Sign up to receive exclusive monthly wealthtech insights and interviews from our Chief Growth Officer, Jack Sharry. SIGN UP NOW
wealthtech on deck podcast - Thomas Buckingham

Debunking Common Myths About Annuities with Thomas Buckingham

In retirement planning, annuity often raises mixed feelings among individuals. Some may shy away from it, while others might be skeptical due to misconceptions. But, it could be the missing puzzle piece to secure one’s golden years. It bears striking similarities to cherished pillars of financial security such as social security and pensions, capturing the essence of a reliable and steady income stream during retirement.

In this episode, Jack talks with Thomas Buckingham, Chief Growth Officer at Nassau Financial Group. Tom joined the company as an actuarial assistant in 1999 and served in increasingly senior corporate, product development, and operational positions. In his current role, Tom is responsible for developing and executing Nassau’s sales strategy for its insurance business, including all product development, distribution channels, marketing, branding, and leveraging digital tools to enable quick, easy, and simple sales.

With 25 years of innovative development, operations, and financial management responsibility, Tom discusses with Jack how Nassau Financial Group serves the middle market and mass affluent pre-retirees and retirees. He shares how the company incorporated technology into its solutions and what drives Nassau to partner with LifeYield to help clients with social security benefits.

What Thomas has to say

“For most individuals, the longer they can wait to delay social security, the more retirement security they can have. The additional benefits they will get provide much more of a safety net.”

– Thomas Buckingham, Chief Growth Officer, Nassau Financial Group

Read the full transcript

Jack Sharry: Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining us on this week’s edition of WealthTech on Deck. Today, we will speak with someone who I’ve known and admired for a long time. In fact, we are former colleagues. But more on that in a little bit. Tom Buckingham is the chief growth officer at the Nassau Financial Group. Nassau is doing some very interesting and exciting things surrounding retiretech and insurtech, which Tom and I will discuss. Tom, welcome to WealthTech on Deck.

Tom Buckingham: Thanks, Jack, I really appreciate you inviting me today. I’ve always enjoyed your perspective. I’ve been watching what you’ve been doing from a distance since we worked together years and years ago. And it’s great to be here today and get to catch up with you.

Jack Sharry: Terrific. So, Tom, let’s start with you telling us about Nassau Financial Group and your role there. Please tell us about the markets you serve, the products you offer, and how you’re incorporating technology into the solutions you’re bringing to the marketplace.

Tom Buckingham: Happy to, Jack. I’m currently the chief growth officer at Nassau. We serve the middle market and mass affluent pre retirees and retirees. The main product lines that we offer are fixed annuities, fixed indexed annuities, and medicare supplement. And on the technology front, you know, there are some things that, you know, many people take for granted. We, you know, we have an eApp that we put a lot of time and effort into, I think we’re up to about 85% of our applications come in via eApp. But one of the interesting and innovative things we’ve done there is we’ve moved some of the suitability questions up earlier in the process, to the point where we can give an instant decision on suitability to the producer 80% of the time. And that’s something that our field force has come to appreciate. Everything we do is about trying to make it easier and faster to get through the process to help people serve their clients. We spend a lot of time on live chat, which is interesting, because you know, a lot of people don’t like those tools. But we afford folks the ability to talk directly with our new business team. So it’s a live human going back and forth. And that’s something that I don’t think people expected it to do much, but it’s one of the most popular things that people like. And then besides that, you know, we have an agent app that we rolled out that’s available on different, different devices, different services, and you can, as an agency, your pending business and a variety of other things from you know, the ease of your phone or an iPad or something like that. And most recently, we announced a partnership with LifeYield to use Social Security+ with income layers and roll that out to our field force to help people understand better how they can integrate our products with Social Security and, and how the benefits that you can get from delaying Social Security, which I’m sure you’re well familiar with.

Jack Sharry: Sure, sure. We’ll get into that in a little bit. So, Tom, you and I worked together at the predecessor company to Nassau, could you fill our audience in on your backstory? How did you get started? What has your career journey looked like? And we’d love to hear what you learned along the way.

