Starr Bright

Starr Barnum’s in the center ring at the Vermont Agency of National Life Insurance Co.

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Photos: Jeff Clarke

Starr Barnum comes from a long line of Starrs — he’s the fourth. He’s also descended from stars — the most noteworthy of whom may be Phineas Taylor Barnum, the 19th-century showman and public relations genius better known to the world as P.T. P.T.’s brother was Starr Barnum’s ancestor.

As general agent of the Vermont Agency of National Life Insurance Co. of Vermont, today’s Barnum is also in public relations, but of a far different kind. From his office on College Street, Burlington, he handles recruitment, training and services for 40 agent-reps scattered around the North Country (Vermont and parts of New Hampshire and upstate New York) plus the Hartford, Conn., National Life of Vermont office. The structure there is not what you’d expect, however, from a typical insurance agency.

Starr Barnum & company

The climate of the financial services world has changed dramatically, according to Starr Barnum (left). The general agent of the Vermont Agency of National Life Insurance Co. says today, “Everything needs to be done quicker.” Also pictured: Mark Elstner, Janet Binkerd and Dan Reagan.”

While, in many ways, Barnum is National Life to the agents he serves, Barnum is self-employed. “The best way to say it is I get a 1099 income statement from National Life,” he says. “It’s kind of like a franchise, but the pyramid in our business is upside-down — I’m on the bottom, not the top. And all these people are not employees of mine — it’s a partnership.” The list of agent-reps includes names familiar to the business community, but not necessarily connected with National Life, such as Dave Boardman and Peter Smith of Hickok and Boardman, who have their own, separate identity and represent other lines, as well. “It’s not necessary that they wave the National Life of Vermont flag, even though they have historically been the company’s top agents,” says Barnum.

He admits it’s hard to explain, but it’s evident that explaining it is important to him. “People don’t understand,” he says. “I don’t train people to go out and say, ‘I’m with National Life of Vermont.’ That’s my primary company, and I’m here to determine what they need. And if it’s National Life of Vermont, so be it.” Barnum’s customer is the agent-rep, supported by the Vermont Agency’s staff of five. Office manager Mary Ann Gravel says it most succinctly: “We’re rare.”

Barnum is a soft-spoken man who seems to generate loyalty among those with whom he works. His entry into the position came with the blessing of the late Blaine Sprout, who hand-picked him for the job in 1990. Sprout was moving to the home office in Montpelier to be chief marketing officer, and National Life had conducted a search within and outside of the company, something they “sometimes do and sometimes don’t,” says Barnum.

His personality and depth of experience made him a natural for the job. A native of New Haven, Conn., Barnum entered the Army in 1969, following graduation from Drew University with a major in political science. “There was a little war going on,” he says, cryptically. He was sent for officers’ training, and as soon as he was commissioned, he married Debi, whom he had met during his senior year in college on a foreign semester at the London School of Economics. Until 1972, when his commitment was ended, Barnum was stationed at the National Security Agency in Maryland, so it seemed appropriate for him to begin his career in Washington, D.C.

Asked why he chose insurance, Barnum grins. “Gosh, I don’t want to get cute here, but I realized that, after being in the government civilian intelligence world, I wanted to try something where you had a little more entrepreneurial opportunity. I’d always thought that I would be in business, and getting out of the service as a first lieutenant, a junior officer, I had job offers all over the place. Kind of like today, the economy was so strong, I thought it would be kind of neat getting involved in selling, and I’d always been interested in finance.” He joined Aetna Life & Casualty as a life representative.

The Barnums lived in the D.C. area until the fall of ’75. By then, Debi was expecting their second child. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Where do we really want to live?’” Barnum recalls. “I was doing pretty well, and I missed New England.” He called Aetna’s home office and asked if there were an agency in Connecticut, where he grew up. There was, and the family moved to Hartford.

It wasn’t exactly an easy move. “The stories are amazing,” he says. “Only 28 years old, trying to sell a house, expecting our second child. It wasn’t the best time in the world, and the real estate market wasn’t that exciting at that time.” He digresses a moment as he remembers those years. “I lived through being in the business with the gas crisis. I had to get up at 3 in the morning just to make sure I could get where I wanted to go during the day. So when people bemoan today, I say, ‘How would you like not to be able to get gas?’”

The depressed national real estate market had led then-President Nixon to offer a tax credit to people who bought new homes with foundations that had been started by a certain date. “There was this house 20 miles outside of Hartford, way out in the woods. It was a big change for us, and we loved that.” The Barnums bought the house and took the tax credit.

Barnum had begun working in Connecticut about a month before the family was scheduled to move. Their daughter, Jessica, entered a D.C. hospital with an asthma attack, which required that Barnum take a quick trip home to be with the family. Jessica was released after five days; the Barnums made their move; and, four weeks later, their son, Starr, entered the world.

