The role of his life

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Kevin Cork’s foray into financial planning. Cork, now president of the Absolute Group Inc. and a certified financial planner in Calgary, initially considered working as a financial advisor as a way to finance his burgeoning career as an actor.

Cork, after completing his bachelor of fine arts degree at the University of Calgary, headed to Toronto to pursue life as an actor. He was auditioning for roles and working occasionally, but he needed a more reliable source of income between acting gigs.

Cork says that lack of control is inherent in a career in the performing arts. And most actors are at the bottom of the hierarchy of a film or theatrical production. “As an actor,” he says, “unless you’re Brad Pitt, you’re the last person picked and the most easily replaced.”

A friend told Cork about a seminar he had attended, hosted by a financial services company. Cork attended an event presented by the same firm, and although that presentation was weak – “I could tell this person was getting it wrong,” Cork says – the experience aroused his interest and he was determined to learn more about the financial services profession.

Conversations with Cork’s fellow actors convinced him that greater control of his finances would be difficult to achieve as an actor. Financial planning, he reasoned, might offer the steady income that acting couldn’t.

While Cork was still in Toronto, he talked with his father’s financial advisor, who worked with Regal Capital Planners Ltd. in Calgary, to learn more about the financial advisory business. Subsequently, Cork moved back to Calgary and signed up for some financial planning courses. The result was a twist on a classic situation, Cork jokes: “You’re a successful actor and get bitten by the financial planning bug.”

Cork began working with Regal, and his plans to work part-time as an advisor changed. He discovered the job was inherently satisfying because of the personal connections he made with his clients. “I like learning about their lives,” Cork says.

Within a year, Cork committed full-time to his new profession. Still, his acting experience and his fine arts degree helped shape his career in important ways. Acting taught him to pay attention to how people were communicating – not just what they were communicating. “I innately read people’s body language as opposed to their words,” he says. “I understood what people were feeling, to a great extent.”

For Cork, such understanding fosters empathy. Being a financial planner is about going beyond the fundamental issues, such as paying off the mortgage and putting the kids through school. “There is often lots more going on,” he says. “That is my job. [Financial advice] is about getting into their core, root values. It is not about moving products.”

Cork’s father, a professional engineer who owned a firm in Calgary, taught his son to run his career, including acting, as a business. Lack of a commerce degree or other business administration credentials, however, proved to be an advantage for Cork. “I would talk to [clients] in non-commerce words. That was more approachable,” he says.

“Everybody thinks they’re being crystal clear,” Cork adds, “but they are not hearing their own words through the ears of someone who hasn’t done this before.”

Cork left Regal Capital to hone his skills at two other firms, spending several years as a branch manager. That experience opened his eyes to what he was not looking for as a financial planner. “It made me realize what I wanted was not the extra 3% or 4% commission, but being able to articulate the benefits of a financial plan,” Cork says. A major benefit of such a plan, he adds, is its ability to give clients a sense of progress and control.

He went out on his own and started his own firm about 20 years ago.

The best approach to working with clients, Cork says, is to get the basics out of the way quickly, then begin to probe to learn more about the client. Such an approach emphasizes quality over quantity. The Absolute Group, which has $75 million in assets under management, has 142 clients – whom Cork recommends staff see as “friends.”

“We create more of a life strategy than just a financial strategy,” Cork says.

Cork asks clients to envision their lives five years from now; then 10 years from now: “You can see the shift in their thinking from tactical to long-term strategic [thinking].”

Work with a client begins with an initial meeting, a strategy letter and an overview of the components of a financial plan. Once a decision to work together is reached, a formal agreement and letter of engagement are signed. Cork’s firm then creates an investment mandate and prepares a portfolio proposal. And tracking begins.

“We spend a lot of time with the client at the beginning, defining what success is,” Cork says. “We try to lay out expectations right from the start.”

Ultimately, he adds, “we drive everything back to the financial plan.” Cork calls the plan “the map.” In fact, he uses mind-mapping software, which creatively and efficiently organizes information to identify individual goals’ timelines – for example, buying a cabin within five years. Every three years, Cork and his team, which includes three staff members, meet with clients to do a thorough review of the strategic aspects of each client’s financial plan.

Each client also has his or her own journal, in which they summarize expectations, highlight what work was done and summarize discussions. “We can show clients the things they’ve gotten done and remind them what they thought was important,” Cork says. “This is about customizing a database.”

Technology enables Cork to offer personalized and tailored service efficiently and effectively. For example, the firm uses Podio, which is project-management software that tracks clients’ financial plans, highlights retirement and other goals and prepares client journals, among other features.

“I view a financial plan as a 30-year plan to manage [expectations],” Cork says. “That software allows us to keep much more up to date with what the client is doing.”

Other technology the firm uses includes Office 365 for Business, which enables the team to create group lists for emailing investment-specific notices and updates. This software also makes internal administrative tasks between employees and having team chats easy by reducing email confusion. This technology also helps co-ordinate bookings because clients can see Cork’s schedule and book their own meeting times. “This is a huge time-saver,” he says.

For Cork, less is more. His company offers mutual funds through Vaughan, Ont.-based FundEX Investments Inc, and life and disability insurance through Woodbridge, Ont.-based HUB Capital Inc. In all, Absolute Group works with 22 portfolio managers across seven companies. “I like being able to focus,” Cork says. “We hire out specialists.”

Cork also connects with his colleagues as a columnist, speaker and financial journalist. He is the author of The Money Book (2001) and The Investment Book (2004).

When Cork is not in the office and not exploring new technology to enhance service to clients, he spends time with his wife, Karen, and son, Griffin, both of whom are actors. Cork says, with a laugh: “I’m seriously supporting the arts.”

Stay informed

Kevin Cork, president of the Absolute Group Inc. in Calgary, offers the following tips to help you and your clients thrive:

Get qualified and stay informed. Your job is to provide an educated and up-to-date perspective surrounding the information at clients’ disposal, Cork says. “Know what you know,” he says, “and what you don’t.”

See things from each client’s perspective. When you understand how clients see the world, you are better able to help them reach their goals, says Cork: “This demonstrates progress. Everything else is just details.”

Value your time. If you don’t value yourself and your time, neither will clients, says Cork. The issue also is one of volume, he explains: “Don’t take on everybody. You can’t have a thousand relationships. You can’t have the rich, more rewarding [career] for yourself if you’re just cranking through [it].”