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How a Blind Advisor Helps Special-Needs Clients

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Kane Brolin nonchalantly refers to himself as “a blind guy” and uses a white cane to help him get around and a talking computer and email for written communication with clients. The broad view for this financial advisor? To help families with special needs fulfill dreams they never had or expected could be in their reach, he tells ThinkAdvisor in an interview.

Founder of Brolin Wealth Management in Mishawaka, Indiana, the FA discusses what’s different about creating financial plans for the special-needs sector and how proving his credibility as an advisor requires folks to get past the white cane.

“It’s their realizing it’s not just a blind guy sitting there in church,” says Brolin, who is totally blind. “It’s someone that could manage your retirement plan.”

Apart from his professional achievements, Brolin’s personal life is awesome — in the true sense of the word: Over the last decade he and wife Danica foster-parented 19 children and are about to adopt their fourth. All the adopted kids have special needs.

Born and bred in Iowa, the certified financial planner and chartered special-needs consultant, 54, earned a B.S. in speech communication from Iowa State University and a master of management from Northwestern University. He has been a leader of the Michiana Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind since its 2012 founding.

A hybrid FA, Brolin launched his independent practice, whose RIA-BD is Commonwealth Financial Network, in 2014 after four years with American Express.

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed the advisor, who was on the phone from Mishawaka, about five miles from South Bend. Right after college, he worked on-air for local public radio in Ames, Iowa. Now he’ll be putting his “radio voice” to use hosting a planned financial podcast.

Here are highlights of our conversation:

THINKADVISOR:  What’s your client niche?

KANE BROLIN: I picked the niche that I’m best suited for and that I’m prepared to serve in unique ways: the special-needs market.

I understand that you became totally blind soon after birth. Correct?

Yes. It was because of oxygen toxicity, which is related to being exposed to too much concentrated oxygen in an incubator. The condition is called retinopathy of prematurity, or ROP. I was very lucky and blessed to have good teachers and access to reading material that permitted me to be integrated into my local public school and then regular universities.

Tell me about your special-needs clientele.

There are a lot of things you can do working with people with special needs to demonstrate that they don’t have to live in poverty. It’s a very different form of [financial] planning. Often it’s coming up with money so they can get services and products they need to enhance the quality of their lives. This type of planning takes a lot of work because it involves putting something at the center of the individual’s own plan and dream when the person doesn’t even know they could have a plan or dream for anything except survival.

You’re taking a prospecting approach that doesn’t focus on retirement planning for baby boomers, as many advisors do. What’s your strategy?

I want to take on clients that are younger than I am who are still approaching peak earning years. I want my business to grow and not just consist of people that are in their 80s who have mostly pulled out their assets. That means forgoing a lot of commissions and, maybe, fees now but allowing for the buildup of a lot of value that will reap benefits later.

How do such clients intersect with special-needs planning?

If there’s a child that has autism or blindness or hearing impairment or someone that uses a wheelchair, you know that family is serious about helping them because they love them. It means they’re going to be serious about making sure they take care of the individual not only during their own lifetime but after they die or become disabled themselves.

What’s your AUM?

I manage about $13 million not counting life insurance. That’s rather modest by the standards of this business. For the past 10 years I’ve continued to work the practice, but I’ve been focused on a lot of other things: My wife Danika and I became foster and adoptive parents: We had 19 different children come through our home. Next week, we’re adopting our fourth child. All four have documented special needs.

Time is definitely at a premium for you!

Yes. Since 2010, I haven’t been dealing with clients as much as I have with social workers, judges, courts, attorneys and schools.

As an advisor who’s blind, what’s the biggest challenge?

There are hard challenges and soft challenges. The hard challenges start with gaining access to all the technology you need to efficiently research, communicate and collaborate with clients. But a lot of fintech isn’t always designed with non-visual users in mind; so you have to have a good assistant.

Tell me some ways your assistant helps you.

Heidi is really good at interfacing with clients and the visual part of eyeballing a plan, or other documents, to make sure they’re visually appealing and able to be understood. I tell her what the inputs should be, and she constructs the cosmetically airbrushed final product that I create.

What other “hard challenges” are there?

All the forms you have to present and making sure that clients’ signatures are in the right place. Heidi deals with that. It’s almost impossible for someone with a vision impairment like mine to work unassisted.

You have only one assistant?

Right now. My wife worked supporting [me] in the practice full time; but since 2010, she’s been running a complex household. She plans to come back soon, when all the children are in school. She and Heidi will both assist me.

What technology do you use for reading?

I read Braille. But I find that, in general, I work a little faster and can skim a bit more easily if I use speech outputs.

How do you prefer to employ a computer?

I type on a keyboard; I usually don’t like to dictate. If I want to send an email, I just type it in the message window. The computer talks to me. If I need to use it that way when a client is in front of me, I use a Bluetooth headset.

What are the “soft challenges,” as you call them?

Just proving credibility that I’m actually doing a business like this as a blind guy. Some people see a person walking with a white cane or reading from a Braille display, and the rest of their brain shuts off — that’s all they can picture the person is uniquely known for. So a lot of it is getting past the stereotype.

How do you market your practice?

I primarily get referrals from centers of influence and from networking. Also, we produced a video that links to the official website of the city where I work and live. I’ve purchased leads and am also getting some support that will help me become more widely known in the small-business market for 401(k) plans. What has also worked is holding events and dinners for folks who know us and who bring [guests].

Why did you want to be a financial advisor?

When I became of age in the 1980s, I wanted to be a broadcast journalist — another Peter Jennings. I went to work in that field but wasn’t earning much money, and so I then did research for a Fortune 500 company [Dow Chemical]. In 2000, Danica and I relocated to South Bend, where her family lives. I was figuring out what to do [professionally] and decided to answer an American Express ad for a financial advisor. When I was hired, I realized it was a sales job where you smiled and dialed.

How far did you progress at the firm?

It seemed like I was living in order to work. But eventually I moved my business up to the franchise level — which later became Ameriprise — and owned my own book and became more or less a business owner, but within the company’s dictates.

How does that compare to being an independent advisor, as you are now?

I can shape my business the way I want to and not have to chase immediate dollars the way you do when you’re trying to survive.

Do you use a white cane and guide dog?

Not a dog, but I use a white cane. Kane is the name my parents gave me before they even knew that I would ever be blind or use a cane. God has a sense of humor. It’s just one of those ironies in life that you couldn’t have scripted out.

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