JOHN HAMILTON, FOUNDER, FINANCIAL HORIZONS GROUP
In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell says, “Working really hard is what successful people do…” Gladwell goes on to say that greatness requires an enormous investment of time - think the 10,000-Hour Rule popularized by Anders Ericsson - and those that do it right will be well rewarded. John Hamilton, the Founder and Senior Advisor of Financial Horizons attributes his work ethic to his roots – he was born and raised on a dairy farm.
John, his two older brothers, and younger sister, all had their chores to do before walking a mile and a half to a one-room schoolhouse. With one teacher handling all eight grades, he learned to work independently at a very young age. Even today, that same single-mindedness and passion is very much in evidence in everything he does. “When people ask me when I’m going to retire, I answer, ‘How can I retire? I’ve never worked!”
Integrity & Hard Work
John entered the financial services industry in 1978 as a life insurance advisor. In 1983 he was appointed Branch Manager of the Standard Life brokerage office in Kitchener-Waterloo. Over the next 15 years, John’s office became Standard Life’s flagship in terms of new premiums and service. In the nineties, Canadian life insurance companies, including Standard Life, changed their business-to-consumer sales model to a business-to-business Managing General Agency (MGA) model.
In 1999, John established Financial Horizons Group and entered into MGA contracts with Canada Life, Maritime Life, CAN Life, and Standard Life. Today, the company represents all life companies that have an MGA channel in Canada. “When I started, there was only four staff, including myself, on the 9th floor of the same building we are located in today. The four of us supported fifty advisors. Today, over 400 employees support 10,000 advisors,” John says.
Remarkably, John has actually sold his company twice. The first transaction took place in 2011. John required investment capital to grow the business and sold the company to a private equity firm based in San Francisco while maintaining a significant equity position. It was a wise move. From 2011 to 2017, due to 35 acquisitions and significant organic growth, the company grew its business by 900%. As a result, in each of the years 2016 and 2017, Financial Horizons was recognized as one of The PROFIT 500 Fastest Growing Companies in Canada.
When the investors decided to cash out, John prepared to sell the company for the second time and in 2017, he helped orchestrate a sale of the company to Great West Life, a Power Corp. company, owned by the Desmarais family of Montreal. Although he no longer has an equity position, he continues to work with the new CEO, Nick Pszeniczny to ensure a smooth transition. “Although I’m still very involved, I see my role diminishing over time.”
John is understandably proud of the company he has built. He is equally as proud that he didn’t lose a single person from the senior management team during the 2011 - 2017 period. “All of my senior executives owned shares and did very well when we sold the company, which is only fair, since they helped build it.” When I asked him how he managed to pull off such an incredible feat, he said, “There was no play book. Much of the time I was sailing in the dark and the only thing I had to rely on was gut feel.”
Words of Advice
John encourages future entrepreneurs to follow Sony co-founder, Akio Morita’s advice – “Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. But, make sure you don’t make the same mistake twice.” He adds, “The situation is the boss and you have to deal with crises as they occur. Stay adjustable. And, be prepared to take some risks. Just don’t do things that put the whole operation at risk. If you want to make a change, don’t pass up the middle. Go to the outside more often, where there's more room and less people to block the play.”
John believes there are two things that can kill a business. Both have to do with people - internal conflicts and having the right attitude towards his customers, the independent advisors. Like Phil Knight, co-founder and current chairman and CEO of Nike, Inc. John believes that survival depends on having a customer-centric organization. “When you can get staff thinking that they have to ask permission to say ‘No’ to an advisor’s request, then you create an environment where the advisor’s problem becomes your problem. Advisors really appreciate this.”
“The company grew because the advisors liked my staff. I’m proud that all of my key people are still with us. I think that’s because I always gave them ownership of the job and then got out of their way and let them do it. Also, like management guru Tom Peters suggests, I subscribe to “management by walking around” and to connecting with people on a personal level. This creates loyalty.”
“We also try and create a pleasant working environment. We work together for eight hours a day. Why not make it pleasant? Whenever someone new joins the company, HR walks the person around and introduces them to the team. We have summer picnics, pot luck lunches and a big Halloween competition. All of these things are part of the family and people-oriented culture we have established at Financial Horizons.”
In his new role, John makes many formal and informal presentations. “I purposefully spend the first half hour covering what’s happening in the world. Some of the most successful startups have been what Gladwell describes as a disrupter. How many taxi cabs does Uber own? Zero. Basically, all Uber is a software program and the drivers are a bunch of independent entrepreneurs with clean cars. The car gets rated. Fares go on credit cards.”
“Another example; in 1997, Jeff Bezos, had an idea to sell books online. At the time the Amazon founder lived in a 500 sf apartment. 20 years later his company sells everything under the sun and is valued at a trillion dollars. But, John warns, not all companies are successful disrupters like Uber and Amazon. In 1998 Eastman Kodak had the biggest market share. Three years later it was bankrupt largely because management refused to change their marketing distribution model.”
In every business you have to make it easier for the consumer to do business with you. For example, if you have the app on your phone, you can now avoid the checkout lines at the grocery stores in 18 states in the U.S. Skip The Dishes allows customers to have food delivered from a variety of different restaurants for a reasonable service fee. “Today, you can buy term insurance online. Like it or not, insurance salespeople have to adapt to this new reality.”
“Six or seven years ago, young advisors started making sales presentations through Skype and sending quotes through email. Recently, one of them sent a senior VP of a manufacturing company a quote through email. He met her for the first time when she gave him a cheque for a very large disability premium. This type of interaction between a prospect and an advisor was unheard of 10 years ago.
Up Close & Personal
John and his wife Terry celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary in 2018. Their two sons, Chris and Justin, are both graduates of the University of Western Ontario and have carved out successful careers at Financial Horizons. “I gave them both the opportunity and loaned them the cash (plus interest!) to buy books of business – just like my father loaned Terry and I the money to build our first house. They have never missed a payment. Although I could afford to, if I had just given them the money, I wouldn’t have taught them anything. Today, both sons know that everything they have achieved has been as a result of their own effort.”
Both sons are successful. Son Chris has embraced the new wave of dealing with prospects. Because he is licensed in every province, he harnesses the power of the internet to sell to clients anywhere in the country. That is a big reason he is one of the Top 15 advisors (in terms of production) in the Financial Horizons network. And, son Justin, Financial Horizons Director, National Sales, was recently named one of the Insurance Journal’s Top 20 Rising Stars of the Insurance and Investment Industry.
The whole family is very active in sports, including golf, hockey (John played junior hockey in Oshawa and even today, plays pick-up hockey with his sons whenever he gets a chance) and skiing. He and Terry have lived in the same Cambridge home they built in 1979. They spend as much time as they can at their cottage on Georgian Bay, Ontario.
The couple are also avid theatre goers and in 2013, made a personal donation of $1.15M to Drayton Entertainment, one of Canada's most successful professional theatre companies. (https://www.draytonentertainment.com/). The new theatre in Cambridge has been named the “Hamilton Family Theatre Cambridge,” in their honour.
As a final word, John has this advice for young entrepreneurs; “When you are pursuing your dream, remember all successful self-made people started out as dreamers. Never lose faith; always trust your instincts; never sacrifice your integrity; make your word your bond; and remember, that life is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Suzen Fromstein is the author of Suits and Ladders, Ten Proven Ways to Keep Your Job Safe - with a few jokes thrown in. Suits and Ladders was an Amazon Best Selling Book in the Career Guides Category.
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