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Originally published in Business People-Vermont in 2004.

A Different Drummer

The managing partner of New England Financial Vermont marches to his own beat

by Julia Lynam

Bryan Cressy knows from personal experience about the value of financial planning. "My father died when I was 16, and he left enough, mostly through life insurance, for the interest to send me through college," says Cressy, the managing partner of New England Financial Vermont, a life insurance and financial services agency based in Colchester.

"If you do a good job in this business, you rarely feel that you have a boss," says Bryan Cressy, Chartered Life Underwriter, Chartered Financial Consultant, Certified Financial Planner and managing partner of New England Financial Vermont. For each of the last six years, one of his 21 full-time agents has won the "rookie of the year" award from the Vermont chapter of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors.

That experience, and a family tradition of working in financial services, prompted Cressy to join a MetLife agency in Durham, N.C., in 1987. He'd graduated from Utica College of Syracuse University four years earlier, having chosen the upstate New York college so he could indulge his love of hiking in the Adirondacks.

After graduating, he set up a small home improvement business, which he ran from a spare bedroom. Three years later, sales had grown to $400,000 and he sold the business for $75,000 "to an insurance executive," he recalls with a chuckle. A brief period with a business magazine followed before Cressy entered financial services to find the career he so obviously enjoys.

"It has good financial prospects, and if you do a good job in this business, you rarely feel that you have a boss," says Cressy, a self-confessed "rebel" who spends much of his leisure time drumming with the local band Shake Well along with three other professional men, neighbors in Essex Junction's Pinewood Manor. He was introduced to drumming five years ago by his brother-in-law Chuck Garvey, who plays with Moe, a band that Cressy says is tipped as successor to Phish.

Cressy's wife of 16 years, Gretchen Garvey, teaches kindergarten to second grade at Shelburne Community School; their daughter, Hannah, 13, is a member of Essex Children's Choir and a bass player.

"I'm a person who values stability," says Cressy. "I still have four great friends from childhood that I'm in regular contact with. I knew the day I met every one of them that we were going to be long-term friends."

Another long-term friend and mentor has been Scott MacDonald, one of Cressy's professors at Utica College. "Bryan was a passionate learner, very serious about being in college," he says. "He was a business major who took very difficult courses far outside his field." MacDonald's specialties are film and English literature. "Bryan never played it safe," he continues, "He was always the kind of person who, in a discussion, would say the thing that seemed dangerous, and say it with confidence.

"We weren't surprised when he took up drumming he was always very much his own person, and a very moral person."

New England Financial has 66 independent firms throughout the United States and traces its origins back to New England Mutual Life Insurance Co., the nation's first mutual life insurance company, established in 1835. The Vermont office opened in Rutland in 1844. Roger Webster, left, is an investment specialist; Peter Phillips is a retirement plans specialist.

During Cressy's time with MetLife in Durham, MacDonald recalls, the company launched a "top gun" sales campaign, which Cressy, then a fairly new agent, refused to participate in because he didn't want to equate financial planning with a military campaign. It's this kind of attitude that gives Cressy his empathy with non-traditional audiences for financial planning, says MacDonald, explaining that Cressy appreciates, for instance, the need for women to plan their finances.

After three years as an agent in Durham, Cressy was promoted to a management position with MetLife in Newport News, Va. "I was there for a year and a half and grew the office by about 60 percent," he says. "I loved it professionally but we felt really out of place in the community; we were about the only non-military family there, so I asked for a transfer north."

The quest to move north took him first to the Albany, N.Y., MetLife office. In 1994 he became managing associate of New York Life in Albany, subsequently transferring to the Burlington branch as managing partner. In 2002, he became managing partner of New England Financial Vermont, a firm that had, ironically enough, become a MetLife affiliate in the late 1990s.

"I went into financial planning to help people," Cressy says. "I was inclined, coming out of college, to do something that would make a difference, and I also had to make a living. In this industry, if you help a business or an individual protect their wealth, you earn a part of it.

