A Journey of Gratitude
My Interview with Jim McInnis, CEO, RDR Sales Consulting, Inc.
By John Harline
After a monumentally brilliant career heading one of the nation’s largest insurance and investment companies and successfully raising over one hundred billion dollars in assets, Jim McInnis decided it was time to turn the page. This would mark a new chapter in his story; one revealing much about his core and even more about his deep gratitude for a life well lived. In the late spring of 2013, at the age of 65, McInnis undertook to walk the famed Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile journey beginning in St. Jean, France and ending in Santiago, Spain. Although his pilgrimage would last a total of 34 days, the impact of the Camino would reshape his life forever.
The lore surrounding the Camino de Santiago is widespread and spans over a thousand years. It is said that the route, from St. Jean to Santiago, is a journey of one million steps. By many accounts, the Camino is said to lead to the site where the remains of St. James the Apostle are buried and the spot where countless miracles have occurred. For many, the Camino represents a quest to find answers; a way to fulfill promises made in prayer; a means of paying homage to a particular purpose. In theory, travelling the Camino is just as much an inner journey as it is a physical one. For McInnis, the Camino would prove to be a time of solitude and self-reflection, different than anything he had ever experienced before.
“I was intrigued by the Camino,” says McInnis. “I thought it would be good to get outside of my comfort zone and to try something that would truly challenge me in a way that I couldn’t comprehend.” McInnis also knew that in order to commit to this challenge, he would have to share the news of his plan with those closest to him. “If you don’t tell somebody you really trust what your goal is, you don’t really have a goal, because you can always back out. If you’re not telling your spouse, significant other or your best friend, you’re not committed,” he says. “If you have someone you trust to call you on it, then the goal is realistic. So, I started telling people. I started telling everyone.”
McInnis was so committed to taking on the Camino, that he created a Blog. In it, he documented his training and a daily account of his 9 to 10-hour days walking the Camino. He described the unique people he encountered along the way and the scenic journey unfolding before his eyes. The blog also became a canvas for the many detailed memories of his interesting life, brought to the forefront during his numerous hours of daily solitude traversing the Camino.
Indeed, much of what McInnis experienced in his life, personally and professionally, allowed him to conquer the challenges he faced on the Camino. Born in West Haven, Connecticut, he was the product of humble beginnings. “I grew up in public housing and we were poor. No one told me we were poor; but eventually, as I got older, there were people who were pretty brutal, and who went out of their way to remind me of where I came from.” In looking back, McInnis says, “You never forget those things. As you get older, you understand what their purpose was; they were being vicious. Sadly, there are a lot of people like that.”
Yet, McInnis never allowed those experiences to change his appreciation for the individuals that went out of their way to help him. “There are people you meet along the way that do care,” says McInnis. “The ones who are willing to help, to give you some guidance, to be your mentor. If you focus on those people, you are able to get out of that lifestyle. I had friends who never got out, but I was determined that I was not going to live that way.”
Despite having limited resources, McInnis knew that in order to survive, he would have to work. It is no surprise that he treated the arduous training in preparation for the Camino like a full-time job. “I’ve been surrounded by people my whole life who have had incredible work ethic. I guess I had to have it too, because from a young age, I had to fend for myself. That’s the way it worked. I’m not complaining; it’s just the way it was. If you were lucky, you worked around some really good people. You picked up on that and you learned work ethic.”
At eleven, McInnis got his first job as a grocery store delivery boy. His boss was a no-nonsense guy with a tough exterior and a penchant for working hard. “He was mean, but looking back, I learned a lot from him,” recalls McInnis. “I watched the way he behaved and the way he did things, and I saw that he was successful.” McInnis worked for the grocer, not by choice, but to pay off his family’s weekly grocery bill. “Every Saturday when I got paid, I never got any money. My boss would take out this little book and deduct $15, or whatever I had earned. The only thing my boss cared about was that I was making the deliveries. He would load up this huge basket and send me on my way to deliver groceries. Snow, rain… it didn’t matter. If I came back alive, it was a bonus – it just meant I could stay longer and clean up around the store.”
