Apr 25 2022
Passion, purpose, people
By Kathryn Furtaw Keuneke, CAE
The first years in the financial services profession are heavy with doubt, pressure and fear. But with the confidence that comes from experience, the weight becomes lighter and many survive long enough to succeed. As a new recruit, John F. Nichols, MSM, CLU, was excited to enter the business world, yet too afraid of failure to give himself a chance. In time, he confronted those fears, grew his client base, became a specialist, and emerged with confidence and newfound success. But then circumstances and the drive to reestablish his career landed him back in that uncomfortable position as he launched his own firm. The difference in this second go-around was his willingness to walk through the fire to achieve his mission and the understanding that combining others’ strengths with his own would enable him to find the best pathway forward.
Learning and transformation never stop for Nichols. Two decades after he began again on his own terms, the 22-year MDRT member from Chicago, Illinois, USA, is moving on to his next chapter in business and in service. Nichols leverages this strong foundation of experience as he accepts the role of Nominee to the MDRT Executive Committee.
‘I had humble business beginnings.’
When you’re one of eight children, and your dad is a vice president of a large bank’s operations, you learn to implement structure and processes in your daily life. “As you can imagine, there was always a little bit going on,” Nichols said. Being part of a large household meant dinner was served at 6 p.m. sharp, and all the children had assigned chores from a young age and later worked summer jobs. Nichols credits this upbringing and structured learning from private education with establishing a strong work ethic, love for learning, leadership training and his desire to serve others.
As a recent college graduate selling radio advertising in his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota, USA, Nichols was recruited by a local insurance agency leader. He left his role in advertising and started his financial services career in the summer of 1984.
“I have a strong work ethic yet had very humble business beginnings,” Nichols said. “I am more of an introvert than people realize. We start thinking, and thinking gets in the way of what we’re supposed to be doing.” Nichols worked three years at the agency, struggling to grow his client base, before he left for Chicago, where he hoped a bigger city would open the door to a larger prospect pool.
In hindsight, he identified his challenge as fear of rejection, and it had followed him to Chicago. “I had to learn how to overcome my fears in order to make the calls and set the appointments,” Nichols said. The key to free himself from this fear was a call reluctance program by Bill Grimes. With new perspective and tactics to implement, Nichols was able to build a client base and increase his production.
In addition to mastering his fear of rejection, another key to success for Nichols was leveraging his specialty: disability insurance. After joining a new agency in Chicago, Nichols was mentored by disability specialists who pointed him in that direction. With a narrowed focus, his confidence grew, opening doors of opportunity. The Association of American Medical Colleges was seeking an HIV disability program to benefit medical students. Nichols developed and distributed the program, securing 38 of 60 medical schools as clients within two years, helping him qualify for MDRT for the first time.
But as he was hitting his stride professionally, a water-skiing accident left Nichols paralyzed from the neck down. Doctors didn’t expect him to walk again. Recovery took six years of rehabilitation, and while Nichols was focused on regaining the use of his body, his clients — including many of the medical schools — slipped away to other advisors.
This unexpected path took Nichols in a new direction. Once his physical health was stable, he was ready to reintroduce himself as an unbiased, specialized expert and established Disability Resource Group in 1999. He had just $10,000 saved in a business account, and an employee’s salary to pay, but he also had a very strong drive. “It didn’t matter that we had an unpleasant looking office. It didn’t matter we had modest beginnings because we were having so much fun working on our mission,” he said. “When you do something like that, the purpose is so strong that everything else is irrelevant.”
Nichols’ business grew as he built a larger team to replicate and expand the work he was doing as an individual. He took on the responsibility of filling the pipeline and continually upgraded the team, technology capabilities and office environment. “Then you start thinking differently,” he said. “I’m basically building a machine that is going to provide these products, solutions, services, which will create the flow of business and revenue to achieve a higher level of production.”
Court of the Table, then Top of the Table qualifications came and became consistent; however, Nichols has always been hesitant to think the next year is a given. “When January 1 comes, I’m as uncomfortable as everybody because my production is at zero,” he explained.
