Jan 02 2024 / Round the Table Magazine
Inheriting and cherishing relationships
Taking over your parent’s business isn’t as easy as it sounds. Mitsutaka Kato found that out the hard way, when he had to take over his dad’s clients years before they had planned.
Kato, a two-year MDRT member from Kumamoto, Japan, officially took over the clientele from his father, 14-year former MDRT member Mitsuhiro Kato, two years ago, after Mitsuhiro’s health issues forced what was supposed to be a longer succession process to advance after just a few years. Kato joined his father’s business 10 years ago as an assistant, concentrating on back-office services for the first eight years.
His father warned him that it would take a decade to build strong relationships with clients, so his plan was to perfect his understanding of the profession before taking over for his father. When the time frame was shortened, he became a financial advisor and began seeing clients.
A head start
He found some aspects of the transition easier than expected, especially because Mitsuhiro often took his son with him to visit clients when he was very young. While Kato remembers very little about these trips, which took place when he was as young as 2 or 3, he still receives reminders — of which he is a little embarrassed — when clients tell him, “You were really cute when you were very young.” His father sowed the seeds and started building his son’s relationship with clients, something Kato says helped him in his current advisor role.
Kato acknowledges the benefits of taking over well-established clients. “If the distance to the client was 100, I got to start from 95,” said Kato, who now handles insurance and financial planning for 500 clients. They are comfortable following his recommendations just because it’s coming from him and agree to buy without further details. But with such trust comes great responsibility, he said. “There is nothing more nerve-wracking. I am more cautious when planning because of the considerable trust. Having a head start does not mean it’s easy.”
Growing up, Kato hadn’t planned to take over from his father. He majored in social welfare in college and took a position at an elder care facility. While he recognized the impact of his work, the specific difficulties he saw for the present and future of the role drove him to consider other ways to help people.
After leaving the elder care industry, he took a series of jobs, including at a sporting goods store and a convenience store, where he interacted with people and learned more about the art of face-to-face socializing, something that has served him well in his current role. “I learned to overcome the difficulty of carrying a conversation,” he said. “One way of speaking can make a client feel uncomfortable, so you need to choose your words carefully.”
Learning the ropes
When he took his father up on his offer to join the agency, he focused on back-office tasks such as preparing contracts, maintaining correspondence and requesting documents to be sent to the insurance company. Serving in this role not only educated Kato about an advisor’s role, but he saw a different side of his father as well.
“My father has a very straightforward personality in his daily life. He does not seem to be bothered by anything. As his son, I had never seen him troubled before I started to understand his work,” Kato said. “I realized that he was thinking and worrying about his clients more than anyone else, and I could feel it. My memories of working with him are that I was able to understand him only after we started working together.”
Kato saw the fruits of that care when he took over his father’s clients and an elderly couple referred a new client to him and said, “I trust you because you are Mitsuhiro’s son.” Kato is careful to indicate, however, that built-in trust is not an opportunity to coast. Rather, the existence of trust creates an even greater sense of responsibility.
Now, Kato embraces his father’s approach by visiting clients so regularly that some will say, “It’s been awhile,” if Kato hasn’t visited them for a month.
The clients who have known him for years give him high praise. “That little boy back then has now grown up to be reliable,” they have told him. His goal is not necessarily to exceed his father, but he is determined to service his family’s clients well. This probably is one of the best succession goals in the business.
Today, Kato handles the day-to-day work himself, including contracts and insurance claims. His father, who has stepped back into Kato’s previous assistant role, still offers support when he has problems.
The surest sign to Kato of his clients’ growing comfort and trust in him is their use of nicknames. First it was the more formal “Son-kun,” then “Mitsutaka-kun,” and now the more endearing “Taka-chan.”
“I think this is a sign that we are succeeding in building a relationship of trust,” Kato said, “which is the most important aspect of this job.”
Tetsuo Kageshima writes for Team Lewis, a communications agency assisting MDRT with content development for Asia-Pacific markets. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.