Tier One Interview: Aviva Sapers
In our latest Tier One Interview, our CEO, Jay Judas, spoke to Aviva Saper, President and CEO of Sapers & Wallack, Inc, a nationally recognized, third generation life insurance and wealth management company. The pair chat about Aviva's career, including taking over the family business, client service, the affects of Covid-19 on the life insurance industry, and favorite Boston-area restaurants. Read the interview in full below.
Jay: Let me admit right away how both excited and nervous I am to be interviewing you. I would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would argue with me when I say you and your firm, Sapers & Wallack, are the definition of Tier One participants in the U.S. life insurance and wealth management industry. You are a rare and successful owner of a third-generation business and you are an exceptional female leader in an industry which remains dominated by men. Your company is not just an expert in a single area or strategy but excels in both individual and business solutions and has been doing so for most of its 88-year history. Start us out by talking about Sapers & Wallack and your role with the organization.
Aviva: My grandfather started the business in 1932 as a Sun Life agent. Dad joined him before going into the service, was asked to re-write the insurance handbook for the army while in service and when he finished, he came back to work with my grandfather at Sapers Insurance Agency. In the early 60’s he wanted a contemporary as a partner and brought in Norm Wallack and it became Sapers & Wallack. Ed Wallack joined in 1982 and I came aboard in 1987.
Our business has grown over the years from just life insurance to retirement plan advisors, group benefits, executive benefits, wealth management and charitable strategies. In 1983, after graduating college, I came to work for my father to learn what he did. Once I realized what a great business it was where we helped lots of people, could be our own bosses and make a good living, I got licensed to sell and then Dad sent me to learn it elsewhere. Once I made the Million Dollar Round Table, he let me come back and join the firm. The rest is history. As for my current role, I am the President and CEO and have been since 2000.
Jay: Your father, Bill, is a legend in our industry and it is safe to say you grew up in the business. I want to hear about your upbringing and what led you to following your dad and grandfather into the industry. You attended a prominent business school at Dartmouth and could have written your own ticket anywhere else, but you stayed with the family business. Lay out how this happened.
Aviva: When I graduated college, I knew I wanted to go into a business where I could be my own boss, help people and make enough to support a good lifestyle. A friend and I were discussing professions and he asked me how about my Dad’s business. And although I had worked at the company doing menial tasks growing up, I really didn’t understand what the business was really about, so I told Dad I thought I might like to come in the business but didn’t really understand what he did. He suggested I “carry his briefcase” and go out on calls with him to see firsthand what he did.
One of my first calls was about executive benefits for a public company where Dad designed a solution to fit some specific needs of the key employees. The company had hired some consultants to review all the compensation plans for their executives and they tried poking holes in the plan Dad created. By the end of the meeting, they felt like the consultants weren’t listening to their needs and were all wrong about the plan Dad had put in place which had performed very well and suited their needs perfectly. We walked out of that meeting and I said, “I could see myself doing this”.
In terms of business school, the only reason I went back for my MBA was that I knew I would be running the business one day and thought that it would be good to learn more about business generally. Having said that, there was little that I learned at business school other than a bit about accounting and financial analysis that would really apply to running a small company. Instead, I tried to change the curriculum for future attendees by suggesting they add courses in sales, entrepreneurship and bookkeeping. I know they have done some of that since the time I graduated.
Jay: For a six-month period ending earlier this year, you and I kept meeting up at Boston Logan Airport to fly to the same events and we actually ended up sitting next to one another a couple of times. We talked and traded stories for hours and there was one subject we discussed which sets you apart and, arguably, above most life insurance producers—client service. Other producers would have solely discussed their latest cases or how the newest insurance products are designed. Sapers & Wallack has nearly a century of clients to care for and you are uniquely positioned to share what a high-level of service means to the success or failure of a large life insurance firm. Can you shed some light on the resources and commitment you have dedicated to client service and the ways this has benefited the firm?
Aviva: A huge portion of our corporate overhead is dedicated to client service. We only hire smart people and expect everyone to continually learn in our business. It is difficult to service our clients well if we only have order takers. We deal in complex financial vehicles with demanding clients. The clients don’t always know the questions to ask, so it is important for us to speak in easy to understand terms, and make sure they are asking the right questions so we can get the the appropriate answers. We have trained our staff to say “I don’t know but will see what I can find out” when they aren’t sure about something. We have also trained our staff to keep people informed of progress we are making in trying to help solve their needs.
Much of what we are faced with in the life insurance world is ineptitude at the carrier/manufacturing level. Insurance companies have downsized to maintain profits during low interest environments so some of the more educated people we used to rely on have left or been laid off. This means we need to be even more vigilant on checking what comes back from our requests or constantly following up to be sure our requests are moving through the system.
