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When a stranger calls...

26 May 2017

We sat down with life insurance veteran Peter Rosengard at his favourite breakfast table to discover how talking to strangers has taken him on his greatest adventures.

when a stranger calls

UP CLOSE WITH PETER ROSENGARD

Peter Rosengard turned 70 earlier this year, but the legendary salesman shows no sign of slowing down. Peter has had a long association with Zurich, having joined Allied Dunbar from Abbey Life and most recently as part of the Openwork network. Here, he talks to Peter Hamilton, Zurich’s head of retail partnerships about a life well lived

Peter Rosengard became a life insurance salesman in London in May 1969 ‘for the glamour, the fast cars… and the beautiful women who’d stop at nothing to buy life insurance. It’s a very well-kept secret’. So begins his book Talking to Strangers.

It’s no ‘how to’ or ‘self help’ manual, but is an engaging and entertaining look at a life well lived. It is set out in very easily digested, but not chronological, bite size chunks and really is a story of sex and drugs and rock and roll, quite a few fist fights and a six day war.

Peter, as his business card proudly proclaims, is a ‘Life Insurance Salesman’, one of the most successful of all time.

He’s no-one’s idea of a ‘new model adviser’, but is passionate about protection at a time when there is a danger it gets overlooked. He cites one of Winston Churchill’s inspirational speeches – no fighting on the beaches here, but the one that says: ‘If I had my way, I would write the word ‘insure’ upon the door of every cottage and upon the blotting book of every public man, because I am convinced, for sacrifices so small, families and estates can be protected against catastrophes which would otherwise smash them up forever.

‘It is the duty to arrest the ghastly waste, not merely of human happiness, but national health and strength, which follows when, through the death of the breadwinner, the frail boat in which the family are embarked, founders and the women and children and the estates are left to struggle in the dark waters of a friendless world.’

SERIOUS BREAKFASTER

Peter also calls himself a ‘serious breakfaster’, though that’s only on his Twitter profile and not his business card.

He meets most of his clients over breakfast at Claridges in London. Many, but not all, are wealthy City types. A back of the breakfast napkin calculation suggests that, since taking up his table there in 1982, having three breakfasts a day means he’s put away more than 23,000 breakfasts there.

Peter was 70 earlier this year and celebrated with a birthday party, also at Claridges, presumably at ‘mates rates’ given all the breakfasting he’s done there.

Along with family and friends were clients who between them had benefitted from millions of pounds in payments for critical illness policies. Over the years, most of his clients have become firm friends, which is one of the reasons why Peter shows no signs of giving up (his table at Claridges is booked until he’s 100).

One client did write to say how reassured he was that he’d been ‘Rosengarded’, a label Peter now liberally applies to others.

HOSPITAL BED

His presentations are disarmingly simple. He highlights how life assurance is something you need to buy when you think you don’t need it – when you know you need it, you often can’t buy it.

He invites clients to picture the scene in their hospital bed, having suffered a critical illness. He hands them a business card, blank side up, and suggests they write the names of three people, who having visited the client in hospital, will help ease recovery by handing the patient a cheque for, say, £250,000.

Invariably no names are forthcoming. The business card is turned over – ‘here’s the name of someone who’ll come to you with that cheque.’

It’s not sophisticated financial planning, but it is raising an important point in an engaging and simple way, which has won over some of the most rich and famous in the land.
He talks of an old colleague who sold life assurance to many clients, but his death from a heart attack at 50 left a young family financially unprotected. From that day, Peter’s own protection planning became an important element of his client presentation; he wants clients to be very clear about the value he personally places on the policies he has taken out over the years.

When not selling life assurance (for 24 years, he was in the Guinness Book of records for the largest policy ever sold), Peter’s achievements include founding London’s Comedy Story; founding and chairing the acclaimed SINCE 9/11 education programme (since911.com), persuading Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, to unveil a commemorative artwork in the Olympic Park; managing 80’s bank Curiosity Killed the Cat; introducing Glasgow airport ‘have a go hero’ John Smeaton to an unsuspecting American audience; and being thrown out of Disneyland for getting involved in a scrap with Goofy.

TALKING TO STRANGERS

Peter’s stories range from the confessional, the emotional to the comedic, but all are told with a self-deprecating wit and a range of accents that flow seamlessly Scottish to Jamaican patois to mid-western American.

But there are ideas and lessons in the book too. Pinning back ears with superglue for a more girl-friendly look is one of the less good ideas. One of the most obvious and better ideas though is found in the title – the benefits of ‘talking to strangers’ and how doing just that can be enriching in a personal and business sense.

I managed to get to the book launch, where the first person I met had literally bumped into Peter at a restaurant four hours earlier – they had never met before, but now were no longer strangers.

The guest list on the night included Comfort, a local parking warden, who may not have bought a policy but didn’t give Peter a ticket and a broad range of clients from all walks of life.

Kipling’s poem ‘If’ talks of someone who ‘can talk with crowds and keep his virtue, or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch’. He could have been talking about Peter, who will talk to anyone at any time about anything, which is a lovely outlook, though possibly not to everyone’s taste.

There would be no chance of looking at your shoes in a lift; if you see Peter waiting for one and don’t want to chat, you’d best take the stairs.

The final paragraph of the book sums up his approach: ‘I love life, I love selling, I love selling life.’ His is a powerful and entertaining story with much more to be written.

What got you started?

I started out in dentistry, but had a fear of destroying some of the great mouths of my generation. At my first interview for a job in life assurance, I was told I just had to tell my story to five people a day, and I’ve been doing that ever since.

What keeps you going?

Life’s just a great adventure. I work with great people, but have never had a boss. I love what I do and I see the difference I make to people’s lives – why would I stop?

What are the parts of the job you find difficult?

Having to tell clients they can’t have the life assurance or critical illness policies they so obviously need.

What do you value most about Zurich?

I and my clients have been delighted by Zurich. Its underwriting team is fantastic and its approach to claims outstanding – the process, the speed, the compassion.