PA: How is your team/process/structure unique? How has it evolved? Where will you be in five years?
Sentinel Pension Advisers is a CEFEX-certified, federally registered investment advisory (RIA) firm. Our team structure is unique in that we not only understand the ins and outs of fiduciary responsibility, processes, recordkeeping, administration, legalities, and employee education and support, but also deliver on every single one of these on a daily basis, allowing us to speak to the plan design holistically.
Sentinel Pension Advisors has naturally evolved into a participant-focused fiduciary, and our ultimate goal is to set individuals up for success. This dynamic participant-focused shift has come to define what we do and who we serve, and this mission will only continue to develop as we continue to grow.
Looking out over the next five years, we believe that the evolution will continue to trend toward directly serving individuals. Sentinel is focusing much of our efforts on ensuring that we are the experts people can trust to educate and advocate for them on all aspects of their financial journey. This will not be limited to traditional in-plan support, but will be a 360˚ relationship where we navigate not just towards retirement, but living in longevity.
PA: What have you done in the past year to improve participants’ retirement readiness?
We understand that preparing for retirement can be overwhelming, and our goal is to make this less daunting. We partner with our plan sponsor clients to create an environment that encourages retirement readiness for their employees. We promote the use of plan design features such as automatic enrollment and online account management options and provide retirement preparedness information in a variety of formats.
One of the most effective ways to maximize plan participation is to be in direct contact with participants and serve as a resource for them. Our plan sponsors encourage direct interactions with their employees that include a combination of on-site visits (one-on-one and group meetings), email communications, and educational webinars. We strive to be approachable and try to communicate in a clear, concise manner that doesn’t intimidate.
It’s unreasonable to expect plan participants to achieve success tomorrow if their finances aren’t in order today. For this reason our education programs aren’t limited to retirement strategies; we also conduct in-person seminars on expense management, debt reduction, goal setting, health savings accounts (HSAs), long-term care strategies, and a host of other topics.
As part of our effort to provide greater clarity when it comes to retirement readiness, we provide participants with an easy-to-navigate online account which offers a powerful online retirement readiness tool. This tool allows participants to easily see their projected income in retirement based on the specifics of their own account and also allows them to quickly see how increasing their contribution amount can impact this number.
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) or any plans for the next 12 months.
In 2017 we built a comprehensive financial wellness education resource in the form of our online Health & Wealth Hub. Here, individuals can access articles and videos spanning a wide range of topics, from budgeting and debt to college saving and planning to insurance and protection. This ever-evolving platform allows us to provide relevant information to all participants when they need it.
For those who want more than the self-help guidance of Financial Finesse, a provided tailored financial fitness education tool, we offer TotalWealth, powered by eMoney. This proprietary solution gives participants access to an industry-leading technology platform that seamlessly aggregates all accounts in one place that easily allows them to navigate their complete financial landscape together with their adviser. Because our financial advisers can access the interface, TotalWealth bridges the gap between the human touch we feel is so important in financial advice, and secure, convenient technology that allows for self-management when preferred.
PA: As a retirement plan adviser, what do you take the most pride in?
We proudly focus on serving the 99%. White glove financial services have always been reserved for the 1%, and this has left the majority of Americans to be underserved. We believe that those who may not hold the highest wealth are just as deserving of expert guidance and quality outcomes. Sentinel’s goal is to provide meaningful education and support to plan participants through the convergence of health and financial wellness.
We believe that both plan sponsors and participants deserve to partner with an organization that is fully committed to the true fiduciary standard—putting the needs of others ahead of all else. This is what we do. We take the time to understand their businesses, challenges and employee demographics so that we can tailor our advice to each plan we serve. We address the needs of the employees, while meeting the plan sponsor’s pre-defined objectives (e.g., increase participation rates and deferral levels). There are of course some common themes that hold true across industries/geographies, but we find that no two clients are exactly alike; fiduciary governance and best practices are universal, but we treat our clients and their participants like the unique organizations and individuals they are.
