Bionic Advisor Interview Series: Michael Thorpe

At Finaeo, we believe the future of financial advice is “Bionic” — a combination of automated technology and the required human touch to provide an unmatched client experience. In our “Bionic Advisor” interview series, we are highlighting the personal stories of advisors and how they leverage technology to make insurance more accessible to their clients.

In our second interview, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Michael Thorpe, Founder and President of Blackwell Financial, to learn more about his journey to becoming a Bionic Advisor!

Q1: Where did you grow up?

Most of my childhood was spent between the GTA and the US. I was born in Canada and moved to a small town called Winston-Salem, North Carolina with my mom when I was 7. After 8 years we returned to Toronto. It was a huge difference coming back to such a diverse, metropolitan city!

Q2: As a child, what profession did you want to get into?

I’ve always looked up to my sister who is now the CTO of a regional bank in the US. She started off as a Systems Analyst and so I wanted to get into Computer Science and Business to be like her.

Q3: What inspired you to become an advisor?

Several factors influenced my decision to become a Financial Advisor. The most important one being that I wanted to see the impact of what I did for a living in the lives of the people I work with. My previous career as an Urban Planner was great, but I never got to directly experience how my work impacted people. As a Financial Advisor, I can see the impact my advice makes on my clients and their families first-hand and it is very rewarding to know how I’m making a difference in someone’s life.

Q4: What was your path to becoming an advisor? 

I started working for one of the top insurance companies in Canada. They have a great training system but I reached a point where I wanted greater control of my business, greater freedom in how I engage my clients and a more direct say in the tools I can use to engage them. After three years, I decided to become fully independent and have loved the transition to being a complete business owner. I have been able to incorporate multiple carriers into my recommendations and have also begun a fee-based advising service for my clients.

Q5: In a few sentences, tell us about Blackwell Financial and what you do:

Blackwell Financial is a holistic advising firm that helps clients change their relationship with money. The approach I take to managing personal finance is entrepreneurial. Most clients want their money to work for them and when appropriate, to find innovative, non-traditional ways to do so. I am my own client and anything I can do to protect myself or maximize my returns I share this with clients so they can have greater control of their finances. Clients want to know that their financial professional is able to give them a “competitive edge” in planning for the future and I have a wide breadth of knowledge that helps them think outside of traditional norms.

Q6: What do you think the biggest barriers are for clients in obtaining insurance and/or seeking financial advice?

For most of my clients, it is exposure to the benefits of insurance and financial advice. Many are first-generation Canadians who are successful in their careers and are often the most successful in their families. A lot of the work I do with some clients is educating them to view finances differently from what they were exposed to growing up and become fully aware of how they can use their cash flow and assets to help them prepare for their financial future.

Q7: What are some techniques you use to overcome those barriers? 

I use real-life examples to highlight the impact of their financial decisions and frame life insurance from a risk management perspective. The cost of being uninsured will always be greater than being insured but the degree of this risk varies between households. I first identify what their needs may be, and if appropriate, talk about why personal insurance can be a solution. In some cases, clients are only able to obtain adequate insurance through group benefits due to cost or health reasons but that still helps to drive home the importance of securing personal coverage when possible, and they can communicate this to people within their circle of influence.

Q8: How has the insurance industry changed in the last 5–10 years?

I’ve been an advisor for close to five years, but since I joined there has been a much greater push towards customer experience and access to information. Many digital tools are being launched and used to help advisors engage clients and also engage them on their own through the web and mobile devices. Social media has become a huge part of many people’s lives and being able to show your value through online presence and content creation is becoming very important to differentiate our services. I’ve also seen big changes in how data is collected and used. There is a growing trend among big tech companies to eliminate the intermediary and sell to customers directly. I am sure insurance companies will begin to follow suit and in order to better direct the growth of sales and customer experience. Today’s advisors need to position themselves as more than just sales agents in order to transition with the industry and be seen as holders and purveyors of knowledge that is not easily automated.

Q9: Can you tell us about one specific customer experience or interaction that stands out to you?

There are several!! Keeping with the theme of impact, one of the top experiences I have had is with a client who was self-employed and ran her own legal firm. We connected during a networking event and soon became clients of each other. As a wife and mother of three, she saw the value in purchasing life insurance for herself and soon after purchased Critical Illness.

Ten months after purchasing the CI policy she was diagnosed with Breast Cancer despite being fully healthy otherwise and having no family history. Her claim was approved and she was so relieved to have a lump sum of tax-free money that can be used both to help maintain herself, her family and pay for additional medical treatment to aid her recovery that was not covered by OHIP.

Q10: Even superheroes take time off! What do you like to do in your downtime?

I think about work quite a bit but I have successfully been blocking off at least one day a week where I focus on myself and maintaining personal relationships. I enjoy good food and like to visit new restaurants, check out concerts and read. Part of my downtime is spent training with the Canadian Military which I have served in for nearly 12 years. I also work on the Executive Board for a non-profit financial association and am in my third year of serving. I usually have something to keep me busy!

Q11: What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. It has won numerous awards and is a wonderfully intricate dystopian fiction narrative centered around the survivors of the human race pitted against cyclical “Seasons” of extreme and long-lasting winters. I love stories that focus on resiliency and ingenuity and people banding together to overcome seemingly overwhelming odds.

Q12: What is one piece of advice you would give someone entering the advisory business today?

Giving financial advice is a rewarding role but be very sure of your ability to run your own business. As an independent advisor, you have to bear all the costs associated with operating and scaling your business as well as take care of yourself. Have a well-thought-out business plan for what your income requirements are, what streams of business can you obtain this income from and be diligent in following through.

One other important piece of advice is to find a mentor who inspires you and can keep you pointed in the right direction.

Q13: What are your personal goals? What’s next for you?

I would like Blackwell Financial to become a long-lasting financial institution in the community and last long after I stop being an advisor or live to experience it. I also want to further establish myself by becoming a thought leader in personal finance and investment management throughout Canada and hopefully the US.

My next big plan is expanding the services I offer to my clients by creating a private equity fund to deliver better growth returns for my clients’ portfolios and help fuel their retirement plans.

Q14: Lastly, what does the term “Bionic Advisor” mean to you?

The term “Bionic Advisor” makes me think of being empowered. It brings to mind the Mega Man video game series where in order for the character to overcome challenges he needed to upgrade himself with different tools to succeed. Being a Bionic Advisor means I am super-equipped to service today’s clientele in ways that other advisors either cannot serve or cannot serve as well. Being a Bionic Advisor means I will:

  • Continue to stay relevant in an insurance industry poised for significant changes;
  • Continue to stay profitable and remain in business over the years; and
  • Continue to serve clients throughout their life and keep up with their evolving financial needs.