Starts 19th Jan Saturday 7:30pm ET & 4:30pm PT

Growing a Family, Not Just a Business:
My Journey to the Top of the Table

By Jaydev R. Patel

One of the wonderful things about being a life insurance agent is that there is no single path to the top. Over the past four decades, I've had the opportunity to get to know dozens of Top of the Table agents, and they all have a unique story to tell about how they chose to become an agent and the twists and turns on their road to success. My own professional journey has spanned nearly forty five years and four countries, and the rewards it has offered along the way have exceeded anything I could have dreamed when I began.

I graduated with a Master’s degree in Chemistry in 1966, and in1967, I moved from my native India to Kenya, where I taught high school. In 1968, I immigrated to Canada only to find that I was overqualified to gain meaningful employment. I ended up finding a job, ironically, at the Unemployment Office, doing filing and other office work at the princely wage of $1.21 an hour.

From there, I tried my hand at serving drinks on New Year's Eve. As I am a teetotaler who had absolutely no knowledge about alcohol, you can imagine how successful I was at that job.

So, in August 1969, I made the move to immigrate to the United States. I boarded a Greyhound bus to New York City, arriving at the Port Authority bus terminal in the early morning hours. Despite the hour, a police officer convinced me to take the subway, rather than a taxi, to the 36th Street YMCA, since the subway fare was only one quarter then. A room at the Y cost me another six dollars - a lot of money for me in those days.

I contacted a friend in New Jersey, who put me up for a couple of nights and then helped me find a place in public housing in Newark. By that time, I had landed a job as a chemist, earning $125 a week, and was quite happy. However, my long commute via public transportation left me virtually no time to shop for any necessities. So for 2 weeks, I slept on newspapers. Needless to say, I was not a married man at that point!

With my career as a chemist seemingly on solid footing, in 1971, I returned to India via Kenya, where I met my wife Purnima. Within one week, we were married. And within a couple of months of returning to the United States, I was given a pink slip on New Year's Eve and once again faced the challenge of finding a job. I am sure my wife must have been thinking, "Why did I marry this guy?"

I found another job, working for a pharmaceutical company, but like many in the industry during those days of recession, I was laid off once again in 1973. At this time my wife was expecting out first child, and she was on leave from her job as a secretary. It was a worrisome time for us, as we passed our time watching the infamous Watergate hearings on TV, knowing that we had ourselves, our child on the way, and assorted extended family members dependent on our combined unemployment income of less than $200 a week.

I was determined to find good solid employment - a position where I could succeed based on my own merits and not have to worry about layoffs. About the time that President Nixon resigned, I realized that I would have to find something, even if it was just on a temporary basis.

During this time, two different life insurance agents - one from Prudential and one from New York Life - had contacted me about purchasing insurance to protect my new family. Given our precarious financial situation, I was not interested in buying. But it gave me the idea of selling insurance part time until a more meaningful job opportunity came along.

I ran the idea by my family and friends, and the general consensus was that I was crazy. They told me that life insurance agents were last in line - something people would avoid whenever possible. My wife said that she had married a chemist, not an insurance agent, and she did not want to be looked down upon; in fact, she'd rather I was unemployed than an insurance agent. The uncle who raised me and financed my education on his teacher's salary wrote, imploring me to reconsider.

My family and friends not only thought that selling life insurance was undesirable, they were also convinced I'd be about as successful at it as I had been as a cocktail waiter. They considered me reserved and shy, so they could not understand how I was going to make it in sales. What they didn't know – and I learned later - is that the less you talk, the more you sell.

I decided that I had nothing to lose by giving life insurance sales a try. I called up Prudential and New York Life to find out what I needed to do to become a part-time agent. I visited the nearest New York Life office and was very fortunate to meet William Sullivan, who in my opinion was one of the finest managers in our industry. I showed him all my certificates and character references. As a courtesy, he took a look at them, but he told me honestly that, in this business, one is paid based on a performance. He told me I could make as much money or as little as I wanted to, depending on the number of policies I sold. At that time, I thought I would be the happiest man on earth if I could earn $10,000 a year, so I asked him how many policies I'd need to sell, and he told me about 100 - a daunting challenge. But, with the added motivation of our newborn son - Sachin, who joined us on August 8, 1973 - I embarked on my part-time life insurance career.

On September 21, 1973, when I signed my contract, I had 16 applications in hand, all of which I had sold to relatives and friends. While they were skeptical about my chosen career path, they wanted to help me succeed. I quickly discovered that the life insurance business is all about relationships, and I put my relationships to work. Within just three months, I had qualified for the Million Dollar Round table, and by the end of my first contract year, I had set a new record for a New York Life first year agent with $4.2 million of business and 158 policies.

I tried to see as many people as I could, and I sought referrals on all fronts. While my newfound success was exhilarating on one level, the effort it required put a huge strain on my young family. A babysitter cared for our newborn son during the day, and when Purni came home from her job in the evening, she virtually always had to look after Sachin, because I was out on appointments. At times, I would return home to find her behind the door waiting for me in tears and insisting that I quit this job.

But, from the beginning, she also helped me build my business. I focused on the Asian Indian market - new immigrants - a potential market of 400,000 people scattered all over the continental United States. Purni and I went through telephone directories and picked out every possible Indian name and started making lists to which we sent direct mail solicitations. From responses and referrals, I started networking. I also got my insurance license for Quebec and Ontario so I could call on friends and acquaintances in Canada.

