Tier One Interview: Amy Salo
This month, Jay sits down with Amy Salo CFP®, CAP®, CExP™, Managing Partner, Forest Hills Financial Group. Jay and Amy talk about the differences between career agencies and brokerages, the ongoing work to unify the industry, trombones and our first ever Staten Island restaurant shout out!
Jay: Amy, I’m thrilled and relieved that you agreed to this interview. You are a successful career General Agent and, as our readers have figured out, I come from the world of producer groups, brokerage and international distribution. It occurred to me that I have been subconsciously ignoring a significant segment of the top tier of the life insurance industry, the career system, and should do my part to help unify the profession.
You and I just recently met through our work on the Diversity Scholar initiative for our industry’s advocacy group, Finseca. I was so impressed that I moved you to the top of my interview Wishlist. Let’s get started with hearing about your practice at Forest Hills Financial Group, based in both New York City and Melville, NY.
AMY: Thanks Jay. I am honored to be included in your series. One of the wonderful benefits of the work at Finseca is that we are all getting to know each another better. By sharing perspectives gained and lessons learned from our unique journeys, we are building the bonds necessary to unify our profession. I hope as a result, we will begin to see our impact as a profession grow exponentially, and we will continue to elevate the profession in our communities.
Forest Hills Financial Group is a General Agency of Guardian Life, serving the greater New York area. We have just about 100 career agents and over 30,000 clients in the professional and small business markets. We help clients as early as basic financial planning all the way through retirement, high net worth strategies and business exit planning. We also serve a large network of brokers across the independent, bank and career agency systems who we help with strategy, planning and execution of advanced insurance solutions. One of the benefits of our system is access to a broad base of carriers in the insurance space, and hundreds of portfolio managers in the wealth management space. Our expertise allows even our newest advisors to bring clients to the table, and then utilize resources and specialists within the firm to be sure their clients have access to the level of advice that is appropriate for the circumstance.
JAY: When I did some background research, I saw places like Hartford and Rochester in your history. Then, when we spoke, I found out that you’re Canadian and didn’t exactly come to the United States to work in the life insurance business. Take me through your upbringing and how you eventually landed across the border and found your way in our industry.
AMY: Right. I grew up in Northern Ontario, Canada – a town called Sudbury. We are best known historically for Nickel mining, and then in more recent years for our Neutrino Observatory, Stem cell research, and environmental efforts to repair the landscape from the impact of early mining efforts. In Sudbury when I was growing up, there was a strong music program at Laurentian University, and between my high school programs and the programs available through the University I became interested in the trombone. I subsequently attended The Hartt School of Music in Hartford, CT, and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY.
I was drawn to the US for the contemporary music programs, and scholarships helped for sure. Much like many people graduating now, I had not found a way to connect the dots between my success in school and earning a living post-graduation. Ultimately, the life insurance industry appeared to provide what I needed next – great upside potential, growth opportunities, development, and a profession that rewards the impact you have on your community. At the time I joined, I didn’t own any life insurance, my family was in another country, and my friends were all broke… so to say I started on the ground floor might even be generous.
JAY: Usually, I get into some sort of life insurance solution-specific discussion with our interviewees – talking about executive benefits, estate planning, PPLI and so on. I’ll stipulate that you are an advanced markets expert and know your stuff when it comes to even the most complex life insurance strategies. Now we can stray to another topic and that is the differences and similarities between the top parts of our industry’s distribution – career agency and brokerage. You opened my eyes on some of positive attributes of the career system and I wanted you to have a chance to share your perspective about our two worlds.
AMY: I’m so glad that you asked this question Jay. Some of the best people I know in the business are in the independent brokerage channels, and others have found a home in the career system. When I hire new advisors, and they ask about growth opportunities, I always say the same thing. We are going to teach you how to build a market, and a book of business. Once you feel you have that process working, you will feel one of two ways: either you will be most interested in building your own practice, focusing your days on your clients and staff, or you will be interested in having a voice in the larger organization helping to leverage your strengths to attract, grow and develop other advisors. In our system, our leadership team, including the General Agents, continue to work with clients, so both paths have great upside potential. It is primarily a question of where you feel most fulfilled in your life, and we will support you in both.
For advisors and producer groups, some prefer to hold the reigns on all of the decisions surrounding staff, office space, compliance, expenses etc., and these are likely best suited for the independent channel. Others prefer to leverage the resources of a career agency firm and have business management items handled by the firm so that they can focus on their clients.
There is also a question of specialization. In a firm like ours, it is possible to lean on the collective experience of the firm to help a broad array of clients. This makes the career system ideally suited to attract and develop new advisors. Some of these stay in the career system, and some do not. Certainly, as a profession, it is essential that we continue to focus on attracting, developing and retaining a large number of professionals from diverse backgrounds to close the gap on the enormous deficits we currently have as a country in terms of financial security.
JAY: Let’s stay with this discussion for a minute. You are on the board of Finseca where you, other board members and the leadership team are working to unify the profession. What does that mean and is it even possible? Can the worlds of brokerage and career agency as well as retirement and other planners come together under one advocacy umbrella?
AMY: It’s not just possible Jay, it is happening, and it’s essential that we do even more. In my tenure in the profession, it has been my observation that the primary reason people do not have more complete and effective financial plans is that they do not trust our industry. Why? Because we continue to compete with each other in unhealthy ways. There are a finite number of products to fund financial plans, and there are a finite number of ways for advisors to be paid. In my opinion, there are no bad products or fee structures, they were all manufactured to do something better than everything else. If we match our clients to the most appropriate solution, we have done our job.
