2018 PLANSPONSOR Retirement Plan Adviser of the Year

David Griffin, Atlanta Retirement Partners

Atlanta, Georgia

PA: Tell us about your practice and how you and your team members got into advising retirement plans.

I started Atlanta Retirement Partners (ARP) a little over five years ago. Previously I worked as an advisor to employee benefits as well as retirement plans. Preferring the retirement side of the business, my eyes were opened to just how necessary this work was after my father’s passing. I learned then that people, regardless of means, have challenges properly preparing for retirement and most people need good counsel. I decided through that experience that I wanted to own my own firm and focus on the side of the business where I could impact the most lives. That led me to working solely on group retirement plans. We are now fortunate to work with over 90 plans including private organizations, nonprofits, schools, and governments.


PA: How is your team/process/structure unique? How has it evolved? Where will you be in five years?

Our structure is unique because we were built to serve qualified plans. The evolution has been steady and swift. It all started with me handling all facets of the organization from sales to service to information technology (IT) back in the beginning of 2013. As I gained clients, I hired one of my favorite account managers from OneAmerica to help me support the clients. A year later, I hired my favorite account manager from Principal. And a year after that, I added a unique individual that worked with a competitor and subsequently at a managed account provider. The breadth and diversity of my support staff is truly one of the best moves I have made. My philosophy was to hire the most experienced people, give them flexibility and time with their families, and let them thrive in a unique environment. The concept has worked exceptionally well.

In five years I am confident we will oversee 175 plans and make a lasting impact on the participants and plan sponsors that we serve. I also strongly believe in helping our local community thrive through our work and through giving back by supporting local charities.


PA: What have you done in the past year to improve participants’ retirement readiness?

We have incorporated third party wellness programs tied to personalized coaching (provided by ARP) in a ‘series’ structure for employee groups we call ‘boot camp’. With employer buy-in, we have been able to not only drastically increase participation rates, but also solve for key problems facing America’s younger workers including managing debt, budgeting, investing basics, and long-term planning. These programs are typically comprised of a six-to-eight-part series where we engage with the employees over the course of six months to 18 months. We have found results to be very telling and are implementing similar programs for additional clients. We charge a project fee based on head count and the curriculum. For those competitors that argue that ‘education doesn’t work’, it’s simply not true. The industry has just approached education the wrong way.


PA: Describe any particularly initiatives you have led with your customer base in the past 12 months, or any plans for the next 12 months.

We have made a significant push to include socially responsible investments on all plans. We have also added automated features (both enrollment and escalation) to all agendas to encourage client adoption. Even if the client has said no previously, we think it’s important to keep addressing. Both initiatives have been well received. We are firm believers in plan design optimization coupled with education to maximize outcomes.


PA: As a retirement plan adviser, what do you take the most pride in?

I love it when a participant pulls me aside to tell me that although they have been ‘educated’ by many financial ‘advisers’ in the past, this was the first time that it made sense. Our industry is wrought with jargon and poor communication efforts. We find that keeping things simple and enlightening is a way to get through, gain trust, and move the needle.


PA: What benchmarks do you use to measure plan and client success? How do you react to clients or prospects who don’t share your goals for their retirement plan?

Participation and Deferral rates. For clients that don’t share my goals, I approach them from the healthcare “spend” side to show them the downside of not getting behind a successful retirement strategy.


PA: What are the most important issues that your plan sponsors face with their company retirement plan, and what specific actions do you take to assist them in overcoming those issues?

This is a real differentiator for us. We have a niche in the government space (we advise seven different governmental plans totaling 170m in assets). The issues facing the government market is unique in that smaller governmental plans have to offer benefits that are on par with the traditional pension plans offered by larger municipalities which have grown very costly. Our unique experience in the government space has been to assist decision makers with creating a defined contribution offering that can attract and retain employees like a traditional pension offering. Through proper design, this can be achieved as we have proven time and time again. The tax payers (and voters) have embraced this approach as municipalities can operate with a much clearer budget and have a very concise vision of future costs based on head count and salaries rather than actuarial assumptions (which rely on assumptions that are often a bit too rosy). We have also assisted governments with dual defined benefit (DB) and defined contribution (DC) plans to open a ‘window’ for people to convert their DB accrued benefit to a DC balance. This has been a unique approach that has had a very positive impact for clients that want to provide choice for employees.


PA: How do you grow your business?

I have focused on providing an exceptional experience for clients which has in turn led to referrals. Developing referral sources has been the best marketing approach for our market.


PA: What changes to your practice or service model are you planning for 2018?

We are going to do more custom education projects for clients that really want to improve on retirement readiness and employee satisfaction. We are also actively participating in associations for our niche markets, speaking at conferences, participating as a lecturer for ‘plan sponsor’ schools, and doing some traditional marketing such as mailers, webinars on various topics, and good, old-fashioned phone calls.


PA: What challenges do you think the retirement plan industry faces and what role do you have in addressing and confronting those challenges?

The biggest risk to our industry is legislative. We can all be severely impacted immediately by legislation. It is critical that as advisers we excel at what we do, do it in an honest and ethical manner, and provide true value for the fees that we collect. It is also imperative that we move the needle from a readiness standpoint as that will carry weight in Washington.


PA: How do you select what recordkeeping providers to work with and how many relationships do you currently have across your client base?

We currently work with about 10 providers. I’d prefer to have only three, but the truth is we want to create minimal disruption for new clients, so it benefits us all if we can fix their current ‘problems’ before ever recommending a provider change. We value our recordkeeper relationships who provide support allowing us to be efficient in supporting as many plans and participants as possible. If we continue to partner with innovative providers through technology, educational support, excellent customer service, and flexibility, together we can thrive. A partner that is easy to do business with is always what we seek.


Business at a Glance

How many plan assets do you have under advisement? $815 million

What is your median plan size (in assets)? $10M

How many plans do you have under administration? 95

How many participants in total do you serve? 11,000