New York Life’s New Orleans General Office

 
Russell B. Guerin, CLU
A Perspective for my Daughter, Michele – July 2004
The primary purpose for taking pen to hand in this writing is to recognize that my daughter has taken her rightful place among the leaders of a great office, and while making such acknowledgment, to acquaint her more fully with some of the times past in an agency in which she is leaving her own footprints.
This will be an attempt to recall some of the highlights of the happenings within this office of New York Life before and during my tenure. Though this is for Michele's perusal, it may be that others will be given access to what follows. Hopefully, a twofold purpose will then be fulfilled, the first being the enjoyment of reminiscences by those who experienced the described events, and who knew the personalities of those who played memorable roles. The second is a sort of combination of celebrating the activities of those who came before, while at the same time attempting to give some inspiration to those who come afterwards.
To begin with, a career with NY Life is not just a job; it is by all measures a way of life. That may not easily be understood by folks outside of our industry, but it takes a special breed of person to make it in this business. One of their attributes is fierce independence, involving an unwillingness to serve as someone's "employee," but a willingness to work well and in an organized way. Agents treasure their freedom of action but are guided by the fact that they are compensated for their own work, not for another's. They also share the conviction that they are doing more for their policyholders than for themselves.
It must be said that independence did not mean there were not close friendships within the office. In fact, there was an extraordinary camaraderie, exhibited in contests, fishing trips, Softball games and in Senior Nylic celebrations. We truly had fun.
 
A Baseball Analogy but with the Four Horsemen
My own experience began in January, 1958. My first general manager was Clinton Montz, who had begun as an office boy and rose up through the ranks, eventually to Inspector of Agencies. I was impressed when he told me, "You're in the big leagues, now." Over the years, I heard him say that to many, some of whom were sent to the minors after a while. But he could point to some big leaguers, for certain. These included Vic Vybiral, Clay Thomas, Joe Dearie, and John Dumas. The first three were recruited about the same time, right after WW II, by then GM Luther Byrd. John Dumas came about one year later. Maybe it was like the Renaissance, where so many artists fed into each other, or like the New York Yankees, perennial champions who batted individually but played as a team. But maybe the baseball analogy should have borrowed from football, for certainly we had "The Four Horsemen."
There was Vic, an orphan whose business experience consisted of having been in the navy; he came to New Orleans hardly knowing a soul. He came here because it was his wife June's hometown, making the trip from Florida in a '38 car with $150. June was expecting twins at the time. Vic made an instant success selling to seamen by going onboard their ships. Clay had served in the merchant marine during the war and was far from the polished professional that he became, ultimately rising to lead the company as President of the Clubs. Joe Dearie had considered playing professional baseball, and in fact had been offered a contract.  However, his playing days were interrupted by a tour of North Africa, courtesy of the U.S. Army. Like Vic, he climbed many Jacob's ladders to sell to merchant seamen, but eventually became a leader in writing insurance to cover businesses and their executives. Unfortunately, Joe was taken by cancer at the peak of his career, having made the highest club every year, including his first. John Dumas is the only survivor of that outstanding group of agents; like Joe Dearie, John had also been offered a baseball contract, but instead became an officer in the navy. John's insurance career was that of a true professional, working with other professionals over the years, many of them physicians.
It is noteworthy that none of the four had any college. In the case of Joe Dearie, however, it seems that he thought having some college experience would be helpful in getting hired, and so he included it in his application. It probably was not known to him that the company used inspectors to check such assertions, but the company did in fact inspect. By the time this got back to Luther Byrd, Joe had already written 8 or 10 applications, and a win-win exception was made.
One other notable of that time never became a leading agent, but as a manager took the New Orleans G.O. to its greatest heights. Charlie Gogreve was also a navy veteran when recruited, having served in the Pacific theatre. He was not a big success as an agent, not even having a car in his early days and having to take the streetcar to appointments. But he had been a cheerleader in high school, and it was perhaps that background that propelled him to a great managerial career. Joe Dearie, it might be remembered, often described the management team reverently as "the cheerleaders." There will be more about Gogreve later.
But there were those who came before Vic and Clay, Joe and John and Charlie, who were perhaps mentors for them. One who comes to mind was never known by this writer, as he had died some years before 1958. His name was Randall Walker, and contemporaries said that he was one of the company's leaders. One story that I recall was about his doctors recommending that he was working too hard and should take a vacation. He booked a voyage to Europe and proceeded to write policies on the captain and many of the crew.
Another story recounts his dedication, involving his having found a NYLIC policy in some trash as he walked down a street. He picked it up and brought it in to the office, where it was found that the policy had lapsed long before. It had not been surrendered for cash, and was still running on extended insurance. On further investigation, he determined that the insured had died, and Walker was able to pay his family $6,000. This occurred during the heart of the Great Depression.