As long as we continue to battle each other, we will continue to have to fight for public trust, and regulators will continue to make the work we do more complicated, disclosure heavy, and confusing for our prospective clients. That, in turn, makes it more likely that the public will turn to unlicensed, uncredentialed, and unregulated sources for advice.
I was recently on Capitol Hill with the Finseca Advanced Markets and Advocacy Summit, and I asked a senator if they felt Congress was aware of the risks of regulating fee structures, and how that would impact consumer choice, and increase the number of Americans relying on the government after the loss of a loved one. The answer was quite impactful. No, they didn’t understand, and until we could get together as a profession and agree on a solution, they would continue to regulate. Ouch! Back in our court.
So, we have our work cut out for us….and, I think we can only do it together by unifying the profession.
JAY: Here’s the question about the elephant in the room. The life insurance industry has long been a male-dominated one. Is this changing?
AMY: It’s slow, Jay, and it’s frustrating. I remember early in my career I found it challenging to drop my two-year-old son off at day care, and drive to the train, park, commute into New York City, and get into the office before training started at 8:30. At the time, I was generously granted an exception to miss training because of my “extenuating
circumstances.” Are children extenuating circumstances? It seemed odd to me that the suggestion was that none of the men had children, or at least if they did, they had no
responsibility for them. I wonder what types of sacrifices their spouses had to make in their workplaces to allow the men to get to training on time if they did have kids. I would also have loved to hear what they would have called the exception for two men with children!
Our attachment to the way things have always been done, resistance to change, and inability to ask for ideas and suggestions is crippling to the profession. We must evolve. I won’t stop being a squeaky wheel until I look at the leaderboard at our firm and see names and faces that match the diversity of my son’s school and the local supermarket.
JAY: In thinking about changes to our industry, I’m reminded of the presentation you and I attended at Finseca’s recent Advanced Markets and Advocacy Summit in Washington D.C. The former Tesla and Apple executive, George Blankenship, talked about how he positioned products to want to be purchased; thus, circumventing the traditional sales process. In our industry, we frequently hear that life insurance is sold and not bought. This tells me that some folks in our industry are resisting the way many consumers are wanting to interact. Can we change our ways to fit how clients want to buy products like life insurance?
AMY: The challenge with “selling” insurance, is that very often people are purchasing a partial solution. It’s better than nothing, but it’s not good enough. We as a profession have a responsibility to do more. I think people want as much financial success as they can have – they want optimal, they just don’t understand how to get it. When we “sell” a policy, people feel like they have checked off the box, and that the job is done. We cannot write the check for our clients, but we can make sure they have all of the information they need to make an informed decision. I have personally delivered eight death claims in 15 years, and only one of those was on a client over age 60.
The most difficult part of our job is in asking people for their time. When they give us their time, the most important part of our job is in helping them see the context within which they are making decisions about their financial future and the financial security of their family. I think people do want to buy, they just first want to understand, and prioritizing time to do that is the key. There is a disruptive solution out there for our industry, and I hope I am at the front of the line when we figure it out.
JAY: You and your husband, Mike, have a total of three children, ages, 26, 22 and 16 and this keeps you a little busy. I hope you don’t mind but I wanted our readers to know that your husband is a famous musician and I encourage everyone to visit Mike Davis at Hip-Bone Music and check out his trombone skills. Besides a shared love of the trombone – something I never thought I would say in a life insurance interview – how do you spend your free time together?
AMY: Yes, I have a son and two stepsons. We are pretty simple. We spend as much time as we can on Cape Cod, and we like to golf as well. My son Calvin and I take a trip together - just the two of us - once a year, and then, of course, we all travel to Canada to see the extended family when we can. Much of our down time at home is spent in the kitchen – I love to cook, and my husband’s cleaning skills are second to none. On tour one year, he was offered an executive housekeeping position after vacuuming his own room... Our BHAG as parents is for our kids to want to be in our lives on their own terms. We’re invested in having the best relationship we can with each of them as they build their own adult lives.
JAY: Knowing that you and your husband are ‘foodies’ and enjoy a lot of different cuisines, I know you have been looking forward to our restaurant question. You even mentioned that you might have one or two spots in Staten Island – which is a first for us. Without naming a steakhouse or a steak dish, where do I need to eat and what should I order?
AMY: No need for the disclaimer. If I never see the inside of another steakhouse, that will be ok with me--there are a lot of exciting cuisines in the world that don’t come with a side of mac and cheese. I like to travel with Mike to concerts when they are in places I wouldn’t necessarily otherwise visit. While he is rehearsing, I scope out the eating and drinking spots. For whatever reason, I never make reservations… I like to just stumble into something great and surprise myself. Two food highlights - a crudo place in Staten Island (called Pastavino) where you should actually order the crudo - and Kodbyen’s Fiskebar in Copenhagen. There, you need to sit at the bar, order the tasting menu and ask for a tour of the kitchen.
Amy Salo is a Registered Principal and Financial Advisor of Park Avenue Securities LLC (PAS). Securities products and advisory services offered through PAS, member FINRA, SIPC. General Agent of The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America® (Guardian), New York, NY. PAS is a wholly owned subsidiary of Guardian. Forest Hills Financial Group is not an affiliate or subsidiary of PAS or Guardian. CA Insurance License Number - 0L64608. 2022-139937 Exp 06/24
Since its inception, Life Insurance Strategies Group has solely focused on the individual high net worth life insurance market. We do not sell products. This allows us to offer unbiased, pragmatic advice. Visit us at www.lifeinsurancestrategiesgroup.com.