PANC 2012: Best and Brightest

The PLANSPONSOR 2012 Retirement Plan Adviser of the Year and Adviser Team of the Year shared some information about practice management in a final conference session.

The award program continues to grow every year and, naturally, generates a lot of questions about the process from advisers. In an interactive session, attendees at the 2012 PLANADVISER National Conference got a rare glimpse inside the awards process.

“Nominations are a very small part of the story,” said Alison Cooke Mintzer, editor-in-chief of PLANSPONSOR, PLANSPONSOR Europe and PLANADVISER, who moderated the Q & A session at the conference. The nominations are an invitation to play, Mintzer explained, and the forms, which she admitted ask for a substantial amount of information, are a way for advisers to talk about their practices and share what they bring to their clients.

Mintzer was joined by Stace Hilbrant of 401k Advisors Chicago in Wilmette, Illinois, the 2012 PLANSPONSOR Retirement Plan Adviser of the Year, and Matthew McLaughlin of Graystone Consulting-Danvers of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney in Danvers, Massachusetts, representing the winning adviser team.

One common concern is whether the judges have access to sensitive client information, Mintzer said. This closely guarded information, specific references and even nominees’ names and work affiliations are scrubbed from the questionnaires before the judges read them, she said.

“Each judge looks at four to six different adviser scenarios, but we don’t have a clue who we are looking at,” said Steff C. Chalk, chief executive, Fiduciary Consulting and Governance Group Inc. Chalk has served as one of the judges every year since the award’s inception in 2005.

Plan sponsor names are removed and pure metrics such as asset size, participant numbers and year-over-year participation rates are examined. “It’s sort of like a blind wine tasting,” Hilbrant said. “Serious professional vetting goes into the process.”

Added McLaughlin, with a wink at the audience, “It’s not a personality contest … Because my colleagues wouldn’t have won if it were a personality contest,” jokingly referring to his own company.

The award is given by PLANSPONSOR, not PLANADVISER, Mintzer pointed out. The award is not to recognize the best adviser business model, but to honor those advisers and teams who excel in helping people achieve retirement security. “The biggest word we’ve talked about is ‘outcomes,’ ” Mintzer said. “The people who stand out are those who we think have done a good job quantifying the value they’ve added.”

Using data and benchmarking results is one key to showing a results-oriented practice, the winners of the 2012 awards program said. McLaughlin noted that having a team analyst helped Graystone track participation and deferral rates, which they were able to use to show client results. Metrics is the next generation of adviser service models, Hilbrant said, and can be used to track retirement preparedness. “Are you at 40% or 75%? You can go back to a client year after year and show how prepared their employees are,” he explained.


We’re looking to understand how you approach things with your clients, and are you striving to improve participation, Mintzer said. We’re looking for advisers who are doing everything they can to help employees prepare for retirement, she added.

The judges don’t look at isolated data, Chalk said, but what numbers mean in the context of a practice. “We look at five, six different advisory groups and try to understand what the story is behind each. How much did you raise the percentage of participants over the last few years?”

Mintzer stressed that ballpark figures are fine if an adviser does not have historical data and has not been working with a client for 15 years. We’re looking to understand how you approach things with your clients. And are you striving to improve participation. We’re looking for advisers who are doing everything they can to help employees prepare for retirement, Mintzer said.

An audience member asked if advisers who have a wealth management side are given less weight.

According to Mintz, 70% of business has to be focused on retirement—defined benefit, defined contribution—as a starting point. “We don’t ding anybody because they have wealth management,” Chalk said, “but our focus is on retirement.”

The challenges of a specific practice can be discussed on the form, such as the struggle to get a plan sponsor on board with raising participation rates, or working with plan sponsors who do not want to offer employee education. “We want to understand your philosophy and that you are trying to help your plan sponsors get to the right place,” Mintzer said.

The awards have evolved, according to Chalk. “We all had a preconceived notion of what a strong retirement plan looks like when they started,” he said. “We’ve come to find out the best ideas come from the people making the submissions.”

The PLANSPONSOR awards recognize the contributions of the nation’s best financial advisers in helping make retirement security a reality for employees. The award is based on both quantitative and qualitative measures.

Nominations for the 2013 Retirement Plan Adviser and Adviser Team of the Year awards are now open. More information is available here.