PA: What is your mission statement?
Ascende Wealth Advisers, Inc.: We are a wholly owned subsidiary of Ascende, Inc., whose mission is to enhance our clients’ competitive position by providing tailored business solutions to maximize their return on investment in human capital.
Ascende founded AWAI in 2011 to support clients in providing employees with the best opportunity to both achieve their retirement goals and meet their retirement needs by fostering an environment that increases the likelihood of positive retirement outcomes.
PA: How is your team/process/structure unique?
AWAI: The team at Ascende and AWAI represents the very best of retirement professionals with experience from every avenue of the industry. The team members share a passion for their work and have an unrivaled set of skills that support plan sponsors with almost every facet of their plan investment. Ascende works exclusively on a flat, fee-for-service basis. We do not accept commissions, and any gifts must be de minimis. Our policy is to remain strictly vendor-neutral. This means we have no recordkeeping vendors, trust companies or investment managers that we favor. Our clients may rely on the fact that our recommendations are based strictly on our well-documented, proprietary quantitative and qualitative analysis.
Our team is structured to support our clients with any service needs they may have. Similar to many advisers, we support our clients by installing a series of fiduciary best practices and providing investment advisory analysis and advice to the plan investment committee. In addition, we construct an annual program of administrative and operational best practices for all of our clients, to assist them throughout the plan year. We also regularly contact them to ensure that these functions—e.g., compliance testing, Form 5500 preparation and filing, annual disclosure creation and fulfillment, etc.—are completed in a timely manner. We review all plan documents, plan amendments, employee communications, compliance testing and 5500s for accuracy prior to their completion. We conduct regular plan benchmarking—not only for fees but also plan design versus both national benchmarks and direct competitors for which our clients compete for talent. We also support our clients by conducting mergers and acquisitions (M&A) due diligence and Employee Plans Compliance Resolution System (EPCRS) plan correction support.
PA: How have you been able to lower fees for clients?
AWAI: Our recent request for proposals (RFP) projects have resulted in substantial fee reductions. In the past
12 months, we have negotiated recordkeeping fee reductions ranging from 19% to 71%, with an average reduction of 47%.
We have also made substantial reductions in the average and weighted-average expense ratios of investment lineups by using index funds to make up the core components of the menu, while deploying actively managed investment options where appropriate. This provides improved portfolio correlation and diversification at a reasonable expense level for retirement plan participants.
PA: Describe any particularly noteworthy investment initiatives you have led with your customer base in the past 12 months.
AWAI: For the last 12 months, our focus has been on areas such as:
- Right-sizing investment lineups to provide broad investment diversification while also reducing plan participant inaction, which can be caused by large, complicated fund menus;
- Broadening the fixed-income and international segments of the portfolio to provide plan participants additional diversification options;
- Indexing asset classes where active management strategies struggle to provide value to investors;
- Educating employers on their fiduciary responsibilities under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA);
- Advising employers and employees on the use of fiduciary risks associated with, and investment risks assumed by, offering and investing in company stock; and
- Conducting our exclusive target-date deep-dive analysis for plan sponsors, to educate and inform them about the investment characteristics, strategies and investment makeup of their target-date portfolios.
BUSINESS AT A GLANCE
Plan assets under advisement: $2.78 billion
Median plan size (in assets): $19 million
Total plans under administration: 43
Total participants in plans served: 50,000