One would think that as part of a new computerized world with AI, it should be easier to service clients, but the insurance industry is still in the dark ages in some areas and have not automated many of the old products we sold. In many cases we don’t get lapse notices sent to us when a client misses a payment and thus a policy can lapse without us knowing.
Looking forward, however, with reduced comp from the insurance companies, much of it front-end loaded, coupled with the exhausting process it often is to get good answers, makes us wonder if we will have to set up or adopt a new service model in the future.
Jay: There have been a lot of carrier and product changes which have come about, mainly because of the perfect storm of low interest rates and COVID-19. I am curious how these sudden and increasing number of changes impact writing new business. Has this had an impact on Sapers & Wallack and how do you discuss these changes with prospective life insurance clients?
Aviva: The greatest impact COVID has had on writing new business is the reduced ability to network. Insurance is sold, not bought, and thus unless you are out raising concerns with prospect, they don’t typically wake up and say “I think I would like to buy some life insurance today.”
One of the good things that has come about and will likely stay as a result of COVID is that insurance companies have found ways to use big data to simplify the underwriting process so cases can get issued faster. The challenges are when a client’s health background doesn’t fit a simple mold and their medical record may include things the client isn’t aware of but their doctor wrote down as a possibility. These types of cases need to be researched and handled closely and positioned in a positive light when it ought to be.
From a product perspective, I love the idea of variable life with an indexed option within. The ability to get some upside and protect against a down market – especially in such unpredictable times - with the option to invest in the market if you have a long-term time horizon is all good. Having said that, I have never been a fan of the leveraged IUL products and feel they are confusing to explain, especially when life insurance itself is hard to explain. I believe IUL should be regulated like a securities product versus being sold by people who don’t understand nor can explain options. It is definitely getting harder to explain product to consumers and it might be time to go back to selling whole life policies.
Jay: Earlier, I mentioned that your role as the female President & CEO of a significant life insurance and wealth management firm remains, in my opinion, rare in the industry. I often joke and say, “Diversity has arrived…and is asking for directions to the life insurance industry!” Is that too harsh of an observation? How has the industry changed during your career and what would you like to see in the future with respect to diversity and inclusion?
Aviva: This industry has always been dominated by men. Especially in the producer roles, yet women tend to be empathetic, and good listeners. Thus, they could be well suited for our industry. There are many women supporting producers but very few either on boards or in executive positions in our industry. I would like to see more women being willing to put themselves out there and more women being sought out to executive positions at insurance companies.
Jay: Not only was I little intimated to be interviewing you but I knew you would make me feel lazy! In addition to running Sapers & Wallack, which normally involves a good deal of travel, you and your wife, Jude, are raising a family and you have time for more than your share of community involvement. Let me see if I get all of this correct. You serve on the boards of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and the Presidential Advisory Council for the Berklee College of Music and you are a member of The Commonwealth Institute and the Boston Estate Planning Council. Plus, I know you do a lot of public speaking with various groups and, to top it all off, I see you in the hotel gym working out at 5:30am every time we are at the same industry event! Can you give me a glimpse into your personal life and how you manage to balance it all?
Aviva: I am usually up between 5 and 5:30 most mornings and go to my basement to exercise. Typically, I am at the office by around 7:30 and get the day going. I am a morning person so early meetings are my favorite. One of the reasons I got into this business was the ability to be my own boss and control my schedule. So when the kids have sports events, or robotics competitions, I can build those into the schedule. I make it a point to be home by 5:30 most days so we can have a family dinner together. It definitely helps to have a fantastic wife at home who keeps the home front organized, gets most of the groceries and schleps kids to and fro. Both my wife and I are busy in the community serving on boards or committees which is especially important to us. We were both raised with the importance of giving back to the community so we get involved where we can occasionally doing things together as a couple and sometimes with the kids. Having a terrific executive assistant who keeps me organized and a wonderful caring, dedicated staff also helps provide me the time and support I need to find balance.
Jay: For my restaurant question, I selfishly would love your feedback on a favorite restaurant and dish for a business meal in the Boston area. Then, how about a spot somewhere else….making sure not to mention a steakhouse or steak! I know Pete and I are looking forward to having a socially distanced dinner with you and Jude soon.
Aviva: In terms of restaurants, I am a big fan of Legal Seafoods, one because they are a client but also because I love fish and know theirs is always fresh. In terms of a favorite business meal, I prefer almost any place where you can hear yourself think. I love thai food and enjoy Four Spoons in Newton Centre or Brown Sugar in Boston. Downtown, I love the SeaGrill at the Boston Harbor hotel because they have good food and I can hear what the person across from me is saying. As a foodie, I enjoy Meyers & Chang, SRV, love Fox and the Knife and, in my part of town, Lumiere, Barcelona and Olivia’s Bistro.
Read our companion Tier One blog by clicking here.
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.