In our latest Tier One interview, our CEO, Jay Judas, spoke to James Joyce, Executive Vice President of Life Insurance for Lion Street. In their chat, they touch on a variety of topics from James's work with both Lion Street and as a Board member at AALU, challenges facing the life insurance industry and even a little bit of golf.
Jay: You’ve been a part of the Lion Street producer group success story since the beginning. We’ll get to your background but, first, talk about what Lion Street is and what role you play in the organization.
James: Lion Street is a national network of 175+ independent financial services firms that specialize in sophisticated life insurance, executive benefits, and wealth management planning for high net worth clients and companies. Firms are able to have ownership in our company versus being members, and that equity stake creates alignment both culturally and financially.
Lion Street offers an integrated platform of direct access to carriers, BGA and back-office resources, and a Broker-Dealer to support the Wealth Management business many Firms have as a core today. Our Firms place a high value on being part of a national network of elite advisors sharing their best ideas and collaborating for better client outcomes.
I’m responsible for the Insurance business including sales, carrier relationships, and our life operations that supports the business including product, underwriting, and marketing.
Jay: I just learned you are from very rural East Texas—sort of like on Friday Night Lights. What path did you take to get you to where you are today and were there any risky decisions you made which paid off?
James: I wouldn’t consider going to Baylor a ‘risky’ decision, but coming from Mt. Vernon, TX, a town with a population of 1,800, to Waco, TX - seemed like moving to the big time! Baylor offered a Financial Services and Planning major in the business school that was CFP® accredited, so I was able to sit for my exam upon graduating and get my designation. Interestingly, during our classes we had people visit us from Edward Jones, Merrill, fee based planning firms, bond trading firms, but not a single person from the life insurance business.
Luckily my Dad introduced me to his best friends’ financial advisor in Austin, TX, who recruited me to join his firm with AXA/Equitable, where I would attempt to sell every insurance and financial product to anyone I could meet. Moving to Austin at 23 years old without a rolodex (except for a few broke friends at UT Law School) was probably a little risky, but I had nothing to lose. About the time I got married, I took a job at NFP on the Advanced Sales team, and of course that’s where I met Bob Carter, our CEO and my mentor. I left NFP and Texas briefly in 2008-2009 for a one-year experiment in the premium finance business in South Florida (definitely a risky move) and that catapulted me back to Austin where I reconnected with Bob in 2010 to start laying the groundwork for Lion Street. Some would say being part of starting up Lion Street was a risky move, but the principles of what we were building were so sound it didn’t feel that way.
Jay: Lion Street has grown quickly in size and reputation. How do you keep growing it while balancing geography, growing areas of the business, like executive benefits and becoming more diverse?
James: It’s something we have to watch closely and always with a balance towards quality before quantity. What we’ve found is that many major markets can support multiple firms, as they all have their unique pockets of clientele and centers of influence. Three firms may be in a market, but one is a life insurance-only firm that works exclusively with CPA’s and attorney’s for wealth transfer work, one firm works with C-suites and specializes in the business and corporate insurance market, and another does comprehensive wealth and risk management for high net worth families and business owners. What we find is that firms have their own markets and specialities and often end up collaborating to grow together.
The corporate insurance market as you pointed out has been a major growth place for us both organically with new sales from existing firms, but also adding notable retail firms specializing in that market to join Lion Street as Owners. Lion Street Financial, our Broker-Dealer, has been our biggest gamechanger for enabling firms to come ‘all-in’ when joining where they get a coordinated approach to their fixed and variable life/annuity sales, private placement, compliance alignment between life and wealth, and consistent management of any regulatory frameworks that emerge.
We continue to aggressively grow our footprint as we see opportunities for continuity for firms with aging principals and look for ways to make our current Firms bigger by adding producers or training new talent coming into the business.
Jay: What’s a typical day like for you when you’re in the office in Austin?
James: I’m in the office about half the time these days. When in the office, it’s a balance of meetings and working with the teams on how we stay focused on helping our Firms get cases done and grow their business, and strategizing with our Executive team about priorities, budgets, and running the business. I get very involved in our meetings and have a passion for how they stay fresh and keep a genuine representation of our company DNA.
