Only Five Percent of Decisions are Mission-Critical, Don’t Stress the Rest: Business and Leadership Tips with Adam Balinsky

By Casmin Wisner

Everyone who starts a business makes mistakes. The key is learning from them and making sure that they don’t get repeated too often.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Balinsky, president of Fifth Season Financial. He passionately believes in the mission of his company — to help relieve the financial pressures faced by many patients struggling with advanced illnesses including cancer.
Adam recognizes that people facing advanced-stage diseases have incremental financial pressures affecting everyday life that are not being addressed. That’s why Fifth Season’s financial assistance program, FLAG (Funds for Living and Giving), is designed to bridge the gap between the traditional financial assistance programs available to mitigate the direct medical and treatment costs, and the much broader financial needs of patients. The FLAG Program provides patients with money from a non-traditional asset — their existing life insurance policy.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?

I attended McGill University where I received a B.Comm degree, and then attended the University of Toronto where I received my J.D. and a M.B.A. I believe that my experience growing up in Montreal and Toronto have been instrumental to my empathy towards people dealing with advanced illnesses because it formed my view that everyone should have access to healthcare and that a middle-income family with insurance should not be bankrupted by a medical issue — this is a societal responsibility. It was one of the main reasons and influences in my decision to provide financial solutions to these individuals through my company, Fifth Season Financial.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you entered your role with Fifth Season?

At Fifth Season we help people who are in difficult financial situations due to a serious medical illness. This can be a “heavy” environment to work in as we are dealing with really difficult situations and we take our responsibility to these individuals extremely seriously. We have a passionate staff that strives to maintain a daily positive attitude so we provide ways to relieve stress through things like bubble hockey games and team bonding outings. What I have found most interesting is how grateful and full-of-life our clients are, not only towards us, but also towards the help they receive.

I am continually amazed by the sense of humor these individuals have and the optimism they maintain during the most challenging life situations. Probably the most memorable situation to date was when a client came to us in desperate need of money to prevent foreclosure on her house and our team worked tirelessly to secure her funding on the final day prior to entering foreclosure. It was an incredible feeling to see the tangible and immediate impact we had on a client’s life.

What do you think makes your team stand out?

Our team’s professionalism and compassion are unparalleled. We deal with three concepts that people either dislike or hate to discuss, all day long, every day: serious illness, financial planning and life insurance. It takes a special group of people who care deeply for each and every client, working through complex issues, all the while maintaining a positive and respectful demeanor towards these deserving individuals. When someone new comes into our work world, 99% of the time they are facing challenges most people don’t want to think about, let alone deal with. Each member of our

team plays a role in holding the hand of our clients as we do whatever we have to do to provide critical help people facing true financial adversity and hardship.

What advice would you give to other people in your position to help their employees thrive?

If your employees are truly your biggest and most valuable asset, show it. There may be a lot of smart people out there who could do a portion of what my staff does, but it’s the triple threat of compassion, intellect and passion that makes each team member unique. We do all that we can to let our employees know they are truly valued and appreciated. My advice to employers would be to focus on creating a positive work environment that unites your team around the mission of the company. It sounds trite, but treat your employees like a family and foster an environment that encourages collaboration, innovation, comradery, respect and fun.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who has helped you get to where you are?

There are a number of people who have been critical to my path in life and where I have ended up. However, it is the central figures in my life, my wife and my parents, who have most shaped me into the person I am today. Those early life lessons of helping your fellow man, knowing right from wrong and the importance of family are what have had the greatest impact on my thinking and development.

One of the main inspirations for my implementation of our Funds for Living and Giving program was my wife’s bout with breast cancer. We moved from Toronto to Connecticut in the summer of 2007 for a job opportunity and a year after, she received her diagnosis. We were scared to our core waiting for results and thinking about the decisions we had to make. It was as a result of that experience that I started to think about the financial impact of disease on a family, how the U.S. healthcare system and private insurance works and the potential dire consequences of not being fully insured or having enough savings. Given my Canadian upbringing where health care is universal and government funded, it really got me and my wife thinking about the challenges of the American versus Canadian systems and, specifically, the impact of individual finances. Fortunately, my wife’s cancer was detected at an early stage and has been successfully treated. While we did not personally experience financial hardship, the significant emotional and physical toll associated with a late stage disease is compounded by the financial toxicity that impacts many, many people in the United States. Even those with health insurance are not immune.

What are your best leadership tips?

The tone and values of the company are set at the top. Act the way you want your employees to act. Treat people fairly and with respect — the way you want to be treated. Always stick to your word in both spirit and action.

What are your “7 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became President of My Company,” and why?

  1. Everyone who starts a business makes mistakes. The key is learning from them and making sure that they don’t get repeated too often.
  2. Most of the decisions you make can go either way. However, the five percent of decisions that are mission-critical need to be made fully-informed, with significant foresight and thinking, and need to be right.
  3. Raising capital, even for what could be the most successful ideas, is extremely difficult at the outset. Don’t give up if the initial rounds don’t succeed.
  4. The corollary to #3 is that once you succeed and have a track record, everyone wants to invest money with you. Managing capital inflows and new investors is challenging. In situations where investors are interested but your firm is at capacity — it is easy to take on too much money and then have it sit idle and drag returns. In those cases, saying no to new investment is the strategic move so that the pipeline of outflows and inflows matches.
  5. Don’t forget your family. They are the whole point of your success.
  6. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. No matter how hard you try not to, you will inevitably piss someone off.
  7. Nothing happens on its own. All concepts and ideas need to be nurtured, tended to, developed and worked on if they are to succeed.

Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote?

“Sweet dreams are made of cheese, who am I to dis a Brie?”

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Although he died on my birthday in 1991, I would have enjoyed meeting Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel). I am a big fan of his life story and one of his books, The Sneetches, which I frequently read to my kids. The life lessons in that story were ahead of their time and resonate today in the same way that they did when I read the story as a child. The moral of The Sneetches is that people are people and everyone deserve respect and dignity. I would love to meet the creative mind behind that story.