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  • Posted October 30, 2019

Q&A: Building An Organization Dedicated To Special Needs Planning

I love working and connecting with financial advisors – not for the details of financial planning, but because behind every person is a unique story with feelings, family dynamics, and a reason they love this profession.

One such professional I have known for years is Andrew Komarow, MSFS, CFP, AEP, AIF, BFA, CAP, CASL, CHFC, ChSNC, CLU, FSCP, REBC,  RHU, RICP. Yes, there is in fact someone who has more designations than me!

What makes Andrew unique is not his dedication to financial planning education, but his role as founder and president of Planning Across the Spectrum, an organization dedicated to building a network of financial service professionals and other organizations who help special needs individuals and their families, especially those who are impacted by conditions often associated with the autism spectrum disorder. Andrew himself has been diagnosed with autism, which he believes has given him unique advantages for helping others when it comes to financial planning.

You can learn more about Planning Across the Spectrum here. Now, let’s learn more about Andrew.

Jamie Hopkins: Can you tell me a bit about how you got into financial planning and being an advisor?

Andrew Komarow: I like solving problems, I love taking things apart, and much more now than when I was younger, putting things back together. I had a small business fixing computers prior to being an advisor, and one of the things that I loved the most about it was helping people – leaving them better off than they were before.

I was never what I would consider to be a creative person. However, I loved being able to see where something was, and where it needed to get to. I believe that this led to my initial success as an advisor.

JH: We originally met through The American College of Financial Services. Can you tell me why you have been so dedicated and drawn to financial education? Do you think your past influenced this dedication to continued learning?

AK: I will start by saying that I had a very unconventional learning experience. I received my GED when I was 17. Some subjects came very naturally for me, while others were very difficult, or even downright impossible.

If anyone is familiar with autism, they may be familiar with the term “special interest.” This is a term where someone dedicates an immense amount of time and energy. Often, when talking with or dealing with their “special interest,” they want to learn everything they can about it, talk to everyone they can about it. You can say I fell in love with the profession and wanted to learn everything I could.

JH: Why did you set out to create Planning Across the Spectrum?

AK: I set out to create Planning Across the Spectrum based upon my love for solving complex problems and helping people.

JH: I know it might be broad, but can you give me an idea of the mission of Planning Across the Spectrum?

AK: I know the mission statement might be broad, but I do think it is important for anyone running a business. I think our tagline, which is so much more than a tagline to us, sums it up: “Unique needs require specialized knowledge.” I am not referring just to the knowledge you acquire through designations and programs such as the ChSNC, but also our personal experiences, which we bring to families. Our goal is to help everyone we encounter across the spectrum of abilities and needs live their best life.

JH: You were diagnosed as being on the Autism spectrum; can you tell me what that experience was like and how has it helped you develop as a person and advisor once you were finally diagnosed?

AK: Wow, not going to pretend this is an easy question. I will say that my diagnosis itself was a bit unusual, as I was not seeking one. I joked about it with a therapist who said maybe it shouldn’t be such a joke. It was not long after that so many things clicked into place.

So many things that I perceived about autism were wrong – so many things I learned about myself. These things are both positive and negative. It made sense why I hated getting my haircut and hated certain textures and always wanted the light out. Although I was the same person, it allowed me to realize even more so that some of my weaknesses were not actually weaknesses, to better harness my strengths,  and that there is no shame in admitting the tasks you struggle with (such as writing) and asking for help.

JH: Have you been surprised in a positive or negative way how people have reacted to the news?

AK: I was extremely nervous how people would take it. I called one of my old managers, who said, “Oh and finance is your special interest, that makes total sense!” I am not going around from the rooftops shouting the fact. I am the same financial planner they have known for years, if anything I am better.

I was afraid people would have the biases that even I had carried myself. “What if my existing clients do not want to work with me anymore?” It’s been over a year of Planning Across the Spectrum and more and more, the reason I liked working with my clients makes sense. I liked the clients who, whether they have autism, were a little like me. They were analytical and appreciated my deep knowledge and passion for financial planning.

JH: What’s been the biggest hurdle for you in building an advisory practice and this new network?

AK: I think it has been trying to explain what we offer and how it is unique. When I started my practice, I realized I was the first person to ever trademark a business from the start with “special needs planning” as a key focus. I know this because I paid an extra $50 to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to create that category.

We are really growing something that is not only needed, but wanted. We are not an insurance agency trying to sell second-to-die policies, or an investment bank trying to manage trusts. Yes, we can do these things, but our goal is to help families find resources first and foremost. We have been, and are, in their shoes, we’re walking along beside them. We are looking to grow smart, not fast. And finding the right people is, of course, the hardest part.

JH: What is one thing that you would want everyone to know, maybe a misconception about autism or planning?

AK: I am not sure how much you realize how great and tough a question this is. It might sound cliché, but just like no two people with autism are the same, no two financial plans are the same. I think autism and financial planning both are terms ripe with misconception, even from people who think they know what they mean.

I would say the biggest misconception regarding autism is the fact it is just a disease for kids, and that you grow out of it. I think in many ways we set the bar too low, and I wonder if I had been diagnosed younger would the bar have been set lower for me?

On the other hand, we have some unrealistic expectations. I think that is really where financial planning comes in. So much of my job is ironically (or maybe not so much) dealing with behavior and helping people with the non-financial aspects. I was talking to clients the other day, and they wanted to reduce spending, maybe move. We focused more on money habits – ways to improve the way they thought about money, in order for them to spend the same OR MORE on the fun stuff they wanted to spend money on, and still leave themselves better off for retirement in the future. Financial planning is not just insurance or money management. We look at the big picture, where you are, where you want to go, then we say, “What is the best way to get there and let’s explore options.”

JH: If Planning Across the Spectrum is successful in five years, what will it look like?

AK:  Jamie, you say IF?!? I hope you mean WHEN! I think it will look a lot like it does now. However, I do want to grow. You were, and are, a mentor to me and one of the first people I told even when the idea for Planning Across the Spectrum was just a shadow in the back of my mind. We are growing and have brought on at least one dedicated advisor in Maryland, with the hope to grow more.

We have a unique value proposition, and the goal is to allow other advisors to do what they do best. Focus on the clients they want to serve. We want to provide the platform, tools and knowledge to help as many people as possible. And we are in a unique position to do just that.

Jamie Hopkins, Esq., LLM, MBA, CFP®, RICP®, is the Director of Retirement Research at Carson Wealth and a former professor of Taxation at The American College, where he helped co-create the Retirement Income Certified Professional® (RICP®) education program. Jamie strives to increase the retirement income security of Americans by delivering practical and trusted retirement research and education.