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A Partner for Planners

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Michael S. Burnham has always had a yen for new beginnings. The visionary has been involved in launching and developing ventures like ice-cream novelty Chipwich, pet-store chain Lick Your Chops and a Christmas tree farm in Vermont.

Now he’s in the business of helping pre-retirees reinvent themselves, guiding them to see retirement not as an end but as a beginning.

Burnham’s Web-based, interactive My Next Phase produces psychological portraits based on clients’ personality traits. From these, it helps folks determine lifestyles and pursuits for their next phase to replace career work and other activities that brought fulfillment in pre-retirement years. A network of coaches assists.

Life-planning MNP addresses non-financial issues, but it’s just the ticket to help advisors delve into what makes clients tick. That helps FAs to not only create financial retirement plans around life priorities but to build solid client relationships.

“Helping clients clarify where they want to go changes the nature of the dialogue, gives advisors tools for sounder financial plans and accelerates and strengthens client bonding,” says CEO Burnham, 58, who speaks with all the enthusiasm of a serial entrepreneur, which is how he describes himself.

Pitney Bowes and Methodist Healthcare are two corporate clients that are sponsoring MNP programs, and thousands of individuals have gone through the proprietary process on the Internet. For a limited period, Lincoln Financial Network has exclusive rights for its advisors.

Burnham, based in Memphis, co-founded in 1999, a year after he sold a family business and was casting about for guidance as to what to do next. Few resources were available. Bingo: He’d encountered an untapped market, and the idea for a new service was born.

After much research, he and two other co-founders, clinical psychologist J. Randolph Burnham — Michael’s brother — and organizational psychologist Eric Sundstrom, devised the structured, personalized MNP system.

“Michael has terrific insight into the human psyche. Our advisors are thrilled to be able to offer his process to clients. The [FAs] have great credentials for financial planning, but they can’t presume that they’re clinical psychologists,” says Sanford B. Axelroth, Lincoln’s senior vice president, advisor experience, in Philadelphia. “My Next Phase reveals how clients … feel about things they may have trouble talking to us about.”

Through a series of 80 questions, MNP clients supply an in-depth inventory uncovering how they handle transitions and make decisions, among other personality styles. MNP analyzes the answers and, when working with advisors, furnishes customized reports. These help FAs to get a grasp on each client’s life priorities prior to entering those (one hopes) golden years.

What’s more, the reports give FAs specific tips on how best to communicate based on these individual styles. For instance, hypothetical client “Larry wants personal engagement. [So] make contact. Show energy and enthusiasm. Help him by asking lots of questions.” Or, “Larry focuses on facts and results. Use factual, logical language like, “What do you think about that?” rather than “How do you feel about that?”

Notes Burnham: “This [information] lets advisors communicate what they need to in a way that works well for the client. For instance, if you know that flexible people have a hard time making decisions because they like to keep their options open, and you have a flexible client, you won’t give them five or six options. Or, if you’re working with someone with a structured planning style, you’ll probably want to send them an agenda beforehand.”

A native of Weston, Conn., the son of a dentist dad and clinical psychologist mom (still practicing at age 91), Burnham, with a 1971 bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from Sarah Lawrence College, made a beeline for Vermont and his first venture: farming Christmas trees. Switching gears sharply, he then became a professional pantomimist with Boston’s Pocket Mime Theatre.

Next, it was on to Northeastern University Graduate School of Professional Accounting, where he earned a Master of Science in accounting.

“I always liked numbers — they talked to me,” Burnham says. “Because I wanted to go into business, I wanted to learn the language of business. I thought it would help me understand what makes sense and what doesn’t.” He is a CPA, though never practiced.

At Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, in New York City, he launched a CPA review course and then took a marketing director job at financial services company A.G. Becker. As a partner at Premium Products Sales Corp., he consulted to small companies keen on building their brands, like chocolate chip cookie-ice cream sandwich Chipwich and NAPA Naturals soft drinks.

By 1986, he’d relocated to Memphis to head family enterprise Lewis Supply Co., a distributor of maintenance, repair and operational supplies. When he arrived, the company — owned but not operated by his father-in-law — was in trouble. By the time CEO Burnham sold, 12 years later, he’d taken Lewis from a $5 million business to about $120 million and from one branch to 22 with two foreign subsidiaries.

More than a decade into his own next phase, busy Burnham takes time to enjoy daily bike-riding, a former childhood activity he finds nearly as much fun now.

Through the years, severe dyslexia has been a hurdle but, for this achiever, never a stumbling block. Spelling isn’t his forte. Strategic thinking is.

“It’s helped me in everything I’ve done,” he says. “When I thought about creating My Next Phase, the idea of a non-financial retirement plan was nowhere on the horizon.”

Now, companies are, increasingly, becoming interested in retirement life planning.

“When the individual is ready for [MNP], it resonates. It can really help them clarify who they are and what they want to do. Ultimately,” he adds, “it helps the company, too.”

Freelance writer Jane Wollman Rusoff is a Los Angeles-based contributing editor of Research and is the founder of Family Star Productions

NOTE: Photo by Philip Parker/Getty Images