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At his best with his back to the mat Featured

10:02am EDT July 22, 2002

At 36 years old, Clevelander Matt Ghaffari, the reigning Olympic silver medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling, can look back on a spectacular wrestling career. There's been just one insurmountable snag: reigning gold medalist Alexander Karelin.

Their matches tend to be the close and hard-fought battles of titans. But like Sisyphus of Greek mythology-condemned to roll a boulder up a mountain only to watch it roll back down as he neared the summit-Ghaffari has never defeated his rival. The Russian has held off Ghaffari 20 times, most recently pinning him at the World Championships in late August. Ghaffari is already talking about their next meeting.

With that in mind, it's easy to imagine Ghaffari's first rejection by a business prospect early this year didn't slow him down very much. To him, such disappointments are the basis for the next goal, whether it's in wrestling or his fledgling career in financial planning.

"I don't consider anything a failure or a loss," says Ghaffari. "There's nothing bad about losing. If you don't make mistakes, you can't fix them. When I make a mistake in wrestling ... I either took an opponent too lightly or didn't hit a move hard enough.

"In business ... (it) means that after a hard week you have nothing to show to the boss. But with every client I could have closed and didn't, I learned some valuable lesson that will help me close the next one. That's priceless."

Call him the master of positive mental attitude. But if that's all Ghaffari brings to the world of business, he figures he's already ahead of most competitors.

In fact, he's bringing other disciplines that translate easily from the gym to his role as an associate at Cleveland-based Brennan Financial Group, and a registered representative of New England Financial.

What can you learn from a guy who's been in business for only the better part of a year?

Eighteen years competing against the world's best wrestlers ought to be good for something; Ghaffari is certain his athletic career has prepared him to compete in the pin-or-be-pinned world of business.

Rejection isn't defeat

Financial planning isn't a career for the weak-of-spirit; it's a competitive business of hard handshaking, relationship development and continuous product training. Most prospects already own the products Ghaffari sells (life insurance, annuities and mutual funds), and they're contacted by Ghaffari's competitors every day.

As the wrestler aptly describes it: "I am in the rejection business."

But every day, Ghaffari reinforces in his own mind that each 'no' brings him a step closer to the next 'yes.'

He repeats a simple mantra that has characterized his wrestling career: "Never give up."

Born in Iran, Ghaffari moved to the United States in 1977. As a seven-time U.S. national wrestling champion, he developed his resolute attitude while struggling at the highest international levels of an ancient and primal game.

"That's the lesson in the sport," he says. "With the Russian (Karelin), I lost to him 20 times. But I can live with that. In my business life, never give up means staying after clients and telling myself that I'm going to make this big company my client. I might have to work on it for two years and move slow, but I'm going to do it."

Perhaps more important is the lesson he learned from the media attention he received after his silver medal performance at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta: The winner isn't always the guy everyone wants to meet.

"Sometimes it's the guy who never gives up and comes back again, only to try harder."

Big successes are the sum of a series of small ones

At 6'4'' and 300 pounds, Ghaffari is an imposing figure in a suit and tie. But his warmth and sincerity must make him seem like a gentle giant to prospects.

Right now, he's trying not to think about the big deal that might move him up the corporate ladder; he's concentrating on the fundamentals-building a career one sale at a time.

"It doesn't matter how big or small a client is; once you close a deal and get a check, even if it's a dollar, it feels good," he says. "Small sales build confidence."

This is a lesson he has already learned. At his first Olympic trials in 1980, Ghaffari didn't make the U.S. team. Same with his second and third tries. In his fourth attempt, in 1992, he finally earned a spot on the team. But he didn't win a medal.

The Atlanta Olympics was his fifth try. He won the silver after losing 1-0 in a marathon, extra-rounds match against Karelin.

"The sixth one's going to be a charm," he predicts. "Building confidence with each step gives you the courage to go out there and stick your neck out to get chopped off. Every day you test yourself ... and it's always a new test."

Everyone needs a coach

Ghaffari draws parallels between his wrestling coach, Anatoly Petrosyan, and his boss/mentor, Dan Brennan-owner of Brennan Financial Group. "Get a coach who wants to teach you," says Ghaffari. "Then listen to whatever he says."

And, according to both mentors, Ghaffari isn't just talking.

"So far, in the past seven years, Matt's my best student," boasts Petrosyan. "Anything I say to him, he does."

Brennan adds that Ghaffari's wrestling background seems to have helped him identify and tune in to the people who are best able to help him.

"He's very coachable," says Brennan. "If we say to him, 'this is what you need to learn, this is what you need to do,' he doesn't question it. He has confidence that we're coaching him properly, and then he works to develop and strengthen that skill."

Like that annoying kid on the high-school football team who enjoyed wind sprints, Ghaffari says he looks forward to Wednesday training classes at Brennan Financial. "That's where we go over mistakes we make," he says, "and learn how to improve on them for the next time."

Never treat anyone as a lightweight

Not long ago, Ghaffari met with a woman who had just been through a difficult divorce. She had no money and made it clear that she thought the process of developing a financial plan was a waste of time.

"She said, I'm not a doctor. Can poorer people have financial planners too?"

Ghaffari spent time to help design an appropriate plan. It's the kind of thing young financial planners do. So perhaps Ghaffari is just being young and idealistic when he says: "It's great to help people with millions of dollars, but you also have to help people accumulate wealth over 20 years. Just because they're not rich doesn't mean they shouldn't have the same opportunities."

But the lessons he's learned on the mat may, in fact, have instilled the discipline to take even the small challenges seriously.

"If I can beat a guy really easily there's no challenge to it," explains Ghaffari. "But if you beat the guy you're not supposed to beat, that's a great victory. I hadn't wrestled in two years, since Atlanta. But I stepped onto a mat August 31 (at the World Champion-ship), and beat the guy who took second last year. Everybody thought he would beat me. They figured that I wasn't ready. But I found I'm still the best challenger."

If you can't improve on the last performance, at least improve the effort

Even when Ghaffari closes a deal, his training as a wrestler doesn't allow him to sit back and enjoy it for very long.

He and his partner, Jonathan DeMell, set weekly goals and push each other to meet them.

"We can't go home for the week unless we do it. It's real easy to say we tried our best and go home on Friday at 5 p.m., but there are always ways to improve."

His goal this year is to greatly surpass the level of revenue needed to make his company's Hall of Fame-a major feat for a first-year associate.

"If I fall short, I'll be the best this company has," says Ghaffari."

Brennan says Ghaffari is "a better than average" representative. "Matt has a passion," he says. "I think people recognize that and see that he's there for the right reasons when he talks to them."

It's the same work ethic that impresses Petrosyan, who considers Ghaffari the most disciplined student he's ever coached.

"Actually, he's not very talented (as a wrestler)," Petrosyan says. "But, he has a very strong heart and is a very hard worker. That's why he's so successful. It's because of his discipline."

"I'm very hard on myself," Ghaffari explains. "It comes from wanting to be better than the best. If I win the Olympics I want to dominate my opponent and pin him. Winning ... is not good enough anymore. I want everything. That's what drives me. Twelve-hour work days are normal because I want my business to be successful."

How to reach: Matt Ghaffari and Brennan Financial Group, (216) 621-6000