15th Anniversary of RPAY: Heffernan Financial Services

Despite the lack of in-person communication in 2020, the practice has gained a fair amount of new business by disseminating promotional videos.

Blake Thibault

Since being named the 2015 PLANSPONSOR Retirement Plan Adviser Team of the Year, Heffernan Financial Services has expanded its footprint from its base in San Francisco by opening additional offices in Seattle and Irvine, California, says Blake Thibault, managing director.

That’s not the only thing that has changed for the practice in the past five years, Thibault says.

“We have really beefed up our employee engagement in terms of education and communication and a financial wellness program that we have developed, and we have taken on a little more 3(38) fiduciary work,” he adds.

About 60% of Heffernan Retirement Services’ clients are for-profit companies, primarily in the technology, manufacturing and hotel industries, and 40% are not-for-profit K-12 schools and colleges and universities, Thibault says.

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Heffernan made it a point to become more engaged with clients via virtual meetings and webinars, he says. When lockdowns were in place in many parts of the country, the practice took the opportunity to emphasize the importance of automatic enrollment and escalation to those clients not currently using these plan design features, he says. “We think these are critical—but not the end-all and be-all. They must be coupled with education and a discussion with participants on the importance of successful outcomes.”

Thibault says winning the Retirement Plan Adviser of the Year (RPAY) award has made it easier for Heffernan Retirement Services to have these discussions with clients, as “the award underscored our passion and dedication.”

As to how the industry has changed in the past five years, Thibault says the pressure on fees has continued to drive them downward, even as clients are expecting more services. And recordkeepers, by offering financial wellness programs, retirement education and managed portfolios, put additional pressure on retirement practices’ offerings.

That said, Thibault believes retirement plan sponsors have an increased appreciation for independent fiduciaries, such as Heffernan. “Independent fiduciaries, like us, deliver what is appropriate for employees,” he maintains. “One thing we have really learned is that plan participants want to talk to advisers and get nonbiased advice. We have gained a stronghold with our clients on this point.”

Thibault says that with the retirement planning industry now being served by more specialist advisers than in 2015, he is more optimistic about the future prospects of the industry. “There are more specialists, like us, who are up-to-date on regulatory changes and other impactful changes, and we can help clients by educating them on these. There are many terrific advisers out there. Five years ago, it was a little more of the Wild West, with folks from wirehouses serving just two to three retirement plans, charging high fees and not providing concentrated services.”

Thibault says he is also encouraged by more advisers offering holistic financial wellness programs that can really move the needle on individuals’ personal finances. “One positive of the pandemic is that it has prompted people to pay more attention to their finances,” he says. “We have also been able to include spouses in our virtual one-on-one meetings with participants and helped raise awareness of the vital importance of their 401(k) plans.”

Heffernan also began rolling out videos this past year to educate sponsors and participants alike.

In fact, while many practices have been struggling to prospect for new business in the past year, Heffernan has landed a number of new clients by developing videos, Thibault says. “We are constantly talking as a team about what we can do to get in front of clients and prospects,” he says.

These videos have proven so popular that Heffernan has developed a complete calendar for 2021 for 12 new videos to be filmed.

Another strength of Heffernan, Thibault believes, is that it understands each client is unique and treats them as such.

As to how advisers can improve defined contribution (DC) plans and participant outcomes, Thibault says “advisers should have a true, written action plan that covers not only fiduciary support but plan design and communication and education goals.”

Heffernan, in fact, develops such a plan for each client. Each January, the practice updates clients on progress made on the action plan and revises it with new goals for the coming year. “This way, we hold our feet and our clients’ feet to the fire,” Thibault says.