Ambitious even at eleven, McInnis started a second job at another grocery store one block away. “My boss was named Fabio and he was the quintessential opposite of the first guy. He was energetic and entrepreneurial; he would open early and stay late. Fabio understood the importance of making conveniences for people living in a blue-collar neighborhood,” says McInnis. “His customers were working people who would get home late and he understood this. Fabio knew how to adapt.” Internalizing what he observed, McInnis recognized the importance of hard work and the benefit of adapting to one’s environment in order to succeed.
McInnis spent the next several years working with Fabio, and even took on a third job at Fabio’s trash company. “He offered me the job to drive along with him early in the mornings,” McInnis says with a smile. “I don’t think he really needed me; in fact, I think he was just doing me a favor, but he often told me to be sure to take care of my responsibilities.” These words stuck with McInnis throughout his life, and impacted him in a positive way for years to come.
It was not long before McInnis realized that his fearless attitude towards hard work would lead him to many more interesting jobs. By the time he was in high school, he managed to work as a switchboard operator and mail delivery clerk for a law firm in New Haven, while shining shoes during his breaks. He also continued to work for Fabio, and took on another job hauling asphalt shingles on his back at various construction sites. McInnis explains, “I worked a lot, because that’s what I had to do. It’s like playing cards. When you are dealt a hand, you have two choices; you can either play, or you can throw your cards in. If you throw in your cards, you are quitting. That’s not me. I’m not a quitter and I wasn’t going to let that happen to me.”
Following high school, it was not long before McInnis was drafted into the Army. “I was thinking about doing some other things following high school,” he explains, but I got drafted and I had to go. I didn’t have a choice. Most people that I grew up with never questioned the draft. Some people I knew got deferments and pulled strings. I didn’t have anybody in my family who had any strings to pull. So, I went.” McInnis says, “I learned about the discipline it takes to work with a group of people.” He became the head of his unit, and out of 360 enlisted men, he and two others were chosen to go to Officer Candidate School. Even though he opted out of OCS, which would have surely led to a stint in Vietnam, McInnis served a total of two years in the Army, one of which he spent in Germany.
Upon returning home, McInnis had aspirations of furthering his education, but knew he would have to save money in order to do so. Taking the suggestion of a friend, he applied for a job selling insurance. At 20, McInnis took the insurance exam and was offered a job almost immediately. He insisted on working at an agency that most of his colleagues did not want. It was in a seedy part of town, where McInnis would have to go door to door, collecting premiums. He says, “I didn’t feel afraid. I would go up three flights of stairs and there were some pretty desperate looking people on occasion, but I became the guy that everybody knew, and everybody would buy insurance from me.”
No more than a year later, after being promoted to manager, McInnis was asked by a colleague if he would consider working as a stockbroker at Merrill Lynch. While interested, McInnis felt that he would never have a chance at such a job. He knew nothing about stocks, but his friend finally urged him to take the test. It was not long before McInnis was called in for a follow-up interview. “I went in to see the manager,” McInnis recalls, “and he said to me, ‘The test you took says you can do this; but we just don’t know if you are smart enough to understand it.’ This was a confusing accolade, I thought. He then said, ‘before I think about offering you a job, why would you want to do this? The market is terrible, the work is difficult and you don’t have any pedigree.’ I looked at him and said, ‘well, you’re a smart guy and you’re doing it.’ He must have liked my response because he hired me on the spot.”
McInnis says, “I remember telling one of my friends that I had a new job at Merrill Lynch as a broker. He looked at me in disbelief. He was right; I didn’t know anything. No one in my family ever bought stock. I didn’t even know what the Wall Street Journal was!”
