The Death--and Inspiring Life--of an Extraordinary Salesman : Motivation: It’s not Ben Feldman’s fault that life insurance isn’t universal. It’s just that he didn’t have time to sell to everyone.
He didn’t look like a salesman. He looked more like a gnome--short and stooped, pudgy and balding, with eyelids so droopy he appeared half-asleep.
He didn’t sound like a salesman. He talked softly, hesitantly, with a lisp. Sometimes he just sat there, blinking, and said nothing.
He didn’t act like a salesman. No cigars, no back-slapping. When he tried to retell the latest joke, he’d start chuckling before the punch line. He was so shy that he once insisted on standing behind a screen when he spoke to an audience of fellow agents.
But when he died in November at 81, Ben Feldman was beyond question the world’s greatest life insurance salesman.
Without straying 60 miles from his home in this shabby old river town, Feldman would sell more life insurance in a day than most agents sell in a year, more in a year than most sell in a career. In the ‘70s, he personally wrote more business than 1,500 of the nation’s 1,800 life insurance companies.
Feldman sold life insurance policies with a face value of about $1.5 billion--a third of it after he turned 65--and transformed his industry.
He told insurance agents they could sell more, and he told insurance companies they had to. When he was starting his rise, New York Life Insurance would insure no one life for more than $500,000; he helped push that limit to $20 million.
What made him run? Harry Hohn, chairman of New York Life, suggested an answer to those who gathered for his funeral: “Ben really felt everyone in the world was underinsured.”
And he would do whatever it took to insure them, as a prominent Youngstown real estate developer discovered.
After weeks of trying to get in to see the busy tycoon, Ben finally asked the secretary to take five $100 bills into her boss--to buy five minutes of his time. “If I don’t have a good idea for him,” Ben told her, “he can keep the money.” He got in, and sold a $14-million policy.
A few years later, Ben decided the same businessman needed another $20 million in coverage. But the man, busier than ever, refused to make time for the required physical exam. So Ben rented a fully equipped medical van in Chicago, hired a doctor, and sent both to wait for the man.
The policy was so large that no one company would issue it. So Ben put together a consortium himself.
When Ben was finished with him, the man’s life was insured for $52 million.
Ben Feldman was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who settled in eastern Ohio, where they dealt junk and poultry. He had dropped out of school at his father’s insistence and was selling eggs at $10 a week when he met Fritzie Zaremberg, a teacher who became his wife.
Her response to his marriage proposal--"How are you going to support me?"--would goad him for the rest of his life.
Ben started selling insurance shortly before World War II, but soon reached the point where most agents quit: He’d sold friends and relatives, and needed new prospects. So he began focusing on owners of small industrial corporations that were flourishing in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania during and after the war.
These men were building families and homes as well as businesses, and young Feldman appealed to their need to protect these assets with ever-increasing amounts of life insurance. As they grew, he grew.
Other salesmen focused on such a clientele. But they weren’t as sincere as Ben Feldman.
Some salesmen are crippled by suspicion--well-founded, critics argue--that life insurance isn’t the best investment in many cases. But Ben’s ambitious young businessmen were so well-suited for insurance that this shy man drew courage from his cause. He really felt he was helping people, and this conviction propelled him.
He bought life insurance himself. “If I don’t buy it, I can’t sell it,” he used to say, so he kept buying until he had $6 million worth.
Other salesmen were sincere. But they didn’t have Ben Feldman’s drive.
He worked 12-hour days, six or seven days a week. He’d drop in on four or five prospects a day, many of them strangers.
But he knew all about them. He’d scoped out their plants, ordered a financial profile of their company, chatted up his other clients about the new prospect.
He’d sat up late, crafting the pithy sayings that he called “power phrases” and rehearsing with a tape recorder.
The only time his two sons could be sure of seeing him was Friday night, because Fritzie insisted on his presence at supper. So they started hanging around his office, filing or cleaning up.
When Fritzie died in 1974, he only sold harder. The next year was his best.
“He was a workaholic,” said his son Richard.
Other salesmen were workaholics. But they didn’t have Ben Feldman’s goals.
He set apparently unreachable sales targets, and then broke them down into achievable steps--a certain number of calls per week, or so many signed policy applications a month.
He achieved one goal after another: New York Life’s top agent (1955); the first agent to write a million dollars in new business a month (1956); the first to write a million a week (1969); the first to write 2 million a week (1975).
Other salesmen set goals. But they didn’t have Ben Feldman’s pitch.
He sold life insurance by talking about life, not death. People didn’t die, they “walked out,” as in, “When you walk out, the money walks in"--the insurance money.
By paying premiums, you were accumulating wealth, regardless of when you died. You were creating a legacy--not in death, but in life.
As he spoke, he’d lean forward, and there was a rhythm in his hesitations, hypnosis in his murmur. He’d draw out his power phrases, and underline them with silence.
He’d show them his “tax book,” a loose-leaf binder that contained the financial histories of great men--Franklin D. Roosevelt, for one--whose businesses or property had to be sold because they died without enough life insurance to pay estate taxes.
Taped inside the cover were a $1,000 bill and a few pennies. “For these,” he’d say, referring to the pennies, “you can get this"--the bill.
He’d have two checks printed specially for a prospective client: one, for a large sum, to the Internal Revenue Service; a second, for much less, to New York Life.
“You sign the little one,” he’d say. “We’ll sign the big one.”
Other salesmen had gimmicks. But none became a legend like Ben Feldman.
The legend was born at a convention in Boston, where Ben got up and made the equivalent of Babe Ruth’s called shot: He announced his goal for the year was $1 million a week, a figure no one thought attainable.
After that, he was The Man. Agents mobbed him at conventions and lined up to buy his books and tapes. They begged for an invitation to East Liverpool to soak up his wisdom. Some even bought policies from him, so they could say, “Ben’s my agent.” An agent in Singapore named his son Feldman Tan.
Their mania merely reflected his. Ben liked nothing better than talking insurance--or selling it. He’d sell anyone, any time, from the plumber to his second wife, who bought a policy while they were dating, and another a few weeks before his death.
When asked about the largest policy he’d ever written, he’d reply, “I can’t say. I haven’t written it yet.”
Why did he keep pushing? It wasn’t the money, which in his prime reportedly approached $5 million a year. Although he had a big house, a Cadillac, exotic vacations and a Florida condo, he was too busy selling to spend.
“What makes Sammy run?” he said. “I want a goal that’s big enough to excite me. Big enough to make me run.”
There was a darker side to it. “I wanted to be first,” he told an interviewer 15 years ago, pounding his fist into his hand. “I wanted to be first.” He had to be first.
He never stopped selling, despite a series of injuries and illnesses that disqualified him from buying any more life insurance himself.
In 1992, New York Life marked his 50th year with the company by proclaiming “Feldman’s February,” a national competition in which agents would sell their best to honor the oracle of East Liverpool--who, unbeknownst to the home office, took it as a personal challenge.
The winner of Feldman February was Feldman. Working the phones from Boca Raton, where he was recovering from a cerebral hemorrhage, he recorded sales of $15,150,000. At 80, he was back on top.
It was his last hurrah. The following September, he flew to San Francisco for an insurance meeting. As he was walking through the hotel, some fans called out to him. He turned to acknowledge them, lost his balance, and fell, breaking a hip.
He was flown to a hospital in Pittsburgh, but never went home. He had a stroke, and died Nov. 7.
He died the death of a salesman, a great salesman, for beside him in the hospital was the paperwork for his last, unclosed cases.
“There never is enough time,” he had said when Fritzie died. “There just never is.”