had a population of about 22,000 people. Today the population has decreased to just over 13,000. However, some very distinguished and distinguished people have come from my city. I want to tell you about someone who learned what it means to deliver value to his customers so well that he became the greatest life insurance seller of all time.
His name was Ben Feldman (1912-1993) and over his 50-year career selling insurance to one company, his turnover exceeded $1.8 billion, more than a third of which came after he turned 65. His office is in East Liverpool and not in some major financial capitals like New York.
Ben Feldman came from the small, sleepy town of Salenville, Ohio, where he started his career selling chicken and eggs for $5 a week. As an aspiring businessman, he wanted to enter the insurance field but could not pass the life insurance company basic aptitude test.
In typical Feldman fashion, he sold himself to Equitable, and began collecting premiums on meager nickel-and-dime policies. In 1942, he joined New York Life, and opened a small office in the Little Building, on the Diamond, in downtown Liverpool. From this site he began a relentless quest for membership in the prestigious Million Dollar Roundtable. He made it in 1946.
No one doubted that he would far exceed the million dollar mark, however, in 1955, he sold $10 million in coverage. Then he started selling a million a month, then a million a week, and in 1971 he wrote contracts for more than $65 million. Then he earned $10 million a month and in 1983, with the help of his two sons, Marvin and Richard, he sold $148 million in insurance.
An innovator, Feldman made it easy for his clients to understand the intricacies of the federal estate tax law, which desecrated the fortunes of a large number of wealthy individuals in the post-World War II period. Long before computer graphics, he created clever hand-drawn charts, illustrating the need for life insurance to protect one’s assets from the government. He’d book himself a flight, next to a potential client, where he’d open his brief, stuffed with $100, $500, and $1,000 bills, along with his charts and charts. The idea was to entice his neighbor to note the money and comment, “Is this real money?” “Yes,” Ben replies, “but I am not afraid to carry her, for she is a believer.” With this opening, the sales presentation was a normal situation.
Feldman was a lover of luxury cars, and was often seen racing up and down the highways connecting Pittsburgh and Youngstown in his Cadillac El Dorado. It was within this 50-mile corridor that he sold off the majority of his policies. Often with a CB radio and a car phone – long before anyone had heard of such a device – he handled the rejection like no other.
Feldman’s preferred method was to approach a busy CEO’s office and request an appointment. The exhausted secretary’s response is usually, “I’m sorry, his time is so precious.” Ben might ask, “Is it worth $100 a minute?” “at least!” The answer, to which the reply (accompanied by five new hundred dollar bills) would be, “Okay, I’d like to buy five minutes.”
Even when Ben Feldman goes deep sea fishing, he spends his time developing new sales techniques, memorizing the entire New York life insurance quote book. He was armed with small, eloquent phrases designed to overcome the toughest challenges. To a potential customer who said, “I believe in forward insurance.” Ben replies, “Term insurance is temporary, but your problem is permanent.” I will protest: “I can’t afford the premium,” “You’re already broke and you don’t even know it.”
Following in the footsteps of such a legend wasn’t easy for Marv and Rich Feldman, but they took on the challenge and Marv became president of the Million Dollar Table in 2001, excelling in a number of endeavors, including “drag racing,” of all things.
Now you might be thinking Ben must have been a superstar, good-looking, fast-talking, kind of guy – but you’d be wrong. Ben was short, stout, bald and spoke slowly with a characteristic stammer. He did not finish high school. He was so shy years later when asked to speak at insurance industry meetings, he wouldn’t agree unless a screen was erected between him and the audience.
But he was a legend when it came to getting to know every business owner in his area. He did his homework first and learned everything he could about his potential clients so that by the time he met them (often on a “cold call”) he was ready with the right value development questions. He didn’t always sell out right away but he never gave up. I once heard him say that for years he didn’t stop working all day until he made at least one sale – no matter how late it was.
One of my favorite stories about Ben is about a prominent real estate developer. Ben tried for weeks to get in to see the busy man but it didn’t always work out. One day, Ben stopped in the cold and handed the developer’s assistant the envelope with five $100 bills and asked her to hand it over to her boss. “If I don’t have a good idea about him, he can keep the money,” he told her. He entered and sold a document worth $14 million. Years later when Ben realizes that the man needs additional insurance due to the unprecedented growth of his company; He was again in an awkward position due to the man’s insistence that he was too busy to do a physical examination. Ben rented a fully equipped mobile hospital car, hired a doctor and sent it to the industrialist. Rumor has it that the guy ended up covering more than $50 million.
In 1992, New York Life celebrated Ben’s 50th anniversary with the company by declaring “Feldman’s February,” a national sales competition. Ben took this as a personal challenge. The winner of the competition (80 years old) was Ben Feldman.
Ben is best known for his quotes that he used to inspire both clients and himself. My favorite is:
“Doing something costs something.
Doing nothing costs something.
And a lot of times, it doesn’t cost much to do anything.”
Ben Feldman died in 1993 at the age of 81. A few years before his death he was asked about the biggest policy he had ever written. “I can’t say. I haven’t written it yet.”