When I talk with George Kinder, the world seems a glorious place, with cherubs and angels peeking from the corners, and some of the people-the enlightened ones-unselfishly helping the rest of us find peace with our money as well as contentment and self-worth. I imagine it as something like the Transcendentalist movement in the mid-19th century when Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau posited the existence of an ideal spiritual reality that we could reach through intuition.
When I met Kinder a dozen years ago, he was a CPA financial planner with an interest in spending more time in Hawaii. He managed to accomplish that by setting up a second planning practice there. So it was that he came to believe that each of us should be able to create, to spin, the life we want from our dreams. I was impressed. I wanted Kinder's life. But I am a journalist and journalists are cynical. They don't believe in "happy ever after" or in the existence of a world untouched by the savageries of modern life.
So whenever I talk with Kinder, I always remind myself that his balanced and friendly world is a small one, that his outlook cannot encompass a larger world with hurricanes and floods and people starving and killing one another. When Kinder sold his financial advisory business to form the Kinder Life Planning Institute six years ago, I wished him well but still believed his view too idealistic for the real world. So I was surprised to learn this spring that Kinder had gone global with his idea and that financial planners in other countries are extremely enthusiastic.
I first visited Kinder in April 2000 to talk with him about his book, The Seven Stages of Money Maturity. I wasn't surprised to find that his home included several cabins he used as a Buddhist meditation retreat and for writing and thinking. The cabins were all arranged around a lake (dubbed Walden II) near Concord, Mass., the stomping grounds of Emerson and Thoreau.
When I talked with Kinder in June of 2008, he had just returned to Walden from South Africa, where he'd conducted his two-day life planning workshop with one of the largest audiences ever-nearly 100 people. At dinner that night, he was seated next to a Zulu lawyer who holds the title of "ombud," an official within the government of South Africa responsible for judging whether advisors are doing right by their clients.
Kinder claims that regulators like this one in other countries, unlike U.S. regulators, really care about whether consumers are treated right. Regulators in European countries insist that advisors offer transparency. "We're used to thinking of the SEC and other regulators as being on the side of the wirehouses," he said. "I spoke to Dutch and U.K. regulators and there is no question they see a distinction between commission and fees and service and selling and they are eager to promote our side." He sees the possibility of the Netherlands and the United Kingdom "leaping in front of us" in professionalism and consumer advocacy. These countries don't have wirehouses, Kinder says. "The role of the dark side is played by banks and pension companies."
Financial advisors in the countries where he presented his workshop are focused on the same things as U.S. planners: making planning more professional and moving from commissions to fees and ultimately helping clients use their money to create the life of their dreams. "Life planning is at the extreme edge," Kinder says. "It's not just about how you charge for your services but how you deliver them and how you create a different relationship with the client that will satisfy something deep inside."
This spring, Kinder also brought a Dutch insurance company to his side of the table, signing an agreement with Allianz Nederland, which specializes in life, damage, income insurance and asset management. As part of the agreement, Allianz will pay for its agents to work through Kinder's series of workshops until they have earned the registered life planner designation. "Registered life planners are trained to converse with their clients in more meaningful and holistic ways," says Allianz in a press release announcing the partnership. "Their customer service philosophy puts the client's total well-being ahead of the organization's sales objectives. Not only do they consult with clients about the financial aspects of their lives, they advise the client on all aspects of their lives."
This agreement tests my concept of the insurance industry as one with a pro-company, pro-agent and "consumer comes last," mindset. That's largely because the transaction between sales agent and client in the U.S. is based on a commission. The agent has an incentive to sell a more expensive, less efficient policy because he makes more money that way. What will happen if the U.S. insurance industry trains its agents to be registered life planners who earn fees rather than commissions? What will happen if it doesn't?
Paul Versteeg, director of Allianz, said he was intrigued by holistic planning, the life planning model and Kinder's training courses for the designation of registered life planner. Advisors are trained "to unveil the consumer's underlying wishes by asking them specific questions," Versteeg said. "Then they help the client make their wishes and their desire to reach fulfillment in life" come true.