Tier One Interview: Michael Babikian
This month Jay connected with Michael Babikian, CEO of First Financial Resources (FFR). FFR has become recognized as the only Member-owned distribution group that specializes its offerings to support Members’ interests, a reputation Michael has continued to build upon. A Southern California native and leading expert on life insurance and its distribution, sitting down with Michael proved an ideal opportunity to talk about the current state of the industry, and naturally, Southern California restaurants.
JAY: Michael, I am so glad you could join me this month. Over the past two years, I have witnessed a re-emergence, of sorts, of First Financial Resources where you are the CEO. For those readers who may be unfamiliar with FFR, as your organization is known, it is the only 100% Member-owned life insurance distribution group and has been so since 1987. I have my own theories as to why there is such a buzz around FFR but, fortunately, I have you here to talk about FFR’s popularity.
First, though, tell me about FFR and your role as its executive leader.
MICHAEL: It’s great to connect with you Jay, and thanks for inviting me. First of all, I see my decision to join FFR as a real homecoming for a number of reasons. For my role as CEO, it really comes down to alignment of values for me, namely: our Member-centricity. We don’t just talk about helping Members; as you said, we’re Member-owned by design. That means at every level, we ask ourselves, ‘What can we provide to help our Members customize their business, and become better at what they do?’ The second part of that equation is fostering better alignment with the stakeholders that work with FFR: our carrier partners and our resource partners, which in turn facilitates a better experience for our Members.
Leadership is all about making the most informed decisions with imperfect data. When the data is imperfect, the more leadership, strategy, and execution, matter. Currently, our industry is in a highly chaotic place, with ongoing challenges post-pandemic. That makes reliable data hard to come by. There is difficulty in every period of change, but the upside to that is that FFR has been able to act nimbly. We’re not building purely for scale, as other organizations have. FFR’s approach is to maintain our status as a nimble organization that can maneuver and change course efficiently. We allow our Members to customize the resources they utilize to best match their business and their market position. No other distribution group offers that kind of experience. This means our Member-centricity isn’t just words: it’s in our daily actions.
Every organization has a hero. The true hero of FFR is our Members. Becoming an FFR Member is a powerful decision that fundamentally changes a producer’s relationship to our industry. That Member-centricity is in our DNA, from executive leadership, right down to the foundational ownership structure of FFR, and no amount of change will alter that.
JAY: The last time we spoke, you told me that you grew up not too far from FFR’s home office and that much of your career has been spent nearby. You are truly a Southern Californian! Tell me about your upbringing and how you landed in the life insurance industry and eventually at FFR.
MICHAEL: My background is at the intersection of electrical engineering and being a recovering tax attorney, and that has equipped me with an understanding of the technical and technology-based side of the things. My early professional experience was spent moving around a life insurance company in almost every department where relationships and technical skills mattered most.
From there I’ve fashioned what I consider to be a differentiator, which is the ability to build a high-tech AND high-touch experience for our Members. Tech matters in any business for scale, but when executed with a high-touch approach, balance is achieved. I feel like every role I have had has prepared me for the role I’m in now. I couldn’t have done this job as effectively without all of my prior experiences. I feel more prepared for this role than ever before, and I believe FFR is equally well-prepared for what lies ahead. We are in the right place at the right time, and I'm thrilled to represent all stakeholders, with a primary focus on our Members.
While FFR is based in Southern California, we’ve truly come to serve our Members on a national level, offering the same relationship-based insurance services across the country. It’s all about fit and timing, and joining FFR feels like coming home to me—for multiple reasons. I feel more connected serving our Members and the life insurance industry than I have—possibly ever.
JAY: One of the reasons I wanted to interview you, Michael, is that I enjoy studying life insurance distribution in the affluent market space, specifically how a life insurance product gets from a life insurance company to the end client. You are an expert on this subject and have seen product distribution take all shapes over the past several decades.
What are the distribution trends in the market and what are your thoughts on their chances of success? Also, how are FFR Members adapting when different carriers might have different approaches?
MICHAEL: Ultimately, life insurance is about one simple thing: shifting risk from individuals and families, onto a larger financial institution that’s better equipped to weather that risk. I’ve always viewed that dynamic as a pure and irreplaceable benefit for society. I love life insurance, which may sound odd to an outsider, but it’s really true. I see the products that carriers generate as something nearly magical; that said, the distribution of those products is key, and it needs to be done well. Life insurance is a sold product, and products—even essential products—are worthless if consumers can’t easily purchase them. The hard truth is, an average person doesn’t wake up and say, ‘I’m in the mood to buy some life insurance.’ It’s just not a natural thought.
