Articles - Char Ujle

Decades ago, when I started selling insurance, I asked one of my Indian tennis buddies, why he did not call me for his homeowners’ insurance, when he closed on his house last week. The reply came, “char-char ujle agaye,” which means “four white insurance agents came,” sent by his realtor, also a white lady. He did not explain further, but I understood that if a white agent comes to see an Indian client, the Indian agent has no chance of getting the business. This was from a friend with whom I used to play tennis almost every evening. What to expect from an unknown Indian prospect?

This story has stuck in my mind for over twenty years now, and I have seen it being repeated time and again.  Over fifteen years ago, one of my good Indian friends and client, who allowed me numerous personal and business insurances for years, had remarked, “No Indian agent can come to my home or office, but you are an exception.” I thanked him for this gesture, but it did not seem so much like a compliment, as rather a sad state of affairs. It had never sunk in that though I was a good, competent agent, I needed to ponder, why an Indian agent is treated with disdain by an Indian client, who runs to the white competition so readily, and probably did business with me, only out of pity for a fellow Indian.

There is a joke in Indian insurance circles, that if one has to pick up a check of just one hundred dollars from an Indian client, the agent has to travel to the clients’ home or office at least twice, because the first time the client can not find his check book! Plus, the agent has to take him to a lunch for more than five or ten dollars if he hopes to get any more business in future. But if the same Indian client is to give ten thousand dollars to a white agent, he will drive to their office, and will politely stand in the line to deliver the funds to the agent’s secretary.  In the early 1990’s, I encountered numerous Indians running with stacks of money through the parking lot, lobby, and elevators, rushing to drop off funds to their white brokers, in the exact same building where I worked in Buckhead.

Whenever you go for lunch with an Indian prospect or client, the agent will always have to pick up the tab, no matter, if you have made or will make any fees or commissions from the discussions or transactions you conduct. But bring a white agent with you to the meeting, and all of a sudden the same Indian client becomes so generous, and will insist on paying for all three of you - this is so funny to watch!

In the last twenty years or so, I have experienced the following situation again and again. When an Indian engages in entrepreneurship and opens a company (generally from his basement or garage), I get a call to visit and discuss their insurance and investment needs.  The guy will have no money to pay my fees, and may not even make it to better days when I can expect to get paid properly for my time and work. An established agent generally will not come, as they are busy chasing bigger fish. I receive plenty of thanks, but no money. “Talk is cheap,” always comes to mind.  I spend lots of time explaining what kind of insurance they need, which ones can be avoided to begin with, and where to get it at the lowest price. The new business owner feels so happy, obliged, and impressed with my expertise and acumen, getting settled in their business with so little cash outlay. I feel proud helping some poor fellow and holding their hand in the process. Many do not succeed and I consider it philanthropy. Those who do succeed, a few years later they rent an office outside their homes, and employ their spouse or a family member to answer phones and do clerical jobs. My job then becomes filling various tax, legal, and insurance forms, spend hours of work, all free of cost. A few years later, the same guy makes more money, the spouse goes back home to look after the children, and then hires a pretty white lady to run the office. This is the signal for me to go away, as the white secretary really controls the Indian business owner. She recommends her boyfriend, father, brother, or sister as the new insurance agent, as she can not understand me, and does not like my services. She relates better to her white folks. The Indian guy has to move to a white neighborhood, be friends with white people, and try to get business from them! However, still I am often shown the door. Like insurance agents, Indian brokers, accountants, office workers, and attorneys are all replaced by their white counterparts in due course. The owner of the business, who used to call me “uncle” and got numerous things done free, now does not even return my phone calls. They consider, at this stage, giving business to me as racism, nepotism, or supporting an Indian who might have questionable merits.

Once you establish the insurance and investment plans for a company or an individual, as an agent who gets paid only by commissions, if they continue paying premiums and keep you as their agent, it takes years even decades to make enough money for all the time and energy you invest into the process. Few agents will contact a start up business, but will chase established companies, and steal your business and clients in seconds, as Indian business owners fall for the company of whites so fast, and make them the agents of record and let them receive fees on the work you have done. Many big, well established Indian owned companies of all types, here in town, now have passed through these stages, dozens of them, through me. I well remember.  I have tried to protest each such incident on the grounds of morality, decency and legality. I have lost every time.

Can an Indian agent, against such odds, succeed in approaching a well established Indian business owner for their insurance and investment business? Impossible! Many of my larger Indian clients have asked me, “Why don’t you have many white clients?” If a successful Indian avoids dealing with an Indian agent, will a successful white guy bring his or her business to a Desi agent? Never. Many a times I have been asked by affluent Indians moving to town, to find them an attorney and an accountant, who must be white, on the grounds that Indians (Desis) are not very professional, and they may divulge the information on their wealth to fellow Indians. I have had plenty of white friends in every profession, but once they get a foot in the door they bring their own friendly insurance agent, which becomes more acceptable to these affluent Indians than me, and I am out. I have lost numerous such prospects.

A pretty white teller girl at a bank, with a little twinkle in her eyes, or an invitation to a game of golf, can get an Indian’s fifty thousand dollars in CDs with such ease, I always wonder. But for an Indian broker or agent getting the same account will take ten visits, several years, and numerous lunches, in addition to donations to their Indian associations and temples.

Once an Indian is out of the boat and gets car insurance from a white agent, for the next five years he drives all his fellow Indians and family members to this white agent to establish a friendship, spending hours to cultivate the goodwill of this white American guy, and for no personal financial gain. Once his insurance claim is denied, however he will call me for help and promise to bring all his friends to me, but only after this disenchantment. Similarly when I quote a premium, an average Indian will fume at the high cost; but, if I send my white office secretary to collect a check, she will bring twice the amount, while I can not succeed in bringing even half that. What misplaced generosity!

If I narrate my experiences from the real estate transactions and mortgage business, I will bruise many more egos and offend a host of more people. Thus I will save those for the future. This narrative is not to offend my friends, clients, and fellow Indians, for I affirm and concede that a majority of my clients in insurance, investments, real estate, and mortgage have been people from the Indian subcontinent. Their help and support has helped me to receive numerous laurels and awards in my profession, and has put bread on my table for over two decades. I still have some of my original clients of over 20 years, and still have plenty of support and help from our community. I have lived comfortably; raised and educated my children well at the best schools, and now have plenty of grandchildren to play with. With plenty of thanks and appreciation to the community, I merely want to point out that; I wish the journey I have taken had been a little easier than it was. But, I have enjoyed it immensely. I did fairly well and I have never regretted leaving academia back in 1985.

By Arun Misra, Ph.D.





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