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What Red Rocks Say

Even mountains and monumental rock formations come and go. That scale of time humbles the hurtling mind at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.

The speck of the moment adrift in an epic span of years is evident at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, near where the Insured Retirement Institute (IRI) had its annual meeting in late September. The theme of the meeting was “Capitalizing on Chaos,” and once you look for chaos, it becomes apparent in many forms.

The chaos of plate tectonics pushed massive layers of rock to stand vertically in the eroded, soft-red formations that enthrall tourists today. It took hundreds of millions of years for the formations and the Rockies themselves to grow.

If that half-billion years could be condensed into a 10-second video, the clip would show a terrifying eruption spewing mountains from the ground. Even that period is a fraction of the 4.5 billion years the Earth has existed.

The pressure between plates builds until a snap reshapes the Earth bit by bit. Even though the changes are long in coming, we notice them only in precipitating events such as earthquakes.

Helen Hunt Jackson, a 19th-century writer, described the formations as, “all bright red, all motionless and silent, with a strange look of having been just stopped and held back in the very climax of some supernatural catastrophe.”

Jackson advocated for the Native Americans who lived in the area since at least 1500 B.C. Catastrophe befell them in the 1800s when whites started showing up in larger numbers. Within a few decades, thousands of years of Native American history ended.

The Current Quake

I was reminded of that history as I spoke with attendees during breaks at the IRI conference. Of course, the main topic of conversation was the Department of Labor’s conflict of interest rule, which is clearly the disruption between the pressure to expand the fiduciary duty and to sustain the suitability standard, which has guided insurance sales for generations.

People mostly were resigned that the fiduciary side will win out not only with the DOL rule, but also beyond that, with possible action from the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Many said the changes would enhance the professionalism of annuity and brokerage sales. But for old-school insurance agents, the rule is another encroachment on their familiar territory. Yet another systemic change is the push for incorporating technology into practices for accountability.

Tech, and its effect on practices, is the subject of our feature article this month. The evolving practice will benefit advisors and clients. But as I researched the article, I was taken by the poignancy of a way of life slipping away. I came to appreciate insurance agent culture in my previous job as an association vice president of communications.

I learned independent agents tended to have small practices and often were the only agent in that practice. They knew about their clients and their families because they were in the same community, where agents often served as volunteer leaders. And just like the agents of old, many still visited prospects and clients to chat around the kitchen table.

Go Tech or Go Home?

That has slowly changed over the years, with agents morphing into advisors. They prefer to meet at their offices for efficiency and access to tech and data. And for all the talk about being more holistic, it seems that although advisors might be more focused on the spectrum of financial needs, they might also be losing sight of the person in front of them. Connecting with people is what the best agents do.

Some agents will be able to take the best of their people skills and leverage them with the technology to help ensure consistency and transparency. The efficiency can also free them to do what they love.

Others will say that it is clearly time to move on, either to another field or to retirement. The insurance industry will still be going strong, but it will be different.

For example, the feature article wraps up with the story of an advisor, David Holland of Florida, who focuses on fixed annuities but is a financial advisor. He has taken the best of both of those worlds and joined them in a system made possible by technology. That has also allowed him to grow his practice to incorporate a few disciplines and employ 20 people.

That is the best case, what the IRI would call capitalizing on the changes.

On the Road to Where?

In Colorado Springs, not all of the Native Americans left. To travel from Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs, I used a bit of tech to hail a ride through Uber. The driver was Michelle, whose mother was a Native American from the area.

Michelle didn’t know how far back her family went locally. It could be thousands of years. That is difficult to fathom in today’s America, where families go back only a couple of generations and then history is lost to the old country.

Today’s America is suspended in a long, uncertain arc of change. Up? Down? It’s difficult to tell. So many people aren’t sure about their future. How will they pay for college, care for elderly parents and plan for their own retirement? And those are the people fortunate enough to be fully employed.

Obviously, this is a clear case for advisors who can promise security. There are few better callings.

On the road from Manitou to Colorado Springs, I asked Michelle about the changes she had seen in the area, which has grown from a sleepy military town to a booming region.

She knows many people who don’t like the change. She said she tells them that no change is no life. Change is growth. Growth is life.

Steven A. Morelli is editor-in-chief for InsuranceNewsNet. He has more than 25 years of experience as a reporter and editor for newspapers, magazines and insurance periodicals. Steve may be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @INNSteveM. [email protected].

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