Tier One Interview: Teague Wright
This month, Jay sits down with Teague Wright, Senior Vice President, Firm Development at Lion Street. Jay and Teague talk about her working her way from the mailroom to the boardroom, InsurTech and the culinary offerings of Mechanicsburg, PA!
JAY: Teague, I have such a long list of topics I want to cover, and I wish we had time to get to half of them. The amount of institutional knowledge you have about the life insurance industry is staggering. You’ve been a part of some of the major advances in product distribution – from the birth of the brokerage general agency to the growth of the producer group model, the use of external point-of-sale support for financial institutions and even as an early adopter of InsurTech. And, most notably, you started in the mailroom!
Today, you have retired from the corporate executive life and are back in the battlefield as a senior vice president for firm development with Lion Street, Inc., a part of Integrity Marketing Group. Let’s start by hearing about your new appointment with Lion Street as well as a bit about the organization which is often referred to as “the firm behind the firm.”
TEAGUE: Jay, I am so excited to reconnect with you and many others as a result of being back working in the business versus “working on it”. In many ways, my appointment with Lion Street has been like coming home. When I was 26, and now 53, I met Bob Carter (Lion Street's CEO) and the Partners Financial team. Back then, I supported them on the Major Case Unit at BISYS on cases of at least $10,000 of target. Despite my and Bob’s bickering from time-to-time, often over his fierce advocacy around requirements on cases in the pipeline, we had a lot of synergy and respect for one another.
Bob would often compliment me that he felt I always kept the best interest of the producer in mind during all our interactions. This producer-focus stayed with me when I next worked at Partners and then NFP.
My focus at Lion Street is to retain and grow existing owners while selecting firms that would qualify to join Lion Street.
Each firm has ownership and, as business partners, the internal team at Lion Street – me included - aligns ourselves with the needs of our owners qualitatively and quantitatively. In effect, we are the firm behind the firm.
We are positioned to double our size by firm count and production in the next five years, fulfilling the original vision to become the dominant and leading elite producer group in the life insurance business.
JAY: Is it fair to say that your entire career has been spent in the life insurance industry? You started in the industry rather young so I’m curious about your upbringing and what led you to our business as well as your path to the present. Feel free to name drop because, as I said, you’ve been a part of a lot of history.
TEAGUE: Born and raised in the Harrisburg, PA area, my mom taught social studies and became a high school principal, while my Dad attended law school at Dickinson College of Law.
My only sibling, a younger sister, Kelley is a club champion golfer and tennis player in Boca Raton. For all those business golf outings I have declined, I hope the readers will keep her in mind and forgive me!
I have always been an over-achiever which resulted in anxiety as a young person that lasted for years. I exhausted myself by time I graduated high school!
I had a rough start in college with unproductive behaviors. I transferred closer to home and went to a local temp agency to find a job. They needed a mailroom assistant at a startup brokerage company. I had no clue what brokerage meant but I took the position.
JAY: It sounds like you had no idea what you were getting yourself into by taking that position. At the time, brokerage was a relatively new concept, right?
TEAGUE: Yes, it was! The temp position turned permanent, and I ended up as an early employee of Tony Pascotti’s at The Underwriters’ Group and MONY Brokerage (MBI). Really, I wanted to be a TV journalist, but little did I know that I was working with the father of brokerage and would still be a part of the life insurance industry 34 years later!
I started answering the phones, working in the mail room and, most interestingly, pushing a cart down the aisles to the new business case managers with exams and lab tickets that were stapled together to see if the life insurance application and exam needed to be matched up. At that time, in 1989, we didn’t have computers and the exams would often make it to our mail room before the applications.
I was soon offered a role as customer service representative and then onto case management where I handled large cases with variable and survivorship policies that were just coming to market, followed by positions in underwriting and product, and later into management and executive roles.
Brokerage underwriting did not exist then like it does now. I took my lead from working with the best in the business. Thanks to the late Bill Ratz, Dennis Bartos, Gisela Jackson, and David Solie. I wanted to be as good as them.
What I learned from working with such talented people, other than underwriting, multi-carrier style, product, etc., was the makeup and introduction to brokerage. In the early 90s, captive career agency systems were introduced to carrier-independence and carriers embarked on third party distribution. BISYS, at the time, provided supplemental carriers to the existing producer groups; Partners, FFR, Hemisphere, RE Lee and some M Financial Group Firms.
After leading BISYS’ Major Case Unit, I left to work at Partners Financial. Anne Long called and asked if I could help her start an underwriting advocacy team. We built an extraordinary underwriting team for NFP.
I left being an individual contributor to go into corporate executive positions with Crump, Highland Capital Brokerage and JP Morgan Chase & Co. In addition to wanting the protections of a base salary as I co-parented my four kids, I aspired to lead and I wanted to learn how to manage and build teams.
Being at a much different stage of my life now, after making it to the board room from the mail room, I am in my happy place; working with advisors.