Despite his inexperience, McInnis was equipped with a positive attitude and a fierce willingness to learn. He went off to Merrill Lynch’s training school for three months and started selling equities soon thereafter. He fondly remembers his early days in sales; boldly entering the office of one prospective client, Mr. Esposito, who owned his own home-heating oil business. “I walked in and there were a bunch of guys sitting around smoking cigars and looking pretty suspect. I had my only suit on, an empty briefcase and a business card, and they were all looking at me like I was with the IRS or something. I said, ‘I’m looking for Mr. Esposito. My name is Jim McInnis and I’m here to help him.’ They all sat there staring at me. ‘And how are you going to help Mr. Esposito?’ I turned to him and said, ‘Are you Mr. Esposito? He said, ‘Yes.’ I replied, ’I see that all of your trucks outside have Texaco painted on the side of them; you get all of your fuel from Texaco?’ He answered, ‘Yes.’ I then asked if he was being overcharged. He didn’t have to respond; he just made a face. I simply said, ‘If you own their stock, it will pay a nice dividend; maybe there’s a connection between what they charge you and how they pay their dividend? You could own the stock and maybe get some of it back.’ That was it. I gave him my card and said, ‘Call me if you think it’s an idea.’ He called me.”
McInnis was hooked. He remembers telling one of his managers, “This doesn’t work unless I’m out there banging on doors. I’ve got to eyeball people. I’m the one in this office who is going to call on people that no one else will want to call on, because their pedigrees won’t let them do it.” It was this confidence and vision that inspired McInnis to insist upon conducting his sales in person, and not over the telephone, and he spent the rest of his career mastering the art of the sale.
These moments, along with a series of equally astounding events, became inflection points in McInnis’ legendary career. As though fate and destiny had collided, his steady perseverance allowed him to build an unprecedented success, which included heading a Fortune 100 company, starting his own wholesale marketing firm, and finally, coming out of retirement to develop his own successful consulting firm.
The birth of RDR Sales Consulting was a culmination of decades of expertise in the financial services industry wherein McInnis made a lasting impression, both personally and professionally. Lauded for teaching his progeny the importance of always doing the right thing, McInnis chose to name his business RDR, an acronym with profound meaning to its leader. “My business is named after the three things that I thought to be the most important principles to any management team; Recruit the right people, Develop their talent, and Retain them. For me, it’s all about the people. If you get the right people, keep them happy and help them prosper, you will always win. There is no end or limit; you just win. If you get the wrong people and fail to help them prosper, they won’t stay. You lose. It is that simple.”
Recruiting the right people, according to McInnis, is not a concept that should be taken lightly. There is much at stake when considering potential recruits. “If a person is not capable, talented, smart, principled and honest, they will not succeed and you will fail. They might even do terrible damage to you along the way,” adds McInnis. “It’s important to do your best to bring in the best people.” The knack for finding good people comes from McInnis’ innate ability to read them. According to McInnis, “Watching how someone acts, how they conduct themselves in certain situations, assessing their level of honesty… these are important observations. I am looking for someone who is honest, who will tell the truth and who will do the right thing and who is a good communicator. I don’t want someone who will promise something they can’t deliver.”
Developing the right people is equally important to McInnis. “The greatest single flaw in the vast majority of managers lies in their failure to develop the people they recruit. In our business, people are out there by themselves, hundreds and thousands of miles away from anybody. It’s not like when we are in an office, and we can bump into them and develop them in the hallway by popping an idea into their head,” says McInnis. “If we don’t develop our people, and they happen to be good, they will develop their talent on their own, and they will leave. They’ll go to somebody else. If you’ve recruited them and you actually make an investment of time and energy to develop them, and you are honest along the way, even when it’s difficult, and they prosper as a result of it, they will stay. They won’t go to anyone else.”
