PLANADVISER: Tell us about your practice and how you and your team members got into advising retirement plans.
Shepherd Financial: Shepherd Financial is an independent firm, utilizing a thorough and efficient team approach to retirement plan advising. Our vast expertise includes personalized employee engagement strategies, best practices for plan design, quantitative and qualitative investment selection and monitoring, and in-depth fiduciary training. Our team members bring a range of unique experiences and specialized training to produce consistent, high-quality service for our retirement plan clients.
Steve Wylam (CFP®, AIF®, CPFA) has been advising retirement plans since 1996. While serving as a limited-term professor at Purdue University in 2002, he met Tom Mayer (AIF®, CBFA); two years later, they formed the 401(k) team @ CAMI. Drew Denny (CFP®, C(k)P®) joined his family business and started advising retirement plans in 2001. In 2015, Steve, Drew, and Tom merged their practices to form Shepherd Financial. Our advisers are accountable, advocates for plan sponsors and participants, and committed to knowledgeable leadership that produces best-in-class solutions.
Leah Hill (CPC, QPA, QKA), director of retirement plan services, has 10 years of experience in ERISA administration and compliance, having worked as a plan consultant at multiple employee benefits consulting firms. David Bauer (AIF®), director of investment management, has worked in the financial services industry for 20 years, focusing primarily on investment due diligence and research as they pertain to retirement plan consulting.
As director of creative and strategic operations, Holly Willman is Shepherd Financial’s brand ambassador, responsible for communicating our passion and process to prospects, plan sponsors, and participants through a variety of channels.
With 10 years of financial services experience, our financial consultant, Jeff Sharp, delivers comprehensive solutions to help our clients realize holistic financial health. Nick Wylam, retirement solutions consultant, specializes in participant education, communication, and media strategies to drive successful retirement outcomes.
Anna Teder, our sales executive, partners with businesses to provide them with state-of-the-art retirement plans. Valerie DiMaio, client service coordinator, is our team’s point person for participant needs, adviser support, and administrative service.
PA: What is your mission statement?
SF: Our passion is to create retirement-ready employees and responsible fiduciaries. To achieve this end, we educate and motivate with informative and personalized tools to transform financial behavior. We instill confidence in retirement plan trustees, corporate staff, and 401(k) participants by partnering with them through each step of our nationally-recognized and proven process.
PA: How is your team/process/structure unique? How has it evolved?
SF: Shepherd Financial is passionate about serving retirement plans and their participants, and we are structured to consistently deliver best-practice services to our clients. Because of our team depth, training, and extensive experience, we are able to produce customized, quality content for each client, plan sponsor, and participant. We have evolved from two solo practices to a true team environment—while each member has particular strengths and specialties, we are able to provide support for the whole team as needed.
It should now be a given that quality advisers will provide access to investments, keep plan fees reasonable, and work to minimize fiduciary liability.
Our priority is to engage participants at each step of their retirement journey by being truly accessible and focused on equipping individuals with the actionable tools necessary to enhance their holistic financial wellness. Shepherd Financial exhibits a dedication to the industry with our innovative approaches to awareness, communication, engagement, plan design, and participant retirement readiness.
PA: What areas of service are customized for each client? What are the same across your book?
SF: Because our clients come from a wide spectrum of industries, we understand each client has unique requests with regard to their plan design, demographics, logistical challenges, and frequency of meetings. Participant meetings can be delivered in on-site group settings, one-on-one sessions, live webinars, or recorded video presentations. We proactively check in with plan sponsors to ensure we are exceeding their expectations.
Shepherd Financial provides fully customized enrollment presentations and videos, tailored to include exact plan features, available investment options, and timed to the plan sponsor’s requested length. These videos are accompanied by plan-specific resource deliverables (Plan Sponsor Quick Reference Sheet, Plan Highlights, Beneficiary Designation Information, Rollover Contribution Guide, Frequently Asked Questions, and a Terminated Participant Distribution Guide) to provide easily-understood guidance at each point of the company’s retirement plan process.
Clients can request specific topics for educational engagement meetings. Because we are champions for employee empowerment, we believe our customized retirement readiness analysis reports can make a discernable impact on both outcomes and financial behavioral change. This independent analysis reaches 100% of the employee workforce and is presented in a group setting, then followed up with individual sessions with our team members.