Tom Buckingham: Happy to. I know, you may have heard this phrase, but I heard it early in my career, that your career is more like a jungle gym than a ladder.

Jack Sharry: That’s great.

Tom Buckingham: Yeah, it’s, I think it’s true. And I started at Phoenix in 1999 as an actuarial student, and spent time in a variety of different roles working on distribution compensation, expense reporting, product development, a variety of things. But I also had some non traditional roles. I worked in M&A for a bit when I was an actuarial student, which at the time was not a traditional opportunity. But the most transformational role I think I had early in my career was chance to be chief of staff to our CEO, when I was five years out of college, that’s probably what we worked together the most.

Jack Sharry: Yeah, yes.

Tom Buckingham: You know, and in that role, I was 27, 28, 29 years old, and I got a chance to work with so many people who had worked in the industry for, you know, 20, 25, 30 years, and got a chance to learn from so many talented folks like yourself and learn more about the market. I remember being very, very overwhelmed in that role early in it, to the point where I thought I might have to leave and go be a basic actuary at another company. But, yeah, toughed my way through that. And then, you know, had a chance at the end of that, there were three different opportunities on the table, one of which was to go back to product development, which was kind of my old stomping grounds, but I ended up going into underwriting a new business. So it was my first foray into operations and service, spent a year there. And then the product development role was still open went, went back to product development. And then a couple years later picked up responsibility for operations and service, you know, so kind of became more of a general manager over time managing different functions, and then Nassau bought Phoenix in 2016. And when Nassau bought Phoenix, I became the chief operating officer of the insurance company and I had products, actuarial service, IT. I’m not especially talented or experienced on the IT front, but like I said, more of a general manager. And then what’s happened over the last seven years is my role has narrowed over time as we’ve become more and more focused on retail growth. And so a year or two after Nassau bought Phoenix, IT moved over under someone the cofounders of Nassau had brought in to run IT. And a year later, actuarial moved over under someone and I picked up responsibility for marketing as we kind of relaunched in the market. And then a couple years ago, service moved out from under me and directly into our CEO, we have a huge focus on, on best in class service and I think that is an example of that. But I also picked up responsibility for sales. So when you think about where I started as an actuarial student, almost 25 years ago, and to now have a very externally facing role, working with our distribution partners and producers in the marketing team, building products, it really is the most fun I’ve had in my career.

Jack Sharry: You know, it’s so much fun to watch you. I knew you as a, as a actuarial student, when I was at Phoenix I was, I had a variety of roles and including headed up the, the asset management business sales and marketing, and then later annuity business sales and marketing. And then later CMO, which is more of a strategic development, kind of business development kind of role. So wore a variety hats, as Phoenix evolved over time. And Tom and I worked together during many of those various stints. And always impressed with Tom, as you can tell, just by listening to him now, he’s had a broad variety of roles, probably the most instructive, I’m sure they all were. And I know they all were. But working for a CEO, that’s a tough job, because you not only have to do what that person wants, but you got to do what that person, all the people that report to that person want and need. So you’re right in the middle and often having to deliver news that the boss wants delivered, and yet still get stuff done. So it’s been fascinating to watch. And then to watch Tom Buckingham, actuarial student, head growth, I just gotta say, I love it. I think it’s so great. It is the most fun, I’m sure, in some ways, the toughest too because growth is hard. So tell us about that. I observed Nassau as having taken over for Phoenix and really seems to me like it’s, you guys are a rocket ship, you’re really taking off and led by smart sales, smart marketing, the way you’re incorporating technology into the value proposition and sales proposition. So what are you excited about? What is it, what is it you’re working on? Where… what are you doing? Where are you going? What’s ahead?