While it is right to highlight those mentioned above, there were many other great Nylic agents before and since. Setting some examples for them to follow were outstanding people like Charlie Frey, who would sometimes recall that to get to his clients in Baton Rouge he had to travel river road, as there was no Airline Highway, much less I-10. There was also Park Woodward, a quality agent who had paid over $1,000,000 in death claims on policies that averaged perhaps $2,000 or less, and often spoke of making the $100,000 club early in his tenure. That was in terms of face amount, by the way, not premiums. Others were Walter Seidel, a gentleman who did business with some of the river pilots, and Max Blanchard, a colorful former state senator who had a scratchy, gravelly voice. It was said that he acquired that quality trying to argue bills on the floor of die Louisiana legislature.
And who can forget the antics of Major Springer, with his blinking Christmas ties, his dog Fifi, or the fish carcasses that he unwrapped on the counter to show how big his speckled trout were?
There were others whom I remember from my earliest days, some who had perhaps not been great producers. But they were good enough to continue servicing their policyholders long after becoming senior Nylics and reaching retirement age. Things were different, then, which is not to say better or not better, but simply different. The company provided office space to agents, even if not club qualifiers, at no cost. This encouraged those in their golden years to continue to visit the office regularly. One grew beautiful African violets and watered them daily. Even though as a group such agents were no longer highly productive, they had come before and had the respect of younger agents.
Carlo Cangelosi came before Clay, and it was from him that Clay said he learned a lot about selling. Carlo was a strong salesman, knowledgeable about the business and expert in taxes. He was a motivator and could read a prospect like a psychologist. Carlo was also totally blind, and had been so since about age 18. He quoted rates in general terms and never showed an illustration. Once, when this writer was privileged to make a call with Carlo, he told me right after the interview that the medical exam was going to show that the prospect had elevated blood pressure. I asked him how he knew, and he told me that the handshake indicated to him a large, clammy hand. He was right about the blood pressure reading.
As mentioned, Carlo was a motivator. In those days, we were trained to use certain sales techniques, perhaps more than now. I recall one of Carlo's "power phrases": "There are many ways that a man can provide for his family's security; life insurance is the unselfish way." He was also an innovator, selling mutual funds even before they were agreeable to the company.
And there were career ladies in the office, besides those clerical and secretarial staff. These were professional agents who were competing with men on an equal footing, long before other industries recognized that women had equal abilities. One in our office was Alice Hess, who may have been an accountant by training. One thing is certain: she knew taxes. She was heavily involved in estate planning sales while others were content to do "package selling." Alice was successful to the point of not bothering to cash some of her ledger checks. On more than one occasion, Office Manager Clarence Glaser was requested by the Home Office to get Alice to cash a year-old check. It was rumored that one check was being used as a bookmark.
Another successful lady agent was Selma Levy. As I had the job of Agency Assistant for the year in which she was appointed, it became my pleasure to have been charged with the job of training Selma. Undoubtedly, she was the most difficult agent to train in my seven years of management, but also the most satisfying. I can still picture Selma closing her eyes when concentrating on a new concept, and sometimes asking for explanations to be repeated. But learn she did, and when she got hold of an idea she was like a bulldog: she wouldn't let it go. Selma worked hard and built a good following over her few years in the business. Unfortunately, she had contracted a debilitating and painful illness and died prematurely. I well recall the words of the rabbi who conducted her funeral: "For some, like children, Death comes like a thief in the night; but for Selma, he came like a ministering angel."
The lady agents had all the same advantages as the men, at least as far as the company could provide in an otherwise man's environment. They had the same contract, office space, management assistance, etc. It was equal except for the right to win a trip to the annual fishing trip to Grand Isle. As there were no accommodations for a lady, Alice – a perennial winner – was instead awarded hats by Clinton Montz. I believe it was Selma Levy that first pushed for the right to be included in the trip, and the hat idea became a dead issue.
It was during that same one-year period when I was Agency Assistant that I nominated one of the coming stars of the office. That was my dear friend and college colleague Alain de la Villestbret. Our office can claim him from the beginning, although circumstances dictated that he spent most of his short but outstanding career in the Tulane Office. In addition to his business ability, Alain was also noted for his accomplishments in oratory, having risen high in national competition of Toastmaster's. Alain also died young, at the peak of his success. (That there were multiple offices in those days may require some explanation. For several years, the company operated under the assumption that when an office reached a certain level of production, it was no longer at peak efficiency, and therefore other offices were formed by a spinning off a nucleus from the original office. At one time, New Orleans had three independent general offices, the third being called Crescent City, In Alain's case, he had gone over to Tulane as an assistant manager.)