According to McInnis, these principles were instilled even back in his childhood, and continue to have a lasting impression even today. He recalls being 16, and working for a roofing contractor, carrying fifty-pound bags of asphalt shingles up a ladder to a pitch roof where he would deliver them to the roofers nailing them down. He says, “I worked for this roofer for two weeks and he didn’t pay me. He was a drunk and a bad man, so he stiffed me. So, I’m working with Fabio one night and we were just chatting and he asked me what was going on, and I told him. He asked me if I was still working for that guy, and I told him that I had quit because he hadn’t paid me. Fabio didn’t say anything else about it. Three days later, Fabio came to me with an envelope filled with cash. It had my name on it and it was from the roofer. Fabio delivered. That’s it. I was indebted to him and he didn’t have to do that, but he did it because it was the right thing to do.”
The core principle of developing loyalty in people, according to McInnis, is to listen to their needs, but to do so with sincerity and truth. He says, “If people believe you are sincerely there to help them, and that it is not occasional or false, you will win their loyalty. In the end, you too will be rewarded.”
Retaining people, according to McInnis, is the result of having an effect on good people and ensuring that they still want to stay connected to you. He says, “Even if one of your recruits is promoted to be a CEO and leaves your company, you must wish them well. If you are not able to provide the same opportunity and they leave, you might be hurt, but it’s the right thing to do.” Inevitably, McInnis smiles, “people typically vote with their feet; and it’s on me if they walk for the wrong reasons.”
Wholly apparent to McInnis is that people become easily defeated by challenge. He says, “Life is not fair; it comes with warts and it’s going to be tough. It’s like the salesman, the wholesaler, who when the business got bad and the market got ugly, he went to a movie. That’s not a solution. There are two choices; you can go to the movie, or you can suck it up and go to work.”
McInnis says that his time on the Camino has caused him to be more in tune with the challenges being faced by those in the industry today and trying to help people figure out how to deal with them. He says, “I have a deeper understanding for what is going on and this is definitely post Camino. I am talking with managers on the telephone all the time. Talking them off the ledge, so to speak. I get it and I just try to tell them that this is just part of the journey. You’ve got two ways to handle this… back to the movie… you can feel bad for yourself, tell me how it’s unfair, hope that the company somehow bails you out, and makes it all go away while you are sitting out and waiting. Or, you can go to work.”
McInnis sees this as a time when those in the industry will have to work harder, admitting that there are plenty who have never experienced it and who are struggling to understand what to do. He says, “This is where management has to step in and earn their keep. It’s not hard to manage people when a rising tide raises all boats. It’s easy to sit back and take credit for those days. This is the test right here. Some people will not know how to handle this. A good manager will work out a way to help you get through this. How will we get through this together?”
For McInnis, honesty is of utmost importance to his process. It is being truthful, irrespective of whether people like it or not. He says, “I make it a point to tell people that I talk to that I intend to be honest; brutally honest. If they can handle it, fine. If they are unable to handle it, I warn them not to ask me. I had peers in the business who were painfully dishonest because they were political, and they were just trying, at any cost, to do what was best for them. Not what was best for who they were reporting to. They didn’t care. Being honest is an unwillingness to compromise your values.” To McInnis, one cannot achieve success without being honest and true to their values. “If you tell the truth, do the right thing and deliver on your promises, you will never have to apologize for anything that you do. However, you must be honest with yourself first because when you look in the mirror, only you will know whether you are fulfilling those three things.”
It is apparent to McInnis however, that there has been a steady decline in the finesse required for sales in today’s financial industry, causing the art of the sale to become nearly extinct. “Most of the ‘salespeople’ I talk to don’t know how to sell anything,” he says. “They simply bombard you with information in hopes that you’ll give up. Their closing technique is to ‘wear you out.’ Sadly, I have had a lot of exposure to people over the years that think they are salespeople because it says so on their business card. But, they aren’t and they don’t even know it…and oftentimes, they are never going to find out. Nobody will tell them, and sadly, they get away with it,” explains McInnis.
