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Getting to Know: Michael Dowling

Is this the only financial adviser in New Zealand who owns a tank?

Friday, March 31st 2017, 6:00AM

by Susan Edmunds

Who are you and what do you do?
Michael Dowling, I am an owner and director of Stratus Financial Services, I am an AFA, a Certified Financial Planner cm and Chartered Life Underwriter cm. I chair the Institute of Financial Advisers board and I am on the working group developing Financial Advice New Zealand.

I originally trained as a mechanical engineer and spent time in the NZ Army, both part-time and full-time as an armourer (firearms specialist) and driving various types of military vehicles. Early in 2000 I moved to military intelligence and have operated in various roles, latterly in risk and threat assessment. As a result of working in engineering I have always had a fascination of  things mechanical. I collect mechanical toys, firearms and have had a range of vehicles over the years.

In some the military roles I have been in, it was required I be assessed for my suitability, they identified I like to work through abstract problems and create order from chaos. 

I have always been involved in activities outside of my work. I am the treasurer and a board member For Victim Support New Zealand, I also chair the Kapiti Mana Local Victim Support Committee where I was a volunteer crisis worker for 12 years.

As a result of my interest in firearms I was put forward to a group that works with Government on firearms legislation, this is again a voluntary role, which I continue to do as vice-chair and treasurer - the Council of Licensed Firearm Owners (COLFO). COLFO represents a range of firearm disciplines and interests in the area of NZ and international legislation and regulation.

It was through COLFO that I was asked to be part of a NZ delegation, as a technical adviser, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to the United Nations in New York. I attended meetings of the Program of Action and Arms Trade Treaty Agreements.

It was humbling to be part of process that changes the suffering of some of the poorest people. It was also a great experience to understand how well-intentioned visions can be altered by negotiation and political positioning sometimes to result in misaligned or ineffective outcomes.  While COLFO was one of two pro-firearm groups that supported the Arms Trade Treaty in its aims to eradicate the illicit trade in arms without affecting legitimate interests, it is disappointing when the legislation developed is used to constrain compliant citizens more than criminals.

I find being involved in a number of areas allows me to learn from other business models and adapt solutions to different problems.

Looking back I have always planned, since I was age 14 when I wrote of list of the things I would like to do in my life. I haven’t looked at that list recently but I know I ticked off a number them.

How did you get into the industry?
I was recruited by AMP to be a tiered agent in 1989, I was interested in providing financial advice and was surprised how little training there was back then, in fact you had to make five sales before the company would invest in any training.

I looked around for a way to add value to clients and found the Certified Financial Planner programme, after a number of false starts with polytech programmes that fell away mid-programme. The attraction of the programme was it built on global learning to offer best practice for financial planning, I have been hooked ever since. It is extremely satisfying to now be part of the global process of developing financial planning and financial advice practice.

Can you tell me about your tank?
In truth the tank is an armoured personnel carrier, the model is a Saurer 4K 4FA, it had a crew of two and could carry a section of eight infantry. I drove similar vehicle in the NZDF. It was built between 1963-65 and in service with the Austrian defence force for their mechanised infantry. They were refurbished in the 1990 and my vehicle has around 8600km on it, since then. While that seems low, the tracks normally have service life of 10,000km.

The Austrians removed the 20mm cannon and the communications equipment. Luckily I had an old 20mm lying around home in one of my safes and sourced a replacement radio from UK. Michelle, my wife, and I went to company in the Czech Republic to view a number of vehicles and I settled on this for a number of reasons. Knowing it could be the only one in the country, it would be difficult to get serviced, however the engine and transmission are manufactured by Daimler Benz, it is basically a Mercedes Benz Truck engine from the 1960s, which can be serviced anywhere in the world. It is a 10-litre inline six-cylinder turbo diesel engine that produces a 184kw and maximum speed of 60km/hr.

