Originally published in Business Digest, September 1997

Age is No Liability

by Craig C. Bailey

In 1973, when Jim Antell III purchased his first life insurance policy at the ripe old age of 17, he was under the impression that responsible financial planning was common practice for every Rice Memorial High School senior. He had no idea that signing on the dotted line at such an age in itself made him an anomaly, nor that his early actions would establish a pattern of planning that would one day literally save himself and his family from financial ruin. It's an anecdote that seems fitting for a man who has spent his entire career in the insurance field, and owes his success, at least in part, to his own product.

For the past year and a half, Antell, 41, has worked under the moniker of Antell Financial Services in Colchester, doing the bulk of his business with Minnesota Mutual and First Colony, though his insurance experience runs as far back as college. As a captive agent for Metropolitan Life, president of Northern Brokerage Co., an assistant general agent for the Vermont agency of National Life of Vermont, and the principal of Antell Associates, Antell has seen the pros and cons of alternately being a captive agent and an independent contractor -- and has worked his way through evolving industry trends to position himself where he can determine his own future.

"I characterize myself as a general practitioner," he says. While many financial planners specialize in working with a particular sect of the business world, Antell says Vermont's rural nature prohibits specialization. "If you wanted to do business with all of the heart specialists in the state of Vermont," he jokes, "that would take you about a week.

"The bulk of my business is either with small businesses or people who are self-employed," he continues. While his background is in insurance, Antell's product line includes investment products like mutual funds and annuities in addition to life and disability insurance, which allows him a broader range of options in planning the big picture of his clients' finances.

"I'm amazed at the people I talk to who don't have disability insurance. They don't have any life insurance," he says. "In the planning process, those are usually the things you try to knock off first, before we start setting money aside for retirement, or saving for kids' college. Most people, if they don't have an income, it doesn't matter what's going into retirement savings or into savings for college funding," he says.

[Jim Antell III] Jim Antell III purchased his first life insurance policy while still in high school. "I thought most 17 year olds did this type of thing," he says. His insurance career started before college graduation. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

"Jim came in last fall and helped us find a new life insurance and long-term disability carrier," says Bonnie Finnigan, human resources director at the Visiting Nurse Association in Colchester. "He was really good at explaining things to me -- making them clear."

"Our business is so much a function of how you click with the person sitting across the table from you," Antell explains.

Finnigan agrees. She says the non-profit association, which employs more than 700 people, used to work with a broker in Boston. "It's been really helpful to have a local broker," she adds. "Service is the bottom line. We need to get the biggest bang for our buck, and I think Jim did a good job."

"He's low-pressure. People like that," says John McSoley of McSoley McCoy & Co., a South Burlington CPA firm. "He's not a hard seller at all, but he's one of the most persistent people you'll ever meet. He's not a quitter. He develops relationships, and when he meets someone it's for the long term." McSoley has known Antell for 15 years, since the two met through the Jaycees.

Concise and cordial, Antell's narrative seems thoughtful and sincere, and includes an occasional apology should any chapter of his tale come off as "cornball."

Antell was born in Manchester, N.H. The oldest of six children, in 1960 he moved with his family from Montpelier, where they had lived for a year, to Burlington, where his father, Jim Antell Sr., took a job selling property/casualty insurance for Hickok & Boardman. "Insurance was in the blood," the younger Antell says. Now a management consultant to clients across New England, his father has also owned Associates in Financial Planning with Dave Boardman, worked with National Life of Vermont, and served as president of Health Insurance of Vermont, a local disability insurance company. That firm became American Network Insurance, which, coincidentally, has offices two stories above Antell Financial Services, on Roosevelt Highway in Colchester.

Antell nabbed his first part-time job at Grand Union on Shelburne Road at age 15. "I lied about my age," he says, matter of factly. "They thought I was 16." By the time he entered the University of Vermont in 1973, he was working upward of 32 hours a week at the grocery store, in addition to taking an 18-credit course-load. "What free time I did have," he recalls, "I was spending with Donna (Reuschel), who was my girlfriend at the time. I wasn't studying the way I should have been." (Antell, quarterback f the football team, and Reuschel, captain of the cheerleading squad, were high school sweethearts. They married in the summer of 1976.)

By the end of his freshman year he had made up his mind. "I can remember having that meeting with my folks," he says, "and my mother started crying when I told her I was quitting school."

For the next year, Antell devoted himself to stocking shelves and unloading trucks at the Grand Union. Occasional thoughts of management training were tainted by periodic visits from higher-ups from the chain's New Jersey headquarters. "No matter what the manager had done," he says, "it wasn't right and he got his butt chewed out. And he was putting in 70 or 80 hours a week. I said to myself, 'Jeez, do I really want to do this?'"

He soon got back into UVM full-time after a night course renewed his interest. Before he graduated with a bachelor of science in business administration in early 1978, he had already entered the insurance business.

His eyes were opened to commission sales at a meeting with now retired Metropolitan Life sales manager Joe Handy at a UVM business symposium during Antell's junior year. "When somebody told me the more you put into it, the more you get out of it, I said, 'Well this is a really good deal.'"

Antell spent the summer of 1977 working at the grocery store, and making straight commission sales from the Met Life office. "I recalled how I had bought my first two life insurance policies from Dave Boardman," he says. "I walked into his office and inside of five minutes he was taking applications. And I thought, 'Boy, I could do that.' Of course, that summer I found out it wasn't quite that easy."

Still, Antell made $2,500 of annualized commissions that summer, and knew he had found his niche. On Jan. 1, 1978, at age 22, he started full-time for Met Life, the youngest sales rep of about 40 people.