PA: What are the most important issues that your plan sponsors face with their company retirement plan, and what specific actions do you take to assist them in overcoming those issues?
For many people, the vast majority of their financial wellbeing is created in the workplace—from their paychecks, to their retirement savings, to protecting themselves and their family members with health and life insurance. At Sentinel Pension Advisors, we believe that the most important issue that plan sponsors face today is creating a retirement strategy that focuses on building financial confidence. Expectations of the adviser have shifted over recent years. We understand that the journey doesn’t begin the moment someone is ready to retire, but that decisions made earlier in life will have a profound impact on retirement readiness.
Although we’ve put a heavy emphasis on the above, we find that Plan Sponsors are faced with a myriad of challenges today: fee-focused lawsuits continue to make front page news; multi-generational workforces demand a variety of communication styles; and baby-boomers are unable to retire due to inadequate retirement savings. At Sentinel, we work with plan sponsors to address these challenges by advocating for lowest-cost investment line-ups and fee transparency; analyzing participant demographic data and tailoring our communication efforts/mediums accordingly; promoting auto-features and financial wellness education to improve outcomes for all participants.
Offering a selection of prudent investment options is the baseline expectation for any adviser, but at Sentinel we strive to go beyond this and design plans that will work for the employees who dedicate their working days to the organizations we advise. In addition to investment selection and education, we focus on superior plan design options, outcome-based planning for retirement readiness, and cohesion with the plan sponsor’s organizational goals for their employees.
PA: What challenges do you think the retirement plan industry faces and what role do you have in addressing and confronting those challenges?
In recent years the retirement plan industry has faced new challenges, and as a “sentinel” to plan participants we believe we play a vital role in navigating through these changes. In a time where it is increasingly important for plan sponsors and investment advisor professionals to create retirement strategies that ensure the most engagement and long-term savings success for plan participants, there are three particular points of emphasis that we feel must be addressed:
Litigation: Over the past five to seven years, litigation in retirement plans has been on the rise—from share class issues to cost; these have infiltrated retirement plan decision-making with a fear of litigation. At Sentinel, we believe in developing a strong policy and practice for each retirement plan we serve that is grounded in the key tenants of fiduciary responsibility. We want to take the burden and fear away from our clients so that there is a clear focus on the full outlook of the plan.
Financial Wellness: In the twenty or so years we have been providing investment advisory and fiduciary services, the narrative has always been about “retirement readiness” for plan participants. But, there has been a blind spot in our industry for many years. We seemed to have missed the fact that many people are so focused on solving their immediate financial needs and stresses that they might not have the energy or resolve to look 20-50 years down the road—and understand how to get there. For this reason, we have decided to largely focus on the values associated with the retirement goals of the individuals we serve, as well as financial confidence for participants today. Our free Health & Wealth Hub is a place where all of our clients and plan participants can “seek and find” financial education and literacy tools to self-help in their personal circumstances. Additionally, we have integrated financial wellness and education into the curriculum for out wealth counselors, or financial advisors, who meet with plan participants each and every day. We believe there is no distinct separation between the financial issues people face today, their ability to solve them, and how well they can prepare for retirement.
Cybersecurity: Unfortunately, the most recent challenge we are faced with is the onslaught of cyber-crime and personal identity theft. We recently created “Sentinel Safeguards”, a multi-pronged approach to education and protection. Our cybersecurity microsite includes tools, topical lessons, and the best practices to keep plan sponsors and participants safe. Additionally, we have created a webinar series that will continue to connect Sentinel’s risk and information leaders to our plan sponsor clients in hopes of furthering the conversation. And lastly, during fiduciary meetings, we are ensuring that the plan operational options consider the strongest security procedures.
Business at a Glance
How many plan assets do you have under advisement? $4.5B
What is your median plan size (in assets)? $4.1M
How many plans do you have under administration? 436
How many participants in total do you serve? > 45,000