PANC 2019: Top Advisers in the Hot Seat

Representatives from the 2019 Retirement Plan Advisers of the Year awards program detail their practice outlooks, client services and team structures.

From left: Joshua Itzoe, Greenspring Advisors; Ellen Lander, Renaissance Benefits Advisors Group; Jason Chepenik, Chepenik Financial; David Griffin, Atlanta Retirement Partners, LPL Financial; and Vincent Morris, Resources Investment Advisors. Photograph by Matt Kalinowski.

The opening panel discussion of the 2019 PLANADVISER National Conference featured a quintet of high-performing retirement plan advisers; they offered attendees an inside look at their practices with the goal of spreading “contagious ideas” for driving growth and quality client outcomes.

Joshua Itzoe, partner and managing director of Greenspring Advisors, moderated the panel, which included Vincent Morris, president of Resources Investment Advisors; Jason Chepenik, managing partner, Chepenik Financial; Ellen Lander, principal and founder of Renaissance Benefits Advisors Group; and David Griffin, director, institutional retirement plans, Atlanta Retirement Partners, LPL Financial. All of these advisers have won recognition in the PLANSPONSOR Retirement Plan Adviser of the Year awards program for 2018 or 2019.

Asked what has set their firms apart, the advisers broadly agreed that being unique is not enough. Success in this industry takes a clear focus, a responsive attitude towards competitive pressures and clients demands, and a willingness to evolve as new opportunities emerge.

“A critical factor to our success has been having the courage to try new things, and to say no when we have to,” Chepenik said. “The willingness to take some risk and do new things has made a real difference for us, and it’s allowed our practice to bloom.”

Echoing the point, Griffin emphasized the importance of hiring the right people in the right roles. He said he has prioritized the hiring of more expensive but well-seasoned talent, rather than hiring and training cheaper talent. He has also given his staff real flexibility to set their own schedules, work remotely as needed, etc.

“We are extremely picky about every new hire, given the level of personal responsibility we afford our team members,” Griffin said. “It’s not just experienced and seasoned people—it’s people we do not need to micromanage and who take responsibility. Giving them flexibility and understanding has created a fierce loyalty in our firm, such that we have had zero turnover since our founding.”

Morris, who apart from his role at Resources is also president of Bukaty Companies Financial Services, suggested part of his success has been a long-term focus on the participant.

“In 2005, when we were just getting started and growing, we decided to implement a strong focus on the participant—from the very beginning,” Morris said. “That involved bringing in wealth management skillsets and people that wanted to help people. We have success because we prove that we are here not just to help the plan sponsor, but also to help the participants, both to and through retirement. Now, more than 10 years down the road, we have launched a dedicated employee engagement platform that does debt counseling, budgeting, financial goal setting, and more, complemented by financial mentors and wealth management components.”

Itzoe at this point in the panel asked the advisers to detail their biggest mistakes, and there was broad agreement that retirement plan advisers tend to say yes to every client request. Lander in particular emphasized the importance of understanding a firm’s strengths and limitations—to know what types of requests or expectations are “out of scope.”

“Another continuing industry failure is that we need to be far more confident about asking for the fees that we deserve and that are commensurate with the work we do,” Lander emphasized. “Way too many times I’ve gone in too low. We need to remind ourselves how we provide a huge amount of work and value for our fees.”

Looking to the future, the panel agreed, advisers are shifting to become much more holistic in terms of how they approach clients. In a phrase, advisers today need to understand the whole benefits spend and find ways to provide real value to employers that want to help their employees be financially well while also controlling costs. They also need to understand that value is the name of the game.

“If you can show value you don’t have to be the cheapest,” Chepenik said.