In 1975, New York Life held its annual sales conference in California. That was my first visit to the west coast, and it provided me with some new referrals. Initially, these people were apprehensive about working with an agent who lived 3,000 miles away, fearing I would never return to follow up on their needs. I took on the challenge, returning to the west coast time and again. Building on this model, I now have licenses in 39 states and in India, and keeping in close touch with my clients, including face-to-face visits, has been a cornerstone of my business for 45 years.

By 1981, I was New York Life’s #2 sales person with 651 policies and over $53 Million in face amount and qualified for Top of the Table for the first time. In 1983, I generated an all-time record-high $85.7 million in sales, with 850 policies, achieving the highest honor New York Life bestows on its agents, the Council Presidency. For many agents, achieving this level of success means working with just a handful of extremely wealthy clients. But I grew and maintained my business just as I did when I began, with client service, referred leads and a steadily high case rate forming the foundation. I followed up relentlessly and created huge prospect files. I was on the road for more than 200 days a year, sometimes for a month at a time.

By this time, my wife not only accepted my career, but also helped me in the office. I began to realize that I was not just building a book of business: I was really growing a family. I built relationships of friendship and trust with my clients and prospects. It wasn’t hard: After all, these were mostly immigrants trying to make a success of their lives in America and in their chosen profession, just as I was. I keep my approach simple and, to this day, conduct all my business face to face or on the phone, I do not use email. I try every day to truly get to know my clients - through education, culture, values, and communication. I learn their vision of the American dream, and I not only work with them to try to achieve their dreams, I try to share the important milestones along the way.

With a sense of humor, caring honesty and sincerity, I've earned my clients' respect, and eventually they've become my friends - indeed, my family. I attend their weddings and funerals, with lots of informal social visits in between. I visit them when they are sick. I know their families, both here and in India. I send out about 10,000 birthday cards a year.

Because I get to know entire families, one relationship grows to encompass multiple generations. For instance, I have a client to whom I sold a $75,000 policy in 1974. Today, I serve 75 members of his extended family - his daughters, grandchildren, and cousins – and they have roughly $6 million in life insurances assets with me. I now have a relationship with four generations of another family. Last year 13 children and grandchildren bought a total of $65 million of life insurance coverage.

To help prospects get to know me before we meet face to face, I send them articles about me - essentially third-party endorsements that make them comfortable with me. For example, when I was featured in New York Life's monthly magazine for its field force, we’d send out copies of the articles to all of our prospects. We got a real boost in 1987, when The Wall Street Journal wrote a front-page article about me. And recently another prominent article appeared in the Times of India. People want to associate with successful people, not only in this business, but they also want the best surgeon, the best lawyer, the best accountant. And these articles are one way to ensure that my reputation precedes me when I meet a potential new client.

Now that my extended family - my book of business - numbers in the thousands, referred leads are guaranteed. This allows me to select the best-qualified prospects with whom to work and to create hundreds of centers of influence, who act as my ambassadors.

Today, my clients they look forward to my visits. I rarely have to buy my meals: I am proud to say that I am a salesman who gets fed by his clients and not the other way around.

When we connect with our clients in a real way, it is much easier for us to show them what life insurance can do, that it’s a solution and not an expense. I tell my clients that they believe in God, their parents and their doctors, and they should add their insurance agents to that list. Doctors give hope and make us better when we’re sick. But there comes a point when nobody can do anything, and that's when we insurance agents are there to help clients fulfill their dreams: education for their children and dignity and independence for their spouses.

In my 45 years in this business, I have seen many families that would have been torn apart if it were not for insurance. Today, rather than being the "last in line", we insurance agents have become among the most respected members in the community, at work, home and all over the world for what we do for others, we are first in line. It's a noble calling, knowing that what we offer helps people around the world maintain their respect for tradition and protect their futures. We serve people of all faiths and races and we are very proud of what we do.

Our clients have become the diamond mines from which we get 100% of our business - both today and in the future through referred leads. How many diamonds I dig up and how big they are depends on me. Each diamond I get out is usually worth at least $1,000 and sometimes as much as $50,000.

Today, my book of business comprises more than 2,000 households and over 5,000 policies in force. That represents over $2 billion in face amount, of which about $1.5 billion is in permanent insurance, and 80% of that is Whole Life - the best possible solution for most clients, in my opinion. It is tremendously important for me to help my clients keep their policies in force, because I am the one who shows up at the funeral with the check for the family. I do not want to know that I have allowed a client to be unprotected. So when a client tells me he can no longer afford his policy, I help him keep it in force through other means, if possible. That's a key reason that my policy persistency is 99%, and that we paid out over $8 million in death benefits last year.

I believe the opportunities facing us have never been stronger. In 1973, my greatest aspiration was to earn $10,000 a year. Today, I know that $10,000 a day is possible for many of you - a far cry from the $1.21 an hour at which I began my working life. Like most who have achieved Top of the Table status, I am growing older, and so is the core of my client base. But because my clients have become my family, that represents a huge opportunity for the future. The grandchildren of my original clients now numbers in the thousands. That means the diamond mine can remain open for the next 50 years, if we keep connected to them.

I have said that I consider my clients my family, and that has never been more true that for the past four years, when my insurance family and my own family have become even closer. My son Sachin, who was born just as I embarked on my life insurance journey, joined me in my business many years ago, and the rewards have been tremendous, both professionally and personally.

Watching my son's success is among the most rewarding aspects of my career. Of course, as his father, I am tremendously proud. But even more so, I am heartened to know that the journey I set out on 45 years ago will continue, and that the extended family of clients and friends we have built will continue to grow and flourish. I thank you and I wish you joy and success on your own journeys.

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