When Charles Lewandowski began his insurance career at Prudential 35 years ago, it was at a crisis point in his life. He was in his 20s, had just lost his job as a painting contractor, and was struggling to make ends meet for his family. Broke but determined, Lewandowski, who emigrated to the U.S. from Brazil at nine years old, forged on, even if it meant relying on his wife’s income as a hairdresser to get him through the lean times. Venturing out on his own in 1987 to launch the Rockville, Maryland-based business—recently renamed Planning Needs Financial Group—Lewandowski has defied the odds, building a thriving independent insurance agency in an industry with a high attrition rate. Heading a staff of three, which includes his son Marc, Lewandowski recently took a breather from his busy schedule to speak with business writer Iris Dorbian about the secret behind his longevity, how he has kept pace with the new technologies, and changes in his industry.
ID: When you started your company 25 years ago, did you ever think you would last as long as you have? Why do you think you have?
CL: I have thought about it at times. It’s probably some good fortune, hard work and niche marketing that kept me going.
CL: In the late ’70s or early ’80s, my wife met someone who worked at the Brazilian embassy in Washington. At that time, they were looking for group insurance for their locally hired employees. So she said, ‘Talk to my husband. He’s an insurance agent and he speaks Portuguese.’ I went to visit the embassy and talked about what I can do for them. I became their agent and did this all in Portuguese. And when they grew, I was able to add Brazilian consulates from different states. From that we got a lot of spin-off business, such as individuals who needed individual life insurance or temporary medical insurance for their nannies whom they brought over from Brazil. That account lasted 20 years and then the government decided to deal directly with insurance carriers. But we still have a lot of contacts from that account and a lot of Brazilian clients. Probably a quarter of our clients are Brazilian-based.
ID: What other tactics did you use in the early days to get the word out about your business and build clientele?
CL: We were doing a lot of cold calling in those days and sending out a lot of direct mail. We were fortunate because at the time we were able to get lists of people who got new phone numbers, which indicate a change in someone’s life. The lists were a really good source of leads. We would make calls to these new numbers to encourage people to talk about life insurance. These days it’s more difficult to do that because of the privacy issues. Also, I would go around to apartment buildings and write names off of mailboxes and once a month go back to the same apartment buildings and write more names off of mailboxes and catch new names and then send them a letter. It was hardcore.
ID: How have you coped with the changes within your industry over the years?
CL: My company has become very service-intensive, concentrating more on employee benefits, group insurance, and pension plans. In 2002, I became a certified financial planner so my focus has been more on financial planning, investments, and insurance.
ID: What do you feel have been the biggest obstacles you have had to contend with during your small business career and how have you overcome them?
CL: It’s been to keep on going and just get up in the morning. It’s a clean slate. You have no one telling you what to do. You don’t have a boss looking over you. You have no one to be accountable to except yourself and of course, your clients, who are ultimately your bosses. A lot of people have difficulty being self-motivated, going out there and doing what needs to be done.
ID: How have you dealt with the phenomenon of social media—like Facebook, Twitter, etc.?
CL: I’m set up with LinkedIn and I have my webpage. I also have selected some URLs with attractive names, but my focus is not too much on that because I’m not that tech-savvy. But my son keeps pushing me in that direction.
ID: What are the challenges of working with a family member?
CL: You’ve got to walk a careful line. You can push to a certain extent and insist on some results but ultimately I’m not going to fire my son. You have to be more patient than if it were another employee. On another hand, it’s a wonderful arrangement: I love my son and I love seeing him every day. He has some great ideas and I can see that he wants to take the company in this new technological direction that I’m not equipped to do.
ID: Based on your experience, what would be your tips to small business owners when it comes to longevity? What should they do and what should they avoid?
CL: The important thing is to watch your bottom line. You can control your expenses, but it’s difficult to control your income and I think a lot of business owners get into trouble by not keeping an eye on that bottom line. You cannot spend more than what’s coming in. Many business owners have mortgaged their homes and raided their savings to keep the business going. I didn’t do anything different from that. For many years, I didn’t have any income I was able to spend. In the first two to three years of my business, I relied on my wife’s income to keep going. I think if you can get over the first couple of years and you have enough assets, savings, and an income from a spouse that can really be helpful.
Also, a lot of small businesses start working out of their homes to control their bottom line. I think that’s okay, but once you have enough business coming in you really need to venture out on your own and get out of that house and rent an office space and hang out your shingle. It looks much more professional to get out of the house and dress up and go to the office to do what you need to do there.