As part of our commitment to documenting retirement plan growth and health, Shepherd Financial produces an annual plan history report for each client. This report – covering the company’s entire tenure as our client – includes historical plan costs and benchmark comparisons, participant and employer contributions, participant eligibility, deferral rate, and retirement readiness status, plan amendments, compliance testing results, and plan sponsor and participant meetings.
We also produce an annual plan examination that gives plan sponsors a snapshot of plan and participant data compared to their industry peers; it includes participation and deferral rates, eligibility and vesting requirements, investment options, and plan design features (i.e., automatic enrollment, automatic increases, Roth, and loans).
All of our clients receive these consistent, high-quality services:
Each month, we host a financial wellness webinar for participants; following the webinar, a link to the recorded presentation is shared so participants can view it with family and friends. These webinars focus on a range of topics, including creating a financial plan, dealing with financial stress, and pre-retirement planning.
Shepherd Financial has implemented a media strategy to engage participants in many different ways (educational videos, a monthly e-newsletter, blog posts, and shared content).
During our monthly Open Phone days, participants are able to schedule time with a Shepherd Financial team member to discuss their own financial concerns, including their retirement plan features, investment questions, financial planning resources, or other financial situations in their lives.
We have created a four-module fiduciary training series for committee members and key personnel to better educate them about their roles and responsibilities. Each module focuses on a different component of a fiduciary’s duties: plan governance, fees and expenses, investments, and plan administration. This training series is accompanied by both a fiduciary checklist and fiduciary calendar. Each client has access to a secure fiduciary vault; we upload relevant plan documents, educational materials, and meeting documentation on a weekly basis.
Our proactive communication extends to committee members and key personnel, too: we send weekly market update emails and bimonthly e-newsletters to provide current and relevant articles, resources, and reminders. We host semiannual Breakfast with Benefits events, inviting industry experts to offer insight into best practices and trends with our plan sponsors.
Every investment in our clients’ retirement plan lineups are monitored with due diligence, using 17 unique criteria and thresholds for watch and review status. Clients are provided with these investment monitoring reports quarterly. Annually, we benchmark each retirement plan client, analyzing plan costs, provider services, and client needs.
Requests for new provider proposals or current provider renegotiated pricing are made every three to five years in an effort to help our clients receive impeccable service at appropriate costs.
PA: What do you need to be successful? From your team? From your clients?
SF: As our firm continues to grow, innovate, and lead the retirement plan industry, we must prioritize proactive communication. Team members must be able to work quickly and efficiently in our fast-paced environment, learning how to balance role specialization with a broad knowledge base. Shared enthusiasm for successful participant outcomes will always be Shepherd Financial’s driving force.
We need to have a direct dialogue about plan sponsor and participant needs. Asking our clients for a commitment from the top down is essential to plan success – knowing that a company’s CEO or director of human resources is an active advocate for participant well-being helps us immensely. We seek to implement their informed feedback to increase their trust in our abilities to advise their retirement plans.
PA: What do you consider the most significant challenge facing retirement plan participants? Facing retirement plan sponsors? Facing retirement plan advisers?
SF: Participants need quick, easy, and efficient guidance for retirement-planning decisions. Our goal is to provide useful resources and then help participants implement those tools in their lives. Having an accessible team of advisers offering step-by-step directions can be invaluable in overcoming a participant’s lack of knowledge and inertia.
Plan sponsors are tasked with balancing many responsibilities without taking on another full-time job: they want to understand their roles, responsibilities, and fiduciary liability, avoid lawsuits and DOL and IRS audits, and make the best decisions possible for their plan participants. We need to equip them with essential data, resources, partners (recordkeepers, third-party administrators, auditors, etc.), and strategies to best meet these responsibilities.
As plan advisers, we are focused on staying relevant, creating scale as we grow, and finding ways to meet the span of different generational plan sponsor and participant needs. We want to help participants commit to a 360° view of wellness, encompassing both health and wealth. Compliance and regulatory decisions continue to create challenges for social media interaction and timeliness, as well as technological accessibility and implementation.
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).
SF: Our latest participant initiatives include: customized enrollment videos, participant resource deliverables, monthly financial wellness webinars, a monthly e-newsletter, and monthly Open Phone days.