Tom Buckingham: You know, maybe before I even touch on on Nassau, specifically, I think it is just a great time for our industry right now. There’s a chance to help so many Americans with their retirement. And you see that in the sales numbers broadly in the industry. You know, but it’s a great opportunity for us. I just said a few weeks ago, you know, annuity is not a four letter word. I’m sure Jack, you’re familiar with, you know, some of the folks out there that like to bash annuity products and you know, talk about some of the negative aspects that they perceive. But when you look at it from a customer’s perspective, what do customer’s love? What do people love? They love Social Security, they love the benefits they get from that, they love their pensions. And annuity products can provide the same benefits. And so I think that sometimes it gets glossed over and missed when folks focus on some other, other things that I don’t think are broadly true in the industry. And when you look at it from a customer’s perspective, as they’re trying to manage their own retirement, you probably have heard Tom Hegna say this, you know, longevity, living a long time is a risk multiplier. And so, you know, there are so many risks that people worry about in retirement, their, their assets declining, the market values declining health care, you name it, you know, inflation, obviously, is a big one today. But if you live into your 90s, all of those risks are, are significantly increased. And so annuity products are products that can give you great benefits to make sure you don’t lose principal, especially if you buy fixed annuities and fixed indexed annuities like we sell, and also give you upside and give you benefits, like guaranteed income. So I just feel like this is a great time for those products, given some of the declines with pensions over time and some of the risks that people faced, I think appreciate more and how long people are living now. And my wife and I are both in our 40s and we both own annuities. So I think that’s probably the the thing you could say to to back that up the most. But for us ourselves, you know, we’re just, we’re having a great time growing a company, it is not easy. We had slowed sales down back in 2015 and ’16. And it was hard to slow sales down when we had a lot of momentum in the market at that time. And when you try to get sales going again, and you’ve, you’ve seen this in your career, it’s, it’s hard to get that momentum back. And so it was a lot of hard work that started you know, five or six years ago. And for us it’s really all coming together at the same time. You know, so the market’s growing 10% a year which, you know, we’re benefiting from that tailwind. But we’ve been growing about 30% a year for the past five or six years, we wrote about a billion dollars last year in annuity sales. And this year, we’re on track to write probably 40%, or more than that. And I think we still have room to grow. And it’s just our distribution relationships, our product portfolio, our service platform, the technology, it’s kind of all coming together at a time where the market’s growing and that just is a multiplier for us from a growth standpoint.

Jack Sharry: Wow. I wasn’t aware of that. I knew you guys were growing, but I didn’t know to that extent. And we’ve had, you probably know of, or maybe you know, Jasmine Jirele who is the CEO at Allianz Life. And as the chief growth officer at Allianz Life before ascending to the CEO title she grew sales, this was probably 2-3-4 years ago, at Allianz 30% a year, which sounded remarkable. They’re a very strong index player in the annuity world. And as I interviewed her for the show, and I’ve gotten to know her over time, really what they’ve done so well is it’s all the things you just described. Its product, its sales, its tech, it’s not only tech back office but tech forward in terms of how you’ve interfaced with the marketplace, which sounds like you’re doing all that. So talk a little bit, if you would, about how that comes together, because clearly you’ve got the numbers behind you in terms of growth rate, how have you brought it together? How will you bring it together? Talk a little about that, because it’s not, it’s a one plus one plus one equals 10 kind of equation, it seems.

Tom Buckingham: Yes. And it’s funny, because I’ve been in too many meetings with external audiences, where when you talk about the things that are your competitive advantage, I feel like they’re rolling their eyes a bit, because insurance carriers only have so many things to play with, right? You know, you’ve got your distribution force and your, your relationships, you’ve got your product portfolio, you’ve got service and technology. But I think there are different angles on all of those. You know, for us, you know, when we started to grow five years ago, distribution, we were able to cater to folks that were maybe smaller, you know, so a firm that writes $250 million a year might be a small firm for one of the top five or ten insurance carriers in the annuity space. But for us, if we could get 20% share in that system, that’s $50 million in sales. And that was a big deal for us. And so we treated firms that were small and growing as top tier partners. And that was a competitive advantage for us, kind of a niche we were able to find in the market. We did the same thing at the producer level, you know. So a lot of programs out there are geared to producers who write five or ten million dollars a year. And we’ve rolled out some benefits, including access to our management team and concierge service for agents who write 1.5 to 2 million dollars a year. And so again, a nice little niche for us. And we’ve been able to replicate that as we’ve grown. On the product front, we’re just, we try to be consistently competitive, you know, we’re not kind of in and out of the market, because we know how hard it is to get and sustain momentum. And so we want to make sure we’re, you know, our product is always a product that a producer could could use with their clients to solve one of their needs, and feel good about it. You know, we’re not gonna have a product that just doesn’t offer value to the consumer. And service, you know, a lot of people claim great service, you know, we have the metrics to back it up. You look at Net Promoter Score, our Net Promoter Score, which I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but it’s essentially the percent…

