Since being named the 2019 PLANSPONSOR Small Team Retirement Plan Adviser of the Year, Atlanta Retirement Partners has hired an additional staff member from a third-party administrator (TPA). Shawn Slemons is now a client relationship manager at the firm, says David Griffin, founder of the practice and director of institutional retirement plans.
“I hired Shawn, my favorite TPA guru, to add TPA expertise, and he has been a great differentiator for us,” Griffin says.
Atlanta Retirement Partners, located in Georgia’s capital city, has always specialized in governmental plans, and, in the past year, it has added two such clients, he notes.
“Our service model has changed in the past two years a bit in that as we continue to add customers, it has created a bit of a time crunch for me personally,” Griffin says. “I have always enjoyed working with plan participants, but with 135 institutional customers now, it has become hard for me to work with individual participants, so I have delegated that work to our service team, while I concentrate on large presentations and onboarding clients.”
Griffin says the industry has changed considerably in the past 10 years. “I have been at the helm of this firm for the past eight years since we rebranded as Atlanta, and in this time, there has been so much consolidation and so much more specialization by retirement plan practices. Clearly, we have seen the hobbyist retirement plan adviser producers become less interested in the area due to increasing liabilities and fee compression. We have seen benefits brokers and these hobbyists leave the business, enabling practices such as mine to take over their small books of business. At the same time, aggregators are having a dominant impact on our industry in that they can leverage technology and reduce expenses. At the end of the day, these trends have allowed specialty firms like ours to thrive and serve more organizations.”
Griffin says he is very optimistic about the future of the retirement plan industry. “I am a big believer in an ‘abundance mentality,’ always have been,” he says. “I have always been friends with my competitors in this market. There is an opportunity for us all to have a nice piece of the pie. Like any business, we have risks, the biggest being legislative risk. What we do have control over is the type of customers we look to attract and retain, and how we charge for our services and disclose our fees. As long as we continue to move the needle on plan design and retirement readiness, there is plenty of opportunity for us to continue to grow.”
Griffin says he has witnessed a growing acceptance among plan sponsors for holistic financial wellness. “There has been a tremendous convergence of health and wealth and human resources [HR] professionals looking to have a single benefits solution,” he says. “As demand for this type of service rises, this has led to further consolidation of our business. At the end of the day, this consolidation can benefit plan participants, and that will continue to exist.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the beginning of last year, Atlanta Retirement Partners was already prepared to work virtually, as Griffin founded his practice on that principle. “Eight years ago, when I founded Atlanta Retirement Partners, I was very budget conscious and decided on a cloud-based service model with our team members working from home, and that has served me well, even before the advent of COVID-19.”
In fact, in 2020, the practice experienced significant growth, attracting more than 20 new customers, Griffin notes. “I am very pleased with how things went for us last year,” he says. “Our cloud-based approach gave us a head start, though we are now using more videos than before.”
Griffin also says the conversations the firm was having with clients shifted in the past year.
“The real change in our conversations in the past year has been in regard to the CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security] Act,” Griffin says. “When it was first enacted, there was a lot of confusion in the marketplace. Participants thought they should take money out of their retirement plans and invest in somewhere else, so we provided a lot of education for them on staying the course and the value of dollar-cost averaging. For sponsors, we had many conversations about enacting parts of the CARES Act. A lot of recordkeepers were doing negative consent, so we had to carefully monitor that and communicate the terms to our sponsor clients. Forty percent of our sponsors decided to permit CARES distributions for their participants—but we put guardrails in place requiring these participants to have a conversation with us first before taking out the loan or hardship withdrawal. That succeeded in acting as a stop-gap measure and convinced many participants to keep their money in their plans. It created some work for us, but that work was necessary, and our clients were appreciative of our efforts at the end of the day.”
As to what retirement plan advisers can do to improve defined contribution (DC) plans and participants’ outcomes, Griffin says, “It sounds very simple, but it comes down to having the right conversations with decisionmakers and helping them care about their qualified plans. We want to work with clients who truly care about their participants. They are the best clients. When you can have those deep, strategic planning conversations on plan design and education, your customers look at you as a real partner in working to have a meaningful impact on plan participants. That is what I love about the business.”