Tier One Interview: Elizabeth Keenan
This month, Jay sits down with Elizabeth Keenan, Managing Partner, Private Life Solutions. Jay and Liz talk about her unexpected path to the life insurance industry, the secrets to success selling private placement and retail products, and restaurants (of course!).
JAY: You and I were joking that you could not have envisioned, when you started your career, that you would someday be interviewed as a top tier participant in the life insurance industry. Well, Liz, here you are and I’m so happy to be able to have this opportunity to chat with you about your path from Wall Street to being an incredibly successful life insurance producer. We will get to that story in a minute but, first, tell me about your New York City area-based firm, Private Life Solutions and the type of clients and services you offer.
LIZ: You’re right, Jay, I did not see this coming, but I am so happy to be considered in the industry’s top tier! Private Life Solutions is a completely independent, carrier agnostic brokerage firm that specializes in structuring both traditional life insurance portfolios as well as privately structured life insurance portfolios for affluent families and successful businesses. We treat life insurance as an asset class, not a product.
JAY: I recall you referring to yourself as a math nerd during one of our conversations over the years. I’m sure you’ve made the connection by now but, certainly, your background in mathematics has give you a sort of superpower in the high-net-worth life insurance space. If you would, talk about your upbringing and your path to the life insurance industry. As you know, I’m always fascinated by hearing about your father.
LIZ: My path to life insurance was as straight as a circle! I was very fortunate to have strong parents that allowed for independence at young age. My father was Vice President of J&J International (Johnson & Johnson) and my mother, while a stay-at-home mom, was a member of Mensa. I, along with my brothers and sisters, was encouraged to experience many opportunities and from that I learned how to both succeed and fail with grace. I graduated as one of ten in my major and found my degree in mathematics very welcomed on Wall Street. In a short period of time, I realized that I knew how to achieve a desired financial result, but my weakness was in communication. So, I completed a master’s in communications and strategic business offered by Harvard. While successful in my career, my first child was born with organ failure, so I quickly pivoted and focused solely on her. Fortunately, she did well, and my pivot opened up a new career path for me in life insurance planning.
JAY: What intrigues me about Private Life Solutions is that you do not approach your work with a focus on products. Rather, you regularly turn to both traditional retail products as well as private placement solutions to solve the problems of your affluent clients. In other words, you are not solely a retail shop nor a PPLI one – you produce a significant volume of premium in both lines. That is unusual. With respect to traditional life insurance solutions, how do you use retail products with your clients?
LIZ: Life insurance is often perceived as a “necessary evil”. Face it, nobody really wants to address the reality of death, so people tend to put on blinders and buy a product to get it done. The reality is traditional life insurance can play a key role for both family and personal planning needs. Looking at family needs, yes, there is the basic need for continuation of income, paying for education or eliminating debts in the event of death, but most people need to realize that life insurance is also a financial structure that allows for the tax-exempt compounding and tax-exempt distribution of the cash value. So, life insurance is also an excellent tool for retirement planning.
JAY: You have become prolific in implementing private placement life and annuity policies. Many of our readers do not have a lot of familiarity with private placement and I think you can be helpful. What does both a typical PPLI and PPVA client scenario look like for you and how do you market yourself to obtain these clients?
LIZ: I call myself a dinosaur in the private placement life industry. I brokered my first policy over a decade ago and have policy #1 on eight different structures. But, while this structure is well seasoned and accepted, as you said, many people do not know what it is and why they haven’t heard of it. So, what is private placement life insurance? Private placement life policies are unregistered, variable life insurance and annuity policies that are only offered privately to accredited investors or qualified purchasers.
PPLI and PPVA can be utilized as a tax strategy that transforms ordinary income and capital gains into tax-free income without any reporting requirements. Each policy has its own, individual segregated account where a wealth manager can actively manage investments. The cash value of a policy is directly linked to the investment performance, and therefore not guaranteed.
Over time the profile of PPLI and PPVA clients has evolved along with product structure offerings. Like traditional life insurance, where we are accustomed to hearing the terms, variable and whole life insurance – PPLI and PPVA has a variety of “sub offerings”. Clients with a net worth of $5 million to $15 million tend to be more focused on policies that invest in Insurance Dedicated Funds, while investors with a net worth over $15 million tend to prefer to retain their existing wealth manager to manage the premium. I have no preference because I do not participate financially in the wealth advising role.
JAY: That’s is one of the few clear descriptions of private placement life insurance I have heard. When we spoke a month ago, I mentioned how I was going to run out of female professional life insurance producers to interview before I ran out of men. Why don’t we have more Liz Keenans out there in the marketplace and what do you think the rest of the industry can do so that there are more women sales professionals in the high-end of the life insurance industry?
LIZ: I have thought about why there are so few women in life insurance sales. It seems women tend to be more behind the scenes in support roles. I think sales positions have traditionally been male dominated and the life insurance industry is no different. The question to me is how to do we encourage women to feel more comfortable in a career in sales? That is a tough question because I believe that being successful in sales comes from a strong encouragement of family, co-workers, and friends, where we are not judged by failure, but encouraged to succeed. Having these sort of champions of me in my life has certainly helped me.
JAY: You have been knocking it out of the park the past few years with your sales numbers. I don’t ask this of many people, but I am going to put you on the spot and press you to share some tips on activities or processes you do that have led to your success. I will start your list for you. You are tenacious and never let a lead go until its either a completed case or exhausted – I’ve seen this firsthand. But what are other things you do?
LIZ: Thank you. I think my success stems from three main things. First and foremost, I listen to the client and all of their associated professionals. This allows me the privilege of outlining a specific and unique insurance plan. Second, I encourage myself to continuously learn - learn about the industry, the products, what is going on in the economy, what is impacting people emotionally to make decisions and keep a pulse on what clients are asking for and work with carriers to suggest policy ideas. Third, I surround myself with individuals of all different levels of knowledge and expertise. I am very open and ask lots of questions. I strongly believe in the old adage that there are no bad questions.
JAY: Outside of all the time you spend building Private Life Solutions, you have a lot going on. You have a son, Gabe, who works with you, but you also have a daughter who found herself trapped in Australia due to COVID. Take a moment to brag about your kids and talk about how you spend your leisure time.
LIZ: Actually, I have three children. My oldest daughter, and one who received an organ transplant at 9 months old and started my on my journey into life insurance, has her master’s in chemical biology and is finishing her second master’s in computer engineering. Gabriel, who works for my current firm and in the past, other life insurance brokerage firms, is in the process of completing his Master’s at New York University and looks forward to focusing on public policy with the intention on creating a more balanced and fair approach to all children’s needs. Then, Alyssa, while trapped in Australia during COVID, completed her degree with honors in mechanical engineering. In my spare time I enjoy volunteering, mainly working with homeless individuals and running in central park.
JAY: Liz, thanks for being so open with your answers today. It has been a treat to have this interview with you. We have come to the restaurant question. In aiding our quest to hear about new spots and tasty dishes, what are some of your favorite restaurants and what should our readers order while they are there. Of course, you cannot name a steakhouse or a steak dish!
LIZ: One of my favorite restaurants is the Mandarin Oriental Lounge where I enjoy not only the wide variety of cocktails, but also the burrata and mushroom risotto. The view is also incredible!! The other is Jean-Georges on Columbus Circle. The Wagyu beef tenderloin and pickled brussels sprouts are consistently excellent.
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.