Patricia Kerr's marching orders sound simple: “Our goal is to grow sales,” she says.

Making that happen, however, means tackling one of the toughest questions in business: What motivates people?

At Manulife Canada, there's more than one answer. But all of them come under the heading of “improving the adviser experience,” and all of them come under the purview of Patricia Kerr, CMP. Leading a team of 12, including five full-time meeting planners, Kerr began her 12th year at Manulife Canada in Waterloo, Ontario, with a title change from director of conferences and recognition to director of distribution sales support. It's no longer all about the incentive conference — it's about helping producers succeed in their everyday business lives.

It's what executives leading the company's three primary distribution channels — managed general agencies, independent advisers, along with national accounts — call “the value proposition,” she notes; that is, the total package they offer to the producers in their channel. “Whatever the value proposition is in that sales organization — education and training, product launches, road shows, incentive conferences, recognition programs — my team is the support,” Kerr explains.

Relationships Rule

It's a big job that keeps getting bigger as Manulife Financial continues its steady growth. The second-largest life insurance company in North America (and Canada's second-largest public company), Manulife marked the end of 2006 with more than $350 billion in assets under management, some 20,000 employees, and operations in 19 countries.

Having been in acquisition mode for more than a decade, Manulife needs a way to keep an ever-diversifying field in the loop and motivated. “The work Patricia's team does is entirely focused on building positive business relationships with the most professional advisers and distribution intermediaries in Canada,” says John McEachen, vice president, distribution operations, to whom Kerr reports.

Consider a recent study by LIMRA International (a Connecticut-based marketing organization for the financial services industry). Two-thirds of independent producers are eligible for more than one sales contest, the study reported; however, only 37 percent of those will actively pursue more than one contest. What makes them choose which to go after? It's not the prize, the study found. Rather, the deciding factor is “the producer's working relationship with the carrier.”

In other words, your investment in motivation had better touch producers on multiple fronts. As Kerr says, “At the end of the day, we want a producer to say, ‘Everything Manulife offers is a benefit to me and my business.’ The relationship with the company has to be there first and foremost.”

Of course, the bottom line is the bottom line. Says Kerr: “My mandate every day is: ‘What can I do to support the field people in growing sales?’”

The answer for her team is to do more than manage the annual calendar of approximately 250 meetings and events. It's also to gauge the effectiveness of all motivational programs. “I might sit down with the VP of the adviser channel and review a recognition program,” she explains. “Is it meeting its mark? We're focusing on one type of adviser, should we expand it to this other type of adviser?”

Kerr's responsibility extends across the following three producer-focused categories: recognition, sales initiatives, and meetings.

Recognition: Show Your Appreciation

“Our Master Builder service award has been run for more than 50 years,” Kerr notes. “It recognizes significant, continuous production — those who have given us a lot of business for a long time.” The program has five levels of achievement and offers both tangible and intangible recognition. “There is an aura of success around advisers who have achieved Master Builder status,” Kerr explains. “People know it is a huge achievement.” It begins with a lapel pin and tops out with a green jacket (modeled after the coveted green jacket worn by winners of the Master's golf tournament). Along the way are high-end gifts for the office including a leather desk set, a one-time donation to the charity of the producer's choice, and reduced qualification requirements for Manulife incentive conferences. At the highest level (after 25 years of continuous production), qualification for incentive conferences is waived. “At that point, it's pure reward,” Kerr says.

Manulife also runs the Production Club, a yearly program with four levels. Participants choose merchandise with a value based on the level of production achieved. “We will soon be revamping our Production Club,” Kerr says, “because as the average age of advisers peaks and ultimately decreases, there will be different priorities for our audience. We will have to be more flexible because what's important to the adviser will change.”

Sales Initiatives: Build the Brand

Kerr helps manage Manulife Canada's relationships with industry associations that provide networking and educational opportunities for producers throughout the year. For example, Manulife has a huge presence at Advocis, “the Canadian version of the Million Dollar Round Table [a U.S. organization for top-tier producers],” as Kerr calls it. “We have been a sponsor of the annual meeting, we've sponsored keynote addresses, exhibited at the trade show, and we provide an Internet café for attendees. This is the largest single gathering of Canadian producers.”

Manulife has a presence at MDRT as well, holding an event for producers there, and also participates in an average of eight other industry events per year.

The company keeps its name in front of producers through sports sponsorships that lend themselves to exclusive experiences. For example, Manulife is a sponsor of the Canadian Open PGA tournament, with a hospitality tent, tickets to all five tournament days, and spots in the pro-am — in other words, plenty of opportunity for VIP treatment of producers and clients.

Manulife's newest acquisition, John Hancock, is a major sponsor of its hometown Boston Marathon. “We coordinate the Canadian portion,” Kerr says. “We have VIP spots, we can get clients spots to run, and any Manulife employee can run without qualifying. We get a good motivational kick from it.”

Manulife also has some regional events on its sponsorship roster.

Meetings: Reward and Educate

“Yes, we have incentive conferences. They are integral to our success. If they weren't, you wouldn't see every company doing them,” Kerr says. “The majority of our business is meetings.” But not just incentive meetings, she notes. “We have three key annual educational events that have become very well known and respected in the industry: the Investment Forum, the Life Elite Forum, and the National Accounts Elite Forum. When we talk to new advisers or new managers, we talk about our recognition and incentive programs, but we also talk about the key educational pieces we do.”

In McEachen's view, Manulife's comprehensive package of reward and recognition programs is critical. “An integral part of the world of sales is rewarding sales achievers. In my 30 years of business in this industry, I have never seen an adviser turn down a production-related award,” he says. “I believe salespeople expect these incentives and rewards and place their business with firms that treat them well from a business and relationship perspective.”