One of the biggest mistakes made by salespeople, according to McInnis, is that, “they don’t listen to understand.” Instead, he explains, “salespeople are only listening to respond. They are listening but they don’t hear a word, because they are just waiting for you to take a breath, so they can fire back at you. They haven’t heard a word you’ve said. Their response is being formulated before the question is ever asked. That’s what is lost. They are too anxious to move on and get it over with.”
Another component to the lost art of the sale is that while some salespeople are very knowledgeable about their product, they don’t have the ability to sell it. McInnis explains that, “there are salespeople who just want to prove to you that they know everything. They can’t sell any of it, but they understand it. Those are the ones that just overwhelm you with data, but they don’t make it a point to listen.” McInnis recalls that in the early days, listening was akin to being patient, something that has been lost in modern day business. “Life was not as fast-paced as it is today. If you didn’t listen to your client, there weren’t going to be a wealth of customers waiting in the wings to give you business. That’s why, if you found a customer who wanted to talk to you, it was important to pay attention to what they had to say and to get the job done.”
Coupled with people’s inability to listen, McInnis contends that there has been a profound decline in people’s willingness to think. “The art of thinking has been lost,” explains McInnis. “In this fast-paced world, people rarely have the patience or the sense to find time to think. I had a manager that I worked for years ago, and everyday at around two in the afternoon, he would enter his office, close the door and draw his curtains. He would take 20 minutes everyday to stop everything he was doing and just sit in his office and think. Sometimes he would think about business, and sometimes he would simply reflect about what was going on in his life. This seems to be gone today; nobody thinks that way… pun intended, which is an awful shame.”
Thinking was something that McInnis cherished most while on the Camino de Santiago. “It was the most significant takeaway from the experience for me,” he says. “Although it was challenging to take the journey alone, the solitude and time for uninterrupted thought are the things that I have missed most since the day I returned.” He says, “It is easy in our daily lives to focus on our problems and to complain about things that cause us stress. Since the Camino, I don’t do that anymore.”
He adds, “After my experience on the Camino, I no longer care about whether I find a nearby parking space. It’s not important anymore. That sounds silly, but it’s true. How many times do you pull in and see dozens of people driving around trying to find a space to park? Honestly, what’s the point? I don’t do that anymore. If there’s a spot there, I will take it; but I am no longer losing my mind if I don’t get it. The Camino changes you.”
McInnis was also reminded of the profound differences between life at home and life while on the Camino. “I found myself in hotel rooms, virtually half the size of a standard hotel room, where I couldn’t even move around. But at the end of 15 or 18 miles on foot, when you are exhausted, that little room felt like a suite at the Four Seasons. There were times that I would look around and make a list of all the things that we take for granted and expect to find in a hotel room. The list is unbelievable. I’m sure I never would have thought of that before, if not for this experience,” explains McInnis. He realized quickly that, “everything you have and think you cannot live without, you don’t really need.”
While on the Camino, McInnis devoutly shared his daily experiences in his Blog, which was something of a new concept. Prior to his trip, he thought he could keep a simple journal, perhaps take along a notebook and a pen or two. “Eventually, I thought it might be a nice keepsake to hand down to my grandsons,” recalls McInnis. It was not until McInnis’ wife, Robin, suggested he keep a Blog that the idea was born. Equipped with an iPad Mini, McInnis prepared to keep a log of his notes. “It was like I was going to keep a little history of what I was seeing and doing on the Camino, which seemed easy enough. Before I left, I wrote the first piece for the Blog, which was about training in southern California and being looked at like I was a homeless guy, which was pretty interesting,” says McInnis.
This was a foreign concept to McInnis, who grew up in a poor neighborhood. “People didn’t look at me in a suspect way, because everyone around me was the same. But here, while I’m walking down a trail to Capistrano Beach with a 20-pound backpack on, people were looking at me and thinking I was homeless. I saw people shying away from me; avoiding eye contact and wanting nothing to do with me. I used to walk down the same trail everyday, and everyday I was treated the same way,” he says.