Jack Sharry: Sure. Why don’t you describe it for audience? Yep.

Tom Buckingham: Yeah, the percentage of people that rate accompany a nine or a ten on the question of, would you recommend that company to a friend. And many of us have probably gotten those surveys, you can score it from one to ten. And nines and tens are promoters. And ones through sixes are detractors. And it’s the percentage of nines and tens minus the percentage of ones through sixes. And we were about a 20 on that scale four or five years ago, which in the insurance industry is probably about average. And over the last several years, we’ve grown that into the mid 50s, which is probably not the best in the insurance industry, but it’s in the top 10-15%. And so we, we’re really proud of that. And that comes from, you know, having the mindset of wanting to provide great service, you know, having the team staffed properly, giving them the tools they need, and giving agents and third party users the technology they need to get information easily. So there’s a lot that goes into, into it. And that’s why I say, I don’t think you can go out there and just say we’re going to, we’re going to have the best product and that’s it and fall down on the other fronts. I don’t think you can go out and say we’re going to have the best service, and that’s it. It’s really a combination of those things, and finding your own niche and what’s going to resonate. And you know, for us, access. We’re a small company, we have been for a long time and we have access to the senior management team. And that’s not just me and my own team, but it extends to our co founders and our head of service and other folks and so, even folks on the regulatory front that interact with our agents, and so our top agents know that they can get access to folks and get, help get problems resolved when they do arise or share feedback on what they’d like to see us doing more of, you know, we always try to listen to, to what our third party distribution firms and producers have to say, so that we can get better, because there’s always opportunity, no matter how well you’re doing.

Jack Sharry: So, Tom, you mentioned earlier, and we’re very pleased to be partnering with you all at Nassau. Why don’t you talk a little bit about your move, you’ve been, I’ve noticed quite engaged in retiretech and insurtech, just how you incorporate technology into the solutions that you developed, it’s more than product, it’s product plus tech plus service plus lot of things you’ve been talking about. Talk a little bit about what we’re doing together, high level, at this point, we’re going to be rolling it out at some point down the road. But talk a little bit about that orientation as a matter of strategy that you really try to come up with solutions and where this might be leading.

Tom Buckingham: Yeah, I think in our industry, if the producer is doing a good job at the point of sale with a client, they’re always trying to understand their, their personal situation, and then figuring out what solutions will help them most in what they’re trying to accomplish. And so I’m really excited about what we’re doing with LifeYield, the tools that you have, that we’ve you know, been familiar with and talking to you about for a while, that help show people how Social Security works, what the impact is if you take Social Security early, and the significant decline in benefits that you might get. What the benefits are if you delay Social Security. I know you already, also the tool has some, you know, some insights on taxation and things like that. And so I think for, for the average producer out there, I think it’s a tool that could help educate them, to help their clients optimize their own situation. You know, it’s not always going to make sense to delay Social Security. But I think for most individuals out there, the longer they can wait to delay Social Security, the more retirement security they can have .You know, obviously, if someone is very ill, that’s probably not going to make sense. There may be other scenarios where it doesn’t make sense. But for the vast majority of people out there, I think, if they can wait a year, two years, three, if they can wait all the way, as long as they can wait, the additional benefits they will get will provide much more of a safety net, especially if they grow, if they live into their late 80s or 90s. So I think the tools that you offer, that LifeYield offers, are going to be great for us to share with our field force to help them understand that better generally, but then also specifically use it with clients at point of sale so they can see the benefits for themselves and what the trade offs are.

