In 1976, at the age of 22, Mike Thompson started in the insurance business. As a suggestion for success, more seasoned colleagues advised him to get involved in civic activities, so Thompson chose to attend a civic club meeting in East Charlotte.
Charlotte’s mayor was the club’s guest speaker and Thompson recalls the mayor’s first remarks as especially meaningful.
“When he got up and said, ‘My name is Ken Harris and I’m with New England Mutual Life Insurance Company,’ I immediately felt like my career choice had been validated. The mayor of Charlotte was an insurance agent and proud to be one,” Thompson recounts.
Today, Thompson himself is the managing partner of the former mayor’s agency, which was known as Harris Murphy and Associates before 1994.
It’s been Thompson Financial Group, Inc. (TFG) since then, but the roots of the company date back to 1905. “There have only been six others in my position, so it has been a privilege and an honor to have this firm,” says Thompson.
TFG is the North Carolina agency for New England Financial, a MetLife company. New England Financial formed when MetLife merged with the oldest mutual company in the U.S., New England Mutual Life Insurance Company, in 1998.
With close to $600 million in assets under management and over 50,000 policy holders, TFG offers a wide range of financial services from estate planning, investments, insurance and total wealth management to corporate solutions such as risk management and employee benefits.
“My predecessor handled the pension plan for the North Carolina Bar Association, so many of our clients in the 1940s and ’50s were attorneys,” explains Thompson. “We still provide financial services to many attorneys.
“We’ve also had a very large business in the construction industry. We started the Carolina Construction Alliance as a service to our customers in the construction industry. At one point, we handled the insurance and investments and were the primary financial advisor for 300 to 500 construction firms.
“More recently, we’ve been working with independent pharmacies across North Carolina and Virginia.”
TFG started out based in North Carolina with principal offices in Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro. In 2007, TFG merged with the Virginia agency for New England Financial, Financial Services of Virginia, and gained offices in Richmond and Charlottesville.
Last year TFG merged with the South Carolina agency known as Carolina Capital Management, whose main offices are in Charleston and Greenville.
“So now we encompass three states and we’re more of a regional firm,” Thompson comments. “We also have international clients and are licensed in 42 states.”
All of the agencies have kept their original names to retain local market recognition and, along with TFG, are covered under the corporate entity name NEF of the Carolinas, LLC.
TFG currently has about 55 career advisors and several hundred associated brokers. TFG career advisors start as employees, but as they grow they become independent contractors, eventually owning their own businesses. As the firm’s managing partner, Thompson’s goal is to assist each advisor toward that opportunity.
“Each of the 55 advisors runs their business according to their own business plan and their target clients vary according to how they wish to specialize themselves in the marketplace,” Thompson explains. “Some advisors specialize in working with individuals, some only with corporations. But whatever client market they choose, our products and services can support their clients’ needs.”
MetLife is TFG’s primary carrier but Thompson notes, “Our career advisors have access to many carriers, and choose where to place a client’s business based on what is best for each client.”
“The days of the product sales people have pretty much gone away. Agents are called advisors because they act in that capacity. Somewhere around 50 percent of our business today is in wealth management, with the remaining portion in risk management or insurance. When I started, only five percent of the business was wealth management. Today’s industry professionals need to be well-versed in the entire arena of financial services.”
Expertise, Products and Tools
Each advisor has specialized tools to best assist their clients. TFG uses a holistic approach to financial planning called “consultative selling.” The seven-step program begins with an assessment of a client’s current position and of their goals and objectives, identifying gaps and creating a vision, and then moves to development and implementation of a customized plan to achieve those goals. Periodic status meetings monitor and refine the plan.
Many advisors also take advantage of the firm’s specialized technology tool called Personal Financial View (PFV). According to Thompson, “PFV is a web-based program that aggregates all of a client’s critical documents and key information in one location. A client can easily access and view their financial picture and collaborate with us in real time. The PFV tool separates us from our competition.”
TFG identifies several common stages with specific financial planning needs: early stages include a new couple or a startup business, both needing to establish a relationship with a financial services person; intermediate stages may involve a couple buying a home or starting a family or a growing business needing advice on liability insurance, adding employee benefits or group health insurance; later stages could involve establishing kids’ college education funds or estate planning for the individual and additions of a 401(k) plan or programs for key employee retention or a business succession plan for a mature business.
