One of the first things you notice about Bryan Hirsch is his energy. It literally oozes out of every pore, so when you learn he will soon celebrate his 60th birthday, you’re nothing if not humbled. This is a man who manages assets worth hundreds of millions of rands for his clients, appears on two national radio shows that generate over 100 calls a week for him to return (something he does with almost fanatical dedication), writes a column for Business Day, has written his own book on financial planning and still finds time to be a dynamic and driven CEO for the South African branch of Pioneer Financial Planning, making him responsible for operations in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Australia. He’s also beaten cancer.
And Hirsch shows no sign of slowing down. If there’s anyone who is up to the challenge of leading the way in financial planning, this is the man. He has his finger on the pulse of change and a vision for the future that is innovative and exciting. There’s not much that he hasn’t seen, done and learnt during his lifetime of involvement in this industry. His experience shows, not only in the financial advice he dispenses, but also in the wisdom that colours his approach to life and people.
Entrepreneur: Who are your customers and how do you identify your best prospects?
Bryan Hirsch: One of the important lessons I learnt early on in my business life was never to underestimate a prospect. You have to remember that to each person their money is important, and a small amount of money is probably more important to someone who is not wealthy than a large amount is to a millionaire. Our customers are people who need simple solutions to protect themselves or people who have money to invest. They include older people with small amounts of money, younger people who want to start a portfolio and very wealthy people who have hundreds of millions to invest.
E: Most companies talk about their good service, but many fall short of the promise. What is your attitude to service?
BH: In terms of service, I have one simple business philosophy: to provide clients with the same service that I would expect if I was a customer of this organisation. I am fanatical about that and some people find it difficult to live up to the high standard I set in the organisation, but it’s something I will never compromise on. I give good service and I call people back.
E: Many entrepreneurs have great product or service ideas, but fall short in one key component of their business design: how they capture value. How do you capture value?
BH: In one of three ways. Firstly, we earn commission from traditional insurance products. We also earn fees which are a predetermined percentage on investment products that we sell. Finally, I charge consulting fees, although we don’t look to that to make money. A key driver of value capture is new customers. The customers we have are our stock in trade; they need to be serviced and retained, but the growth of our business has got to come from new customers. And then we also give clients asset advice, placing their assets with various institutions.
E: One of the drivers of business success is the re-engineering of a company’s business design to meet the ever-changing needs of the business’s customer segment. Has your business design changed over the years and why?
BH: It has definitely changed and is not at all the same as it was 10 years ago. This is because, historically, we operated in a far more segmented way, whereas our approach today is far more holistic. This change was precipitated by the fact that, in the past, people lapsed policies because they didn’t understand why they were buying them, they didn’t understand how those products were supposed to fit into their bigger picture. Now we look at a client’s bigger picture and sell them products that fit into this picture. I liken it to a jigsaw puzzle and believe that people should never make an investment, or add a piece to their puzzle, if they don’t understand where it fits in. So today, we don’t sell products – we look at what the individual’s needs are and tailormake holistic financial planning solutions according to their needs and wants.
BH: Although I initially looked at actuarial studies as a potential career, all my life I have been an outgoing, uninhibited individual and I found I was very good at sales. As a youngster I used to be a Cub and we’d do ‘Bob a Job’, where you’d earn a bob for doing a job for someone. This was when I was eight years old and every year I kept a book of what jobs I did at people’s homes and would go back the following year and suggest an increase for the same job.
When I was 10, I was also a Cub reporter for The Star newspaper and I used to get scores from three different sports fields on a Saturday, phone them through and get paid two-and-six for each one. I had three grounds: the Wanderers, Zoo Lake and Pirates. I couldn’t handle all of them myself, so I had people working for me at each of the grounds. One of my co-directors’ mothers looked at all this and said to me: “You’re a born salesperson, you’re a good prospector and you’re organised. You’re an ideal person to enter the insurance sales industry.” I didn’t even know what insurance was, but I chose it when I left school and learned the business from A-Z in London and South Africa, working for Legal & General, and then at Liberty Life.
