Denis Blackburn
Samuel Pasquier

This article appears in the November 2020 issue of Investment ExecutiveSubscribe to the print edition, read the digital edition or read the articles online.

Denis Blackburn, who has worked in the insurance industry for more than three decades, says he finally found the right fit for his management style at Financial Horizons Group (FHG), a managing general agency (MGA).

“FHG represented the perfect opportunity for me,” says Blackburn.

Blackburn joined FHG as president, Quebec region, in July, succeeding James McMahon, who will retire at the end of the year. Blackburn comes to the firm with 30 years of insurance industry experience, including at National Bank of Canada’s insurance arm.

Joining the insurance industry seems to have been almost inevitable for Blackburn: most of his immediate family were in the business.

“At our Sunday family dinners, we were [always] talking insurance,” Blackburn says, “so I think that’s why I fell into [the industry].”

Both of Blackburn’s parents worked as insurance advi­sors with Industrial Alliance Insurance and Financial Services Inc. (IA). One of his sisters worked in administration at IA. Blackburn’s mother loved her work so much that when she retired as an advisor at 65, she became an associate so she could stay in the business.

Over the years, Blackburn has most enjoyed working within an independent model and building relationships with insurance advisors. He intends to continue building FHG’s relationships, particularly within the high-net-worth (HNW) market.

FHG has 1,200 insurance advisors in Quebec. Blackburn notes the firm has a “really good value proposition for the middle range of advisors,” but says those advisors need to be made aware of how that can be used to serve the well-heeled.

Blackburn defines HNW clients as those with at least $1 million dollars in investable assets or clients who require a significantly large case file, such as a business owner. He intends to hire an insurance specialist to help with these larger case files.

Blackburn is working to get the word out about FHG’s capabilities, such as the digital tools that allowed advisors to work remotely during the Covid-19 lockdown. The firm, which already uses e-applications, plans to introduce a needs-analysis tool.

Building out FHG’s HNW presence will require coaching advisors to work with this demographic. Blackburn has spent much of his career training and coaching advisors, from rookies to veterans.

He says the best way to get results is by following a “show-show, tell-tell” mantra, meaning that as a manager he must show his advisors what they need to show clients, and tell the advisors what they need to tell their same clients and prospects.

Blackburn also tells advisors that HNW clients tend to have higher expectations. “I have found that when they have a difficult, specific question, they want a specific, accurate answer,” he says.

He finds the training process rewarding. “The most exciting thing for me as a manager,” Blackburn says, “is to see people succeed when they apply [the training they received].”

For the time being, these coaching sessions and potential client meetings are likely to happen virtually, but Blackburn doesn’t believe that is a disadvantage. He says his onboarding process when he joined FHG was entirely virtual, and he was still able to experience his colleagues’ “human values.”

Meeting people via a computer screen is a far cry from how Blackburn joined the industry. He began his insurance career in 1986 as an advisor with Chicago-based Combined Insurance Co. of America, a role that entailed going door-to-door to meet people. From there, Blackburn began training recruits and eventually moved into a management role.

After Combined Insurance, he joined National Bank in 1997, working first as training manager and eventually becoming vice-president, insurance sales and distribution, in 2006. In the latter role, Blackburn trained rookies while building his own book of business.

In this job, Blackburn achieved one of his biggest accomplishments at the firm. In 2006, he was tasked with doubling the company’s sales force of 60 insurance advisors. Blackburn found he had to meet with 250 advisors per year just to recruit 20. However, his efforts paid off: by 2009, National Bank Insurance had 120 advisors. Blackburn says he’s particularly proud that each of those recruits was an industry veteran.

Blackburn’s training and recruitment role was followed by a stint as vice-president of the firm’s property and casualty division. Finally, Blackburn became president of National Bank Insurance in 2015.

Blackburn moved to Desjardins Financial Group as vice-president of sales performance and management in 2018, but spent only two years there. He says it wasn’t the right fit: “Desjardins is a great organization, but the problem was me. I’m not the kind of manager to work in a co-op world.”

Blackburn, having found his fit with FHG, says the firm shares his management philosophy and enthusiasm for the independent advisor space — despite being owned by Canada Life Assurance Co., a large corporation.

“Financial Horizons Group remains independent of Canada Life. Canada Life’s ownership means FHG has access to resources that we can use to support our independent advisors,” says Blackburn. “The independent answer is really important for me and it’s really important for Financial Horizons.”

When Blackburn isn’t at the office, he enjoys fine dining and a good glass of wine — something he hasn’t been able to do much of outside of his home in recent weeks in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. But he doesn’t eat alone: he has the company of his family, which includes six children — four his own and two stepchildren ranging in age from seven to 31 — and his fiancée.