"We're helping people send kids to college, retire with dignity, making sure people can stay in their homes, making sure that if an income earner dies or becomes sick or disabled that the family can retain its dignity," he says. "For business owners, good financial planning and insurance can mean the difference between keeping the business and losing it."

There have been dramatic changes in the financial services industry in the 18 years of Cressy's career, he says, especially on the technological front. "In the past, an agent might have spent an hour a week on the computer now it's more than 25 percent of their time," he says.

"With so many products available, it's changed from being a fairly simple sales proposition to a situation where we represent hundreds of companies with thousands of products."

Some of the major changes have centered on the quality and diversity of products available to individual consumers, with products and policies changing almost quarterly. "Individuals can now access retirement programs like those a Fortune 500 company used to get," he says. "The retail consumer used to pay a premium for such products; now you can get virtually the same products as the big companies, at a low cost.

"The learning curve in this industry is like chasing the sun that's why I'm still here, I haven't got bored with this one!"

There's also been tremendous consolidation in the industry over the past few years, and New England Financial, says Cressy, is one of the few agencies left that recruit and train their own young agents, offering them a lifelong career. "Only the strong 'career agencies' have survived," Cressy says. "In the office at present we have over 300 years of tenure; one agent, who is semi-retired but still working, has been with the agency 51 years.

"Two things I've been known for are the ability to select and recruit high-quality candidates and to train and retain them. It starts with the selection: Hire people with a track record of success and stability, then give them a great opportunity and continue to support them.

"The cost of training an agent in the first three years is huge and takes years to break even; but long term, the training is a great investment, because people stay with the company, and in 35 or 40 years' time, the company can be still leveraging that investment."

One of Cressy's proudest achievements is that for the last six years, the Vermont "rookie of the year" award the M. Baxter Cummings Award made by the Vermont chapter of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors to the top new financial representative in the state each year has gone to an agent he has hired and trained.

"When I joined New England Financial, I heard about the award," he says, "and I thought it would be a great way to let the competition know that there was a new player in town." Peter Stevens of New England Financial won the 2003 M. Baxter Cummings award, and managing associate Dan Webster is a former winner.

Most of NEF's 21 agents are independent contractors sharing an office structure, training and support staff. John Bourland, CLU, ChFC, left, is pictured with John P. Davis, disability insurance specialist.

One of Cressy's main tasks at New England Financial was to build an effective management team, composed of marketing director Sarah Nelson, office manager Lisa Walker, Webster and himself. The firm has 21 full-time agents, including specialists in financial planning, disability income insurance, retirement planning and investment. As managing partner, Cressy sees his own role as growing the firm, hiring and developing agents, and supporting the operation in terms of serving the customers. Most of the 21 agents are independent contractors sharing an office structure, training and support staff. Sixteen are based in the Colchester office, one in Montpelier and one in downtown Burlington; three work from home. Cressy has also overseen the move of the agency's office from the state courthouse building on Cherry Street in downtown Burlington to Water Tower Hill in Colchester, which offers easier access and parking for clients and staff.

New England Financial, which has 66 agencies around the country, traces its origin back to the nation's first mutual life insurance company, established in 1835. The Vermont office, which opened in Rutland in 1844, now handles tens of millions of dollars in investments and insurance premiums going to life insurance carriers and mutual fund companies. "Well over 10,000 households in the State of Vermont have one or more of our products," says Cressy, "and so do more than 1,400 businesses in Vermont.

"Our specialty is working with closely held businesses and affluent and emerging affluent individuals, but in a small market like Vermont, we end up serving everyone from middle income up."

He sees the future bringing more strategic alliances with other professionals such as CPAs, property and casualty agencies and banks. Already, New England Financial has forged an alliance with Lyndonville Savings Bank to offer financial planning advice to the bank's customers through its subsidiary insurance center.

"We work with people in a variety of ways at various stages of their lives: recent graduates, life insurance, disability insurance, college funding," he says. "The goal is to grow with your clients as your clients' wealth builds, your opportunities to serve them grow."

by Julia Lynam

Originally published in September 2004 Business People-Vermont

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