Reminiscing about the awarding of a hat to Alice Hess brings me to the subject of fishing trip contests. An enormous amount of good will and friendly competition was promoted yearly with these campaigns. Because there was a system of handicapping based on time in the business and production levels, everyone stood a chance of winning a slot. For those who made it, it was a chance to hob-nob with the likes of Clay and Joe, Vic and John. Some learned valuable lessons from these trips, not just about selling insurance, but also how not to draw to an inside straight.
Not all of the fishing trips were office sponsored. Some were organized within the agency force just because we wanted to go fishing. I learned a good lesson about such trips, when on one occasion I got the flu and could not go. I had already paid my share. The organizer had no trouble in replacing me, but Gogreve suggested that they use my payment as a prize for the biggest fish. The following year, I tendered a promissory note for my share, and did not pay cash until I knew I would be able to go. The problem with that is that one year later, the organizer demanded payment on the note, telling me in a formal letter that he had "now carried me longer than my mother did."
A monthly event that was sponsored by Gogreve was the "10-a-month" luncheon. This meant that he would take those who had written 10 applications in the previous month to a nice restaurant. He also was known to walk down the hall at the appropriate time, telling agents it was time to leave. He took particular pleasure if he confronted a non-qualifier, so he could say, "Oh, sorry, but you're not invited."
Many of us were not invited, as some agents were not app-writers. For that reason, one of our contemporaries organized the "2-a-month" parties. Of course, Gogreve was always the guest of honor. After attending a couple of times, he suggested that we should at least make it the "5-a-month," which we did. That loose-knit organization lasted for years and was a source of good camaraderie. We must have learned from each other at such meetings: how else could we explain tax-deducting those parties?
Gogreve did more than sponsor monthly lunch contests. He was by all accounts a great general manager. I honestly cannot think of anyone who would not share that appraisal, and over the years, we had many other managers to facilitate comparisons. It must be recognized that in the appointment of managers, sometimes the company did not get it right. There were two such periods: pre-Gogreve and post-Gogreve.
It must be recognized that in the earlier segment we did have some nice people, including an athlete who was a man of great temperance but was a stranger to the vicissitudes of the Big Easy environment. Notably, he was happy to get the appointment to New Orleans. I recall his first talk to the field force, in which he described the banners around Yankee stadium, waving one after another, "Champions, Champions, Champions!" That's how he saw the New Orleans G.O. and he was right. He called it the "Office of Champions."
Another was properly called "Doctor" by those who knew his background. Educated as an optometrist, he was undistinguished in sales ability. However, he was in fact a good technician of our business, and helped one of his early trainees reach the dizzying heights of 2nd in the nation. That was Mitch Lulich, who had a meteoric flight to stardom; of course, it should be recalled that Mitch had some outside help from his "praying nun." I've always thought that the loss of the good doctor to another company was a loss to the New York Life.
There was even a third good man in that period, who eventually took back his Nylic contract.
That these cases of rotating young general managers sharing control with retiring Clinton Montz constituted an example of the company not getting it right is obvious in retrospect. More unfortunately, it was obvious then.
The "post-Gogreve" era is still too current for me to comment upon. Besides, it should be obvious now that for anyone – agent or manager – to be mentioned in these pages, he must be dead or retired or nearly one or the other. I may break this rule as I near the end of this exercise in verbosity, but only because there are exceptions. In the words of the best office manager that I knew, "Rules are meant to be broken." Of course, he did not invent that, but he practiced it to the advantage of the company and the agency.
In the era of Gogreve, the company unquestionably did get it right. From his undistinguished start as an agent in New Orleans, he had gone to Baton Rouge, where in a relatively small city he built an office that was among company leaders and left a legacy there of successful agents before coming back to New Orleans.
Charley Gogreve, also known simply as "CA," was sometimes given the moniker "the Black Cat." Respect for him as a general manager was shared by the agency force and the home office as well. He was fair and honest and at all times truthful. He had the respect of the underwriting department and was able to help get many tough cases through. In this and innumerable other ways, it was a truism that his success was based on the success of the established agents, not just on his recruiting. As for the latter, he certainly was no slouch, but he got most of his new appointments through the experienced agent.
I well remember a day when he came to me with an unusual request. The home office had decided that the time was right for our agency to appoint the first black agent since Reconstruction. As Gogreve knew that I had been active in some community programs that fostered better race relations, he asked that I help find the right person. That man was Jim Raby, who was a policyholder of mine, a college graduate and already in sales. Jim is now retired, one of a number of Senior Nylics and former members of the Round Table that I happily take credit for. Again to use a baseball analogy, Jim was the Jackie Robinson of our office, coming before those who have happily followed in successful careers.
