Story by Jim White
The man who orders the Full English at Claridge’s every morning may be remembered as a comedy godfather, or even a pop Svengali. But he would much rather go down in history as Peter Rosengard, the bloke who sold the world’s biggest life insurance policy
This is how Peter Rosengard introduces himself: “Hello, I’m Peter Rosengard and I’m a life insurance salesman,” he says in a voice of such rich emollience you have almost bought a policy before you have stopped shaking hands. “I don’t say I’m a financial adviser, or an investment analyst or an estate planner. I say I’m a life insurance salesman.”
It is odd that he introduces himself in this way, since Rosengard was also the man who, in 1982, started London’s Comedy Store, the legendary club that first gave a platform to Alexei Sayle, French and Saunders, Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Keith Allen and a bloke whose act consisted of diving into a plastic washing-up bowl. Later, Rosengard was the manager of the band Curiosity Killed the Cat. These days, he is a partner in a video vending machine operation, and has just raised the money to make the pilot of a cartoon sitcom which he describes somewhat ambitiously, as ‘The Simpsons meets Toy Story’.
Yet when he meets people, he tells them about his day job in life insurance. He tells them he loves the job and would never give it up, no matter how successful his sidelines become. Which is not so much odd as perverse, since in Britain admitting in polite company that you’re a life insurance salesman generally causes a reaction not unlike revealing you’re a director of Camelot.
In those surveys in which people are asked to rank professions according to levels of trustworthiness, ‘insurance salesman’ regularly finds itself down there with ‘estate agent’ and ‘Tory politician’. In America, however, the life insurance man is a hero, an icon of self-reliance. Paid by commission, he advances solely by his capacity for hard work, and is thus a walking, talking, foot-in-the-door symbol of the American Dream. In Japan, too, a nation which employs 500,000 people in financial sales, he is a rock star within the fiscal firmament.
But even there, no salesman is more admired than Britain’s own Peter Rosengard; for he has sold the biggest life insurance policy in history, and is the only person in financial services ever to secure himself an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. Better still, he sold his record-breaker after a cold call, telephoning on impulse to see if a man he had never before spoken to might be interested in the $100 million policy he just happened to have in his briefcase.
Last summer, I attended the annual US convention of the National Speakers Association. For four days, the world’s leading motivational talk-merchants congregate for a powwow. The best speaker was a man called Jeff Slutsky. A swift-talking hard-seller of the old school, Slutksy based his entire speech around the tale of Rosengard and his $100 million coup. “If only we had one tenth of the determination, cunning and chutzpah of this Brit,” yelled Slutsky at the emotional climax of his speech, “we’d all be millionaires tomorrow!”
Intrigued by Slutsky’s recommendation, I determined to track down this wizard of the 25-year, index-linked endowment. It wasn’t hard. He’s probably the only life insurance salesman in Britain to employ a PR agency. “Meet me at Claridge’s,” he says when contacted. “That’s where I always have breakfast.”
So I walk into the extravagant marble dining room of the Queen Mother’s favourite London watering hole, and there he is, at his regular table, where he has breakfasted with clients for the past 15 years. Sometimes he has up to four breakfasts a morning, always at this table, which, he is quick to point out, Aristotle Onassis used to frequent. But now it is permanently reserved for the life insurance man. “No one,” Rosengard says, “and I mean no one, can resist the offer of breakfast at Claridge’s”
Trim, alert and with eyes busily scanning the room in search of clients existing and potential, he appears to be umbillically linked to a Havana of Churchillian stature.
“I’ve only just started smoking,” he says, tapping the cigar on the side of an ashtray, proffered by the head waiter, who is, inevitably, a Rosengard client. “Always wanted to do it, but never had the willpower before. Not great for the health, but then neither is breakfast.”
“I had 753 breakfasts at Claridge’s one year, he continues, which must be another record. “I went to the doctor for a life insurance medical check-up – I’m a sucker for my own policies – and he said: “Mr Rosengard, you don’t have a bloodstream, you have a cholesterol stream.” He said: “You must lose weight,” so I lost two stone. My father heard I’d lost two stone and he said: “Oh did somebody steal your ego?” I said: “No, dad, just a slice off it.”
Then off he goes on a seemingly unending torrent of one-liners, a remorseless comic patter which efficiently disguises the major purpose of any meeting: the insurance policy. For 28 years, Rosengard has been doing business this way, softening up his target with charm, humour and Claridge’s own back bacon, and making the business of selling a with-profits pension a performance art. If Groucho Marx had been a life insurance salesman, he would have gone about his business just like this.
“I first met him years ago, when I was doing stand-up at the Comedy Store,” says Clive Anderson, one of many celebrities who are among Rosengard’s 2,000-plus clients “Wisely, he kept away from me as I had no money at all. But the moment I’d appeared on telly, obviously his mind ticked over and he was on the phone. I must have appeared a real sucker, because when he rang, I told him I was actually thinking of taking out a pension. He was straight in.”
“Now, when we do meet, it’s quite a good game we play. I’m happy to talk about any of his projects. Anything but finance. But he can always out-talk me, and the conversation eventually comes round to insurance. I’m always keen to encourage him into other things. If he could concentrate on them and leave off the life insurance, it would be a lot better for my bank balance.”
