An education-first approach enables Thrive Financial Services to help families, grow businesses and build communities

by BILL DONAHUE

photography by JODY ROBINSON


David Bezar
has always had the heart and mind of an entrepreneur. Bret Elam considers himself a teacher of sorts, though the best term to describe him just might be “financial educator.” Together Bezar and Elam represent the brain trust of Thrive Financial Services, which is an independent financial services firm that puts a vastly different spin on helping investors and business owners achieve their financial goals.

“For the first 18 years of my career, I was very focused on the accumulation phase of people’s lives, so my goal was to grow their assets as much as possible,” says Bezar, managing director of Thrive. “That often meant exposure to the equities market, which carries a lot of risk. People today are very nervous about their retirement; they want guaranteed income to last them a lifetime and they don’t know how to go about doing that. Look at what happened with [the Great Recession] in 2008. People can’t afford another ‘lost decade’ in the market. The typical 65-year-old needs to plan for another 30 years after retirement, and I wanted to be the advisory firm that took care of guaranteed buckets of assets that produced income so people could be set for the rest of their lives—the ‘safe money strategist’ for our clients.”

Bezar ran his own financial services firm for nearly two decades. He transitioned from that business in 2007 and became president of a community-bank based in Montgomery County when a significant change in his health turned his world upside down. In his recovery from the surgery that followed, he had the opportunity to reflect on his career, to think about what was most important to him—his family, his health, the gifts he could share with the rest of the world—and began contemplating changes he might make in his life once he got back on his feet. He reconnected with Elam, a talented financial advisor who once worked at Bezar’s bank and had left to start his own firm, which was the first iteration of Thrive.

Together, Bezar and Elam have “re-launched” Thrive, with the goal of introducing a truly unique approach to serving clients’ needs. Rather than “selling services,” they aim to educate clients so they can make decisions that should best position them to achieve their financial goals. Depending on the client, those goals might include unburdening oneself from debt, becoming financially independent, creating a financial legacy or simply earning more income to ensure a comfortable retirement.

Generally speaking, Thrive caters to three kinds of clients: families along Main Street America, with a household income of more than $100,000, who may be looking to eliminate debt and/or save for their children’s college education; pre-retirees and retirees over the age of 50 who have more than $100,000 of investable assets and know that they need to make immediate investment decisions; and small-business owners who are looking to build equity and protect the investments they have made in their companies.

“If there’s one thing we’re totally focused on, it’s securing a monthly guaranteed income for our clients,” Bezar says. “But if someone is looking for insurance coverage or legacy planning or something else, we have advisors in our firm to provide solutions for all those matters. We have built a firm with an array of products and services to suit every client’s needs. For us, providing financial education first is paramount; this allows people to be involved in making the right choices for them and their families or businesses.

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 3.58.46 PM“We’re completely independent, which positions us to always act in the best fiduciary interests of our clients,” he continues. “We don’t believe in complicated solutions. Instead, we have relationships with all kinds of financial institutions— mutual funds, annuities, life insurance, mortgage companies and banks—so we can always provide best-in-class offerings. Thrive has taken an advocacy approach to serving clients; it’s about being an advocate versus being a salesperson. This attitude puts us on the same side of the table as our clients. Our experience and expertise enable us to create financial plans that can help clients achieve their goals. The financial plans we do for clients are complimentary, and we’re confident those clients are going to come to us when it’s time to put those plans into action.”

Elam agrees, adding that the firm has a commitment to do “zero selling” in the first interaction with a potential client. “Unless there’s a pure and immediate need with a client in that first meeting, such as setting them up with life insurance, there’s no selling upfront because education is priority No. 1,” says Elam, president of Thrive. “If someone says they can solve all your problems the first time you meet them, run!

“People are uneducated or undereducated when it comes to what to do with their money, and there was a huge injustice in what we saw out there,” he continues. “So many people in this business only talk about accumulation, but we’re more focused on distribution because you could spend as much time in retirement as you do in the accumulation years. If you plan for that too late in life, it’s hard to make that adjustment. We want to help make the transition as smooth as possible, and we want to make sure all the pieces of the plan complement each other.”

An example of a revolutionary strategy to  help a family protect its financial future is something called Living Benefits—essentially, life insurance that provides a financial payout to the insured person while he or she is still alive. Living Benefits is an advance cash payment of part of an insurance policy prior to the death of the insured person, for certain conditions as defined in the policy. These flexible, affordable life-insurance solutions enable a family to access these benefits as a way to “bridge the gap” when such funds are needed most, particularly in matters of chronic, critical or terminal illness.

“Seventy percent of people age 65 and older will be affected by heart attack, cancer or stroke, and something like that can be financially devastating,” says Elam. “Yes, you might have survived, but the last thing you want to do in a situation like that is go back to work when you should be focused on getting better. Living Benefits insurance is another way for us to help make you as bulletproof as possible. Hope for the best and plan for the worst—that’s our job. We remind people all the time, telling them, ‘Risk is for people who don’t have money, who don’t have what you have. All we have to do is help you not lose.’”

In addition to Bezar, Elam and a team of corporate support staff, Thrive maintains a growing network of affiliated financial professionals carrying both the banner and the philosophy of Thrive. Thrive’s Financial Resource Center provides no-cost tools and training to licensed financial professionals who, in turn, can educate and empower clients to make prudent financial decisions to position themselves for prosperous financial futures. More than 20 independent financial advisors are currently under the Thrive umbrella, with the goal of expanding to 50 in 2015. The firm seeks individuals with “the X factor,” according to Bezar, meaning confident and consummate professionals who have an established network and a strong desire to help others. “We can teach them everything else,” he says. Ultimately, the firm hopes to have a national footprint.

As part of its expansion plan, Thrive has relocated to a new state-of-the-art corporate headquarters at 1015 Virginia Drive in Fort Washington. The new facility will have a world-class presentation room, with space for as many as 30 people, to be used for client presentations and educational seminars on a range of financial topics—everything from Social Security maximization to 401(k) rollovers to how to set financial goals.

Regardless of the location or the mode of interaction with current and prospective clients, Thrive works to establish a rapport, earn trust and provide a roadmap to help people stay on track to meet their financial goals 10, 20, even 30 years into the future.

“I always tell people that the better educated they are, the better decisions they can make,” Elam says. “That’s why we’re here— to help families, to grow businesses and to build communities.”