15th Anniversary of RPAY: James Worrell

James Worrell has seen his team expand with more members, assets under management and a new service model since he won the Retirement Plan Adviser of the Year award in 2011.

Since winning the 2011 PLANSPONSOR Retirement Plan Adviser of the Year award, James Worrell, who was then, president of GPS Investment Advisors in Providence, Rhode Island, has seen his practice experience exponential growth. In 2015, he co-founded Strategic Retirement Partners (SRP), and since 2011, Worrell’s team has doubled to a total of eight. Assets have quadrupled to $2.2 billion, and plan count has increased 60% to 72. Back in 2011, GPS Investment Advisors served only 45 plans.

The practice has continued to serve all plan types, including pension plans, 457 and 401(a) plans, and nonqualified plans, although Worrell and his team primarily concentrate on 401(k) and 403(b) plans.

As to how the service model has changed in the past nine years, Worrell says that, “In the time since I won the award in 2011, I co-founded Strategic Retirement Partners, so we now have a presence in 20 locations across the country, with roughly 80 associates dedicated to retirement plan consulting. Our activities are more specialized, systematic and consistent. Having subject matter experts within SRP allows me and others within SRP to focus more narrowly where each individual team member’s expertise can add the most value to clients.”

For instance, team members can focus on employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), defined benefit (DB) and cash balance plans. They also can help plan sponsor clients run specialized committees, such as the investment, participant engagement, marketing, consulting and risk committees, Worrell says.

As to how the retirement plan industry has changed these past few years, Worrell says, “We now serve clients and their employees in a wide variety of ways that address ‘financial wellness’ within one relationship. Consulting firms have continued to grow more specialized and larger. We have also become, as an industry, better partners to our clients—deepening our relationships with an ability to help them holistically address their benefit and participant experience.”

Worrell says he greatly enjoys working in this industry. “I love our industry, and the opportunity we have to help people by improving their plans and financial lives,” he says. “There is still plenty of room for improving access [to retirement plans], participation, savings rates and investment allocations.”

While he says he believes there is still a lot of work at hand for retirement plan advisers to help sponsors and participants achieve their goals, Worrell calls this challenge “energizing” and characterizes the role of retirement plan advisers as “change agents” responsible for “improving the lives of hundreds of millions of American workers.”

Worrell says it is critical that financial wellness programs broadly address all financial goals and challenges, pointing out that there are tens of millions of Americans saddled with an average of $37,000 in student loan debt and that many Americans will have to grapple with the rising cost of health insurance in retirement. “Holistic financial wellness programs must be front and center,” Worrell maintains.

He says working for the past five months during the coronavirus pandemic “has been very difficult for clients and, of course, for us as advisers, too.” However, he adds, SRP was able to seamlessly transition its employees to work remotely from home because the practice had set up this infrastructure in 2015, along with a well-defined business continuity plan (BCP).

In addition, he stresses, he has experienced several market crises before, and this perspective has helped him advise sponsors and participants on staying the course in the markets despite the market volatility.

However, Worrell is quick to note, what the world is experiencing now with the pandemic has never occurred before. “With the economy grinding to a halt and historic market volatility ensuing due to the pandemic—this is something we have never before seen,” he says. In response, SRP has made itself more available than ever before to consult with participants and sponsors via video conferences, Worrell says. “I encouraged employees to be there for our clients in this time of need,” he adds. He has also made it a point to check in with each of his employees individually to find out what they might need for support.

At internal meetings with his team, Worrell asks them to talk about something positive in their lives for which they are grateful. “Hearing each of our colleagues relate positive stories resonates and inspires us and sets a great tone,” Worrell says. He says it is critical for retirement plan practices to set an example as leaders, for that will “define us, our organizations and our client relationships for years to come.” Despite the challenges facing businesses right now, Worrell maintains, “we are strengthening relationships with clients and partners by supporting them now.”

As to what types of new conversations SRP is having with clients now, Worrell says he and his team are spending a great deal of time consulting with clients on the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act provisions and going over data from their recordkeepers on COVID-19-related loans and withdrawals their participants are taking from their 401(k) accounts.

Finally, as to what retirement plan advisers can do to improve participants’ retirement readiness, Worrell says, “That is a huge question. This is our sole focus and purpose every day, so I could go on for hours, but in a nutshell: Leverage our expertise in behavioral economics and plan design to create the best environment and conditions for success. We must bring every bit of experience, expertise, statistics, anecdotes and empirical evidence to the table to help our clients get their participants to those successful outcomes.”