PLANADVISER: What is your mission statement?
Joshua Ulmer: The SeaPort Group at Morgan Stanley has a simple mission: to be the leading provider of diligent, personalized service and innovative investment and planning strategies for the retirement plan marketplace. We work closely with each client, taking the time to thoroughly understand their unique objectives, while never losing sight of the need to continually deliver results.
PA: How is your team/process/structure unique? How has it evolved?
JU: We believe the SeaPort Group at Morgan Stanley is unique on account of the aggregate experience and professional development of the people executing on our service offerings and the scope of the services provided, as well as the individual attention each client receives.
As a team, we have invested heavily in our professional development and have a unique experience across all areas of the retirement planning industry.
Each of our key executives have the following credentials:
- Joshua Ulmer, the team’s sole adviser, has obtained CFA, CIMA, AIF and CBFA designations
- Ryan Epsing, a financial planning associate and analyst, is a CFA charter holder
- Emily Genor, a financial planning associate and analyst, has obtained an MBA in finace
- Ben Lee, a client service associate, is CPA eligible
We are proud of these accomplishments and believe they demonstrate not only competency, but also commitment to the industry, which inevitably leads to better results for our clients.
It is our belief that we deliver more service, of a higher quality for a competitive price than our competitors in the marketplace. We offer clients a comprehensive approach to retirement plan management. In that, we work with every one of our clients to see that they: establish and maintain a robust governance structure; have the right group of service providers; tailor their plan design to drive better outcomes; offer the highest-quality investment options; have access to leading tools and technology; ensure that employees receive personalized education and outreach; and that their plan is cost effective. While we may not be doing anything revolutionary, we are executing more efficiently and are willing to do more than our competition.
We currently work with 35 clients with four service personnel. This results in a client-to-service personnel ratio of nine, which we believe is very low relative to the marketplace. This means that each client receives more proactive advice and a greater level of responsiveness, which inevitably leads to better results. Moreover, this gives the team the bandwidth to consistently innovate, and expand the depth and quality of the services offered.
Lastly, this contributes to more meaningful relationships with each client. Said differently, we make ourselves indispensable to them. We have created a service model that is focused on each client’s unique objectives, which provides a clear (measurable) way to gauge return on investment, thereby holding us accountable.
Our team structure will evolve accordingly as our business grows, in that we will continue to expand services, add personnel, invest in our education and professional development, and see that our clients receive a proactive and responsive service experience.
PA: What have you done in the past year to improve participants’ retirement readiness?
JU: Our employee education is designed to be delivered across several mediums, but is focused on a few key tenets: 1. Make it personal, relevant and applicable to each person’s circumstance; 2. Make it simple—if people are overwhelmed, they will do nothing; 3. Show the benefit—this will drive positive action; and 4. It’s ongoing—it’s a process, not an event. We look at it as building a personalized relationship.
In order to steer more effective outcomes for employees and improve retirement readiness we focus our education initiatives around:
Targeted Employee Communication
When we conduct targeted communication campaigns, we work with the plan sponsor to see the area(s) of employee retirement readiness that could be improved upon. Are there a number of employees that are not maximizing the company match? What about employees that aren’t participating at all? Once a specific message and employee demographic has been set, we then conduct participant data gathering—
email and phone numbers. The plan sponsor is an integral partner in this step of the data gathering process. They provide much of the contact information as well as illuminating on employee schedule information regarding swing/night/day shift employees on the list and when the best time would be to call.
We then script an initial email to each participant, explaining the benefits of maximizing the company match, for example, and how to actually implement a change in their account. After about a week and a half from the initial emailing, we then conduct an analysis of the desired action, looking at the efficacy of the email. Has anyone made any changes because of the email? If so, what was the degree of those changes?
We then follow up with individual phone calls to each employee who was emailed, reiterating the points made in the email and inquiring as to any additional retirement planning questions they may have. Participants appreciate the one-on-one phone calls. Many questions regarding mutual funds, savings rates, account types, and rollover contributions are typically answered in those conversations, creating open communication and comradery between us and the participant. A final analysis of the targeted communication campaign is conducted, within a month of the initial email, looking for areas of improvement that we can implement for the next campaign.
Employee Onsite Education
Employee onsite education consists of group and one-on-one meetings. In a group setting, the line of discussion needs to be both dynamic and applicable. Therefore, we focus on timely, easily understood topics, such as: creating a personalized plan for retirement, current capital markets, behavioral finance, risk factors in retirement planning, The ins and outs of a Roth 401(k), tax planning, and health care cost planning. We engage in constant research for new/applicable topics that are most relevant to today’s retirement plan participant and tailor that information to what the plan sponsor feels will be most useful to their employees.
When meeting with a participant one-on-one, the line of discussion can go anywhere. Therefore, we are diligent to set up an organized meeting schedule ahead of time, driving sign-ups and galvanizing the participant to try to narrow down his or her line of inquiry ahead of time. By preparing the participant for a one-on-one meeting, we can come ready with materials that will be most useful to the participant’s specific question and create the most value for everyone’s time. Of course, not every participant has a specific question in mind. This is why we also create a custom book for each plan sponsor’s one-on-one visits. This book includes general investing principles and information specific to the plan sponsor’s retirement plan.
There are several new topics we have been focusing our education efforts on as of late: Roth 401(k) vs Regular 401(k) Contributions, In-Plan Roth 401(k) Conversion, After-Tax 401(k) Contributions coupled with After-Tax 401(k) Conversion to Roth 401(k), and optimizing the plan for the distribution phase (i.e. installment programs, QLACs, and creating flexible ad-hoc distribution programs). New plan features are a common driving force to onsite education; we want to ensure participants are aware of the breadth of offerings available to them as well as give them a professional, unbiased view of the ins and outs of their plan features.
PA: As a retirement plan adviser, what do you take the most pride in?
JU: As a retirement plan adviser, we take the most pride in the value we add for our clients. We take the time to understand our clients’ needs, so we are able to customize the appropriate solution set to drive lasting results. We approach retirement plan management with a clear focus on outcomes, which is aiding participants in obtaining a secure retirement, while maintaining a sound fiduciary governance structure. At the end of the day, if we can provide our clients with a clear and measurable way to gauge the return on their investment in us, we have earned our keep so to speak and held ourselves accountable.
BUSINESS AT A GLANCE
LOCATION: Portland, Oregon
TOTAL ASSETS UNDER ADVISEMENT: $837 million
MEDIAN PLAN SIZE (IN ASSETS): $14.2 million
TOTAL PLANS UNDER ADMINISTRATION: 35