Barnum worked for Aetna in Hartford for the next 11 years, eventually moving into sales management training, where he began to recruit people into the business. He earned his chartered life underwriter (CLU) degree and had just earned his equities license when Aetna announced it was merging its life insurance and retirement planning departments into the property and casualty division. “I saw the handwriting on the wall,” Barnum says. “So, in 1984, I joined the Connecticut Mutual agency in Hartford.”

Four years later, he had a call from a headhunter who was exploring possible candidates for National Life. “I knew Vermont. Three years before, we had purchased, with another couple, a condo at Okemo right on the mountain. My daughter was graduating from high school, my son was going into the ninth grade, so they were at two pretty good times to make a change. Connecticut Mutual was offering me a couple of situations around the country, but they really didn’t compare to the opportunity here. And what everyone talks about is true!” he exclaims. “The lifestyle and the environment in Vermont is a draw.”

Riner, Gravel & Patno

“It’s kind of like a franchise,” Starr Barnum says of the Vermont Agency, “but the pyramid in our business is upside-down — I’m on the bottom, not the top.” From left: Randy Riner, Mary Ann Gravel and Bill Patno.

Barnum came to Vermont at an exciting time for the industry in general. In the last 10 years, the climate of the financial services world has changed dramatically. “Everything needs to be done quicker,” Barnum says. “The people doing the selling in our business and also the customers want answers very quickly. So we’ve made great strides in getting connected via intranet and the Internet. It’s almost like a virtual office.”

There’s also been what Barnum calls “a blending” in the insurance business. “Our business mix of products and services we sell is just nothing what it was 10 years ago. Nor are the products. Today, there are just unbelievably different kinds of life insurance, annuities, retirement plans, pension plans and equities. There are more mutual funds than there are companies. So we are still what I call trying to stay under the radar, and while people are bombarded by all this stuff, we’ll try to help them understand it all.” He cites one of the company’s strengths as the ability to design customized qualified pension plans. “Not too many people do it any more. Now, the small-business owner gets approached by somebody who just has options A, B and C off the shelf. Ours is not a cookie-cutter plan.

“There’s been a merging and blending of the typical wire-house investment side getting into our business,” he says. This trend led National Life to form Equity Services Inc., with 200-some employees, in Montpelier. “It’s not the size of a Merrill Lynch,” says Barnum, “but it’s still a player.”

Of particular concern to Barnum is the proliferation of products and representatives trying to be all things to all customers. “When a company like Travelers merges with Citibank and decides to license all their employees in 400 branches, that’s what’s so strange about our world today. With today’s complexities, tax laws and all the things that people are concerned about, you’ve really got to think through and turn to somebody knowledgeable and sort it all out. It’s called pushing product as opposed to trying to do some analysis and figure out what’s right for the customer.” He says that advisers in other fields, such as CPAs, are now being licensed to handle financial products, creating a certain amount of controversy over full disclosure to the customer about the source of fees and commissions.

“Just here in Burlington, the Chittenden bought the Pomerleau Agency. You can walk into the lobby of Key Bank and, now, Howard, and they’re advertising the interest rate on annuities. But who’s doing the recommending? I worry about who’s doing it. It’s called the suitability of the sale.” He adds that compliance has stiffened up considerably, to make sure that the consumer is fully aware of what they’re getting into. “A lot of people say the government’s gone overboard, but that’s one point where I’m not so sure they have.”

As part of this trend, there’s been a shrinkage in the number of insurance agents in the country, Barnum says, “as most institutions concentrate on what’s called alternate distribution: How do we get our product sold, be it a mutual fund or life insurance policy or an annuity.” As an example, he mentions the business being done on the Internet, adding, “But that’s really helping us, because after a while, if you’re trying to run your business, how can you keep up? Long-term care, for example. Products are changing so rapidly, and there are so many products out there, you’ll probably be ready for the nursing home by the time you figure it all out.”

Despite the rapidly changing scene, Barnum claims he’s still having loads of fun. Outside of the office, he loves skiing and golf, and he and Debi are entering their fourth summer of boating on the lake. A year ago, Debi traded her law librarian career for the life of a book store owner, having bought Bygone Books on Main Street in Burlington. “And I love to cut my lawn,” Barnum quips as he tells about their recent move from Shelburne into Burlington. “One of the reasons I agreed to this 75-year-old house was that it does have a nice back yard.”

He quotes a motivational speaker — he thinks it was Tom Peters — whom he heard at a convention. “He said two things: One, if you’re involved in financial product sales and service, you’d better go back to your offices, and it should be a freak show, thriving on chaos. And two, if you think you know what you’re doing, you’re probably headed in the wrong direction.” Old P.T. would feel right at home with this freak show thing.

Virginia Lindauer Simmon is a free-lance writer and editor who lives with her cat, Moneypenney, in Colchester. Her work has appeared in national, regional and local publications.