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Jul 01 2017 / Round the Table Magazine

READ 00:14:54

To team or not to team?

MDRT members explain the benefit of collaboration with specialists and how to avoid roadblocks.

By Matt Pais

Topics Covered

One stand-alone store will appeal to certain people for a certain amount of time. A collection of complementary stores, though, will bring in a larger clientele and satisfy them with products more specifically geared to their needs — with the opportunity for them to move from one place to the next over time.

It’s not just the idea behind a mall but the structure of the practice for Matthew James Ewonus, a five-year MDRT member from Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Founded in November 2012, his business deals with a wide variety of clients (young families; young professionals; older, more affluent; corporate) via six advisors encouraged to build individual practices that make sense for them. “If your education and experience allow you to deal with very complex cases, that’s where your practice goes,” Ewonus said, noting that each advisor relies on the others when needed.

And if a client used to shop at one store but is ready to move on to a different store, so to speak, the business is built for that transition to go smoothly via communication and systematic administrative processes. Ewonus’ operation is just one example of the effectiveness of ensemble practices. According to a 2013 MDRT U.S. member survey conducted by LIMRA, 60 percent of the most productive members are part of ensemble practices. In addition, 57 percent of the top quartile are in ensemble practices.

About six years ago, Gino Saggiomo, CFP, a 10-year MDRT member from Fortitude Valley, Queensland, Australia, and his partner, MDRT Second Vice President Ross Vanderwolf, CFP, adjusted their practice toward this teaming approach.

“You can’t know everything,” Saggiomo said. “The whole concept is adding a greater and deeper level of specialization so clients have a team of experts rather than one person trying to be an expert at everything.

“Our opinion is clients don’t necessarily stay with you anymore just because you are good people or have great relationships. They want to see added value.” That value comes from diversified skills within the business. Saggiomo’s has a chart that identifies the specialties, relationship qualities and target clients of each advisor. Saggiomo, for example, focuses on items like cash flow management and asset restructuring for high-net-worth businesses but has less expertise and interest in equities. He said the specialization doesn’t just enhance service to clients but has expanded his skill set as well.

It also bears financial rewards for the practice: Since moving clients to a more complex, team-oriented service package (which includes two advisors in each meeting to spot things that only one might not see), average client fees have increased about 30 percent.


Teaming can also direct you to the areas of business where you want to put your energy. “The reason I got into the business was to show up with a check when something went wrong,” said Rickson Joel D’Souza, a 13-year MDRT member from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. “Instead, people started calling me about how their funds were performing at all times of day or night.”

Preferring to deal with insurance, D’Souza found a partner to handle investments for clients, which cut out about 80 percent of his calls and freed up his schedule. The result was more time with his family and more money with fewer meetings.

Eventually, though, it also taught him a lesson, as the partner (single, no kids), hired to emphasize numbers, not relationships, turned out to be a bad fit for clients (families with kids) accustomed to a different style. “I realized that regardless of the money, I needed to make sure that the proposition was right for the customer,” D’Souza said. Now, he has a client servicing team to handle investments.

If a person you work with does not have the same mindset about managing clients, they should be on board as an employee rather than a partner, he said.

External teams

Not all group efforts exist within a company, however. Howard E. Sharfman, a 22-year MDRT member from Chicago, Illinois, partners with specialists both inside and outside of his practice for a simple reason: “It’s hard enough to get a prospect to talk to you,” he said. “Once you have the ability to have that conversation, to limit yourself to one subject matter lowers your chance of success with the client.”

As part of NFP, a national organization with expertise in a wide variety of insurance solutions, Sharfman (who focuses on ultra-high-net-worth families and professionals) partners with members on corporate benefits, property and casualty, and more, which allows him to pivot appropriately toward client needs.

For example: He recently received a referral to an ultra-high-net-worth doctor. Sharfman wanted to talk to him about estate planning; the doctor had a more pressing issue pertaining to property and casualty insurance, personalized insurance and corporate benefits. Through partnering, Sharfman was able to help the client with these issues while also being referred to his three children, beginning a life insurance transaction with one of them.

Sharfman thinks eventually they’ll get to his estate planning, but even if they don’t, the client appreciates what they accomplished and is set up for the future. “If he buys life insurance, he’s going to buy it from us, and we’re going to be there when he’s ready,” he said. “If I had just gone in there with only the tool of life insurance, he wasn’t ready for that.”

