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  • Writer's pictureJay Judas

Tier One Interview: Kristi Barens

This month, Jay chatted with Kristi Barens, Principal at Mullin Barens Sanford Financial & Insurance Services. The pair discuss how a career in life insurance might have secretly been in her genes, the latest developments in the world of nonqualified planning and life insurance, Kristi's views on mentorship and outdoor activities!


JAY: I am generally excited about each month’s Tier One Interview. Maybe a little more so this month as the most fitting term I can think of to describe you, Kristi, is ‘Industry Giant’.


You have been a part of the institutional niche of our industry for 35 years and were already approaching legendary status when I first met you in 1998. Back then, your firm was called Mullin Consulting and, in the 90s consistently, accounted for a significant part of the life insurance production for M Financial Group, the producer group your mentor, Peter Mullin, co-founded in 1978.


You and your firm are leading experts in the world of executive benefits and nonqualified planning and have been trusted by hundreds of private and public companies to assist in their compensation structures. Tell me about Mullin Barens Sanford Financial – or what is known as “MBS” – and your role with your firm.

Kristi Barnes Headshot

KRISTI: I cofounded the firm with my two partners, Peter Mullin and John Sanford, in 2013. At that time, we made a key decision to focus just on the consulting aspects of the business and not provide TPA services for non-qualified plans. This one decision has really been a driver of new business as it has allowed us to be an independent advocate, bringing product and TPA solutions that meet each particular client’s needs. We have 110 corporate clients and oversee $16 Billion in client assets, mostly COLI, BOLI, and ICOLI, which is financing primarily non-qualified benefit plans.


My role is working with key clients, developing new opportunities for our firm and, most importantly, mentoring our younger consultants so they can provide consulting services to our clients long after I retire. Peter Mullin always taught me that when we are making 40-year promises to our clients, we have to build a firm that can continue long after we are gone.


JAY: When you and I talked about your upbringing and what led you to the world of nonqualified planning and life insurance, there were a few surprises for me. First, you had no real plan to get into this business but, later, you learned that it may have always been in your genes. Talk about your path to where you are today.


KRISTI: My career in the life insurance profession really started by chance. My husband, Jeff, and I had just gotten married and we moved to Los Angeles from Santa Barbara. In 1988, after a short stint at an actuarial consulting firm, I answered an ad in the Los Angeles times that was seeking a “financial analyst.” The position was with Mullin Consulting in Los Angeles working for Peter Mullin and his partners at the time – all of whom were legends, even way back then, in the life insurance business.


Upon sharing the exciting news of my job with my mom, she in turn shared with me that her father had been a Prudential life insurance agent! I had never known my grandfather. He died when my mom was 9 and he was just 42. One of the pieces of the puzzle in my life fell into place. My grandmother had never worked, but she owned a home and raised her two kids. Now I knew why - the insurance policy on my grandfather’s life provided her financial security for her entire lifetime.


After working my way up at Mullin Consulting through various roles in the organization, I became a partner and the COO in 1998. The company, during that time, had grown rapidly from less than 50 employees when I joined, to over 200 by 1998. By 2000, I realized that management was not for me. My passion was working directly with clients, solving their problems, and designing executive benefit plans. In 2001, with great encouragement from my mentor Peter, I took the leap to a full time Consultant.


JAY: What many do not know is that I sold a couple of split-dollar plans and two SERPs during my time in production in the 90s. When I think of nonqualified planning, those structures come to mind as well as traditional nonqualified deferred compensation plans, life insurance retirement plans, ESOPs, option programs and many more.


You mentioned that when November 1 rolled around this year, MBS had already surpassed the total production of any prior year. Where are you seeing that growth come from and why?


KRISTI: Since we started MBS in 2013, every year we have grown in clients and in staff. More than 80% of our business is working with our clients to design, implement and finance executive benefit programs, which includes financing those plans primarily using life insurance. What we have found is that very few firms focus on this niche of the business. Many firms offer some of the services we provide, but very few offer an end-to-end solution in the executive benefits space. While competitors from the past have sold their firms, or retired out of the business, we have been building our business – I think that has been they key to our success.

Picture of the leadership team at MBS

JAY: Let’s switch from discussing revenue-raising activities to the service side of a nonqualified transaction. I know you are very involved with both life insurance companies as well as third-party plan administrators. What are you seeing in terms of service levels as well as your level of oversight of these organizations?


KRISTI: Yes, you are correct, we work with a variety of third-party administrators (TPAs) and life insurance companies. We don’t provide plan administration services, but we work with our clients to help them find the right fit for these needs. In the past several years, we have seen tremendous consolidation in the TPA space, and this means fewer choices for clients, yet it results in larger and typically more experienced providers.


The life insurance companies committed to the COLI and BOLI business lines had compressed over the years, but more recently that group of companies has grown some. Working with insurance companies who not only have competitive products, but also have a long-term commitment to this business is critical. These plans and policies are in force for 30+ years, so we need to research the best options for our clients.


JAY: I was happy to hear that your son, Blake, works with you at MBS. Not only was there a succession plan in place with Peter Mullin, but it also seems that your firm already has some talent they can turn to in the future. This makes you a rare person who can comment on what the life insurance industry can do to make sure young people walking in the door can grow in the business like you did. What can we do better to nurture young talent?


Kristi Barnes Speaking at an industry event

KRISTI: My strategy in bringing in younger talent has been to implement the mentorship model – this is the same model I was lucky enough to be a part of when I was learning the business. During the earlier years of my career, I watched many people come and go in this business. Many of those new hires who failed were left alone to figure out this business on their own. The opportunity that Peter Mullin gave me allowed me to work with him and learn by doing. He coached me how to put together a proposal, lead a meeting, answer difficult questions, and so much more. His mentorship was the key to my success, and I follow the same model with our younger team members today, and this includes my son Blake.


JAY: When you are not working, you and your husband, Jeff, are active in any number of activities, including many around your home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and second home in Santa Barbara. How are you spending your time when you are not advocating for executive benefits and nonqualified plans?


Kristi: We moved to Jackson Hole in late 2019, and at that time we expanded our list of leisure activities. For me, my favorite winter activities are cross country skiing and snow shoeing, while my summers are primarily filled with horseback riding, golf and a little hiking. All of which we are now excited to share with our new grandson who was born earlier this year.


JAY: Congratulations on your new role of “Grandmother”! Thank you for doing this interview, Kristi. I have watched you at the top of our industry for decades and am happy to have had this opportunity. We have arrived at my restaurant question. Without naming a steakhouse or a steak dish, tell me about some restaurants I absolutely must visit and what I should order.


KRISTI: In Jackson Hole, Collette is one of my favorites. We love to sit at the bar and enjoy the daily specials, with lamb always as my go-to choice.


In Santa Barbara, where we spend some time during the year, I recommend Tre Lune. It has the best breakfast in town poached eggs on homemade bread and a fantastic café latte….and dinner is fabulous too!

 

Securities and Investment Advisory Services Offered Through M Holdings Securities, Inc. A Registered Broker/Dealer and Investment Advisor, Member FINRA/SIPC.


Mullin Barens Sanford Financial & Insurance Services, LLC is independently owned and operated.


1421 Emerson Ave, Oxnard CA 93033| Main (650) 740-7773 | Website: www.mbsfin.com

File #6122506.1

 

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.

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