I grew up in a small town on the Ohio River called East Liverpool. It is located in Ohio at the junction of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. When I was growing up it had a population of about 22,000. Today the population has dropped to just over 13,000. However, some very unique and notable people have come from my town. I want to tell you about one of them who learned the meaning of providing value for his clients so well that he went on to become the greatest life insurance salesman ever.
His name was Ben Feldman (1912 – 1993) and over his 50 year career selling insurance for one company, his sales volume exceeded $1.8 billion, with over a third of it coming after he turned 65. And, he did it by selling out of his office in East Liverpool and not some major financial capital city like New York.
Ben Feldman came from the sleepy little town of Salineville, Ohio, where he started his business career selling chicken and eggs for $ 5 a week. As an aspiring businessperson, he wanted to enter the insurance field but was unable to pass the basic Equitable Life Insurance Company’s 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 East Liverpool. It was from this location that he began a relentless quest to achieve membership in the prestigious Million Dollar Round Table. He made it in 1946.
Little did anyone suspect that he would far surpass the million dollar mark, however, in 1955, he sold $10 million in coverage. He then began selling one million a month, then a million a week, and in 1971 wrote contracts for over $65 million. He then gunned for $10 million a month and in 1983, with the help of his two sons, Marvin and Richard, he sold $148 million of insurance.
Feldman was an innovator, who made it easy for his clients to understand the complexities of the Federal Estate tax law, which desecrated the fortunes of a large number of wealthy individuals in the period that followed World War II. Long before computer graphics, he created clever hand-drawn charts, illustrating the need for life insurance to protect an individual’s assets from the government. He would book himself on airplane flights, next to a potential client, where upon he would open his brief case, stuffed with $100, $500 and $1,000 bills, along with his charts and graphs. The idea was to entice his neighbor to notice the money and remark, “Is that real money?” “Yes,” Ben would reply, “but I’m not afraid to carry it, because it’s insured.” With such an opening, a sales presentation was a lay-up.
A lover of luxurious automobiles, Feldman would often be seen racing up and down the highways that link Pittsburgh and Youngstown in his Cadillac Eldorado. It was within this 50-mile corridor that he sold the majority of his policies. Often equipped with a CB radio and a car telephone – long before anyone had heard of such a device – he handled rejection like none other.
A favorite Feldman method was to approach the office of a busy executive and ask for an appointment. The response from a frazzled secretary would usually be, “I’m sorry, his time is too valuable.” Ben would ask, “Is it worth $100 a minute?” “At least!” would be the answer, to which the response (accompanied by five brand new one hundred dollar bills,) would be, “Well I’d like to buy five minutes.”
Even when Ben Feldman would go deep sea fishing, he would spend his time developing new sales techniques, memorizing the entire New York Life Insurance rate book. And, he would arm himself with pithy little phrases, designed to overcome the most difficult challenge. To the potential client who said, “I believe in term insurance.” Ben would respond, “Term insurance is temporary, but your problem is permanent.” “I can’t afford the premium,” would invoke, “You are already broke and don’t even know it.”
Following in the footsteps of such a legend was not easy for Marv and Rich Feldman, but they handled the challenge well as Marv became president of the Million Dollar Table in 2001, and Rich excelled in a number of endeavors, including “drag racing,” of all things.
Now you might be thinking to yourself that Ben must have been some kind of superstar, good looking, fast talking, kind of man – but you’d be wrong. Ben was a short, stout, balding and spoke slowly with a distinct lisp. He never finished high school. He was so shy that years later when he was asked to speak at insurance industry meetings, he would only agree to if a screen was erected between him and the audience.
But, he was a legend when it came to making a point to know every business owner in his region. He did his homework first and learned all he could about his potential customers so that by the time he met with them (often on a “cold call”) he was ready with the right Value Development Questions. He didn’t always sell right away but he never gave up. I once heard him say that for years he didn’t stop working for the day until he made at least one sale – no matter how late it got.
One of favorite stories about Ben is about a prominent real estate developer. Ben tried for weeks to get in to see the busy man but was always unsuccessful. One day, Ben stopped in cold and handed the developer’s assistant the envelope with five $100 bills and asked her to give it to her boss. He told her “If I don’t have a good idea for him, he can keep the money.” He got in and sold a $14 million policy. Years later when Ben realized the man need additional insurance due to the unprecedented growth of his company; he was once again stymied by the man’s insistence that he was too busy to take a physical. Undaunted, Ben rented a fully equipped mobile hospital van, hired a doctor and sent them to the industrialist. Rumor is that the man ended up with over $50 million in coverage.
In 1992, New York Life marked Ben’s 50th year with the company by proclaiming “Feldman’s February”, a national sales competition. Ben took this as a personal challenge. The winner of the contest (at 80 years old) was Ben Feldman.
Ben was famous for his sayings that he used to inspire both clients and himself. My favorite is:
“Doing something costs something.
Doing nothing costs something.
And quite often, doing nothing costs a lot more.”
Ben Feldman died in 1993 at 81. A few years before his death he was asked about the largest policy that he had ever written. “I can’t say. I haven’t written it yet.”