To expand these opportunities in both directions, Sharfman trains partners on recognizable situations to send him business, such as insurance needs when a client is blending their family with another family, or when a client has children with special needs.


Of course, the process of partnering is not always smooth. Albert E. Gibbons, CLU, AEP, a 29-year MDRT member from Villanova, Pennsylvania, specializes in estate planning and life insurance for high-net-worth individuals, business owners and corporate executives. He receives all of his business from referrals by attorneys and trust companies, and is usually brought in when lawyers recognize a client’s need to review their existing insurance and consider new insurance.

While Gibbons’ approach of partnering with accountants and attorneys has led to 17 Top of the Table qualifications and a spot in the Hall of Fame for the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils, problems can arise from his strategy.

Recently, he worked for the first time with attorneys whose clients weren’t sure about the proposed coverage. They wanted Gibbons to collect their relevant medical information and obtain tentative projected underwriting ratings before they would agree to take insurance physicals. Once Gibbons negotiated favorable underwriting offers, the clients took the physicals. However, some of their doctors took so long to forward the medical information that one of the clients became uninsurable before the new coverage could be placed.

Gibbons said he regrets not insisting on following his usual, preferred process of requiring clients get insurance physicals first as he simultaneously collects medical files. But he recognized that because he hadn’t previously worked with these attorneys, he didn’t push, wanting to please the partners who were struggling with a difficult client. The message, he said, is that while occasionally he will need to be flexible in the interest of moving a client forward, it is best to stick with an established process and not veer too far or too often from what works.

Important reminders

While these incidents are a rarity, there are other important items to keep in mind about partnering. Several advisors emphasized the importance of a clear understanding about who is getting paid and how.

Ewonus’ practice is built on advisors receiving 70 percent of revenue and giving 30 percent to the house (or mall, as it were), with each producer able to decide if they want to buy shares in the mall or just operate their own store. He noted that most disputes come from unequal expectations in payment on joint work. In his practice, Sharfman tries to prevent any miscommunication. “If I refer clients to someone, they should know that I’m getting part of the commission,” he said. “It’s not costing them additional money, but they should know and approve that.”

Sometimes you might invite someone into a meeting who winds up derailing things, Saggiomo noted, recognizing the importance of pre- and mid-meeting discussions to frame the situation for the specialist.

Added Sharfman, “You might go through a couple of partners before you find the right one, just like you might go through a couple of personal assistants before you find the right one. Don’t let that discourage you.”

Ultimately, teaming is not for everyone. According to the aforementioned survey, 73 percent of U.S. members team at least part of the time, but only about 33 percent do so as a regular part of business activities. Regular teaming is slightly more common in the mature markets surveyed (34 percent in Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and South Africa) and less common in Japan (18 percent).

Generally, teaming is more frequent with advisors later in their careers. As Ewonus said, “On a team, sometimes you’re not the one with the ball,” and it’s essential to define who takes responsibility for what and hold people accountable. It requires giving up a degree of control and may necessitate hiring staff with extra skills, both of which took getting used to in Saggiomo’s practice.

“The only person that will have a real problem with you not covering all elements of the situation is you,” he said. “Clients are generally more focused on outcomes."

Matthew Ewonus
Gino Saggiomo
Rickson D’Souza
Howard Sharfman
Al Gibbons

“Clients don't stay with you anymore just because you are good people or have great relationships. They want to see added value.”

— Gino Saggiomo

Howard Sharfman offers these suggestions for collaborative work.

Set expectations for communication. For example, when something happens with a client (new job, new house, etc.), you’re going to want to know about that, and your partners can keep you informed.

Get on the same page. If a lawyer is sending you clients that aren’t your specialty, make sure they understand that. “I have to understand how they make a living, and they have to understand how I make a living,” Sharfman said. “There’s someone else who would be excited about that referral.”

Understand. Both partners need to make money in the transaction, so recognize that you can’t expect someone to automatically be happy about any business you send them, and vice versa. If you have a relationship with a partner and are passing along “irrelevant revenue” on a case that’s important to you, make that clear.

On a team, it’s essential to define who takes responsibility for what and hold people accountable. It requires giving up a degree of control and may necessitate hiring staff with extra skills.