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Small changes for big impact

Kathryn Furtaw Keuneke, CAE

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With each incremental decision, Gagne built a stronger path to success and leadership.

Photos: Jeff Dachowski Photography 

EACH PERSON'S INDIVIDUAL JOURNEY is filled with small choices and actions that cumulatively determine the course of their life. Gregory B. Gagne, ChFC, believes it’s a mistake to assume one big thing is out there that will make a difference. “There’s no big thing,” said the 21-year MDRT member from Exeter, New Hampshire. “It’s a bunch of little things, and the little things add up to be a big thing.”

Where he stands today, with a business experiencing significant growth and a new role in helping to guide the future of MDRT as Nominee to the Executive Committee, is a long way from Gagne’s roots in this profession. When he looks back on what happened to get him from failing in the business two decades ago to consistent Top of the Table qualifications today, Gagne sees the different pieces at play that converged to set the scene for success.

Gagne worked his way through college at a consumer finance company that prepared him for their corporate management program, only to go back on their promise after his graduation in 1991. He didn’t want to be subjected to disappointment like that again, so he researched careers that would allow him to control his own destiny.

With an undergraduate degree in finance and economics, a career in financial services seemed to offer him the ability to set his own course. The idea of receiving an initial training allowance while building up his own production sounded like a good way to gradually become self-employed.

The transition to self-sustaining production, however, was longer and more grueling than he could have imagined. “Those early years were horrid,” Gagne said, describing a frequent scenario of making 250-plus cold calls in a week that resulted in zero signed policies.

With the financial support of his wife, Diana, who worked as a physical therapist, Gagne tried new marketing techniques, but his expenditures weren’t balanced by revenue. “My net income was negative,” he said. “I was a couple of years in the business and failing miserably.”

Some of his prospecting approaches included scouring the newspapers for deed transfers and birth announcements. He and another new advisor from his agency drove to new condo developments to collect the names on the mailboxes. Calling directory assistance through the phone company was an incredibly expensive way to develop a prospecting list (he found out the hard way), but standing outside and dialing the service from a pay phone was free.

Though his efforts didn’t result in immediate success, the prospecting he did in those early years led to relationships with clients that would carry him into a new business model a few years later. “That’s where some of my best clients came from,” he said.

Gagne found a mentor in a more experienced producer in his agency. Robert N. Garneau, CLU, ChFC, a 36-year MDRT member from Bedford, New Hampshire, offered him a lifeline when he was at risk of failing. He took Gagne with him to a meeting with a business client to show him how to successfully close. “I was just there to learn, and he put me on for a share of the case,” Gagne said. “He gave me enough income to stay, to persevere.”

A few years in, Gagne was still making a modest income, but he was learning to work smarter. With the guidance of Garneau and other MDRT members in his agency, he was exposed to new ideas, including better ways to focus his time. “Time in this profession is something we can control, and we can misuse it,” he said. “I was definitely misusing it.”

When Diana was pregnant with their first child, she was put on bedrest late in her first trimester. The couple lost a significant portion of their income. The seriousness of the situation gave Gagne the push he needed to make some big changes.

He had heard about the concept of charging fees and decided that a levelized income stream would be beneficial to his business and family. “If you can forecast where your revenues are going to be, it makes it a lot easier to plan for what you’re going to do in your business,” he said.

Offering wealth management to his clients necessitated leaving the agency setting to establish his own registered investment advisory firm. Another producer he met in the agency, Andrew C. Lord, CLU, ChFC, a 32-year MDRT member from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, brought him into his own business and showed him how to grow an investment advisory firm. Gagne opened the RIA in April 1998, taking his 20 best clients and $5 million in assets under management with him.

Today, Gagne refers to it as his leap of growth. The clients he approached to go with him agreed to his fee model, and his production that year earned him his first MDRT qualification. His membership gave him full access to more successful producers. Gagne sought them out at Annual Meetings to ask them how they did it, learning from their experiences. “I used all of that information,” he said. “You can grow a lot more rapidly by not making the mistakes other people have made.”

There’s no big thing. It’s a bunch of little things, and the little things add up to be a big thing.

Now two decades later, Gagne’s business is growing faster than ever. He started working with a business coach three years ago to develop a 10-year growth strategy to increase revenue. The strategy includes updating business processes and technology to alleviate friction points, and only adding staff when the fixes no longer move the needle on profitability. “We’ve identified a lot of 1-degree difference makers that, when added collectively, are game changing,” he said.

This approach means Gagne’s firm, Affinity Investment Group, runs lean, with three advisors and three support staff. “We resist just hiring,” he said, explaining that other producers sometimes overreact and hire too soon. “That just adds people to poor processes.” Instead, improving processes can reclaim hundreds of staff hours in a year to be redeployed in better ways to grow the business.

Ultimately, the growth plan will give Gagne more options going forward, by building enterprise value and opening the possibility of internal transition to employees, or to be staged for sale if he chooses that option. “I didn’t want to have a firm that when I check out, it checks out,” he said. “I want it to have a legacy.”

Gagne considers himself another employee of the business he founded, and his practices reflect that assertion. Clients of the firm meet with all three advisors, even those who have been with Gagne since the beginning. While some initially were upset to have meetings scheduled with another advisor, Gagne explained it is to their benefit, telling them: “I want you to have another perspective. We've been doing this together for years. I want them to re-look at what's going on in your life. This is for you.”

Detailing the firm’s services through a brief slide presentation is another way the firm builds consistency and — though it was surprising to Gagne at first — has significantly improved their success rate.

No matter which advisor a prospect meets with, they hear the same details about how the firm operates, who makes up their clientele and what it will cost to work with them.

Gagne was initially uncomfortable moving to this approach, but he now admits the results on their closing ratio were, in a word, unbelievable.

Gagne’s focus on middle-market millionaires got him to Court of the Table in 2002. He earned consistent qualifications by further zeroing in on those in this market approaching or entering retirement, and helping them with long-term investment management, distribution strategies, tax-efficient portfolios and protection from long-term care expenses.

Top of the Table qualification came in 2009 as Gagne began to shift his focus to business operations by delegating, refining and growing in the right way. “I’m not just an advisor who happens to own a business, but a business owner who happens to be an advisor,” he said. 

A focus on making decisions like a CEO, rather than like an advisor, is what will enable Gagne’s business to continue along its growth path as he joins the MDRT Executive Committee.

How to succeed professionally, even when other parts of life are busy, is a lesson Gagne learned more than a decade ago, when he built his client meeting schedule around his children’s school and sports events, and his family vacations. The approach brought balance to his life and also allowed him to serve the industry and his community.

The insights he gained from fellow MDRT members’ successes were facilitated by the connections he made from volunteer positions. Gagne got involved at his first Annual Meeting in 1999, and evolved into roles with increasing responsibility and leadership, currently leading Top of the Table.

Gagne looks forward to giving back to the organization that helped him find success and helping members around the globe find their shared connections.

“Most of us have experienced the same things,” he said. “Our means to get to the Table may be different, the businesses we operate in may be different, but what we’re doing in serving others — and some of the pain we had to go through to get to the point of success — is shared.”

Contact: Gregory Gagne


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