JAY: I am in awe of the positions you’ve held and the people you have gotten to work with along the way. My guess is that the amount of experience you hold in all the various aspects of the life insurance industry helps you with developing producer firms. When you work with independent producers, what areas of their business are you helping them with and what goals are you working toward?
TEAGUE: The objective is customization and meeting them where they are. By this, I mean that it is important to recognize that every firm is different. Some need business management - how to construct and oversee organizational matters - while others want finding new opportunities and seeing those opportunities come to fruition. My experience in strategic planning and life insurance planning uniquely positions me to help firms grow.
The more ways we can help position life insurance as a mainstream part of our client’s financial plans, the better off those families and businesses will be and, naturally, we will have contributed to something noble.
JAY: When we last spoke, we talked about how increasingly difficult it is for many producers to obtain accurate and timely policy service – that much of the investment in our world is put into new sales and distribution. You feel InsurTech will be extremely helpful with policy service. How so?
TEAGUE: I believe we are still too far away from a respectable solution and think this is our industry’s dirty laundry. InsurTech is doing a great job of surfacing and exploiting opportunities with respect to the need for ease in procuring data. For example, getting an in-force ledger should not be a monumental task and have everyone exercised over; but it is. In the defense of carriers, too many antiquated systems from carrier acquisitions makes it harder than it sounds to make it happen.
In a perfect world, we should be able to obtain values from multiple policies for management and assessment with a couple clicks of a button. Dare I bring up the topic of heaped first year commissions keeping carriers from being able to truly pay their agents to spend the time necessary to provide thorough policyholder service? Proformex and Insured Connect seem to have a foothold on this and I am rooting for them!
JAY: You have three sons and a daughter, and your daughter works in our business. It is always great to see more women in what traditionally has been a male-dominated industry. I hope you are comfortable sharing your experience as well as your views.
TEAGUE: One of my favorite sayings is we teach people how to treat us. Early on, I invited some of the attention I have now come to criticize. As people, women or men, if we don’t teach those around us the way we want to be treated, we in essence volunteer.
My daughter, Peighton, 24, is in the business. I remind her that her voice deserves to be heard and her input is valued. From what I can gather, it does seem to somewhat improved. She is very good at teaching people in and outside of work how she wants to show up in the world.
I have some incredible and amazing male friends in this business. There are some that became role models and there were those that weren’t acting in my best interest and reinforced the “good ‘ol boys club”. It took time and life experience to get clear and comfortable with the fact that I do not tolerate conscious or unconscious bias.
JAY: I’ve long-known that some of our readers go right to the question about ‘life outside of work’ because the answer usually fills in the gaps on what is known about our interviewee. In other words, people are nosy! You keep yourself busy in your leisure time with hobbies, volunteer work and family commitments. Talk about this.
TEAGUE: Having four kids has kept me busy. You know about Peighton. My oldest son, Wilson, 26, is attending Columbia after being an Air Rescue Swimmer in the Navy. Eli, 18, and Tripp, 17, are finishing their junior years in High School. Tripp will attend college after high school and Eli plans on becoming an aviation mechanic by way of trade school when he graduates. Eli was adopted from China at the age of 4 1/2, with significant challenges. That, in and of itself, is worthy of storytelling for another time. For now, I’ll just say that “To whom much is given, much is required.” This was the premise of our adoption, and I can say that 14 years later, Eli has given more to us than we could have ever imagined giving to him.
My greatest accomplishment and joy are my children. Anything good I have done in my professional and personal life has been for the betterment of them. Their Dad is a wonderful father, and we work hard to make sure our kids know how loved and supported they are by both of us.
I am also a huge dog lover, have rescues and I work as a foster for dogs, volunteering from time-to-time at a local shelter. I sponsor several women in recovery and play as much tennis as possible on various USTA teams. I am also on an over 30 women’s soccer team.
I am a terrible cook and I love cupcakes. My happy place is Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island where I find sand dollars at low tide like a pro!
JAY: I know I certainly won’t be challenging you to a tennis match, Teague. But if you’re up for eating cupcakes, give me a call!
For the restaurant question, I must insist that you name at least one restaurant and dish from your hometown. I made two business trips nearby over twenty years ago and, both times, was taken to the Olive Garden. I feel I was robbed of a culinary experience! Without naming a steakhouse or a steak dish, where should I eat and what should I order?
TEAGUE: To start your day, go to our local coffeehouse, Cornerstone, where you should order the avocado toast and coffee.
When I owned a women’s fitness center along the way, my subtenant was Chris, also known as Chalit, and he opened Chalit’s, a Thai bistro. It is superb and enjoyed by many in my hometown, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. If you ever go or come to see me, I’ll take you. We'll have summer rolls and eggplant and Thai basil stir fry with chicken and brown rice.
Then, across the street, there is a new Italian bakery, La Bella Sicilia Bakery & Gelateria, where they make their own homemade gelato. Limoncello is my favorite!
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.