Jack Sharry: Yeah, it’s one of the things that I’ve enjoyed as we’ve evolved over the past many years at LifeYield is we, each client we work with, we usually come up with, using some basic building blocks, like Social Security, like taxation, like other issues, but then love the creativity that happens on the other side is it’s married up with product. And one of the observations we’ve talked a lot, a lot about on this podcast is just the role the annuity plays. You’re right. A lot of times it has been deemed a four letter word, I think a mischaracterization, but I think that’s also changing. Where, how do you incorporate it into a broader portfolio of ways to have a more secure and comfortable retirement income as you look out over what might be a longer lifespan? So, in fact, I probably shouldn’t say this out loud. But I was having the thought, over the weekend, I have a granddaughter who is eight. I was saying, okay, if I live to 95, how old will she be? I literally had this thought. And it’s it’s not that far away, tough. But you know, that’s the reality is, according to my doctor, I gotta I got a bunch of years ahead of me. So, that’s a longer life than my parents, certainly, and their parents before them. So the world is changing. And I love to see creative groups like Nassau marrying up with LifeYield in terms of developing really some unique and interesting ways to get at these issues. So, my hat’s off to you. Before we close out though, anything else you want to talk about in terms of where you see the world going in terms of what you’re doing, you’ve really got a great growth story. You’re firing on all cylinders in terms of service, and tech, and product, and distribution and so forth. What’s, what does the future hold for Nassau, or for the industry? However you’d like to answer that.

Tom Buckingham: I don’t know if I have too much more to add. I just, like I said earlier, I think there are, it’s a great time for our industry. I don’t think the opportunity is going away anytime soon. I think we were probably talking 15 years ago, when we worked together, about 10,000 Baby Boomers a day are retiring. And that wave, that wave is going to continue for another I think 10 to 15 years. And so I just think there’s, there’s huge opportunity, there’s, it’s still an underserved market, there’s so many people out there that need help. And these products provide great benefits and the more and more people that understand that and know how to deliver those solutions, you know, at the point of sale, I think the better because I just think there are, there are so many people out there that could benefit that are not aware of these types of solutions. So I’m excited just generally from that standpoint.

Jack Sharry: So, Tom, thank you. This has been great, great to catch up with you. We’ve been talking offline a bit over the past many months, but good to catch up with you and get the full story. So thank you for that. And as we look to wrap up, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind sharing three key takeaways with our audience in terms of what we’ve been talking about?

Tom Buckingham: Sure. You know, I think for me, the first one would be that annuities can and should play a key role in retirement for most individuals. And that’s something that, that individuals probably can’t do on their own. So they should, you know, talk to a professional, someone who has the ability to sell annuities along with potentially other services as well. Annuities are not the only, only tool out there, but they’re an important one. So I think they can and should play a key role in retirement. I think second, if you can, if you can afford to wait, you should wait to take Social Security. I went through this kind of experience, advising my father a bit on, on when to take Social Security. And, you know, he was of the mindset early on that he was going to take it as early as he could take it, because in his mind, you know, he couldn’t envision living, you know, probably past age 80. And so, you know, for him, he’s saying, why take that risk, I might as well take the money, otherwise, I’m not going to get the benefit from it. He ended up waiting probably four or five years, I think he ended up taking Social Security at his retirement age, and he hasn’t been, I’ll be honest, he hasn’t been happier since. You know, it’s probably the happiest he’s been in a long time just having that guaranteed safety net, and knowing what he’s getting. I think the inflationary increases the last couple years probably haven’t hurt. But you know, it’s just something where I think if people can afford to wait, they should. And then the last thing I’d say it’s all about the people, you know, and this is something maybe I could have gone a little deeper on earlier. But for me, I just think back to the people I’ve worked with at the company. And you know, it’s really a big part of the reason why I’m in my 25th year with the same firm. I remember getting feedback from somebody I worked for, early on at the end of a review, I had I said, you know, “What can I do to get better?” And they said, “Listen.” And I said, “Okay, what?” And they said, “No, that’s my feedback.” You know, and to work with people that are going to give you that sort of candid feedback and help you learn and grow, that’s something that stood out for me 15 years ago. And it’s something I continue to think about and work on. I worked with a woman who was very protective of her team. But she gave me some advice early in my career about the importance of recognizing people and what they’re doing. It’s not all about the dollars, it’s not all about the promotions. You know, sometimes it’s just recognizing the hard work that someone’s put in, and you know, kind of getting that feedback again, and working with folks like that. But the biggest example I have for my time, and you may remember this is, when I was chief of staff, my wife’s water broke at 23 and a half weeks, and we went to the hospital that night, and she ended up staying in the hospital and I lived there with her for six weeks until our daughter was born at 29 weeks, she was three pounds two ounces. She spent six more weeks in the NICU before we took her home. And so she literally came home five weeks before she was supposed to be born. And I was chief of staff to the CEO, which is a pretty demanding job. And everyone in the company that I was close to helped me out in some fashion at that time. I couldn’t even name them all right now, there were probably 20 or 25 different people, whether it was something to keep my wife entertained at the hospital, DVDs, and you know, back when those were a thing, coloring books, I don’t even know, we had all kinds of things. People bringing by food, people picking up work responsibilities for me, you know, and taking off some of the demands so I could be there for my wife at that time. It was a scary time for us and…