We spent two days are the depot trying various machines. The salesman, Lukas, was trying to convince Michelle I should buy two, in the end she agreed if she could paint her one pink, soon after that we dropped the idea of two.  The depot was an old decommissionned military base which a land developer had bought just out of Prague to build lifestyle blocks, when we drove there it was quite hard to find.

Lukas told me after we got there, he was not surprised as it was a hidden base where components were assembled into rockets for shipment to the USSR.

The APC now spends its time being driven around our lifestyle block either towing trees I have cut down or giving kids, of all ages, a ride.

How is your lifestyle block coming along - what are you growing/raising there?
In 2015 we made a change, ahead of plan, and bought the lifestyle block. We have completed a cottage on it, which we have moved into just before Christmas last year.

I have had to upskill building a road, closing the shed in, tree felling, and fitting out the cottage.

The latter was Michelle’s idea, I think it is the last time we will do building, I am way too old. We have leased the land to a local lad, who is raising beef and sheep, he is younger and fitter than me, so that works. Longer term the plan is build a museum for my collection with the main house and accommodation attached.

Michelle will manage the bookings for the weekend and I will guide people through the collection. I expect to live the rest of our lives there as I don’t think a retirement home will let me keep my tank.

If there is one thing you would like to change about the financial advice industry, what would it be? 
The one thing I would like to change is how the industry is perceived, we do some great work which our clients appreciate. It has been the norm for too long that our clients value us but the public do not.

My concern is as financial products become more commoditised, if we do not have a compelling value proposition, then the advice profession could shrink to a small group of historic operators rather than grow into a vibrant career opportunity for new entrants. We would not be the first to see this sort of change, there are many roles that have disappeared to history. With the next evolution in technology we need to be sure we are well positioned to offer value to future clients.

What’s the best advice you have ever received?
When I first started to work for myself as an engineer, I had some shares I had bought as a long-term investor. My bank manager was talking to me about setting up my business and suggested I sell the shares and set up small surplus to assist me in cash flow. I resisted, he insisted, so I sold the shares and realised three times what I had originally paid. I looked back some years later and if I had kept them for as long as I intended, they would have been worth a quarter of what I paid. The lessons this taught me were; the value of good advice and to make decisions both around the risks and opportunities, but focus my decisions around my life events rather than the unknown.

Are you a KiwiSaver member?
Yes

What’s your investment strategy?
Some years ago I found risk profiling, I tested myself and found I have an aggressive tolerance at the upper quartile of the bell curve. I satisfy this by investing in a privately held company where the risk and return are greater than average. My KiwiSaver is managed by the investment manager, so I leave them to do their job. If my investment plans work out then KiwiSaver will be a bonus, if they don’t, then it will part of my safety net.

What’s one thing people may be surprised to know about you?
I was born left handed, I cut my hand open as age three and severed the tendons. I was playing with a friend, running with a glass jar and tripped over. Apparently I walked home and mum freaked out with when I appeared at the door step and was not crying with blood running from my hand., In later years my father told me he walked home that night and was terrified to see the blood trail that ran up to the house.

As a result of the damage I was left with a claw for a year. My hand was operated on as one of the early micro-surgeries in New Zealand and resulted in successfully reconnecting my tendons.

While I have a loss of strength in my hand, the most important lesson came from the advice my father was given. After the surgery, Dad was speaking to the doctor and said "I get Michael to work on strengthening his hand every day with exercises", the Doctor said don’t bother, the hand will not grow as much as his other, so it will always be weaker. If you make him work on it every day, all you will achieve is making him more aware of his limitations. Let him work out what he can do rather than remind him of what he can’t. It worked.

If you weren’t in this job what would you be doing? 
I would probably be working in the intelligence community. I found a number of roles I could have explored further, but they wanted a full-time commitment. In the back of my mind it is still a possibility for a period of two years if I wanted a sea change. However, the roles I have now give me the freedom to achieve a number of goals and challenge myself enough, so I see no reason to change.

Tags: Getting to Know IFA

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