As a disability specialist, about 95% of Nichols’ cases are joint work. He says this way of doing business is a complete departure from the way he entered the profession — desperately trying to build a client base to ensure his survival. Now, his success is focused on helping other advisors serve their clients, and he benefits from their shared achievements. “If you make it about people helping people, it’s so much easier,” he said.
‘I was made by this industry, by MDRT.’
From the time he joined this profession, Nichols knew the value of MDRT on paper: Membership would celebrate his accomplishments and offer him continual learning opportunities from more successful advisors to propel him forward. What he hadn’t realized was the impact his involvement would have on the person he’s become.
His initial volunteer roles came from simply accepting the invitations other members extended to him. When he was invited to deliver a presentation at the 2004 MDRT Annual Meeting — the first meeting he attended — an MDRT member volunteer who was his speaker liaison devoted time to help him improve his presentation in preparation for the live delivery. Nichols acknowledges this experience as showing the unselfish service/actions of MDRT member volunteers, and one that raised his own personal standards.
"It didn’t matter that we had modest beginnings because we were having so much fun working on our mission. When you do something like that, the purpose is so strong that everything else is irrelevant."
His eyes were opened to the value of participation in MDRT — beyond the dues, but truly experiencing what membership had to offer him. “It’s up to you to raise your hand for what you’re looking for or get involved, so then you meet people who you can learn and grow from as well as having fun along the way. At least 180 MDRT members have contributed to who I am, to my success,” he said of the individual touchpoints of fellow MDRT members, volunteers and mentors, “and the number of people continues to grow. That’s the magic of MDRT.”
Nichols’ industry leadership reaches back to the 1980s, when he became active in his local chapter of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, serving first as president of the Chicago chapter and rising to the role of national president in 2013.
An active supporter of MDRT’s charitable arm since 2010, Nichols worked alongside other MDRT members to help the MDRT Foundation support organizations in need within members’ communities. The concept of leading with a service-based mindset, first introduced to Nichols in high school, reignited with his participation and gave him the opportunity to expand the organization’s impact. In September 2021, he took office as MDRT Foundation President.
Participation in MDRT roles has helped him build more structure in his schedule to run his business more efficiently. While the takeaways include greater success in business, Nichols pays special attention to his personal growth. “The more I have grown through MDRT, the better producer and Whole Person I am,” he said.
‘I’m a part of something bigger than me.’
Started as a two-person firm in 1999, Nichols’ business transformed and grew to a team of 20 and became a leader among disability providers. In 2017, Nichols identified a new opportunity for his business that launched a new trajectory for himself, his team and the business. He monetized Disability Resource Group, becoming a shareholder partner in a large insurance brokerage. This move enabled him to solidify plans for the continuity of his business and expand opportunities for his staff.
Nichols still retains control of the business he founded and serves a block of clients, but he has a successor managing day-to-day operations, freeing him up to think strategically. His vantage point allows him to adapt his business to the changing world, while his role has expanded to include broader initiatives within the larger organization. “I’m fortunate to be able to focus on key relationships, strategic opportunities while being a part of something bigger than me that is rewarding me and our team.”
The concept of passion, purpose and people permeating other areas of Nichols’ life also follows him in his new journey as he joins the MDRT Executive Committee.
As a member who has benefited from having access to learning how other successful advisors conduct business, from mentoring relationships and by growing as a leader, Nichols is prepared to join the team that will guide MDRT into the future.
“There will always be short-term needs, but we are really preparing MDRT for the longer-term impact,” Nichols said. “I want to be on that side of the ledger, where we’re having longer-term focus to extend the life cycle of the organization, our businesses, communities and families, etc. I tend to think that way.”
A lifelong learner, he looks forward to listening to and observing his fellow members of the Executive Committee as the group determines the way forward, building on MDRT’s ability to operate globally, while delivering value at a local level. From the vantage point of the five-person leadership group, Nichols is excited to step outside his own experience to see the broader landscape of the global membership. Yet, he knows he shares similar experiences with many of them.
“There are many members who I don’t know, and yet I have been in their shoes: the struggle, the fear, the anxiety of whether I’m going to make it,” Nichols said. “I’m really interested in ensuring they’re not left behind. There is room for everyone at our Round Table.”
Contact: John Nichols email@example.com