Also under the meetings category are road shows and product launches. When the company acquired North American Life in 1996, for example, a massive, multi-city road show, including breakouts for producers on products, services, compensation, and contracts, helped to integrate the companies. After the acquisition of Maritime Life in 2004, a more individualized road show targeted managing general agencies focused on building relationships and product introductions.

Even when a merger isn't in the offing, “product launches are constant,” says Kerr. They range from a simple “lunch and learn” workshop to a major, themed launch that might involve a marketing firm and three teams of people in 20 cities over 5 days.

Kerr sums up, “An adviser wants good service and a good product. Most companies have both. So what sets you apart?”

Mergers: Making the Pieces Fit

Something you won't find specifically laid out in Kerr's job description is creating plans for meeting and recognition management following an acquisition. But it's a role she has filled many times for Manulife, from its first takeover in 1996 to its biggest move, the acquisition of 140-year-old Boston-based insurer John Hancock in 2004.

Kerr stepped right in, working with Hancock's Canadian subsidiary, Maritime Life, as soon as the deal was signed. Her task: to learn everything about meetings and recognition at the Halifax-based company.

“My outlook has always been, the moment a merger is announced, I have a team at Manulife and I have a team at [the acquired company]. It's one great big team, and one big pot of practices. The question is: What can we make from this? How do we take the best from both sides so that the outcome is better than before? That's the fun part and the exciting part — the opportunity to take the best of both worlds.

“We analyze the data from the two companies and create a ‘go-forward’ plan. I'm looking at what meetings they are doing, what audience is served, what it costs, and what are the goals and objectives of those meetings? What recognition programs are they running? Is there any best practice that stands out from the pack? Anything we can incorporate?”

Kerr loves this part, gathering and comparing data, searching out best practices. “What is not so fun,” she acknowledges, “is that once you analyze the information and decide on the best package, there usually is no increase in head count. Now you're in a position where there are not enough seats for all of the people in the combined teams. So anyone in a managerial position has to say, ‘OK, I have five people in the parent company, three or four on the merging team, and I can have only five in the end. So several people will be told they don't have positions in the go-forward plan.”

(The human resources department, she notes, “plays a huge role in redeployment,” helping those left without “seats” consider openings in other areas of the new company.) “It's not easy. You're talking about people. It's a lot easier to do it on paper.”

There is also often a geographical element to these decisions. In the case of Maritime Life, as in other cases, she notes, “the majority of people are not interested in moving” to Waterloo and uprooting their families.

The Road Ahead

In Kerr's experience, acquiring a company or division generally doesn't mean adding significant numbers of meetings to her roster. “Rarely have major meetings been transferred over to the new company. The reason is you are buying an adviser base, hoping they will do business with Manulife. But they are brokers — they can choose to do business wherever they want.”

Kerr is not, therefore, trying to merge two corporate cultures or weave a thread of continuity from an acquired company's incentive meetings into Manulife's incentive conferences. Rather, she's targeting the same audience and hoping to attract more of them to Manulife's products, recognition programs, and meetings. “There are usually a couple of road shows at the beginning of a merger to introduce the company to brokers,” she says. “And we do have to be prepared for meeting complexities to rise as the adviser base broadens and numbers increase as a result of organic and acquisition growth.”

The John Hancock deal was unique. The Boston-based company's operations were left intact and became Manulife's U.S. headquarters, separate from Manulife Canada. With Hancock still running its own slate of meetings, this joining of giants ultimately could have a direct impact on negotiating power for both companies. Kerr has regular phone conferences with her Boston counterpart, Bill Brownson, assistant vice president, John Hancock Financial Services. Recently, she says, they have begun work on determining how to use the companies' combined volume to their best advantage.

With every merger, Kerr's experience grows — a benefit to her department and her company. And if the past is any guide, those merger experiences are likely to continue.

FICP: The Niche That Keeps On Going

“The networking and relationship-building opportunities are better within the community of Financial & Insurance Conference Planners than any other meeting planning organization I have been involved with,” says Patricia Kerr, CMP, director, distribution sales support, at Manulife Canada. “FICP serves a niche market, allowing education and events to be specialized to our market segment. You will not find that with MPI or other large meeting-planning associations.”

However, she adds, while FICP offers tremendous value for the investment, “each member needs to be committed to finding it.” The greatest benefit comes from getting involved. “I know it has been said before, but you truly get out what you put in. Every minute, hour, and day of volunteerism has helped me both personally and professionally,” says Kerr, who will take over as association president in November.

Eye Opener

Kerr joined FICP (then the Insurance Conference Planners Association) in 1995. But she didn't truly appreciate the association until she attended her first annual meeting, in 1999. There in Boca Raton, she says, “I quickly realized the value of the association — and more importantly, the relationships that could be built, the knowledge that could be shared, and the tools and best practices that could be gained.”

Back home in Waterloo, Ontario, Kerr “became an active member of the Canadian chapter, and various volunteer committees and design teams.” Those experiences led to a position on the FICP Board of Directors in 2005. She served one year as vice president, sponsorship, and is now president-elect.

Kerr sees the benefits of FICP membership directly addressing the challenges facing financial services meeting planners today. “‘Crazy’ seems to be the word of the day, week, and year. We are all fighting against a huge crush of volume but our budgets are not growing significantly,” she says. “Sharing best practices and cost- and time-saving initiatives is of the essence, and FICP is the only association that can specifically target the common issues facing the industry and help all planners and suppliers deal with the issues at hand.”

Going forward, Kerr believes that FICP must keep its balance — between new and experienced members, between networking and education, and between the needs of planners and hospitality partners. “We need to focus on education, but in a nontraditional sense,” she adds. “Education is not simply two events a year — our annual conference and the FICP Educational Forum. It is providing value to our membership 24/7.”