For Daniel Zeplain, October 1, 2008, was the best day of his real estate career and the worst day of his personal life. On that day, Zeplain was putting the finishing touches on his first commercial real estate deal in Atlanta — at almost the exactly the same time that his father, Alan Zeplain, was dying of heart failure in Houston.
"I went from being on top of the world to being crushed," recalls Zeplain (BBA ’07). "I found out at 4:45 pm that my deal would close, and I called my dad five minutes later to tell him. When a police officer answered his phone, I knew something was wrong."
Alan Zeplain had for three decades been a titan in the insurance brokerage business. His company, TreyLed Insurance Group, specialized in high-end estate planning, and his death forced the Zeplain family to make an immediate decision about the future of the firm. After consulting with several of his father’s partners aligned with the American Insurance Marketing Corporation, Zeplain decided to put aside his promising real estate career and return to Texas to run his father’s insurance business.
"When Alan died unexpectedly, our first thought was how do we keep the business intact for his wife," says AIMCO President Greg Nemec, who has served as one of Daniel Zeplain’s mentors in his new career. "Generally speaking, in this type of business, that’s virtually impossible. So Plan A was to find some viable buyers for the business. Plan B came along in the form of Daniel. Then Plan B became Plan A."
Still grieving over the loss of his father, Zeplain had to contend with a national economy that was crumbling. To make matters worse, the city of Houston was still struggling to recover from the damage wrought a month earlier by Hurricane Ike. Zeplain also had to fire a longtime employee.
"To be 23 years old and walk into that. . . well, there were a lot of sleepless nights," says Zeplain. "I had a mountain to climb and a perfect storm of problems awaiting me."
But climb it he did, ignoring the admonition of one of his father’s AIMCO partners that "he had no chance" to succeed. After a crash course on the complexities of the insurance business — a process Nemec calls "a 36-hour indoctrination of what we’d spent 30 years learning" — Zeplain settled in at TreyLed and started putting his stamp on the business.
"I noticed right away that there were some technological improvements I could make to help the business run more cost effectively," says Zeplain. "I thought that implementing these changes would have an immediate impact. I revamped the company’s computer system, I created a company web site that was very user-friendly, and I reorganized the office itself. I truly focused on efficiency and effectiveness."
Zeplain had a short window of opportunity to build credibility in the industry ("Our agents had relationships with my dad, not me," he says.) But he was able to retain the company’s top agents. He took the creative approach of marketing the company’s "value added" approach in developing new services.
"I just started sorting through my dad’s book of business," he says. "I went through every piece of business — and noted that, with today’s improved products, there were ways to improve the majority of our clients’ insurance coverage. We were able to thank our clients for their existing business and provide newer, more innovative products. This simple concept of a policy review helped strengthen our relationship with our clients in a troubled economy."
"Daniel has become a viable force," says Nemec, who also serves as CEO of American Financial Network LLC in Morris Plains, N.J. "He’s done things that his father would never do, most notably in the form of technology. He’s got a great positive attitude, he’s a quick learner, he’s a very hardworking person — and that’s all the ingredients you need now."
With plans to move TreyLed into newer, larger digs in Houston, Zeplain says his next step is to focus on promoting long-term care insurance, which he calls an "absolute necessity for the client and an untapped resource for the insurance agent. However, our focus will always be on life insurance because I have experienced first-hand what happens when you lose a loved one unexpectedly."
One day, he may divert some of his attention back to real estate.
"Two years ago, I was at the bottom of the commercial real estate business — and, with the help of my AIMCO partners, I am beginning to make my way towards the top of the insurance business," he says. "There are days when I wonder, What if? But I can’t look back now. I see all that we’ve accomplished and I’m proud of how far we’ve come. My father laid the foundation and now is the time for me to take it to the next level."