2017 RPAY – Josh Ulmer

PLANADVISER: What is your mission statement?

Josh 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: What do you consider the most significant challenge facing retirement plan participants? Facing retirement plan sponsors? Facing retirement plan advisers?

America’s retirement system seems to be continually scrutinized around its effectiveness in getting workers to a dignified retirement, and while I do not see the system as perfect, I do believe the current challenges are addressable and present significant opportunities for qualified advisers and creative thinkers.

The greatest challenges advisers are:

  • Plan Participants: The biggest challenge in aggregate for plan participants is coverage – not having access to a tax-advantaged retirement plan at their place of employment. Immediately following coverage, I would rank financial literacy as an additional leading challenge; it is simply not realistic to assume that plan participants can focus on long-term goals, like retirement planning, until they have their financial house in order, so to speak (i.e., have been educated in savings, budgeting, credit and debt management). Additionally, I would suggest a third leading challenge for plan participants to be their behavioral approach, more specifically,  rewarding their future self with a sufficient savings rate today, staying invested in the face of capital market volatility and media noise, avoiding the temptation of accessing retirement savings via loans to satisfy short-term lifestyle needs, and finally, motivating them to create a personalized plan so as to assure the greatest likelihood of retirement success.
  • Plan Sponsors: One of the biggest challenges facing Plan sponsors is the overall competitiveness of their plan arrangement, and the need to attract and retain talented employees. A corollary of this would be designing, administering and governing the retirement plan in such fashion so as to avoid the litigation crosshairs. I believe that by assuring the plan is in line with industry best practices and focused entirely on improving outcomes for employees; a Plan sponsor can effectively meet both of these challenges (competitiveness and risk). Finally, I would say the committee decision-making process, and the need to substantiate all decisions made. Interestingly, I have observed that it is often easier for many committees to make investment- and platform-related decisions than the heavy-handed and progressive plan design changes necessary to materially improve plan health.
  • Plan Advisers: I approach my role as a retirement plan adviser with a clear focus on outcome, which is aiding participants in obtaining a secure retirement, while maintaining a sound fiduciary governance structure for plan sponsors. It is my belief that the biggest challenges facing the advisory industry as a whole are specific to demonstrating value and delivering results in the face of intense competition, fee compression, automation, and increased reliance on indexed/passive investments.

PA: How do you react to clients or prospects who don’t share your goals for their retirement plan?

JU: A passion for innovation and a willingness to disrupt the status quo, along with a service standard that commits us to being proactive, has accustomed us to differences of opinion on how to best address the objective at hand. I find that during such moments, it is important to communicate; revisit goals and objectives; educate with facts and data vs. opinion and ideology; keep an open mind, so as to understand multiple viewpoints; and finally, collaborate with the client/prospect to find the most mutually acceptable solution. Lastly, I would say that persistence and patience certainly help.


PA: Describe any particular initiatives you have led with your customer base in the past 12 months (investment or education or plan design or communication).

In this last year alone, I have directed my team in implementing many plan enhancements to widen the breadth of plan features and ensure participants have access to the savings vehicles they need for a secure retirement. Such plan enhancements include, but are not limited to, In-Plan Roth 401(k) Conversion, After-Tax 401(k) Contributions, After-Tax 401(k) Conversion to Roth 401(k), and an overhaul to match formulas designed to increase employee contribution rates. I have found that both plan sponsors and participants alike enjoy having a variety of savings options within their plans, and strive to optimize this on their behalf.

After-Tax 401(k) Contributions have been an important and beneficial plan feature for a number of our clients. Educating plan sponsors and participants around the concept, intricacies, and process, and how to best leverage the After-Tax 401(k), along with Roth 401(k) Conversion, has been a major design initiative undertaken by my group. The addition of these plan features have afforded many employees the ability to save much more for retirement in a tax-advantaged manner, as well as allowing plan sponsors to offer a leading retirement plan to attract and retain employees.

Another major plan design initiative I have undertaken is implementing a “stretch the match” company match program. My group works with plan sponsors in understanding their budgetary needs and plan demographics to create a plan-specific match formula that is designed to incentivize an employee contribution rate that will enable employees to obtain a secure retirement.

An example of optimizing a match formula is moving away from the typical 50% of 6% match to a 30% of 10% match; this small tweak in formulation galvanizes employees to save at a higher rate. For one client, the improved match formula, along with targeted participant education, has improved plan participation (going from 56% to 80%) and deferral rates (going from 2.8% to 5.2%).

