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Growing together

Kathryn Furtaw Keuneke, CAE

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A focus on discipline and serving evolving clients has prepared Kheng to lead the organization to continued relevance.
Photo credit: Exxposures photography

It's 6 a.m., and Carol Kheng, ChFC, has cycled to the waterfront — or another interesting vantage point in Singapore — waiting to capture the spectacular colors of the sunrise with her camera. Kheng wakes early to cycle five days a week, setting the tone for her day and clocking 80 kilometers (or 50 miles) each week.

The discipline behind this ritual has been formed by a professional life focused on client service, beginning with her first career in hotel management and continuing now as a trusted advisor willing to adapt her schedule to meet the changing needs of her business-owner clients.

Kheng, a 23-year MDRT member, brings her detailed, thoughtful approach to help lead MDRT through continued global growth and relevance in a changing world as she accepts the role of Nominee to the MDRT Executive Committee.

Scandal, drama and celebrity guests

In the American TV show “Hotel” in the 1980s, Kheng saw an exciting and glamorous lifecycle. Following her graduation from a hotel management program, she began her on-the-job training at a five-star hotel in Singapore. As a housekeeping supervisor, she learned the value of hard work and adopted high standards. Later moving into the sales department, she rose to assistant director before the hotel ownership changed and she was one of many who lost their jobs. The reality of hotel management was less glamorous than it looked on TV, but it taught her an impeccable work ethic that would carry her down a new path. While her colleagues quickly found jobs in nearby hotels, Kheng wanted something different.

As Kheng considered her future, she reflected on lessons from her hotel days: She had pushed to achieve sales goals, but wasn’t remunerated accordingly. Kheng’s financial advisor had previously approached her about insurance sales, but at the time she wasn’t interested. Now she felt a pull to a profession that would allow her to be in charge of her own income.

I got to know so many people whom I consider good friends and my MDRT family.

Kheng joined Prudential Singapore in October 1994 as part of a team that allowed her to move at her own speed. Her second-career status gave her experience and confidence that not all new recruits had, and her hotel contacts provided warm leads that gave her a head start. “I managed to convert a significant number of them into clients,” she said.

Meticulous and self-motivated, Kheng quickly achieved the goals she set for herself but was hindered by her corporate instinct to progress in a methodical way. Looking back, she sees a missed opportunity to qualify for MDRT sooner than her first membership year in 1998.

Meeting her MDRT brothers and sisters

When Kheng walked into her first MDRT Annual Meeting in San Francisco, California, USA, in 2000, she was traveling with another first-time attendee from Singapore. “We thought we had arrived,” Kheng said, but they quickly felt small and insignificant surrounded by so many badges that indicated Court of the Table and Top of the Table production.

Kheng returned the following year and decided to approach the Program General Arrangements (PGA) booth to volunteer for an assignment. “Over time, I was placed in so many different roles and got to know so many people whom I consider good friends and my MDRT family,” Kheng said. When she travels anywhere in the world, she loves that she has MDRT brothers and sisters who are excited to host her. This sense of comfort extends to business, too, as she can confidently refer clients to this network of MDRT members around the world.

Kheng’s volunteer experience during the last two decades saw her leading several committees as Chair. She also served as an MDRT Foundation trustee and Divisional Vice President (DVP) of the 2014 MDRT Experience in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and her volunteerism came full circle when she held the role of DVP of the 2019 Global Conference PGA in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.

Through her involvement in the vibrant MDRT volunteer culture, Kheng adopted MDRT’s Whole Person concept, learning that she can maintain a successful business while finding time for her family and hobbies. “Whole Person gives people focus and emphasis on work, play, religion and anything that is good for your overall well-being,” she said. 

An evolving practice keeps up with its clients

Kheng spent the first five years of her career focused on risk protection, working hard to build up to larger-premium cases. Prospecting for higher-net-worth clients — who had bigger problems to solve with bigger premiums — led Kheng to transition to advanced planning.

“I was seeing more wealthy prospects and clients who had estate-distribution issues,” she said. “I found that it was a very smooth transition going into estate planning.” She enlists the help of legal counsel to draft wills and trusts, and she remains at the center of the client relationship, helping her clients through this process.

“How I transitioned from one market to another came very naturally,” Kheng said. “It wasn’t planned, but I was constantly thinking of how I could elevate my business.”