We upload relevant plan documents, educational materials, and meeting documentation on a weekly basis. Our proactive communication extends to committee members and key personnel, too: we send weekly market update emails and bimonthly e-newsletters to provide current and relevant articles, resources, and reminders. We host semiannual Breakfast with Benefits events, inviting industry experts to offer insight into best practices and trends with our plan sponsors.
Every investment in our clients’ retirement plan lineups are monitored with due diligence, using 17 unique criteria and thresholds for watch and review status. Clients are provided with these investment monitoring reports quarterly. Annually, we benchmark each retirement plan client, analyzing plan costs, provider services, and client needs. Requests for new provider proposals or current provider renegotiated pricing are made every three to five years in an effort to help our clients receive impeccable service at appropriate costs.
PA: As a retirement plan adviser, what do you take the most pride in?
SF: We have a deeply-rooted passion for participants, and it guides our innovation, leadership, stewardship, and overall process. Seeing individual participants make positive changes to their financial behavior is a great accomplishment. It has been extremely rewarding to receive phone calls from retiring plan participants, thanking us for the role we’ve been able to play in their retirement readiness.
PA: What is your most significant area of needed improvement?
SF: As we grow in both team size and number of clients to serve, we are faced with positive challenges. We need to manage our team well and continue the production of quality services at an efficient pace. But we also need to customize our model to ensure our fees match our services.
For example, if smaller plans desire a higher tier of services, we need to create a well-communicated strategy for implementation and pricing.
Because we can access a vast amount of industry, plan, and participant data, our goal is to streamline its aggregation in such a way that the data is fully integrated and functional for both our firm and our clients. We believe participants are best positioned to succeed when they see the scope of their financial situation, are equipped with physical wellness strategies, and understand how both pieces affect their track for retirement.
PA: What benchmarks do you use to measure plan and client success?
SF: When meeting with clients, we ask them to begin with the end in mind: what defines success for their plan and participants? To help guide the conversation, we discuss metrics like plan cost, participation and deferral rates, income replacement, and overall retirement readiness. We are then able to set and monitor goals for their plan.
Utilizing respected third-party industry benchmarks, we can help plan sponsors clearly understand how their costs compare to other similarly-sized plans with regard to funds, and adviser, recordkeeper, and TPA fees.
We believe producing and discussing our customized retirement readiness analysis reports are critical factors in plan success. This analysis utilizes specific participant information (current age, account balance, income per paycheck, and rate of deferral), as well as assumptions about retirement (income replacement ratio, retirement age, life expectancy, inflation, and account balance), Social Security (initial benefit, inflation, and lowered expected percentage), and rate of return (both before and during retirement). From this analysis, we can help participants understand changes they may need to make in order to close the gap between where they are today and their retirement-ready future.
PA: How do you react to clients or prospects who don’t share your goals for their retirement plan?
SF: From many years of experience and constant refinement, we know the Shepherd Financial process is powerful and effective. In fact, we believe it’s our process that turns prospects into clients and then helps establish flourishing, long-term relationships. Of course, not everyone shares our passion for retirement readiness.
The conversation then pivots to maximizing plan efficiency and minimizing costs. Plan success typically hinges on participant behavior, though, so we look for alternate methods to help – adding automatic features, offering user-friendly tools, and giving appropriate amounts of education and communication.
At the end of the day, we strive to understand our clients, give them resources to succeed, and positively challenge them to act with their participants’ best interests in mind.
PA: How do you grow your business? What changes to your practice or service model are you planning for 2017 and beyond?
SF: We are fortunate to have developed many methods for growing our business and acquiring new clients. We receive internal referrals through our sister company, Shepherd Insurance. External referrals come from vendor partners, an outside marketing organization, and the acquisition of other advisers.
While we are already very proud of our process, we are always looking for ways to refine and innovate it in order to have a consistent, positive impact on overall participant retirement outcomes.
Our desire is to be a proactive team of advisers, known for listening to our clients and the marketplace. As such, we want to integrate more media (videos, social, interactive), establish multiple office locations with exceptional team members who share our passion for the industry, and customize even more services for our clients.
BUSINESS AT A GLANCE:
Assets under advisement: $646 million
Median plan size (in assets): $3.1 million
Total plans under administration: 120
Total participants served: 12,398