McInnis started to play a little game with himself while training. As people would approach him on his daily walks, he would move toward the center of the path in order to give the approaching person less space. It was an experiment to see how the oncoming person would react. “I had a variety of reactions,” says McInnis. “Women with babies would be focused on me… making sure I was not some kind of weirdo. People over 50 would always say, ‘Good morning.’ People in their 20’s or younger, they could care less. You could be on fire and they wouldn’t even notice.”
There was one individual that McInnis encountered almost daily, during his training. “The one guy who I saw consistently, and who had any desire to make some kind of eye contact with me, was ironically, someone who had the inability to do so. He was blind. Although I never spoke to him, he would hear me coming. As I would approach, he would always say, ‘Another beautiful day,’ and I would say something polite in response, but it just made me think. The one person who would most want to make eye contact with me, or anyone, cannot. How profound. He wasn’t judging me, but everyone else I encountered was judgmental in some way.”
Conversely, McInnis felt no judgment on the Camino. “While there, you are passing people going in the same direction, or you are being passed by people all the time. You are constantly being greeted or greeting others with the customary ‘Buen Camino,’ which literally means ‘good path’ in Spanish, but is received as ‘good luck’ or ‘happy travelling.’ Everyone you pass, or that passes you, shares this greeting.”
Despite being disconnected from the rest of the world while on the Camino, McInnis managed to maintain a connection with an audience, which caught him completely by surprise. “I didn’t realize that anyone would be interested in reading my Blog, or that anyone other than my family or friends might be curious about what I was doing on the Camino,” recalls McInnis. “It wasn’t until about the fourteenth day into the journey that Robin sent me an email and told me that there were something like 9,000 people following my Blog. I remember questioning whether I even knew 9,000 people. I didn’t even comprehend how that could happen. I had followers from South America, Japan, Russia and all over Europe. It was amazing.”
For McInnis, the entire reason for undertaking the Camino was simple. “I went because it was an affirmation of everything I believe. I went because I’ve been very blessed. I thought it would be a way of acknowledging my blessings and a way to make a little personal sacrifice. That’s what the pilgrims do. They sacrifice the physical side to pay their respects for how they have been blessed.” It is this gratitude that has prompted McInnis to return to the Camino de Santiago for a second time, in September 2015, where he will again walk 500 miles. This time, he intends to raise money for those living in the rural regions of Zambia, Africa, who walk dozens of miles daily to fetch water for their survival. The water is often unclean and disease-ridden and leads to sickness, and in some cases, death. McInnis is compelled to raise awareness of these conditions and to raise funds for fresh-water wells in Zambia, which would provide clean water to its inhabitants.
In preparation for his next journey, McInnis has continued his rigorous training schedule. “I’m doing 40 to 50 miles per week now, which is half of what you do in a week on the Camino. The only challenge during this process is finding the time to train. I am averaging about 10 miles per day and working out with a trainer three times per week. The real trigger during all of this is your recovery time. After long walks, I can be exhausted and sore. But then, the following day, I can wake up and feel fine. You adapt.”
McInnis intends to continue the Blog of his experiences on the Camino, and hopes to again be able to share the insightful observations of his journey with his devoted followers. He ultimately plans to incorporate his writings into a book, which will further memorialize McInnis’ extraordinary legacy.
Unquestionably, McInnis’ accomplishments throughout his remarkable career speak volumes about his integrity. He has attained a pinnacle of success surpassed by few. His gift for identifying the qualities necessary to recruit, develop and retain people in the financial services industry has impacted thousands. It is no mistake that there are countless individuals who owe McInnis a debt of gratitude for all that he has done. Yet, for all of his extraordinary successes in the business world and beyond, McInnis remains a steadfast example of humility. Undoubtedly, his experience on the Camino de Santiago will prove to be one of his greatest accomplishments, and a journey of reverence and gratitude for all things.