PA: Tell us about your practice and how you and your team members got into advising retirement plans.
It all started in the 1980s, when 401(k) plans were just getting started. Our team was affiliated with a national brokerage firm. As a side project, one of our clients asked us to help establish a new 401(k) benefit. The client had one condition: We accompany the leadership team to the organization’s numerous locations and communicate this new benefit to their blue-collar workforce. This experience opened our eyes to a tremendous need. While the financial services industry is really good at helping rich people get richer, it offers little help to average American workers seeking to secure their financial futures.
This experience represented the ‘a-ha’ moment–What if instead of selling financial products, we could provide conflict-free financial advice to everyday workers? What if we could help these people answer their fundamental money questions, questions like ‘How much should I save?’ or ‘Where should I invest?’ What if we created a different kind of institutional adviser, one whose structure is independent and completely transparent?
Embolden by this vision, we severed ties with the national brokerage firm and established Francis Investment Counsel. Our purpose was straightforward and focused: Help plan sponsors build the best retirement plans possible and help their employees become better family finance managers through sales-free financial advice.
We have remained true to our mission of independence and transparency. We are 100% employee owned and offer no financial products or personal wealth management services. One-hundred percent of our revenues come from flat fees paid by our plan sponsor clients. With our team, what you see is what you get: an experienced, conflict-free adviser, committed to the success of our clients’ plans, and most importantly, their people.
PA: How is your team/process/structure unique? How has it evolved?
Organizations ask us: Why should I hire your firm? What makes you different?
We’re different from any other adviser for three reasons. First, qualified plan consulting is all we do. This focus is intentional. If we are going to help plan sponsors design a retirement plan benefit, we want to provide them a level of expertise and insight they can’t get from an adviser who practices part-time in this ever-changing market space.
Secondly, we’re serious about our independence. True independence means no conflicts of interest of any kind. In our minds, you can’t sell products or offer private wealth management services and still call yourself independent. Our Firm is transparent and straightforward. Our revenue comes from fixed, hard dollar fees. When we tell our plan sponsor clients that we will educate and advise their employees, they have peace of mind knowing their people won’t be solicited for product sales or additional services. Even better, their employees receive conflict-free advice that is always driven by their best interests. When we say we’re independent, we mean it in the only true sense of the word–no spin, no strings attached, no small print.
Finally, our Firm is different because we embrace the frontline. We meet one-on-one with thousands of American workers each year. We understand the questions they have and the challenges they face. Our clients get a first-hand account of how changes in plan design, advanced financial education, or personalized advice can help their employees’ financial situations. This perspective is something uncommon amongst advisory firms in general. It is also increasingly uncommon in an industry that’s moving away from personal interactions and towards robotic offerings. We provide plan sponsors the insights they need to make informed decisions, which adds value to our Firm’s services that cannot be found elsewhere.
Our focus and our Firm’s structure will not change with time. Neither will our commitment to bring key insights to our plan sponsor clients. While our services have modified to incorporate increased technology to reach out to greater populations, we remain committed to building relationships with people, through our people. We’re different because of our focus, independence, and perspective, and plan sponsors value our services because of these differences.
PA: As a retirement plan adviser, what do you take the most pride in?
On a daily basis we have concrete evidence that our services are changing lives. We see the relief plan sponsors have when they realize we are on their side of the table, helping them design a prudent oversight process. We see the relief in employees’ eyes when they realize they can achieve their financial goals, one step at a time, guided by expert financial coaches who are dedicated to their needs and success. We’re proud of how far we’ve come, but even more, the positive impact we will continue to drive as more plan sponsors and their employees have access to our services.
PA: How do you grow your business? What changes to your practice or service model are you planning for 2018?
When organizations hire us, they stay with us. The fastest way we grow our business is when the people who know us talk to others seeking similar help. We are also proactive. We pick up the phone and introduce ourselves. We maintain a presence amongst professional groups where our services make sense. This gradual relationship building puts our team top-of-mind when opportunities arise.
Our main service changes revolve around meeting the growing demand for personalized financial advice. For all the buzz around financial wellness, organizations are just beginning to understand how to best design a meaningful benefit for their employees. They are further realizing their employees want great tools and technology, but also need the personalized help of a real person working on their side.
Recognizing this trend, in 2018 we formally launch our MoneyAdvice@Work mobile application. Our Money Advisors are now no further from employees than employees are from their phones. The enhancement of the employee-adviser relationship through this technology will drive interactions, engagement, and positive changes in financial well-being. The MoneyAdvice@Work mobile application provides plan sponsors a powerful financial wellness offering for their employees, while employees receive the help they need from professionals they can trust.
By fusing our investment consulting expertise at the plan level with innovative technology and personal interactions at the participant level, our Firm is well-positioned to continue growing our business in the future.
PA: How do you select what recordkeeping providers to work with and how many relationships do you currently have across your client base?
Francis Investment Counsel currently works with 14 different recordkeeping organizations. Over the years we have worked with all the top-tier providers. Most issues our clients face with their service providers can be remedied with effective communication and a genuine willingness to forge a partnership serving the plan sponsor’s best interests. Consequently, our clients typically enjoy long-term relationships with their plan recordkeepers.
When it’s prudent to formally evaluate the marketplace, we rely on our understanding of the client’s participants and their needs for technology, education, and plan services. Our hands-on experience with the leading industry providers helps our plan sponsors identify candidates that merit an in-depth evaluation.