To emphasize how remarkable Jim Raby's appointment was in those times, I should mention that that was one time when the company did not automatically accept Gogreve's recommendations. By prior arrangements, the regional vice- president flew down to New Orleans to do his own appraisal before the Nylic contract was offered.
"Which reminds me: No one could claim more expertise with the Nylic contract man Charley Gogreve. He knew every paragraph and could point out its nuances to the advantage of any agent willing to listen. Often, at Senior Nylic celebrations, he was observed to motivate continuing performance by making the Nylic contract dance.
I remember from my recruiting days a phrase I learned from my then general manager, Sonny Romero, in which he quoted a forgotten source who said that the Nylic contract was "the greatest instrument ever devised between a man and his employer." As Romero was a protege Gogreve, I suspect that Gogreve was the source. By any measure, this is more important in this day of failing 401-K's and the abrogation of defined benefit pension plans by some major corporations.
Be mindful, Michele, of how few of your generation will have a lifetime income in their early 40's. We are in an era in which some industries show little concern for their employees, and likewise, many people in the workplace exhibit little dedication to their companies. This is true for CEOs on down. It is evident that tens of thousands have been laid off to make bottom lines look better. There seems to be some loss of corporate memory in such cases, ignoring the accomplishments of workers in building a company.
I have long said that New York Life is a company with a conscience. I still believe that.
Gogreve was also an innovator. He created "Black Cat Day," a contest that came with every Friday the 13th and highlighted health insurance. Eventually, it was adopted by the Home Office as a national contest. In those days, many agents did not do much health insurance business, but come Black Cat Day, we would abandon all our normal pursuits to get that Health app, sometimes creating a new client where nothing else had worked before.
Another company sponsoring was the annual "Grand Slam" campaign for managers. This encouraged managers to fill allotments in four categories, which I recall were Life, Health, Group and recruitment. Gogreve was so much a perennial shoo-in that he was given a special recognition by the Home Office. (Someone might be able to provide more details than my memory allows.)
Eventually, the company decided to make Grand Slam an agent contest as well, awarding those qualifiers with an extra day at Council meetings. Because of his prominence in this regard, Gogreve was asked to nominate one of his Grand Slammers to appear at the first meeting to give an acceptance speech on behalf of the field force. I was honored to be his nominee, that happening being at a Top Club meeting at French Lick, Indiana about 1968.
All Council Meetings – called "Clubs" in earlier days – have been memorable for one reason or another. The one at French Lick is especially so, but I won't try to recall all the details. I think it enough just to bring it to mind for anyone who was there.
It may have become apparent that there has been little or no mention of any people alive and not retired. The reason is purely intentional, and may be thought of in the same vein as the practice of not naming streets after living persons, or having statues of them mounted in the park. There is better rationale for this than saving a hero from a bad attitude about pigeons. The reason is also practicality: if we attempted to cover the many notable stories – funny, poignant, or tragic – the question arises, where indeed would we begin or end?
Now that this generalization has been established, let us depart from it with a more serious consideration. Perhaps nothing can speak more convincingly about a great tradition than to measure how frequently over the years that some of those who came before have sponsored career family members in the business. To cite a few familiar names: Thomas, Weiser, Milam, Heine, Vybiral, Guzzino, Kline, Guerin. Of course there are others, all across the country, and for good reason.
I am caused to remember an incident of many years ago. It was one of those midnight informal meetings in someone's hotel room after a Club banquet. One of the group was our highly respected head of Advanced Underwriting, a home office vice-president. He became nostalgic, and told us of his father's career as an agent. He went on to say that he had followed his father's footsteps but eventually chose the management path. On reflection, his eyes glimmering with moisture, he said that he had never eaten a bit of bread that did not is some way come from the New York Life.
In closing, I must give myself some credit for having made possible a few loaves of bread over the years, not just by our family but also by way of other agents that I brought with the company. I take particular pride in the members of the MDRT whom I have sponsored. Besides Alain de la Villesbret and Jim Raby, already mentioned, these have included Jack Van and Leon Soniat, both deceased, and A.J. Avettant, George Heine, and of course, Michele Guerin.
It is my fervent wish that the traditions described above be perpetuated, all the while recognizing that there will be changing times, different markets, new problems to contend with. It is not an idle wish that I look for the home office and general office to continue to do most things right, and the career agent to retain his or her independence and stability in a business world that will be forever envious of our integrity, our heritage and our long-term fidelity.