PLANADVISER was recently invited to talk industry trends with executives at Betterment for Business, just about a year after the firm first caught the attention of defined contribution (DC) retirement industry professionals.
Readers may recall the firm’s (somewhat controversial) claim that Betterment for Business, launched formally in January 2016, is the “only full-service platform providing recordkeeping and advice.” It should be noted that other firms argue they can offer just as much integration, automation and transparency as Betterment, whether solo or in partnership with one another, “but it’s just not true,” according to the advisory-turned-recordkeeping firm.
Cynthia Loh, general manager at Betterment for Business, says the firm has since won and onboarded more than 300 plan sponsor clients representing tens of thousands of participants. “We started by onboarding our own 401(k),” Loh adds. “We find it very beneficial to be able to tell our clients that our own plan was the very first one. Internally we have close to 30 individuals dedicated to this portion of our business now.”
Clients have come from across the economy, but the largest group comes from the technology sector, “which you would expect,” Loh notes. “We’ve also had some success in the professional services space … Our message seems to resonate with doctors’ offices, lawyers’ offices and smaller financial services firms like our own.”
Given the client profile as it has developed so far, clearly some time remains before a firm like Betterment will truly approach and challenge the reach of the major established recordkeepers that control vast swaths of DC business in the U.S. By practically any measure, it would take decades of sustained growth for a firm like Betterment to start to challenge the size of a given mega provider, and this is true at a time when profit margins have been squeezed mercilessly, and maintaining scale seems essential for sustained profitability; yet, executives at Betterment are clearly committed to the vision of one day being a major contender on the scale of a Fidelity, TIAA or Empower.
“At the very early stages we were going up against some of the small players in the marketplace, but as we’ve grown, we are now competing right there with the large traditional recordkeepers that have a lot of the volume in this space,” Loh suggests.
NEXT: Emerging environment may favor disruptors
Admitting that rapidly gaining scale is obviously a goal for the years ahead, Loh suggests there are a variety of reasons why the current environment favors disruptors at the expense of traditional providers.
“There is an emerging understanding that being a large or small provider has no real bearing on whether you can offer quality, digitally based recordkeeping service,” she says. “We are able to make sure that we implement plan designs that make sure employees are saving across all of their accounts for retirement. This is something that other firms, large or small, can still struggle with.”
Loh says the firm “further benefits from the fact that we have a lot of people on our team who were previously with established recordkeepers and third-party administrators—but they weren’t too stuck in their mindset that they couldn’t embrace our belief that this is an industry ripe for change.”
Asked how Betterment for Business views its relationship with more traditional advisers, and whether the firm views its goal as replacing boots-on-the-ground advisers or working beside them, Loh suggested it is a common topic of discussion for the firm.
“We plan to continue partnering with advisers—the traditional model is obviously still the way to get boots on the ground and offer the one-on-one human connection that some find important,” Loh says. “There is a big misconception that we are a robo-adviser and therefore we won’t be able or willing to get you a person on the phone or in your office. That is just not true. There will always be some companies that really gravitate more toward having someone come onsite and sit one on one with employees … Frankly that is not really the business model we deliver, and so we welcome those partnerships with advisers.”
Loh agrees that Betterment, like pretty much any firm in the financial services space, is facing a regulatory environment that is just as uncertain as it’s ever been.
“There is so much uncertainty about what will happen with the fiduciary rulemaking and the advice standards, but I think either way you will see a focus on transparency continue,” Loh concludes. “Practically speaking, I expect there will be a major acceleration in the pace of plan sponsors doing formal provider searches and adviser searchers—in order to demonstrate they are doing their part. Plan sponsors understand that it is a serious and ongoing responsibility to ensure they understand what kind of fees they are paying and how this stacks up again industry benchmarks and what’s out there on the market.”