To bridge that gap, distributors are in the driver’s seat. As you said, distribution has undergone some changes recently; the biggest changes relate to technology and delivery. Still, however, our marketplace, more than others, remains relationship-based. Distribution happens with a client through a personal interaction. FFR is equipped to weather change via our high-tech, high-touch approach. We provide a customizable suite of resources for each Member’s company because those distributors know their clients best. We’re proud to do our small part in connecting these distributors with the excellent products from our carrier partners.
JAY: I think it is safe to say that another trend in distribution is the amount of private equity entering our industry at every level but, most notably, among producer group organizations. I am not going to pull any punches and will just ask you, what do you think about private equity’s interest in the business, and where do you think this is all headed?
MICHAEL: I also prefer not to pull any punches! Candidly, I think that private equity is a double-edged sword. The benefits to having Wall Street interested in our space absolutely exist; having additional funds to allow more families to access that shifting of risk is ultimately great for us and great for the consumer. This pairing does have the potential to go awry; in a word, it comes down to alignment. If the interests of private equity aren’t aligned with the interests of those receiving the service—the distributors and by extension their consumer, that’s when things can go wrong.
FFR has grown on the strength of our ownership structure: Member-centric decision making. As a result, we have not had private equity involved in delivering our services, as we’ve favored Member independence. Let’s say in an equity-driven relationship that there were to develop a conflict between the value delivered to the Members and the valuation of the organization, which can be a main motivation of the decisions in private equity. That’s a material disconnect.
JAY: Earlier, I said I wanted to try to understand why I am hearing more and more about FFR even though it has been a significant part of the life insurance industry for nearly 40 years. One of our past Tier One Interviewees, Frank Seneco, coincidentally is FFR’s current Chair. Frank speaks highly of you and has mentioned that you have helped promote two of the top reasons he belongs to FFR – the strong relationships between the Members and the strong relationships between FFR and the carriers.
What are some of the factors of FFR’s success and what plans do you have to support this position?
MICHAEL: Frank has brought an amazing industry perspective and we’ve greatly valued having his insight and folding it into our Member-centric approach. His business is a perfect example of what FFR does differently. Frank’s business, Seneco Global Advisors, participates in the marketplace in its particular way. FFR has been able to support Frank in customizing his business, allowing him to be who he is in his differentiated way and deliver exceptional value to his clients. Likewise, other Members build success for their businesses in their own way, which may be different from Frank’s approach and needs. Regardless, FFR offers a tailored solution for them to pursue their own path to success. We’re a hub that allows our Members to elevate their business, be truly independent, and customize solutions for their clientele. That’s FFR’s path to success.
Another huge factor for our success is our team at FFR. I’m so thankful for the passion everyone shows for this industry, and for serving our Members. We’ve really been lucky in how we’ve been able to connect over a dedicated interest and passion for life insurance, and I think that really gets passed on to all the Members that we serve. Ultimately the best leadership, strategy, and execution relies on the best people and culture. I know I’m biased but I feel like I get to work with the best team in the industry and the best producers in the industry. It ultimately all boils down to people and relationships.
JAY: As I understand it, you are a big outdoors-person. How do you spend the small amount of time when you are not leading FFR or interacting with its Members?
MICHAEL: The truth is I spend a lot of time thinking about our Members…even when I’m enjoying the outdoors!. But yes, ever since I was a young kid, I naturally took to the wilderness—from progressing to an Eagle Scout when I was younger to living in a national park today. Anything from hiking, to mountaineering, to cycling helps me scratch the itch.
JAY: This has been a fantastic interview, Michael – thank you for making the time. As an avid reader of these Tier One Interviews, I know you are well prepared for my restaurant question. Without naming a steakhouse or a steak dish, give me a few of your recommendations for where I need to eat and what I should order when I am there.
MICHAEL: Well, it will be very easy for me to avoid mentioning steak houses or steak dishes as I went 100% plant based a few years ago! It’s yet another differentiator I can claim in a steak-and-whiskey-fueled industry.
Restaurants I frequently recommend here in the Southland are Geoffrey's in Malibu, the Penthouse in Santa Monica, Blue Ribbon Sushi in Pacific Palisades, and Planta Cocina in Marina Del Rey.
Geoffrey’s might have one of the most amazing views of the ocean out there and the menu changes daily. The Penthouse has an amazing environment overlooking the ocean and all of Santa Monica from 18 stories high. I typically get the cauliflower steak but most of their menu is not plant based and they have some wonderful seafood. Planta is all plant-based. You can’t go wrong with anything on their menu. It’s a beautiful environment right in the marina. Lastly. Blue Ribbon is one of our local sushi houses and has an extensive menu but one of my favorites is their shiitake roll.
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.