It was 1994, and Gary Fisher was presiding over an elegant dinner in Kalamazoo, Mich. He'd recently taken charge of the Farmers Group of Insurance Companies' Southwest Michigan sales district, and he was meeting the region's 22 multi-line insurance agents for the first time. Fisher rose, enthusiastically introduced himself, and declared his paramount goal: "We will be one of the top- producing districts in the country." Silence enveloped the room, followed by some cynical snickers and weak applause. But by the close of 1996, Fisher's prediction had come true.

A District of Survivors When Fisher came on board, the Southwest Michigan district was the company's lowest producer in the state for life, health, and property/casualty insurance. It hovered near the bottom of the sales barrel in financial services for the entire U.S., regularly achieving only a fraction of its quota. The district had been a money-loser for years.

At age 28, Fisher was among the youngest district managers that Farmers Group had ever appointed. Some members of his new sales team had been selling insurance longer than he'd been alive. Considering his dubious reception, Fisher recalls, "I realized that I was going to have to be more of a George S. Patton type than I originally thought."

The district had been without a manager for years. Accustomed to their autonomy, Fisher says, the sales force lacked energy and focus. "There was no camaraderie, no enthusiasm at all," he recalls. "They had no sense of being part of anything bigger than their own small offices. They saw themselves as survivors."

Fisher says the group had come to accept excuses for their low production--demographics, rating structures, and prior management problems, to name a few. Fisher validated none of them. He analogized the situation using his sharp sense of humor: "Remember The Blues Brothers scene where John Belushi tries to come up with a good excuse for missing his wedding? Flood, fire, locusts, car trouble--anything so that it wasn't his fault!"

First Things First Fisher's first order of business--winning the trust of the agents--was no simple task. So he spent his first six months on the job getting acquainted with his agents and their staffs, familiarizing himself with the uniqueness of each agency. He helped each agent analyze the obstacles that stood between his or her agency and financial success.

Fisher set about the task of convincing the seasoned agents that it was in their best interest to work harder to diversify their business by becoming more active in financial services. He pointed out the obvious result of increased sales--more income.

His next order of business was to give the agents tools to produce results. "It was the ultimate challenge for me. I'll never have a test any harder than working with independent contractors who have no individual quotas to meet," he says.

Fisher scrambled to find incentives that would inspire the existing sales staff and loosen the traditional staid culture of the district. He began by introducing the sales force to motivational material: They attended the public Peter Lowe Success Seminar at The Palace of Auburn Hills (a professional sports arena) in 1995, featuring Dick Vitale, Zig Ziglar, Tom Hopkins, and Dan Kennedy. And they traveled to Grand Rapids to see another sales trainer, Brian Tracy.

"If someone couldn't go, I bought them the tapes to listen to at home," Fisher says. The work of Tony Robbins and Les Brown was used as well. "We learned from the masters of sales. Motivation one day, sales psychology another, marketing the next, and time management the day after that. I mixed it up to keep things interesting."

He brought in speakers such as CPAs and top agents from Farmers Group and other companies to talk about the main subject at hand: sales.

But what really began to turn things around was the creation of what Fisher called a "sales builder group." He presented the idea to the district as a mentoring project, and several veteran agents volunteered to work closely with Fisher to increase regional productivity. They also agreed to help their less-experienced associates.

Each volunteer was trained intensely and given individual assistance in every area where improvement was needed: marketing, product knowledge, sales skills, technological issues, staffing problems, and company relations, to name several. Training was conducted at weekly meetings using marketing and product manuals supplied by the company.

"I really thought of the group as a steering committee in the beginning," Fisher says. "From then on, I never made decisions that affected them without their input. That went over very well."

After the training period, in 1995, Fisher gave them a small life and annuity goal to meet. Group members who didn't meet the goal were dropped. Those who made it emerged as a small but powerful group that would alter the future of the district. Fisher christened them The Executive Team.

The Few, the Proud The members of The Executive Team, or E-Team, as it was eventually nicknamed, were trained with John Savage's instructional videos, and they attended a private one-day seminar led by a Savage Corp. consultant. Fisher used a slew of audio- and videotapes to train the E-Team. "I'm a fanatical reader of books," he says. In lieu of in-house sales seminars, Fisher would often present the team with a condensed version of his latest read.

The team also scheduled occasional open gripe sessions, which Fisher characterizes as a healthy way to balance the high-energy training exercises. "I didn't want them to feel like they were being fed a steady diet of sugary thoughts with no outlet for negativity. Negativity, handled properly, can have a good impact on sales."

