15th Anniversary of RPAY: Ellen Lander

Lander says her practice, Renaissance Benefit Advisors Group, thoroughly enjoys its independence.

Ellen Lander

Since being named the 2019 PLANSPONSOR Retirement Plan Adviser of the Year, Ellen Lander, a principal at Renaissance Benefit Advisors Group (RBA) in New York City, says her practice has not changed in terms of team size or focus.

“We remain an independent retirement plan advisory practice focused solely on the needs of qualified retirement plan sponsors and their participants,” she says.

Lander says it was her overwhelming enthusiasm for the business that helped propel the growth of Renaissance Benefit Advisors.

“I started RBA from scratch, coming out of a major retirement plan recordkeeping firm,” she says. “My practice began with a whole lot of conviction on my part—but only one 401(k) client. The practice grew from there, solely through client referrals, all starting with that one client, who remains a client today.”

Lander says that while her service model has not changed, today RBA provides all services to support a client’s plan, including investment, compliance, governance and plan design services.

“I would say that where we are spending most of our time has changed,” she says. “We are spending far less time on investment areas and far more time with compliance, governance, mergers and acquisition [M&A] work and plan design. Likewise, we haven’t changed our relationships with our strategic partners and peers. We continue to love our independence.”

As to how the industry has changed in the past 10 years, Lander says, “Our industry has evolved in step with the evolution of ERISA [the Employee Retirement Income Security Act] and, dare I say it, all of the ERISA litigation that has provided us so many learning moments and areas to re-evaluate with our clients.”

Lander says she is totally optimistic about the future of the retirement plan industry.

“The decisions that retirement plan sponsors make have a huge impact on their employees’ financial futures,” Lander adds. “ERISA is enormously complex. Fiduciary liabilities are real, and every decision a sponsor makes has so many implications. More than ever, plan sponsors need to have expert-level advice and guidance and be provided fully objective viewpoints to allow them to make fully informed, fiduciary-level decisions. That’s our job as advisers, to provide that.”

While many advisers say financial wellness is now playing a larger role in retirement plans, Lander says education has always been important, so she doesn’t think the importance of financial wellness has increased. “That said,” she adds, “I do think that what has changed are the topics that need to be covered. One huge topic is decumulation strategies.”

Since the pandemic hit, Renaissance Benefit Advisors has been having different conversations with clients, Lander says.

“We’re probing a lot of the new provisions with the SECURE [Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement] Act,” she says. “Do we move forward with the CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security] Act loans and distributions? Do we hurt or help participants by adding them? Do we adopt the QBOAD [qualified birth or adoption distributions] provision? Is the new long-term, part-time employee rule going to impact our plans? We are also carefully watching plan metrics such as any drop-offs in contributions or an increase in loans. We are asking ourselves whether we need to offer focused education on any one area. Do we need to consider changing a plan’s design?”

Finally, as to what retirement plan advisers can do to improve the health and prospects of defined contribution (DC) plans and participants, Lander says it is clear: “Make sure plan sponsors understand their fiduciary responsibilities. ERISA is a beautiful body of law and while excruciatingly complex, I see it as simple at its core. It urges us to do the right thing for employees. As advisers, we need to stay at the forefront of the seemingly nonstop changes in laws, recordkeeper capabilities and new products being introduced to make sure that we provide our clients objective and complete information on benefits and their implications and risks, so that they can make fully informed and vetted decisions to protect the plan and their participants.”