Large Team

The J&R Group of Merrill Lynch

Chicago, Illinois

The J&R Group of Merrill LynchThe J&R Group of Merrill Lynch

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

We are a tightly knit group of 11 professionals working together to support the needs of our clients and their constituents. All of us have a base of knowledge in general wealth management. Since our team’s founding more than 20 years ago, we have added key partners and associates along the way to support our development into a top-tier institutional consulting and investment management practice. Key additions to the team have been other Merrill Lynch colleagues who we thought would be a good fit, competitive hires, new hires straight out of college or from other industries, as well as college interns who have matriculated into full-time positions with our team. As our industry has called for greater knowledge and specialization, we have sharpened our focus in order to be able to deliver a full-service co-fiduciary relationship to every client.


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

We are often asked, “Which members of your team are responsible for institutional relationships and which members only handle ‘retail’ (wealth management) relationships?” Rather than isolating certain team members to work only with certain types of clients, we have taken a different approach.  Every financial adviser on our team who serves as the lead relationship manager on an institutional relationship is also required to serve in a lead relationship manager capacity on certain wealth management relationships. This necessitates the adviser to continuously sharpen their knowledge of the capital markets and, importantly, requires that adviser to stay current on matters of personal finance that have front-of-mind relevance to our institutional clients’ employees.  At the end of the day, our core constituents (the people who determine our success) are the employees of the organizations we serve. We have a responsibility to help them to get “retirement-ready” by improving their employers’ retirement programs and helping the employees to better understand these programs. Unlike many other institutional retirement advisory teams, we take pride in the fact that we gladly work directly with Plan participants to educate them on the best way to prepare themselves for their respective financial futures.


PA: Describe any particularly initiatives you have led with your customer base in the past 12 months (investment or education or plan design or communication) or any plans for the next 12 months.

We continue to go to great strides to provide direct education to our clients’ employees.  While many other advisers will exclusively use the recordkeeper to handle employee education, we have taken a different approach with our business historically and it has worked to help us positively impact our clients and to differentiate ourselves form other advisers. Over the past year, we have continued to work to expand our educational offerings to provide the greatest possible impact to each individual employee retirement plan participant. In addition to standard recordkeeper “800” call center numbers that can be impersonal and “robotic” in nature, we have our own toll-free participant access number, 888-JRG-401k, which is made available to all employee participants of the retirement plans that we oversee.  We have a dedicated staff who answers this line during business hours, to help each participant make the most of his or her retirement program.


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

We take pride in the satisfaction of our clients as well as our coworkers. We serve many constituents.  Most notably, our constituents are our clients, who we value tremendously and to whom we strive to express this importance throughout every step of the relationship. Secondarily, our constituents are our coworkers, including our own team members as well as our colleagues. We work hard to be correctly viewed as a good team to work for and a good team to work with. Our staff needs to be happy otherwise the work suffers, and our colleagues need to be happy otherwise they will stop introducing us to their valued relationships. We feel fortunate that staff turnover is consistently very low, staff members have continually worked their way up the ladder within our team, and colleagues continue to refer their clients to us for institutional retirement and investment consulting needs.


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

We are proud to say that our number one source of new business is introductions from our colleagues at Merrill Lynch and Bank of America. We have worked hard to make our colleagues comfortable in introducing their clients to us, as a way for them to expand their client relationships and to be able to leverage our expertise.  We take these relationships extremely seriously and we work diligently to convey the appropriate reputation for our team as professionals who can be relied upon.

An additional source of new business comes from clients who get to know us through our work with their organization, and then leave to join another organization. We are proud of the fact that many of our new relationships have stemmed from existing relationships with finance and human resources professionals who leave a client, join another company, and then call us up to ask us to get involved with their new company.  There is no better endorsement of the quality of our work. Fortunately, this trend has continued into 2017 and 2018, with several examples of past clients who have reached out to us for assistance with their new organization’s retirement programs.


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

One specific area of importance that we feel passionate about is the role that we can play in making the rollover process easier. As an industry, we are embarrassingly antiquated in the way that retirement plan participant rollovers are handled. Despite increased usage of electronic means for the transfer of investment account balances from one financial institution to another, our industry has made zero progress in this area as relates to 401(k) balances. To this day, the only way to transfer a 401(k) balance from one major retirement plan recordkeeper to another is via the issuance of a physical check. As average participant balance sizes have increased, we have failed to develop an automated system to allow for the paperless transfer of these balances, which are increasingly in the six-figure range or higher. 

Additionally, many recordkeepers try to “scare” participants out of processing a rollover by threatening them with questions like “have you reviewed your Plan’s ‘special tax notice’?”, to which the participant needs to answer affirmatively before the rollover can be processed. In the case of a plan-to-plan transfer, this is unnecessary. We absolutely need to get better in this area. Don’t we want to encourage employees to transfer their 401(k) balance from one employer to another as they build their retirement savings?  For the time being, our team has tried to counteract these recordkeeper tactics by conducting conference calls between us, the participant, and the ‘losing’ recordkeeper, to counteract the recordkeeper’s efforts to keep the assets under their custody. Our industry needs to come up with an automated clearing house to handle rollovers, similar to the brokerage industry’s “ACATS” system.


Business at a Glance

How many plan assets do you have under advisement? Nearly $1.5 billion of retirement plan assets

What is your median plan size (in assets)? $19 million

How many plans do you have under administration? 195

How many participants in total do you serve? 44,000