During the sessions, Fisher and his team would discuss client problems, financial issues, claims questions (the usual causes of agent stress) and come up with strategies to handle them. "Claims were a concern for the agents in one line of business," Fisher recalls, "so I took them to Detroit to meet the people who underwrote them.

"They had recurring questions about our life underwriters, so we did it again--we took an overnight excursion to Columbus, Ohio." Fisher's agents toured the operation, met the brass, and got to know the company's life insurance personnel. The field trips did more than just resolve one or two sticky issues. "I wanted to position my E-Team members so that everyone in the company would know their names. We also put the underwriters and upper management on the mailing list for our district newsletter."

In a company of 15,000 multi-line agents, Fisher explains, it was beneficial for his agents to have face-to-face relationships with the people whose decisions affected their business.

Reaping the Rewards E-Team members met regular production goals to maintain their team status. Fisher rewarded the best players handsomely for their rapidly increasing production: He began to hold district golf outings and to offer bigger travel incentives, like The Grand Promotion (see sidebar, page 40).

Members of the E-Team competed for mini-getaways each quarter, including visits to Chicago, where they went to Second City and The Improv. Other motivational hits: Greek Town in Detroit and tickets to see the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Redwings.

The district's wide-ranging demographics was a challenge in the formulation of rewards. "We had the typical sales guys who loved to party, but we also had conservative, small-town people who weren't into that," Fisher says. So he included the salespeople in incentive decisions. "I threw ideas out and asked what they wanted to do. There are stereotypes in the insurance industry. People assume that all of us golf, that we all hit the hot-spot vacation sites every winter. That's not true. We had a diverse mix and had to please everyone to get results."

Cost factored in, too. "These were self-funded events, with the exception of a couple that were split between the company and my office," Fisher notes. "We had to be creative."

The major corporate-level programs--President's Council, Championship Club, and Topper's Club--are "great incentives," Fisher says. "People love the social aspects of a big trip; that kind of thing always produces results." Fisher added his own flair to these programs as well. "With every big corporate event, I tacked something on. A dinner, a gift, something personal for each one from my office, or at times a big party for all of them the night before the corporate ceremony."

About Face In 1996, for the first time ever, the Southwest Michigan district reached its life and financial services goals. To the astonishment of upper management, they topped all 15 Michigan districts in sales. Michigan's top life and annuity producer and its second- and third- place auto and fire salespeople that year all came from under Gary Fisher's wing. The notoriously unprofitable district had turned around in two whirlwind years.

The participation of a district in the corporate-level incentive trips is a direct barometer of the district's success. From 1996 to 1999, several E-Team agents attended the Championship and Topper's Club awards in Palm Springs and New Orleans. In 1999, Fisher's district sent the highest percentage of qualifiers of all the Michigan districts to the Topper's Club meeting at Hilton Head Island.

"He had a very positive effect on my agency," says Tom Chambers, Fisher's most successful E-Team member. "We doubled our production and greatly improved our attitude and agency/management relations. His motivational training not only gave us a positive attitude, but also provided the specific methods and tools we needed to succeed."

And the incentive rewards were key to the shift. "They create a positive image," Chambers says. "Once you have that, you strive to keep it. Public accomplishment and recognition create pride."

What Goes Around In 1999, at the Hilton Head Topper's Club awards ceremony, the five qualifiers from Fisher's district, all E-Team members, presented him with their own District Manager of the Year award in front of the entire company.

"Everything goes back to the E-Team," Fisher says. "I picked a core group of people who really wanted to win and trained the heck out of them. I completely supported them. That's all." Farmers Group district managers all over the country heard that message loud and clear, and have adopted the E-Team concept for their agents.

"I never intended to just meet the basic job expectations," Fisher says. "I came here to shake things up."

One of Gary Fisher's inspired incentive programs was dubbed The Grand Promotion. Each prize level incorporated the theme, from dinner at the elegant, four-star Amway Grand Plaza, to tickets to the Grand Blanc Buick Open Professional Golf Tournament in Grand Blanc. One prize was a bed-and-breakfast weekend in Grand Haven, on the shore of Lake Michigan. Retreats at the Grand Traverse Resort and Mackinac Island's quaint, Old World-style Grand Hotel were awarded as well. The grandest "Grand" prize of all was a week on Grand Cayman island.