By the early '80s, Antell explains, "The market started to change, and the smaller companies came out with this new product called universal life, which was kind of like a combination of term insurance and whole life insurance. ... But the more established companies weren't quick to grasp that product."

As a result, agents like Antell were forced to deal with other insurance carriers if they wanted to sell universal life, even if that meant going against their Met Life contract. "One day we were marched into the manager's office," he says. "They'd called Montpelier, found out who we were licensed with -- they had a list of all the companies there -- and we were made to sign letters terminating those contracts."

Meanwhile, Blaine Sprout, general agent for the Vermont agency of National Life of Vermont, was running into the same frustrations. "National Life was not developing some of these new products as quickly as Blaine wanted," Antell says. "He had 30 agents or so throughout the state of Vermont and northern New York that he knew were going elsewhere to get these products." Sprout's solution was to create a new business, Northern Brokerage Co., so his agents could funnel that business through an entity he owned, "But he couldn't run that himself," Antell adds. So at age 25, Antell accepted Sprout's offer to be president of the start-up.

[Donna & Jim Antell III] Antell serves as head fund-raiser for Pepsi Youth Hockey. His wife, Donna, is the organization's scheduler. The pair are having a second phone line installed at their home to accommodate the workload. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

"Unfortunately, for me," Antell says, "National Life did a good job in coming into the times." In April 1985, with National Life offering many of the products Northern Brokerage offered -- inexpensive term insurance, annuities, and universal life -- Northern Brokerage closed shop, and Antell decided to become brokerage/unit manager.

Throughout his four-plus year tenure with National Life, Antell built his sales team to 18 people. But when Sprout left for the home office in September 1989, Antell was passed over for the general agent position. "The Vermont agency of National Life was one of the top three in the country, which was very unusual given the small marketplace we had," he explains. "And because of that, it was generating a very, very high six- and maybe even a seven-figure income for the guy who ran it. And that wasn't about to be given to some 34-year-old whippersnapper."

On June 1, 1990, Antell ventured forth on his own, establishing Antell Associates at 112 Lake St., Burlington, above Isabel's on the Waterfront. As general agent for Minnesota Mutual, Antell enjoyed the freedom of an independent contractor. Within a year he had relocated to the Hickok & Boardman building on Shelburne Road, and had grown his agency to about a dozen employees.

The irony that awaited him was that in early 1992, Antell himself would file the first disability claim of his fledgling agency.

A nasty cough that had persisted for a couple of months was eventually diagnosed as a lung tumor. Oddly at ease during the six-day wait before the scheduled operation, Antell says it was the first time he ever felt entirely not in control. "What was going to happen, was going to happen. And I really couldn't do anything about it."

It was only fitting that Antell was loaded with disability and life insurance. "If it wasn't for disability insurance, we would have gone bankrupt," he says.

Surgery in March to remove a portion of his right lung put him largely out of commission, until he began returning to the office in July. "Fortunately, the surgery went fine," he adds. "March 19th this year was my five-year check-up, and I don't need to go back anymore.

"That whole thing had a pretty profound effect on my whole outlook on life. Up until that point, everything had been go, go, go. I wanted to build my own dynasty," Antell reflects. "I never had my heart in the management end of things once I came back."

Eventually, he disbanded Antell Associates, and changed his business name to Antell Financial Planning to reflect his new status as a two-person operation, including office manager Dale Witter. Witter, who has 14 years' experience with the Colchester office of John Hancock, describes Antell as the most honest salesperson she's ever known. "He actually puts the client first, and a lot of salespeople don't," she says.

[Dale Witter] Antell says he relies on office manager Dale Witter for a large amount of client servicing. "There are so many things she does," he says, "that I don't even see." (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

Since June 1994, the business has been located in the building that Antell and Skip Farrell partly own at 1 Roosevelt Highway. It shares the first-floor with Tim Carney's Cornerstone Capital Management.

"When I'm sitting down with a personal client, one-on-one, I'm a little bit more maniacal about disability insurance than the average guy, because I've been through it," Antell says. His focus has been on family since his surgery: The 70- and 80-hour weeks of Antell Associates have been replaced by the hectic schedule of the hockey and soccer games of his sons, Aaron, 16; Adam, 13; and Andrew, 9. "Things that used to agitate the hell out of me, just don't bother me," he says. "Rule number one is don't sweat the small stuff. Rule number two: It's all small stuff."

If Antell's illness weren't enough, Donna was diagnosed with osteoarthritis several years ago. A dancer since she was a child, and a key player in some Lyric Theatre productions in the late '80s and early '90s, she was recently forced to sell the dance studio she founded at age 19, following a hip replacement last year. Her husband explains that dance teachers cannot be covered by disability insurance.

Antell has found that while the insurance and investment industry has gotten more complicated -- stock brokerages, banks, and credit unions dip into his business; the litigious nature of the field has sent errors and omission insurance through the roof; margins have come down; and expectations are higher -- some things have gotten easier with age. "When you first start out, you walk by a lot of situations that were a potential for business," he says. "You didn't even know they were there, because you didn't even have the knowledge." Furthermore, as he's aged, so has the average age of his clients, creating a more lucrative account list.

He says he has "no interest whatsoever" in taking on additional agents like the years of Antell Associates, and says he "will never, ever, put myself in the situation I was in again at National Life," where he felt corporate politics took away his ability to determine his own future. On the other hand, he adds, "I don't see Antell Financial Services being myself and Dale Witter, my one assistant, forever. I picture myself down the road being part of a much larger organization. As I sit back and reflect on the 20 years, I was happiest when at least I felt I was a major player in a much larger shop."

He wouldn't rule out handling the financial services branch of a property/casualty agency, bank or credit union someday. "I could see doing that down the road," he speculates, "but it has to be on my terms."