Milton Kleinberg and Hershel Kleinberg, the father-son duo who helped build Senior Market Sales® into one of the country’s most respected and successful insurance marketing organizations, retired on Sept. 15, 2023.
SMS Chairman Emeritus Milton Kleinberg, a Holocaust survivor and U.S. immigrant, started as a consultant with the company that became SMS in the early 1980s and went on to become CEO and sole owner, establishing SMS as a Medicare Supplement powerhouse serving independent insurance agents. His son, Hershel, joined the company in 1997 and grew to become Chief Technology Officer and Executive Vice President, helping establish SMS as a technology leader in the insurance industry.
Over the years, SMS expanded its product offerings, diversified its family of companies and created bold, new partnerships to address industry disruption — all to ensure that independent insurance and financial planning professionals can grow their businesses and better serve Americans’ health and wealth needs.
Above all, SMS is known today for operating with the highest standards of integrity and trust with all of its partners, from agents and carriers to its employees and new partners.
A Lasting Legacy
“No question about it, Milt and Hershel’s legacy is SMS’ reputation — doing the right thing, even if it’s not the easiest or quickest thing to do,” said SMS President, Jim Summers, who has worked with the Kleinbergs for 25 years. “Integrity. The character of both men. Innovation. Especially in the insurance business, your reputation is everything. And SMS’ reputation distinguishes us. For that, we’ll always be grateful.”
After searching for a strategic partner to help strengthen the Omaha, Nebraska-based company and also retain its employees and unique family-like culture, SMS in 2020 joined Alliant Insurance Services, one of the nation’s largest insurance and employee benefits consulting firms. Three years after the transfer of ownership, the success of the Alliant partnership influenced the Kleinbergs’ decision to retire, Hershel said.
“We are overjoyed with the success of Senior Market Sales. From humble beginnings in the early ‘80s and only 20 employees in the mid-‘90s, SMS has grown to over 650 employees today. Milt built a company that felt like family, and he continues to think of it that way,” Hershel said. “We are grateful to have had the opportunity to work alongside each other for the past 27 years and to work with so many talented and caring people that helped make SMS the company it is today. We feel confident in our decision to retire at this time because of our confidence in all of our employees. SMS has strong leadership, exceptional employees, and the support from Alliant to drive growth well into the future.”
While Milt’s time at SMS began in 1984, experiences dating back to his childhood greatly shaped the company’s unique culture and success.
Although Milt did not speak of his Holocaust experiences most of his adult life — not even with his wife, Marsha — a trip to Russia triggered a flood of memories. His grandchildren urged him to record them, resulting in his 2010 memoir originally self-printed in a large hard cover version but later reworked for the paperback version titled, “Bread or Death: Memories of My Childhood During and After the Holocaust.”
The book chronicles the journey of the Pabianice, Poland, child transported in crowded cattle cars through frigid Russia and forced-labor camps to Uzbekistan and then to the German Displaced Persons camps at the end of World War II. At every turn he faced unimaginable challenges: hunger, the family’s abandonment by his father, the death of his brothers, kidnapping and murder. Yet, in all the darkness, Milt shares moments of light — gratitude for his mother’s sacrifices to keep him alive and for the country that accepted him through Ellis Island and offered opportunities to thrive.
“It’s pretty remarkable that such a humble man with humble beginnings can turn out to be so wildly successful,” said Dwane McFerrin, SMS’ Senior Vice President, Med Solutions. “He’s really lucky to be alive. The story of what he went through and what his family went through is remarkable. Just to even learn English was a challenge. He had such huge disadvantages. But when you talk to him, he’s never a victim. Rather, he’s one who rose above it all and in the end had great success.”
Perseverance, Determination and Hope
When the book was published, Milt was asked what his young life in Russia taught him. He answered, “Perseverance, determination and hope are the tools of survival. Your mindset determines how successful you will be in using those tools.”
That sentiment would later be immortalized in the SMS motto that employees know by heart: “Successful people do those things that failures refuse to do.” Milt, who at age 14 immigrated with his family to the United States, said a convocation presentation by Olympic Decathlon gold medalist Bob Mathias inspired the motto. He wanted to be successful, he said. And he was.
With the help of a Polish-American tutor, a football coach and other teachers, he learned English and earned a B+ average, excelling at math and athletics. After high school, he joined the U.S. Army and served in Korea, and after trying various jobs, he started his insurance career as a debit agent with Prudential, eventually starting a small Milwaukee insurance agency in 1968.
Along the way, he also reached what he called one of his greatest achievements — becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen — in 1959.
Another accomplishment: his family. In 1960, he married Marsha, and they grew their family with the births of daughter Cindy and son Hershel. At the time of his retirement, the family numbered six grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. After witnessing a genocide that included his family members and so many others and losing two brothers in World War II, he emphasized the importance of family and even extended it to include everyone at SMS.
“He treats everybody like a family member,” said Brian Hickey, Vice President of Insuractive®, an SMS company. ”His values from his professional life are also part of his personal life, and vice versa. And I think that’s really something that everybody should strive to. He’s been an ultimate role model from that perspective.”
The Making of the SMS Family
SMS was founded in 1982 as a subsidiary of Omaha-based National Financial Dynamics (NFD), a life insurance brokerage specializing in a new product called universal life. NFD had garnered an exclusive contract to sell Colonial Penn Medicare Supplement and brought in Milt as a consultant and subject matter expert who had been selling and marketing Medicare Supplement since the product came on the market in the 1960s. After working in the insurance agency he’d started in Milwaukee and consulting with NFD for two years, Milt joined Senior Market Sales, Inc., as a partner by buying out one of the existing partners in 1984. After his initial meeting with the partners at NFD, Milt confided to Marsha, “I am going to own that company someday.”
Nearly a decade later, in 1994, Milt parted ways with the remaining partner to become SMS’ sole owner. As CEO, he led a team of only 10 other employees, including Marsha as office manager. They remained in the same five-story, glass-clad office building at Omaha’s busy 84th Street and West Dodge Road but only occupied a fourth of the top floor and a fourth of the first floor.
Everyone pitched in at “work parties” to compile paper kits — two-pocket folders with contracts on the left and state-appropriate materials on the right — and then apply labels before running them through the mail machine, recalls Jennifer McMahon, who joined in 1994 in an executive administrative role under Marsha.
“We were, you know, scrappy,” McMahon said with a laugh. “You do the best you can with what you’ve got. I think Marsha would say, ‘we’re gonna be lean and mean.’”
As that expression indicates, they were efficient and successful — “mean” was far from the reputation they were building among employees, agents, carriers and other partners.