Plan Participant Service

Sean Bjork, Bjork Asset Management, Inc.

Northbrook, Illinois

Sean Bjork, Bjork Asset Management, Inc.Sean Bjork, Bjork Asset Management, Inc.

Business at a Glance as of 12/31/21:

–             Plan assets under advisement: $412 million  

–             Median plan size (in assets): $5.4 million

–             Plans under administration: 34

–             Total participants served: 4,529


PLANADVISER: Tell us about your practice and how you got into advising retirement plans.

Bjork: My practice was historically plan only with participant advice and guidance delivered within the context of the workplace retirement savings plan. Over the last handful of years, we have seen not only a convergence of health and wealth conversations but a broadening of the conversations we’re having with both sponsors and participants regarding their financial lives beyond the retirement plan. Today, we are building out comprehensive financial planning and wealth management capabilities to serve participants more holistically and support their broader financial decisions.

My background as a workplace benefits generalist provided the experiences that I feel shape how we serve our clients today. Fresh out of college I worked as a wholesaler for Great-West Life in Boston (covering the New England territory). Many in our industry got their start in a similar role and I’m thankful for the experience of working with all sizes and types of employers, decision makers and employees, and types of benefits, eventually migrating to the role of a DC plan specialist (during the run up of the tech bubble!).

Fast forward 4-5 years, I moved back to Chicago to work for a family-owned benefits shop which involved starting from scratch and living in my parents’ basement for much longer than I would like to admit. Following a similar path, I again went from being a benefits generalist to focusing exclusively on DC plans and founded my own company in 2007/2008 (great timing!) and focused on finding the right clients who wanted to make a positive impact in their employee’s lives.

 

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

Bjork: I know it sounds cliché but moving the needle for participants is one of the things that truly gets me up in the morning. I really mean it when I say I’m not only willing but truly grateful for the opportunity to get to know participants, understand their needs, and how to best support their retirement journeys. I know a lot of advisors who run and hide under their desks from participant phone calls (I used to be one of them!) but it gives me great pride to help drive positive outcomes for people the financial services industry might otherwise overlook.

An example I’m particularly proud of is when I made the trip to a turkey boning plant in Arkansas to do a 3rd shift meeting rolling out auto-enroll and auto-increase many years ago and before it became the de-facto norm in our practice. I brought in breakfast for the night shift and simply spent the time to learn from participants firsthand and help educate them on their retirement savings journey. This is exactly why I started my own business, to have the ability to make a difference for participants, including those that our industry has historically underserved.

 

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

Bjork: Historically our growth has come from traditional channels: COI, Referrals, etc. We are currently in the final phases of building out in-house financial planning and wealth management capabilities which is where we expect significant growth to come from in 2022 and 2023. We’ve seen the need with our clients and have been asked to provide these services by both plan sponsors and participants.

What drove this direction was speaking (virtually) with participants during early 2020 and seeing how much need there was for coaching and guidance beyond the workplace retirement savings plan. We’ve had plan sponsors express concerns about potential conflicts with plan providers monetizing proprietary or 3rd party solutions. To mitigate these concerns while bringing more value to ALL participants (even those who may not be ready for financial planning and wealth management services), we are integrating a conflict-free financial wellness benefit as the glue in our service model to bring all of these conversations together.

 

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

Bjork: As retirement plan advisors, we need to move away from only investing our time into wealthy individuals who have already amassed some arbitrary threshold of investable assets, $500k+ for example. As an industry and as advisers, we need to shift our focus to helping ALL people (plan participants and beyond) become financially well. With a stable financial foundation, we can then help people move forward, grow their wealth, and achieve their financial goals for retirement and beyond. The retirement plan industry has an opportunity to reinvent itself as participant-first. We need to offer high value, transparent, and scalable ways to help the average American worker achieve their financial goals.

 

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

Bjork: There is a tremendous amount of amazing research and data which all support that the current model isn’t moving the needle for the American worker. By way of example, look at the adoption rates on the “advice and guidance” section of any plan provider’s website which will likely be less than 2%. Further, this data only tells half the story. Working with individuals keeps me close to the everyday needs of participants beyond the numbers.

I don’t want to guess what people are feeling and experiencing, I want to know, and for this reason, I will always make the effort to spend time with participants. By way of example, even those who “no show” for our 1-1’s get a personalized action plan sent to them based on their questionnaire responses because what we do is intimidating to most Americans and the ones who don’t show up for the 1-1 (or those who don’t ask for help) may end up being those who need our help the most.

 

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

Bjork: If the pandemic taught us anything, it was the importance of financial resilience, or the ability to bounce back from an unforeseen financial challenge. A lot of people suffered unduly over the past couple of years because they were underinformed and/or underprepared financially.

Today, I’m working hard to address this by integrating financial wellness solutions into my practice as a baseline to broaden the scope of our conversation with participants and begin the conversations that can potentially change the trajectory of not only their retirement savings, but their lives. Access to trusted financial wellness and coaching has been an absolute game-changer for our clients and we’re seeing it build a solid foundation for participants financial success.

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