— ADVERTISEMENT —
"In the old days, insurance salesmen were not as regarded as they are now. They were like used-car salesmen."
Guardian of Hawaii founder
Master insurance salesman
When Steven Tseu was growing up, his father, Fred, always urged him to pursue his personal interests and career ambitions, encouraging the younger Tseu with a supportive admonition.
Now 45, Steven is doing just that.
As president, Steven is the chief executive of Guardian of Hawaii, an insurance brokerage founded by Fred that serves as a middleman between national insurance carriers and agents looking for products to sell.
Steven's sister, Lori Tseu-Rodriguez, also has joined the fold running the firm from her corner office as vice president and corporate secretary.
The company represents more than 80 carriers, including Prudential, John Hancock Life, Northwestern Mutual, and Axa, and has a pool of more than 400 agents, including about 100 who are actively selling policies that Guardian brokers. The average policy it provides these days is $500,000.
It's a far cry from the late 1940s, when Fred Tseu, who is now 81 and retired, started out selling $10,000 insurance policies to country folks who, on one occasion, paid their premiums with live ducks.
A charismatic man given to one-liners and a salesman's mien that would make Dale Carnegie proud, Fred Tseu explained with typical aplomb how he came to sell insurance after enlisting in the Navy, going to college briefly on a GI bill, then returning home in 1947 at 23.
"I was supposed to be majoring in pre-legal in college," he said. "Instead, I majored in martinis."
That training, and the self-confidence he gained in the Navy, was ample for selling insurance in the late 1940s, a time when, Tseu said, insurance men held the lower rungs on the prestige ladder.
"In the old days, insurance salesmen were not as regarded as they are now," Tseu said. "They were like used-car salesmen."
Still, Tseu said, he made a point of treating people with respect and learning to put himself in the buyer's shoes. Along the way he developed what he calls "sales courage" and he learned to size up customers quickly. It's a contrast to what he calls a common way of selling.
"There's some people who go about selling insurance by throwing horse manure at the wall: Some will stick," he said.
Tseu took a more sophisticated approach, learning to identify four basic types of customers -- normal, intellectual, emotional and negative -- and to tailor pitches accordingly.
He also learned the art of dealing.
Recalling a tale that's become part of the family lore, Tseu remembers an occasion when a woman in Aiea wanted to buy a certain type of policy for her son.
The policy was, in effect, a bond that would mature when her son came of age and provide him some money to get started in life. Unfortunately, the woman was $5 short of what she needed to cover the premium. So Tseu agreed to take three ducks to cover the difference. He put the ducks in his car and headed off, only to have the ducks run wild in the car and make a mess.
Tseu ended up stopping at a roadside restaurant, where he sold the ducks for $10.
Eventually, Tseu started his own agency. He learned to spot people likely to succeed and polish them into successful insurance men.
At that time, Tseu represented National Fidelity Life of Kansas City, a position that on one occasion gave Tseu the chance to meet a famous Missourian, President Harry S. Truman, who served on National Fidelity's board after leaving the White House. Upon meeting Truman, Tseu said, he gave him a left-handed handshake.
"I was a Republican," Tseu said.
The one-liners, self-effacing humor and humility helped Tseu weather another transition that brought Guardian to where it is today, said Mel Saiki, regional director for John Hancock Life in Honolulu, and a former competitor who now calls Guardian an ally.
In 1968, National Fidelity phased out its retail business and started a brokerage specializing in tough cases. Essentially, National Fidelity provided policies for people other firms wouldn't cover; independent agents marketed the products. Eventually, Guardian began representing other carriers as a broker, the first of which was Sun Life of America.
"He in a way was a pioneer," Saiki said. "I can't think of anybody who was bigger in the brokerage business at that time."
In the 1980s, Saiki said, he represented Manufacturers Life. Although he was not a broker, Saiki said he competed with Guardian in providing policies in Hawaii. Tseu, he said, "always characterized me as his friendly competitor," praising Saiki in front of potential clients.
Tseu said he always promoted Guardian as "the second best," the company to turn to if another firm couldn't offer what a client wanted.
"That's how crafty he is as a marketer," Saiki said.
Manufacturers Life eventually merged with John Hancock and took on the latter's name. Once loath to work with independent brokers, the company now uses them to help move products into the market. Guardian, Saiki said, is one of John Hancock's main allies in Hawaii.
Steven and Lori Tseu grew up with the business, and, given their father's strong but gentle personality -- plus his half-joking expectations for Steven -- it was almost inevitable that they would come to work for the firm.
Not particularly interested in school and eager to get on with his destiny, Steven left the University of Puget Sound before graduating and went to work for the company.
Lori graduated from the University of Washington and stayed in Seattle. But working long hours for an insurance company there, she eventually had a realization: "I should be working hard for my own family, so I talked my husband into packing up and moving back to Hawaii," she said.
The younger Tseus bring with them lessons learned from their father: the need to maintain a good reputation, not burn any bridges and to treat associates well, particularly the agents on the street selling policies on behalf of Guardian and its carriers.
They're also schooled in a business with an array of sophisticated products never dreamed of in the days when people were paying premiums with ducks.
Steven Tseu acknowledges that he and Lori don't have their father's salesman's flair and comic timing. But, he said, they're prepared to carry on his legacy.
"Thankfully, my dad created some wonderful relationships, long-lasting relationships," the younger Tseu said. "And we don't need those one-liners anymore."