When I’m traveling, I’m seeing Firms or Carriers (usually both and often together) to deepen our relationships personally, strategize about our business, and hear what’s most important to them that Lion Street can impact.
As our friend of the firm Chris Erblich says, its all about “deep personal relationships”. Every market we visit I have not only a business partner, but also a personal friend. We want to be in their offices and know their team, break bread together, get to know each others families, complain, and celebrate about life, and well, life insurance.
Jay: You are a Board Member of AALU (Association for Advanced Life Underwriting) where I’ve been a member since 1998. Thank you for your service as it’s a huge time commitment. Given everything you have going on with your family and Lion Street, why did you feel it was important to get so involved in AALU?
James: It is a very pivotal time for the future of our profession, and I have a long road ahead of me in this business. I’m sure everyone has by now heard about the merger between AALU and GAMA to create a new organization. I see very eye-to-eye with Marc Cadin, the CEO of AALU and future CEO of the new organization, on how we need to be involved to unify and grow the financial security profession to represent a much larger constituency than the combined current 6,000 members between the organizations. We need to think 6 figures when it comes to the number of members to achieve the level of impact we need.
For those long standing AALU members like you and me, don’t worry, advocacy will still be core and critical to everything they do and will further expand its influence with our new mission and vision. The addition of the GAMA value proposition will fill a need I’ve heard for years from Lion Street Firms and AALU members alike; they want resources to help them personally develop as leaders of their business and training tools to help their other advisors and team grow professionally.
The thing many of us are most excited about as an outcome of the new organization is “Elevating the Profession” in the eyes of consumers, other advisors, and those looking to join the business (recall back to my example of no exposure to entire classes of CFP graduates). We are tired of our profession being poked at by detractors in the media and so-called “experts” like Suze Orman and Ken Fisher. We need to go on offense, set the tone, and be proud of what we do to provide financial security to families and businesses.
Marc, Bonnie Godsman (the CEO of GAMA and future president of the new organization), and the Board of Directors are going to take this head on as part of the new organization’s mission (name will be announced not long after this article is published!).
Jay: I know you think a lot about how life insurance professionals can best serve their clients. What challenges do you feel are ahead of our industry? Are they legislative in nature, product & pricing driven, distribution conflicts or something else?
James: Has there ever been an industry more ripe for disruption? Of course we’ve been saying that for years and just now seeing electronic signatures being allowed. You’ve seen Ethos, and dozens of other direct to consumer models emerge, and while that is in a different segment of the market, the puck is definitely moving in that direction. At the affluent and high end of the market, clients want personal advice from a professional and not just access to products, but we need technology to help transform the buying experience.
A recent timing coincidence had me buying additional life insurance and refinancing my house on the same day. Our industry has long been self-deprecating about our how complicated life insurance is to buy and how the paperwork stack is thicker than for buying a house. I can tell you that my experience that day was quite the opposite. I used Penn Mutual’s new ACE (accelerated client experience) Program and did the entire application electronically, signed electronically, had an underwriter call me to clarify one question, all within 20 minutes on the computer and a 90 second phone conversation. The policy was in my email inbox by close of business that day.
We are investing a lot of capital into taking this experience into a multi-carrier environment to modernize the process of buying life insurance, while keeping the Firm and advisor in control of the process, and building it for high net worth clients and large face amounts. For the record, my refi took about 60 minutes, with my 6 and 4 year old screaming in the background.
From a Firm perspective, clients will continue to demand a more consultative and open architecture model for financial advisors. Firms will either go narrow and position themselves as specialists to work with other financial advisors and COI’s, or they will try and look more like a Multi-Family Office offering holistic list of expanding services and products.
Clearly regulations are changing at the federal and state level, and Firms should expect to see more regulation around how they sell and what they sell. It's a priority of ours to serve our Firms and help them serve their clients, so we are working at staying ahead of the curve to help our Firms stay in compliance.
Jay: It is safe to say you have attended your share of life insurance dinners all over the world. Without mentioning steak or a steakhouse, what have been some of your memorable restaurants and dishes and what is your go-to cocktail?
James: I can’t believe we’ve made it this far and not talked about golf or cocktails. I’m a Casamigos Reposado guy, but you can’t beat having a glass of red wine and dinner at The Shelter House at Monterey Peninsula Country Club.
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.