I have also started shifting the focus to designing retirement plans for both stages of the planning horizon, accumulation and distribution. Historically, much of the focus has been on the accumulation phase, said differently, getting participants to the point where they can retire.

I would argue that the distribution phase is equally, if not more, important, as it presents many more obstacles (spending/distribution policy, market risk, sequence risk, taxes, longevity risk, shortfall risk, inflation risk, health care costs, and family responsibilities). In order to prepare for these challenges, my group has started working with vendor partners and plan sponsors to make plan design changes, introduce distribution planning tools, review guaranteed lifetime income strategies, and educated employees within five years of retirement of their options come retirement.

Finally, on the education front, I believe that plan participants cannot truly focus on long-terms goals like retirement planning until feeling they have a firmer grasp on their overall financial health. Therefore my team and I have developed a Financial Wellness participant education series to deliver to clients in the coming months. Focusing on 12 key areas of personal financial wellness – ranging from early stage employment topics to retirement and beyond – we have invited plan participants to attend the full discussion series, beyond just the subject matter(s) that may be most pertinent to their current circumstances.

Understanding that participants may find certain topics do not seem as timely as others based on their current situation, we intend to present to them throughout the series the value each of these topics hold in developing a more well-rounded understanding of personal financial health. We have structured this education series to progress through an entire model working career and into retirement; from beginning with a discussion on the basics of credit to ending with an overview of estate planning and charitable giving.

Please see below for the full subject list within our Financial Wellness series:

  • Credit & Debt Management
  • Budgeting & Saving
  • Investments & Homeownership
  • Planning for Retirement
  • Education Savings / 529 Plans
  • Income & Asset Protection Planning
  • Tax Planning
  • Social Security
  • Health Care
  • Planning Through Retirement
  • Lifetime Income / Distribution Planning
  • Estate Planning & Charitable Giving


PA: As a retirement plan adviser, what do you take the most pride in?

JU: I take the most pride in the service experience we deliver to each of our clients and the positive impact we have on thousands of participant lives. My team and I are passionate about client service; it is central to all that we do and is deeply ingrained in our team’s culture. We look to the long term, and as such, we are focused on the development of strong professional and personal relationships.

We strive to provide more services of a higher quality than our competition. My group actively engages with our clients to understand their service needs and where our efforts are most effectively applied, staying abreast to industry and regulatory trends, as well as innovating on what we believe the forces shaping the industry of tomorrow will be. I have designed our service infrastructure to enable us to serve the client in the most informed, proactive and responsive possible manner.

Client to service professional ratio. We currently work with 37 clients and with four service personnel (one adviser and three analyst planning associates); this results in a client-to-service personnel ratio of ~nine, which we believe is very low relative to other advisers in the marketplace. This means each client receives more proactive advice, a greater level of responsiveness, and inevitably better results. Moreover, this gives the team the bandwidth to consistently innovate, as well as expand the depth and quality of the services offered. Lastly, this contributes to more meaningful relationships with each client.

It is this service experience, coupled with our unwavering commitment to drive measurable and lasting results, that has led to our 98% client retention rate.


PA: What benchmarks do you use to measure plan and client success?

JU: It is my belief that a successful retirement plan arrangement consists of: (1) a robust governance structure; (2) qualified service providers; (3) tailored plan design; (4) quality investment options, but more specifically a quality participant investing experience; (5) access to leading technology (tools and features); (6) customized employee education and outreach, and more importantly, retirement-ready employees; (7) a cost-effective plan arrangement.

To steer our clients toward a more effective plan arrangement, we have established a number of metrics to evaluate, measure and track plan success. Most notable amongst these metrics are that we provide annual fiduciary education and assure meticulous documentation is in place to support the fiduciary decision-making process to keep plan fiduciaries informed and to manage risk; benchmark plan design using industry reports and competitors form 5500s to keep the plan competitive, so as to attract and retain talented employees; conduct periodic vendor RFIs/RFPs to assure costs and services are inline; benchmark plan costs with independent tools to assure costs are reasonable given services rendered; evaluate investments relative to the criteria outlined in the Investment Policy Statement to assure ongoing suitability and strong performance; evaluate the quality of participant investing per age-specific benchmarks; perform retirement income gap analysis to gauge retirement readiness; track trends in key plan health metrics (participation rates, deferral rates, percentage of participants maximizing the match, and diversification trends) to inform education and communication initiatives, as well as gauge how the plan is working for covered personnel.



Plan assets under advisement: $935 million

Median plan size (in assets): $16 million

Total plans under administration: 37

Total participants served: 13,500