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Where it All Began: The Phil & Mike Story

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A Simple Idea Leads to Innovation

When you meet Mike Lebel and Phil Harriman, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that you’re sitting with two thought leaders of the finance profession who have created one of the most innovative boutique financial planning firms in the country. Immediately, you’re connecting with them as people...they make you feel comfortable. Rather than a dry conversation about insurance and investments, you’re hanging on their every word as they talk about what’s important in life and business. It’s hard to imagine Lebel & Harriman started forty years ago with these two twenty-something guys believing in an idea everyone else thought was crazy: focus on finding solutions for clients instead of pushing product.

This idea was revolutionary in the insurance profession in the late 70s when Phil and Mike began their careers at a Portland satellite office of James B. Longley’s insurance firm. Back then, Exchange Street in Portland felt like the “little Wall Street” of Maine, where every major insurance company, bank, and stockbroker had an office. It was the days of company men (and it was almost exclusively men) selling their firm’s products and striving to meet their sales quotas. The prevailing professional wisdom at the time was that every solution, no matter what problem the client faced, could be found within a small toolbox of proprietary products. This didn’t feel right to either Phil or Mike. They began having conversations about their frustrations with the investment and insurance business models and about another way to do business. They decided to push back against an industry seemingly set in cement.

“Our core belief was always that if you treat people the way you would want to be treated, then the financials of the business would take care of themselves.” - Mike Lebel

Armed with their Mainers’ conviction that they could independently build something better, and a bold entrepreneurial spirit, Phil and Mike formed Lebel & Harriman in 1978. With a touch tone phone, typewriter, and part-time secretary, they began delivering their idea of financial planning advice. Long before the profession recognized the need for transparency, Phil and Mike made the decision to transition away from representing manufacturers of financial products. Instead, they established their business as an independent investment and insurance firm representing and serving the client. They were told by nearly all their colleagues in the investment and insurance profession that they would fail.

Phil and Mike did not have a roadmap for success, but they were young, optimistic industry disruptors cut from the same cloth. They didn’t know to be afraid of the challenges that lay ahead; they just knew that when they put themselves in their clients’ shoes they would want to be treated differently. Guided by this shared core belief that if you treat people the way you would want to be treated, then success will follow, they began to build their firm by building relationships. It turned out to be a truly innovative idea in their profession that others would soon emulate.

Building Relationships and Forging a Vision

As Phil and Mike forged ahead with their new model for service, they were often like ships passing in the night--each one putting his head down to get the work done, driven by their shared vision. However, as any small business owner knows, a lofty mission statement doesn’t pay the bills. Even so, Mike and Phil never had a conversation about how they could make more money. Instead, they survived by borrowing against life insurance policies to make ends meet and focused on building client relationships. As it became clear they were on the right path, they saw that, gradually, the entire insurance profession was also seeing the need to change as they had. It wasn’t the last time that Mike and Phil led the way in their profession.

As they looked ahead, Phil and Mike knew they wanted to build their firm based on a team approach. With the financial industry and their clients’ needs evolving, they decided to prepare for the future by organizing areas of specialty within the firm. In this way, they could build a boutique firm by attracting talented individuals who wanted to focus on the Lebel & Harriman vision of meeting and exceeding client needs one-on-one. Attracting top-notch talent with a range of expertise to serve clients required building an inspiring and supportive work environment. Mike and Phil followed the same philosophy for bringing on new team members as with clients: treat people right. As Mike says,

“If you take good care of your team, they will, in turn, take good care of your clients.”

This is one of the legacies Phil and Mike are most proud of--that the firm they started over 40 years ago has a reputation for being a great place to work.

“I remember meeting Mike Lebel like it was yesterday. I was working as a regional account specialist for retirement plans in New England and Mike was one of my advisors. We met for a business breakfast and 10 minutes into our conversation I knew that Mike was a man of intelligence, character, charm, and charisma. Several months later I joined Lebel & Harriman. When I started in 1990, Mike and I managed a handful of plans with a few hundred participants. We now we have over $2 billion in retirement plan assets on our books and proudly serve over 22,000 plan participants.” - Laurie Reed

The Lebel & Harriman vision also helped establish the firm’s specialty in retirement planning services. When they were starting out, 401(k) Plans didn’t exist and it was well before there was such a thing as a “fiduciary standard’ in the profession. But because Mike and Phil always believed in transparency and stewardship, the firm was already practicing to a higher standard and thus particularly well suited to manage retirement plans for companies. As a result, they were innovators yet again and out in front of the market when the Department of Labor recommended fiduciary processes be instituted. Now, with a full team of experts on staff, Lebel & Harriman has the experience and talent to guide clients in fiduciary best practices, retirement planning, business succession, and estate planning.

Words in Action: Walking the Talk

Another key element of their business approach, was to “walk the talk” of how they advise their clients. Mike and Phil’s passion and conviction for what they do comes across in every interaction you have with them, so it’s no surprise that they had the conversation all business partners should have and engaged prudent planning for the future of the firm, in all eventualities. They prepared contracts such as partnership agreements and buy/sell agreements, so they could rest assured that even with an unforeseen curveball from life, their families, the employees of the firm, and most importantly, their clients would be taken care of in the right way.

Phil and Mike are now poised to “walk the talk” in another important way as well. Having grown the sturdy tree of Lebel & Harriman, it is now time to watch that tree bear fruit with the next generation of the firm. This important transition in their own firm happens to sync with the transition many of their clients are going through as well--the generational shift in leadership.

“When we advise clients on business succession, we help them align their head, their heart, and their stomach. Only then can they make smooth and prudent decisions. It’s not about the money. It’s always about the outcome.” - Phil Harriman

As with advising their clients in business succession, Phil and Mike started with the outcome they wanted from the transition and worked backwards. For them, the most important outcome was having the right team in place to make this transition feel seamless for clients. It is both an exciting and emotional time to realize that they accomplished this, and that the next generation of Lebel & Harriman--Laurie Reed, Jennifer Breton, Josh Chase, Rebecca Burchill, and Michelle Romano--is ready to continue the legacy of their vision of innovation and exceptional client care.