By Steven A. Morelli
LAS VEGAS, September 9, 2012 -The president of NAIFA in his address to the annual conference decried an unhealthy level of distrust and division within the association and called for unity in the face of one of the most challenging times for life insurance and financial advisors.
Robert A. Miller, the 2011-2012 leader of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, said the animosity is damaging the very base of the federated organization of more than 600 state and local groups comprising 45,000 members.
“We see states vying with locals; locals that are having trouble filling their board positions and suspicious of any unsolicited advice,” Miller said this morning at the Las Vegas annual meeting, according to an advance copy of his speech. “The closing down of under-performing locals has reached epidemic levels, while states unable to afford professional management are on the rise. Some states and locals seem to gather hurricane force energy in stating their enmity toward NAIFA-national.”
Miller put NAIFA’s division in the context of the national schism with deep discord between political parties. But he said that unlike the Democrats and Republicans, NAIFA members should belong to one party in particular.
“No matter what party anyone in this room belongs to, the one party whose bandwagon you better get on is the insurance party,” Miller said, adding an ominous note. “We are one signature from extinction.”
For historical perspective of NAIFA’s impact on public policy, Miller reached back to the group’s early history, when it was the National Association of Life Underwriters (NALU) and advocating for the insurance industry even before World War I. That was 1913, when NALU helped the Woodrow Wilson administration establish the tax benefits on which the industry now depends.
A hundred years later, NAIFA has to continue that struggle.
“In an ironic twist of historical symmetry, in 2013 NAIFA will be fighting to protect our products from a polemically charged Washington looking to pay down its debt,” Miller said. “The tax advantages that insurance products have enjoyed because of their unique nature are at risk. This threat is serious.”
But Miller also sounded hopeful notes as he described the enthusiasm he saw in many members he met in his year traveling for the association.
“As your president, I had the opportunity to experience the best of what NAIFA is all about,” said Miller, who is also a partner at Miller-Pomerantz and Associates in New York City. “I traveled across the country, meeting with members and state and local leaders. Some were experienced veterans of the business; others were young and promising agents. Many inspired me with their energy and enthusiasm.”
He also gained an international perspective. “In Tokyo, I experienced more of the same when I met with our colleagues at the Japanese Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors. Thank you, JAIFA, for reminding me that our issues transcend national boundaries, and we – NAIFA – are not just one organization – acting alone to advance our cause.”
One of NAIFA’s causes is to help policy and opinion makers understand the industry’s integral place in the national landscape, Miller said.
“This year, we explained our policies and positions in meetings with members of Congress, SEC Commissioners and other state and federal regulators,” he said. “We told our story to reporters at daily newspapers, and important trade publications. Our visibility has never been higher.”
Once again, he followed with a darker tone: “But we can’t deny these are perilous times.”
And those times threaten to intrude on NAIFA’s ability to carry out its mission. “The role of the Federal government in American society is an important and highly charged debate. It can raise the room temperature and cause veins to pop from one’s neck in a nano-second. It is an important topic for discussion in the general population and on the Presidential campaign trail. But let’s be honest: It has no place in discussions about NAIFA’s future. NAIFA is not the federal government. NAIFA is your professional association.”
Miller said NAIFA has been proving its value in Washington, D.C., where the financial industries are under fire and insurance in particular has precious few advocates.
“When we go to Capitol Hill – as we did this time last year – Congress listens,” he said. “Ironically -- at a time when our profile on Capitol Hill and in the Washington media has never been higher and our opinions never more sought after – some quarters of the federation are questioning our relevance.”
The questioning led to deep introspection with a blue ribbon task force that examined the association’s value proposition. It found that the organization is a vital force in protecting insurance agents and telling those in power about the unique service producers provide.
“Our words carry with them stories of middle class Americans,” Miller said. “The selflessness of a mother or father able to stay in their homes, educate their children or save their business because they met with an insurance professional. Life insurance products create 20 percent of all long-term savings in the United States and pay out $1.5 billion per day of benefit.”
But that answer led to other questions about broadcasting that value: “Why are we not marketing it and why are we not selling it in our states and locals every single day?”
Although he conceded that the national association has improvements to make, Miller emphasized that NAIFA is not a separate organization from members and that it is up to them to be the change that they want to see in the organization.
“The NAIFA board is not ‘them or they.’ It consists of insurance professionals who have chosen to give back to their industry. They are practicing agents and dues-paying members who care deeply about NAIFA. This is not us versus them class warfare.”
Miller put the association’s struggles in context of the current national political division, but also in historical perspective. He opened by quoting from the first words of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, a story about upheaval in France and England – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …”
Miller picked from that paragraph for the close, echoing the lightness and darkness of his own remarks: “It was the winter of despair; we had everything in front of us.”
Whether NAIFA’s is a light or dark tale is entirely up to members, he said in conclusion: “I urge everyone to see someone else’s reality. I would think then it can still be the season of hope with everything in front of us.”
Steven A. Morelli is editor-in-chief for InsuranceNewsNet. He has more than 25 years of experience as a reporter and editor for newspapers, magazines and insurance periodicals. He was also vice president of communications for an insurance agents’ association. Steve can be reached at [email protected].
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