Get to know the people behind the financial advice in our Planner Profile series.
Growing up in Ypsilanti, Michigan, Mike Watson loved science and fully intended to make that his career. But after earning his biology degree from Grambling State University and going on to intern in the research departments of several major universities, he realized that working in a lab was not his passion after all.
He moved to be closer to his family and found success selling cell phones for a nationwide carrier—where he was quickly promoted to manager. “But I started to feel like a bait-and-switch type sales guy,” he says. “And that didn’t really sit well with me.”
So when a multinational financial services company recruited him to be a personal banker, he jumped at the chance. “That is when my journey into financial wellness really began,” he says. “Working at the bank gave me a fundamental understanding of some of the basic money skills I was lacking.”
Watson soon began in-house training to become a financial advisor but found he wasn’t in a position to help people as much as he felt they deserved. But when he got a recruiting call from Northwestern Mutual, “I could tell immediately that it would be a good fit,” he says. “And the rest is history.”
Watson now works as a financial advisor and growth and development director in Atlanta. Below, he shares the journey that led him to become an advocate for financial education, how he’s committed to being a voice for his community and the legacy he hopes to establish.
How did you first learn about money?
My parents mainly taught me that I needed to make money for things I wanted, which helped me establish my work ethic. Though they taught me that it’s good to save money, I simply thought of it as a means for acquiring nice clothes, cars or status as opposed to a tool for building wealth. So compared to many people, I got a late start on my financial education but I consider it a blessing. I know where a lot of my clients are coming from and that makes me an even greater financial advisor.
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What’s the best piece of financial advice you ever got?
Know your credit score and how to build it. I wish I would have gotten this advice when I was 18 years old. I knew not to use credit cards to buy something I didn’t have the money to pay for. But wasn’t until much later that I learned using a credit card strategically can be a good tool for building your credit score, which will get you better interest rates on everything from auto and business loans to mortgages and other credit cards. This is a great lesson to teach children to help them understand how finances work.
When you meet with people who have kids, do you try to bring that up as soon as possible?
My biggest focus is making sure the parents have a solid financial education so that they can disseminate that information to their children. Then they also start to build good habits so the kids can learn from their example. I’ve had more than one client tell me, “I’m so happy that you sent me that budget spreadsheet and you taught me how to understand my bank statements. I am teaching it to my kids now.”
Part of my mission is to be the person from their community who they come to talk to about the importance of budgeting and credit and where to put your money. I know I can really help people—and if I do my job right, help their grandchildren and great grandchildren, too.
What would you say are your clients’ biggest concerns right now?
A lot of people are worried about what's going to happen in the market over the next few years. Many of them are concerned with running out of money in retirement. Some of them are struggling to get themselves out of debt. The good news is that we have strategies for all of these situations. I love diving deep into these issues with my clients to help them understand that there's a light at the end of the tunnel.
What’s the most satisfying moment you’ve had as a financial advisor?
On a personal level, I was able to convince everyone in my family to get comprehensive life insurance policies—beyond what they had through their work benefits. Making sure they all had this protection was a huge relief because I have seen what a devastating event can do to a family that doesn’t have this type of safety net. I'm also very serious about generational wealth and I wanted to make sure that my family had an opportunity to provide that to their children as well. The type of life insurance policies my family members own feature a death benefit that will never expire. That means they will pass down a legacy to our family's next generation.
Also, I am genuinely gratified every time someone says to me, “If I hadn’t met you, I don’t know where I would be.” Or, “I was looking for a financial advisor, I prayed about it and then you reached out to me.” When I look back on the challenges I’ve faced, I wish I had met someone like me when I was coming up. I’ve always been ambitious and hungry, but I didn’t have someone to guide me. So having the opportunity to do that, not only for clients, but for people in general, is very fulfilling.
What do you love most about your job?
I love helping people and teaching them how to shape—or reshape—their mindsets about money. For me, it’s not really a job. It’s an opportunity to brighten people’s days by showing them the light at the end of the tunnel. It allows me to wow people by showing them opportunities they never knew that they had and a wide range of the possibilities that they can achieve. Being able to spread knowledge is so gratifying. I’m a big fan of old school educators like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Fred Hampton. When they saw a problem within the community, they took action and inspired others to do the same. I see myself in that same light. I am a trailblazer in the community fighting to spread financial education.
How do you like to give back?
I am the founder of our firm’s Black Empowerment Initiative. Our mission is to create an intentional community and career development opportunities for Black and African American advisors and staff within Northwestern Mutual to increase retention, business productivity and engagement. Our core values are development, retention, recruiting and production. We also partner with several organizations to do community service, including Open Hand and Family Promise. With our local Boys & Girls Club, we sponsor Back-to-School Jams where we provide backpacks, school supplies, food and a good time for the less privileged communities of Atlanta.
We’ve sponsored Community Conversation events (in conjunction with the NM home office) where we invite the local community in for real conversations about money and the hurdles we have to overcome in the Black community to build wealth.
I also chair the Foundation Board for Atlanta Technical College, which is a local trade school. We raise funds for the college to help provide scholarships to students who would have to drop out of school if they could not get the funds they need to continue. Our goal is to raise $1.5 million for scholarships this year—and we’re already halfway there.
What’s your biggest financial goal?
I love building a business and I believe in my charity work, but I am all about family. So I am working to create a dynasty trust for my family and my heirs. I have a vision that my grandchildren will be able to create businesses for themselves from what I have established during my lifetime. I would also love to create a scholarship foundation at my alma mater, which would be a legacy for the Watson family name in the name of education.