As part of her practice evolution, she found retirement planning to be easier to approach with clients than income protection. “People are more afraid of not having money than they are of dying,” Kheng said, pointing to growing life expectancies having the potential to drain finances. Knowing how important their lifestyle is to them, Kheng pushes for her clients to prepare adequately for retirement so they have funds for vacations and their favorite restaurants.

“As much as they hate seeing that money set aside every month, they will still do it because they fear the old man or woman that they will become will not have enough money,” she said. With this insistence and a strong connection to their life goals, she earns their trust and their referrals.

The strong, genuine relationships she has built with clients is hands-on — Kheng manages her roughly 1,000 clients without the help of support staff. It’s an approach that works for her, with all client information stored in the cloud and accessible through her iPad, and communication is quick with WhatsApp. “Any time a client asks anything of me, I can get access to it within a minute,” she said.

This tech-friendly approach enabled Kheng to maintain her activity level in 2020 — even earning her first Court of the Table qualification — while other advisors she knew took a couple of months off early in the year, hoping to wait out the pandemic’s social distancing requirements.

Kheng met virtually with her clients to ensure they all had adequate insurance protection in place during a global health crisis and to invest in the market. “I saw opportunities because the stock market was at an all-time low,” she said. Within two months, she collected $3 million in assets under management. The clients who trusted Kheng’s advice have seen those investments appreciate. “At the end of the day, I will help my clients in the way I would want to be helped in their shoes,” she said.

Staying available and accessible to busy clients

Kheng’s client base has grown large as a result of absorbing retiring advisors’ clients. Her ideal client is a mid-size business owner, usually a sole proprietor who started their own business or who has two to three partners. “I am particularly interested in helping business owners plan for the ‘what if,’” Kheng said. “There are so many ‘what ifs.’ Those two words conjure up a lot of thoughts and instances when they would need to sit down and think very hard.” These clients are busy, but they know the planning she recommends — especially protecting their business from death or disability of one of the partners — is something they can’t delay. “The typical business owner is so busy building up their business, but they know it is of utmost importance to plan for the families and people for whom they’ve worked so hard while they’re able to, versus the day they can’t because it’s too late.”

At the end of the day, I will help my clients in the way I would want to be helped in their shoes.

And Kheng is conscious of clients’ busy schedules, ensuring she is early to every meeting, even if they’re not. “I want them to know they can rely on me to be punctual and not waste their time — especially businesspeople,” she said.

Because Singapore is a small country, these clients are likely to have businesses with locations in nearby Malaysia or Thailand, and especially in mainland China — particularly considering the explosive growth there during the last decade. This requires Kheng’s clients to travel frequently, which means she meets them where it’s convenient for them, even if it’s at the airport while they wait for a scheduled flight. The pandemic-related travel restrictions have made it even easier to catch up with these business owners. “This time is the best opportunity for me, because I know they’re in town,” she explained. “It’s a good time to ask them to finally finish the planning we might have started a year or two ago.”

Kheng’s client service is focused on being referable, and she prepares an agenda for every client meeting with “recommendations” as a discussion item to remind them this is how she stays in business. When a client has someone in mind, they either pass Kheng’s contact info on to the prospective client, or even better, they host a group chat on WhatsApp and leave the conversation after making the introduction.

Outside of client meetings, Kheng uses her cycling and photography hobbies to stay in front of these busy clients in a personal way. “I show them what they missed this morning while they were sleeping: the sunrise,” she said — a reminder that their trusted advisor is always available to respond to their needs.

MDRT: A community of learning

With two decades of MDRT volunteerism, Kheng has gotten to know members from many different countries representing a variety of markets. She knows there’s always more to learn from the broader membership and from her peers in MDRT’s leadership. “Being on the Executive Committee is not only about being a leader, it’s also about learning to be a good follower,” she said. “In the next few years, I will be learning from the other Executive Committee members who walk ahead of me. Then, I will be a better leader when it is my turn to lead the organization.”

She wants to continue MDRT’s commitment of providing its members with relevant information, helping them develop the skills and mindset needed to be at the top of their game in this ever-changing profession.

“Members can assess where they stand on a global scale,” Kheng said, pointing to Court of the Table and Top of the Table as additional benchmarks to achieve. She clarified that the growth doesn’t stop there, as learning opportunities within MDRT have no limits.

“Every time there is something you want to learn, turn to the real practitioners — our members — who are imparting their knowledge and experience to the rest of us around the globe to learn and grow.

“MDRT is a knowledge bank for our profession, and as members, we can access and contribute resources for the whole profession to grow as a community.”

Contact: Carol Kheng carolkheng@yahoo.com

 

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