BH: My sporting interests forced me to go into sales and there’s a bit of a story behind that. In 1968 I was working for Liberty Life as a junior clerk and the British Lions were playing against Transvaal at Ellis Park, so I asked my boss if I could go and watch the rugby, pointing out to him that I wouldn’t take lunch and that I always come in very early to work every morning. He said “no”, and that afternoon Transvaal beat the British Lions. I wasn’t at the game, but almost every other male in the company had gone, so the next day I resigned. Donald Gordon, who headed up the company at the time, phoned and asked me what I was doing. He negotiated with me, and said he would pay me a salary for three months while I tried selling on my own and if I didn’t make it, I could come back to the company. So I stayed at Liberty Life and started selling. I have never looked back.
BH: There are a number of things I try and do. On my first prospecting call, I don’t try and sell anything. I always tell people upfront what business I am in and that I’d like to come and see them. And the times when people do turn me away, I keep their name and phone them back in six months. Keeping in touch is so important because this business is about building new relationships and opening doors for the future. Some of the best advice I have heard is that successful people stop being successful because they stop doing what they hated doing initially, but that made them successful in the first place. When it comes to sales, people hate cold canvassing because they don’t like no’s. In this business you have to be meeting new people all the time. You have to keep finding new customers. And sometimes that takes doing what you don’t like doing.
BH: I am innovative in my ability to cross-pollinate. I’ve never seen a customer in the light of buying one product. When I see an individual, I think of them holistically and how I can help them in all aspects, with pension funds, medical aid and investments. I also make it my business to understand people’s business so I can always identify opportunities. I keep my eyes and ears open all the time for opportunities.
E: Can you think of an example of something that you have failed at and learnt from?
BH: I failed dismally with many business partners. I am a very hard taskmaster and sometimes tried to get my own way. It was only later on that I learned there are different ways of doing things. I also learned a great lesson: that you don’t have to get to the top of every mountain. If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, get off the mountain. Or go another route. I believe that prolonged stress for any activity can lead to some sort of illness. In my case I got cancer and then a relapse, all because I always had to climb every mountain or because every challenge had to be successfully completed. That is why the lesson of not having to climb every mountain changed my life. You can fail sometimes; you don’t have to succeed in everything. People strive for two reasons: the desire to succeed and a fear of failure. Both are powerful motivators, but one is negative and one is positive. I learned to stick to the positive one and that it’s okay to fail.
BH: Brian Joffe, because he’s a leader of leaders, a man with something special who has been able to get people to follow him. Mark Lamberti of Massmart Holdings, because he went into an industry that had many players and competitors and he created something enormously successful. Donald Gordon – he’s been my mentor and has created two world industries in one lifetime; insurance in South Africa and property in the UK. Mark Weinberg in the UK, who revolutionised the whole insurance business, and then Jack Welch – I read everything he writes.
BH: The best education I got came from belonging to the Young Presidents Organisation (YPO), where I interacted with 10 other execs on a monthly basis. It’s about making company presidents better through education. You can be invited to join if you’re under the age of 45, have a certain turnover and a certain number of staff. It was a place where I could always talk about anything from life to business and knew that the other execs there had nothing other than my best interests at heart for the time that we would meet. It helped me to find a lot of solutions. I also learned a lot from my clients about service and good advice, and about how well their families were taken care of after they themselves passed away.
BH: For the next year or two I will certainly be here – we have a story to tell and one of the things we are looking at is to list our international business in South Africa. After that I need to find someone to take over from me. This is a personal business and when you are dealing with individuals, you need to ensure that you can still deliver what you initially promised. We want to make sure that even when I am not here in the future, we can still provide clients with the same service they are used to, all the time ensuring that we give them peace of mind and creative solutions.
|Two critical challenges facing business today|
1. Keeping people motivated and understanding what their role is in the company. It is critical that people realise how their personal needs are aligned to the corporate needs. In addition, so few companies keep their staff fully in the picture in terms of the successes in the company. People want to work for successful companies and informing them of successes helps keep them motivated.
2. Getting people to understand that there is nothing wrong with saying they don’t know how to do something. It doesn’t make you a bad employee. It’s better to ask 10 times and learn than to make mistakes because you pretended to know what you were doing.
|Valuable advice for entrepreneurs|