Jack Sharry: Sure.

Tom Buckingham: And now our daughter’s going into her senior year of high school. So it’s all worked out great. But…

Jack Sharry: That’s great.

Tom Buckingham: Just, I think the relationships with people are key. And for us right now, as a company, it’s all about the people we help third party distribution, all the people we help serve their clients, you know, so it’s our relationship with them. And I think their relationship with their clients. It really comes down to people and relationships.

Jack Sharry: That’s great. So great to hear. You know, I admired you, Tom, when you were a 25-6-7-8 year old pup, fast rising star at the time. It’s so wonderful to see you these many years later. Even better. So, congratulations.

Tom Buckingham: Thank you, Jack.

Jack Sharry: So let’s wrap it up with one, one last question. Our favorite question we always like to ask is, what do you do outside of work that you’re particularly excited or passionate about that people might find interesting or surprising?

Tom Buckingham: Well, first, a couple things that they might not find surprising, but, we’re going through the college search process, so that has been keeping my wife, daughter, and I very busy the past six months or so. But looking forward to it, we’re having a great time. I spend a lot of time outside of work running, that’s my major form of, of trying to stay in shape. And I’m a huge fan of the US Soccer Team and so I’m looking forward to the World Cup coming to the US in a few years, already planning out the RV trip around the country. But I’d say the thing I spend the most time on, that I’m most passionate about outside of work are a couple of nonprofit boards I’m involved with. I heard a phrase years and years ago, the gift you have received, give as a gift. And so I spend a fair amount of time with Connecticut FoodShare. I’ve been on that board, the organization merged with… Connecticut Food Bank and FoodShare merged a couple years ago, but I was on the, the FoodShare board before that. So I’ve been involved for about a decade. And it’s a food bank in Connecticut that distributes food through five or six hundred partner agencies spread across the state. And so I’ve been involved there for a long time, and I’m involved with the high school I went to, in Shrewsbury Massachusetts, I actually just stepped in as chair of the board on July 1, St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury. And so I have a daughter, she doesn’t go there. I have no, no children who will go to that that school ever, but I had such a great experience there that, you know, I try to give back my time, talent, and treasure to help that school and make sure that other young boys have a chance to benefit from that education.

Jack Sharry: That’s great. I’ve had many cousins that have gone there. And I think I have a couple of cousins that are second cousins or whatever the next generation is that attend. So that’s interesting. So, Tom, this has been absolutely wonderful. Really enjoyed our conversation, not only the professional side but the personal side. Thanks for all that. And for our audience, if you’ve enjoyed our podcast, please rate, review, subscribe, and share what we’re doing here at WealthTech on Deck. We’re available wherever you get your podcasts. Tom, thanks again. This has just been wonderful.

Tom Buckingham: Thanks, Jack. It’s been great to catch up.