Plan Participant Service

John O'Brien, Venture Visionary Partners

Sylvania, Ohio

John O'Brien, Venture Visionary PartnersJohn O'Brien, Venture Visionary Partners

Business at a Glance as of 12/31/21

  • Plan assets under advisement: $518,673,226 
  • Median plan size (in assets): $3,151,216
  • Plans under administration: 61
  • Total participants served: 8,296

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

O’Brien: I feel if you choose to dedicate your practice to employer-sponsored retirement plans there is only one place for pride to exist, in the service of others. As plan advisers we have large amounts of assets under advisement, hundreds of millions, if not over a billion. These are not just dollars. They are goals, dreams and the fruits of each individual employee’s hard work.

For most, the 401(k) is going to be their only retirement savings and that is frequently coupled with a lack of basic investment knowledge or access to it. Every group or individual meeting I conduct is another opportunity for participants to learn the benefits of compounding growth, understand why market volatility can present long-term opportunity, or quite simply learn to rationalize savings over spending.

It takes long hours, even longer periods of planning, and comes with a more modest reward than some of our colleagues in private wealth may enjoy for the same time commitments. For me, it doesn’t matter if they’re a newly eligible hourly employee or a salaried highly compensated executive. I take pride in delivering the same level of service to each participant.

PLANADVISER: How do you grow your business? What changes to your practice or service model are you planning for 2022 or 2023?

O’Brien: Since 2019, my business has grown mostly from client and partner referrals. I have always balanced the sponsor and participant service experiences so that one is not subordinate to the other, and clients routinely comment on that commitment. To ensure clients are not adversely impacted by growth I continuously focus on increased efficiency over fees. This became quite difficult in 2020 as COVID precautions and mandates restricted some of the keystones of my practice, on-site and in-person service. I was able to quickly adapt the benefits of remote technologies with plan sponsors and participants, logging more than 300 hours of virtual meetings in 2020 and more than 150 hours in 2021 as on-site meetings resumed.

Looking forward to 2022 and 2023, virtual offerings that allow me greater flexibility to provide participant services is a key focus. Pre-recorded educational webinars for clients with multi-state footprints employ more than 3000 combined participants are being planned. This project will provide plan updates and financial wellness related topics for participants, specific to their plan, that can be accessed on demand, utilizing the employer’s intranet and web hosting, where utilization is measurable. Virtual live meetings will also be incorporated and is expected to drive individual attendance. I believe this will be another tool to emphasize participant service while increasing efficiency, which in turn allows for continued growth and capacity.

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

O’Brien: The greatest challenge I see is adapting and elevating the adviser value proposition for plan sponsors. In 2012, fee disclosure and plan provider practices were at the front of plan sponsor minds and it presented opportunity to build value in advisory relationships, beyond investment guidance. Pricing went down, competition went up, and participant services expanded. Plan sponsors experienced the benefits of a dedicated plan advisor which propelled the conversations and industry forward.

A decade later we have significant platform consolidation, a lack of a uniform standard for fee disclosure reporting, and platforms providing services that mirror the traditional adviser role. This has led to reduced competition, automated advisory solutions, rising prices among providers, and the displacement of options for smaller plans including startups. In some instances, the platforms are defining relationships instead of advisers.

To address these challenges and remain relevant it is important to understand the needs of your client and propose services accordingly, especially if it includes participant service and engagement. Be honest with yourself and decide if your strengths align with their values and priorities. It’s okay to pass on business if they do not. It also takes a bit of humility to understand that not every plan needs an adviser, and that number is likely to increase as platforms expand their services.

PLANADVISER: Why do you feel it is important to work individually with plan participants? 

O’Brien: The push towards automated enrollment has benefited participants in terms of participation and contributions. Structurally, these programs can benefit the plan at the expense of participant confidence and/or understanding. The two most common pieces of feedback I get during initial employee meetings are: “I don’t know how I am invested, whether it is right for me, and if I am contributing enough,” and, “I don’t want to participate, I was auto enrolled, how do I get my money back?”

Knowledge that is conveyed through direct, person to person, interaction has proven time and again to enhance the participant experience. Individual meetings allow a participant to listen, learn at a level suitable for them, gain confidence in their long-term savings goals, and make decisions that impact their individual situation. They take ownership of a benefit they otherwise may have dismissed and have a better understanding of how much control they have. We can discuss risk tolerances, investing mechanics, and address personal factors that can’t otherwise be covered in a group setting.

It is very common for participants to feel they are okay, until market events or personal circumstances change. Individual meetings allow us to expand on behaviors that may present obstacles for long-term success, such as plan loans and headline risk. Employing a regular, predictable, education schedule with active support from plan sponsors benefits the entire plan while building advisor value. This is best accomplished by employers mandating a sign-up time and accommodating the meeting’s delivery during employee scheduled workhours.

PLANADVISER: What are the biggest challenges that plan participants face today and how are you helping to address them?

O’Brien: In my opinion it is the focus on their balance as opposed to its ability to provide the needed income for comfortable retirement. When I first begin meeting with participants a majority lack understanding of how it works when they will retire; rollovers, drawn down percentages, target allocations, and a general understanding of how they will fund retirement expenses. I discuss all these topics during individual meetings, but the greatest impact comes from our financial planning process. It is voluntary and included as part of my service to the plan. We provide planning and goal analysis for any participant willing to take the time and energy to provide the information. It is not contingent upon a private wealth relationship or management of assets outside the plan by our firm, making it truly an educational benefit without strings.

This approach in particular serves to build trust with participants while educating and setting reasonable expectations. The plan is focused on the probability of achieving success given the factors they describe and completely removes any sales-oriented component from the conversation. Knowledge is empowerment and allows for confident decision-making. I’ve had participants with very large balances realize they were likely to encounter income shortfalls and the plan allowed them to adjust their savings and investing behaviors to achieve a higher probability of success. In contrast, I’ve had participants that were delaying retirement because they didn’t have that magic million-dollar 401(k). Planning allowed them to realize they had more than enough to retire immediately if they wanted to, based on their income needs and goals.

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