Now 51, Rosengard drifted into the trade by chance. His mother had wanted him to be a dentist (“of Jewish extraction – that was her joke”), but he dropped out of dental school, he claims, the moment he realised the job involved teeth. After sleepwalking through his early twenties, he eventually took up insurance in 1969.
On his way out of the office on his first morning, Rosengard hailed a taxi and sold the driver a policy. By the end of his first week, he’d sold another 10: “I didn’t know salesman generally only signed three policies a month. It didn’t strike me as unusual I was selling 30. One month, I sold 100. Within a year, I was driving an E-Type. If it moved, I signed it. I tried to sell to anyone.”
“I bumped into Pete Townshend in a lift once and tried him. If anyone wasn’t going to buy life insurance, it was the man who was telling us all he was going to die before he got old. But he recommended me to Fleetwood Mac. He said they were well into the idea of pensions. So I signed them up.”
Armed with the rewards of his sales, he began to travel; and on one trip to New York, he spent the evening in a stand-up comedy club, and wondered why no one had tried a similar venture in London. So he opened the Comedy Store in a strip club in Soho. For two years, after a hard morning breakfasting and selling, he would spend his nights doing everything from being master of ceremonies to cleaning the toilets.
“I was about to open, and I thought everything was ready, when I suddenly realised, oh dear, I haven’t got any performers,” he recalls. “So I put an ad in Private Eye. It cost me 45p and read: ‘Wanted. Frustrated dentists/accountants who want to be comedians.’ I got two replies, from Arnold Brown and Alexei Sayle.”
Rosengard may have kick-started the alternative comedy boom, but he was no great stand-up himself, despite his sales patter. “I always fancied it, and persuaded them to let me have a go one night,” he says. “But Alexei gonged me off pretty quickly as I was obviously useless.”
Nor was he so hot at the politics of business. In 1984, when the Comedy Store moved into new premises, he found he was no longer part of the management team. Lucky, then, that he had the day job.
“I’ll always do this,” he says of insurance, “but I’ve always got several other projects on the go. At the moment, I manage the comedian Gerry Sadowitz, a genius in my opinion, and I’ve got my cartoon series, Cloud Cuckoo Land, in development with Planet 24 (the company which produces The Big Breakfast). I reckon if we get that one right, we’ll have an international smash on our hands. But I can’t let go of the insurance. As long as there are babies in prams, there’ll be new clients for me.”
“Nearly 30 years after I started, I still make at least 20 cold calls a week, looking for new clients,” he says, returning to the table after a chat with Lord Grade nearby. “I always get the butterflies in the stomach when I ring up. I don’t know why I get so nervous, since I’ve never had anyone be rude to me. The only person who’s ever put the phone down on me was a girl I was at university with, and she never liked me there.”
His greatest coup came in 1991, when he read in the Financial Times that MCA had bought Geffen Records for $500 million. Appreciating that the only reason MCA had paid so much was to secure the services of David Geffen, the record company wizard who discovered, among others, the rock band Guns N’ Roses, he reasoned that should Geffen fall under a bus the next day, the investment would be wasted.
What MCA needed, he reckoned, was insurance on Geffen’s life. So he rang Sidney Sheinberg, the president of the company. Five days later, after being switched from personal assistant to company secretary, a series of knock-backs that would have stripped the hide from a rhinoceros, he tracked down Sheinberg and sold the biggest life insurance policy in history: $100 million. In the process – and this, Rosengard admits, was an incentive – he picked up the biggest-ever cheque for a sales commission. He won’t say how much, but two per cent is the standard.
“Peter is very amusing, affable and charming, but he’s also incredibly persistent,” says David Dein, another client and vice-chairman of Arsenal. “I really enjoy his company, but I have to restrict our meetings to once a year. Otherwise, every time we met, he’d have me buy something.”
The strange thing is, on meeting Rosengard, you don’t believe he really can be that persistent. You assume that his is a sort of ironic persistence. You think, as you pick up his 15th phone call of the week, that nobody, in these sophisticated times, could be that doggedly, openly pushy. Particularly as his patter appears so self-conscious, you find yourself thinking you’re just sharing in a lark. But he really is that persistent: he wants that sale, and he’s not ashamed to pursue it.
“I love selling, that’s the thing. Even when the Comedy Store took off, or Curiosity were at the top of the charts, I didn’t want to give up the selling. I just looked at the comedy and rock and roll as a chance to get away for the evening from the glamour of life insurance.” You sense he is only half joking.
But surely, you think, after so long in the business, it is now time to stop the stomach-churning cold calls and let someone else do the hard work; time to step back from the battle for our hearts and wallets and move upstairs into the world of financial services.
“Financial services?” he says. “No, I won’t even deal in mortgages. I don’t believe in selling people things they want. To me that’s not real selling. I sell them things they never realised they needed. That’s the challenge. And when you sell something like that, that’s the real kick.” So that’s the secret. The greatest life insurance salesman of all time is addicted to the chase.
“Oh no, I’m not the greatest life insurance man of all time.” He says, in an unexpected moment of modesty. “I tell you who that was. He was the man who persuaded the world that the process of insuring against death should be called life insurance: “Hey, my name’s Peter Rosengard, and I’m a death insurance salesman.” Now that really would be a challenge.”