Profile: Don Trapnell - Maximum risk

Don Trapnell.


By Kate Kachor

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Synchron director Don Trapnell arrived for our interview flanked by a public relations entourage.

The interview was arranged for a number of reasons.

It was a long overdue chat with Trapnell about his thoughts on the future of the non-institutionalised risk advice sector and an opportunity to hear whether his outspoken stance has ever gotten him in hot water with his peers or the greater industry.

It was also a chance to hear how Synchron, one of Australia’s largest privately-owned dealer groups, was emotionally rebuilding 12 months after the sudden and untimely death of dear friend and company director Paul Riegelhuth.

Within moments of “Team Trapnell” – the man himself and PR representatives from 64 Media – stepping into the Benchmark Media boardroom, he had taken the lead.

As we sat and listened, the charismatic Melburnian, with an iPad in hand, excitedly showed off an animated video Synchron had produced to help advisers explain the risks of non-disclosure on insurance applications to their clients.

This was Trapnell at his best, talking with such honest passion about an industry he has loyally served for almost half a century.

As the video ended, he folded his hands in front of him and waited. The floor was now mine.

It’s always difficult to know exactly where to start an interview when someone is so open, so eager to share their wealth of knowledge. In this case, however, it made sense to begin with his much publicised outspokenness.

A prime example of such outspokenness was in February last year, when he voiced his opposition of the Financial Services Council’s business replacement policy framework.

Another example was in March this year when Synchron teamed with law firm Lander & Rogers to push for amendments to the Corporations Act to allow financial advisers to receive payments directly from product providers.

A more recent example was earlier this month when he suggested the advice industry was entering a “phoenix phase” for independent financial adviser (IFA)-owned groups.

It’s his belief planners who exited the IFA -owned space for the haven of large institutions during the global financial crisis will now return.

He chuckles at my questions about his outspokenness.

“If I’m not [outspoken], nothing will change; the status quo will always be the same,” he says, matter-of-factly.

“We have an obligation as a licensee to constantly challenge the status quo and to question things, question why things are as they are.

“Does that mean I want to change them? Not necessarily, but what it does mean is that we need to discuss them and challenge them.”

It’s his view that any licensee larger than Synchron has a certain responsibility to speak out.

“We have a certain responsibility as a licensee because we are probably the only voice out there that can be made,” he says.

"We’re probably the only licensee that can actually stand up and say what we really think as opposed to what our institutional partners think.”

Does he ever get himself into trouble?

“I haven’t yet. But I dare say people don’t always agree with me. I happen to like that when they don’t, because if they don’t happen to agree with me I can generate a debate,” he says.

The early years

It was back in November 1967, at the tender age of 17, when he experienced his first taste of Australia’s life insurance industry. However, as he tells it, things could have turned out quite differently.

“I actually wanted to be an accountant,” he recalls, smiling.

“I left high school and I joined the accounts department at Federation Insurance Limited (FIL) back in 1967 and I found I was witless. I really hated it.”

Even after enrolling at the Caulfield Technical College in Melbourne, he again found himself “bored looking at charts”.

So when FIL established a life branch, he applied to become a foundation member of their life insurance branch. He spent eight years working his way through each of the company’s departments until he left the company at the age of 25.

From there he joined Sedgwicks, the international insurance brokers, as an account executive in their employee benefits division.

After a stint at Sedgwicks, he moved to Friends Provident (FP) as a sales manager and in 1982 was made state manager for Victoria and regional manager in 1988.

A year later, in 1989, after discussing the idea with his wife, Gayle, he made the decision to leave FP and go out on his own.

“I said I’m going to quit,” he recalls.

“I had a job in 1989. I was earning probably $200,000 a year. That was a seriously big-paying job, as you say, and our children went to private school and we had the mortgage and the nice car – all those things.

“And all of a sudden overnight it was put at risk because I quit and I set up a business downstairs at home.”

He converted a large games room at his home into the office of Llenpart Financial, a company that would become an agent of FP.

“I can remember my first day. I put my suit and tie on and walked downstairs … the filing cabinet was empty, the in tray was empty, the phone wasn’t ringing and I thought ‘what on earth have I done?’ That was the start of my career,” he says.

Despite the initial uncertainty, he has never regretted his decision. Not even when he was caught up in the collapse of life insurer Regal Life, did his interest in the industry wane.

This could have had something to do with the great mates he made along the way. One such mate was the late Paul Riegelhuth.

Trapnell and Riegelhuth, or Riggles, as he was known, met in 1978 when Riegelhuth was working for a firm called Gibbs Bright, a division of insurance company Mercantile Mutual Life. Trapnell was at Sedgwicks.

Five years later, in 1983, the pair would begin a working relationship that would last three decades and involve establishing the Synchron licensee in 1989. The dealer group now boosts more than 300 advisers.

Trapnell is pictured here with Riegelhuth and fellow Synchron director John Prossor.

Their mateship and business relationship sadly ended in May last year, almost 30 years to the day the pair began working together, when Riegelhuth sustained fatal injuries in an accident in his home.

Trapnell was too distraught at the loss of his friend to speak at Riegelhuth’s funeral. Instead, he delivered a message by video.

“When he died it was a personal tragedy as well as a professional tragedy,” he says.

“I have to say it hurt Synchron at the time – there’s no question about that – and if it didn’t, then why was he there?

“He was very good at what he did. His people skills were above most people I know. I don’t know a person who didn’t like him. People loved Paul Riegelhuth and I did too.”

On the subject of Synchron, Trapnell barely pauses for breath from excitement.

“There are many points of difference with Synchron. We say that we do things differently and we really do,” he says.

“Firstly, we pay [commissions to advisers] daily. Secondly, there is no other licensee in Australia of our size where the directors and the state managers are also practitioners.

“I don’t believe you can tell someone how to suck an egg if you’re not prepared to do it yourself.

“I don’t believe it is right that an adviser in the field rings his principal, his director of his firm, for advice and gets theory. He should get practical advice – someone who’s actually done it.”

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