From football field to financial services: quarterbacking remains key role

By Rosemary McCracken | April 19 2011 04:08PM

Gary Francis was a quarterback in university and still sees himself as one. These days, instead of leading his players down a football field, he’s co-ordinating a team of financial professionals to serve his clients’ needs.

The former quarterback for the University of Alberta’s Golden Bears is now senior associate at Francis McLachlan Financial Group in Calgary, an association of six independent financial services practices. "This is a cost-sharing and a networking arrangement," Mr. Francis said in a recent interview. "We share the expenses of running our two offices in Calgary, and we refer clients to one another. I’m not in the mutual funds business, but some of our associates are. And I refer clients to associates for other financial needs such as employee benefits and income replacement contracts."

His role as quarterback also means tapping the expertise of professionals, such as lawyers and accountants, outside Francis McLachlan. "I know what I don’t know," he said. "That’s how a good quarterback works."

Oil and gas sector

Mr. Francis believes in specializing. "My specialty is working with closely held corporations in the oil and gas sector on corporate estate and business succession planning – planning what will happen to the entity the client has created when he’s gone. And I work with the major shareholders of these companies to serve their life insurance and personal estate planning needs."

Born and raised in Calgary, Mr. Francis graduated from the University of Alberta in Edmonton with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1962. He then worked as a parole supervisor with the John Howard Society, followed by stints in labour relations at a manufacturing company and in the oil and gas industry at Amoco Canada.

In 1968, he was approached by a friend who was a manager with London Life in Calgary. "He convinced me that the insurance industry would provide me with a career I would love," he said. "And he was right. I’ve enjoyed coming in to work for the past 43 years."

Mr. Francis spent 12 years at London Life, which he said gave him a good grounding in insurance and where he developed good work habits. Like all rookies, his first years involved cold calling, but he contacted some people who had a big impact on his career. "Some of the first people I called were executives at Amoco, and many of them are still my clients. Some have built companies of their own over the years."

Although now a specialist, he was a generalist at London Life. "I did everything from employee benefits to life insurance contracts. The downside of being a generalist is you have to keep up on everything, but you learn where to go for your information. As a result, there are people here in Calgary to whom I can go for information and I know I’ll never be turned down. Again, that’s the role of the quarterback – knowing who’s on your team."

In 1979, he met Leslie Macdonald, an insurance professional from San Francisco, at a Million Dollar Round Table meeting in Chicago. She was a fellow member of the Round Table at a time when there were not as many women in the industry at that level as there are today. He convinced her to move to Calgary and marry him, "which was the biggest sales job of my life."

They married in 1980, and decided to set up an independent financial consulting firm with Duncan McLachlan, a colleague of Mr. Francis at London Life. "We hung up our shingle as Francis McLachlan Financial Group, and it grew from there," Mr. Francis said.

He calls Leslie Macdonald Francis – the former chair of Canada’s Chartered Life Underwriters Institute and former vice-chair of Advocis – his mentor. "She’s extremely qualified, knowledgeable, hardworking and organized."

Building sound, and often close, client relationships has been the key to building his practice. Today, at the age of 70, he said 95 per cent of his work involves spending time with longstanding clients. "I don’t Twitter, I’m not on Facebook," he said. "I meet with clients, I have lunch with them, I play golf with them. These are people who are terribly busy being busy. They need to simplify their lives and not worry about what products are coming down the line. I get them away from the craziness, find out what their dreams are and decide how I can make them come true. I like to think I’m providing some calmness, taking them out of the white water into a quiet lake for a time."

Mr. Francis learned to cultivate calmness after he suffered a heart attack ten years ago. "I remember being taken to the hospital in an ambulance and wondering if this was my last ride," he said.

He took six months off work, deriving great comfort from having his financial house in order. Two critical illness policies and individual disability income coverage paid out at this time, and an office overhead policy paid his share of Francis McLachlan’s office expenses for six months. "This was very calming and instrumental in my getting better.

"Of course," he added with a chuckle, "I was thankful my life insurance didn’t pay out."

The heart attack was a wake-up call. Mr. Francis lost 30 pounds in 10 months, and eliminated activities that were too time-consuming and stressful. He now exercises more, and spends more time at his vacation homes in California and on Vancouver Island. In September, he and his wife will tour Italy.

With many of his clients moving into their 70s and beyond, Mr. Francis is arranging for them to leave legacies by helping them set up charitable foundations. And some of their children are now working with Francis McLachlan’s younger associates. "These people will be around when I’m gone," he said. "And all my clients know that, should I get on the wrong plane someday, they’ll continue to be in good shape. They’ve met everyone in the office, and know they’ll be in the hands of qualified financial professionals."

Francis McLachlan associates are expected to give back to their community, and other staff members have followed their lead. "One of our key staff people leaves work every Tuesday afternoon to cook at The Mustard Seed, an organization that helps the homeless in Calgary," Mr. Francis said.

One of the founding members of the Conference for Advanced Life Underwriting (CALU), he served for many years on the board of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and as a trustee of the Calgary Philharmonic Foundation. Today, he’s a member of the Golden Bears Alumni and contributes to its scholarship fund.

"At the end of the day," he said, "I hope people will say, ‘He made a difference.’"