Through their in-house specialists or affiliated companies, TFG has the personal solutions for all the stages of the financial life cycle. But Thompson notes that TFG also stands out for its expertise in an emerging market.
“Many companies can help you make money, but what happens when you want to start taking the money out?” asks Thompson. “Who will help you integrate your 401(k) with your pension? When is the best time to start receiving social security? As a business owner, how will I be able to retire? What are the tax implications when you withdraw or move money from an account?
“Baby Boomers are running into these questions now. They’re afraid they might outlive their money. Our expertise really works well with distribution planning. My goal, and our goal as a firm, is to make sure clients have a comfortable retirement. This kind of planning is a specialty for our firm. There’s no substitute for planning.
Thompson has been assisting some of his clients for over 30 years. Dr. Jerry Punch became a client 36 years ago when he was just a second-year medical student at Wake Forest’s Bowman Gray School of Medicine.
“The first time I met Mike Thompson, my wife and I were living in a three-room apartment that had no heat. Mike came over to speak to us about planning for our future,” recalls Punch. “When you’re a medical student a lot of insurance and investment people reach out to you because of your potential for a significant income in the future. I had turned down numerous other people, but Mike was different. After speaking with him, I realized this was an individual who really cared and would look after my family long-term.”
Punch, who in addition to having been CEO of his own emergency medicine company and a hospital chief of staff, is also well known for his work as a commentator for NASCAR and college football and basketball games on ESPN and ABC and as a motivational speaker and a consultant in sports medicine.
“I travel a lot in my career and I’m constantly bombarded with people who say they’re an expert in estate planning or that they have this high profile athlete or NASCAR driver as a client,” Punch says. “But in my opinion, none of them have anything more to offer or are anymore knowledgeable than Mike Thompson.
“I use almost every service TFG offers and I’ve never had a single regret. I trust him with my future and with my finances. I have a tremendous comfort level knowing that Mike is taking care of me and my family as if he were a part of my family.”
Thompson acknowledges that the most satisfying part of his work is seeing the tangible effects of what he does in his clients’ lives:
“It’s always rewarding when my work helps a client achieve a goal.” He recalls one instance when he met with partners in a lumber company in the North Carolina mountains to discuss a buy-sell agreement so that in the event of a partner’s death the remaining partner could buy the deceased partner’s share of the business. It would protect the business but one partner was very resistant.
“It took a lot of planning, explaining and working with the partners to finally get the agreement in place, but it was important that we did it because within two years of the policies going into effect, one of the partners passed away. Because of the policies though, the remaining partner was able to retain the business, and the deceased partner’s wife and family received a fair market price for their share of the business.. They were so thankful that we had worked to get that protection into place. That had a huge effect on me.”
Thompson’s concern for his clients is one of the reasons he’s initiated a succession plan for his own firm. “My plan is to retire from management of the company in the next few years, but I want to ensure my clients are still receiving the service they deserve. So I’ve entered into a succession plan with my partner Ed Cook, who will be the management successor. But I’m not getting out of the business; I’m just changing roles.”
Last year MetLife initiated a “team selling” system where experienced advisors pair up with individuals new to the business. The new people assist the advisors, freeing them up to focus on client acquisition and sales. There are dedicated roles within the team for the advisors who focus on sales and the practice managers who manage service to clients.
“I’m forming a team myself so I can lead by example,” says Thompson.
Thompson’s team practice manager is April Lee. Lee, who has worked as Thompson’s right-hand person since 2007, finds many advantages in the team selling approach. “This service model enhances the client experience,” she says. “Clients like having one point of contact and the responsiveness that brings. They also like that the advisors have more time for interaction with them.”
Thompson predicts that service enhancements will also result from MetLife’s choice of Charlotte as the hub for their U.S. retail business. The move will consolidate MetLife’s product management, marketing, sales and customer support people in the city by the end of 2015.
“I am very proud that MetLife chose to relocate to my hometown,” says Thompson. “This is a good thing for the city of Charlotte, for our firm and for our clients.
“And that’s the most important thing—that we can continue to provide a great client experience. We want to ensure that our clients’ financial needs and concerns are addressed with the highest level of attention, insight and capability.”