2019 RPAY – Ellen Lander

Ellen Lander, a principal and founder of Renaissance Benefit Advisors Group (RBA) in New York City, has dedicated her entire career to working with qualified retirement plan sponsors and participants. A self-described workaholic, she runs a practice that cuts across 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, nonqualified deferred compensation (NQDC) plans and defined benefit (DB) plans.

“Over the past 30 years, I’ve worked extremely closely as a fiduciary partner with all of our clients, even before this became a common practice in our industry,” Lander says. “I have worked tirelessly to design, structure, monitor and support a retirement system that helps employees to not only understand the benefits they’ve been provided, but to use those to the fullest extent possible.”

According to Lander, it is a privilege to work in a job that puts her in front of the many employees and participants who need help in their financial lives. So, her firm’s mission statement is unequivocal about participant outcomes: “to help retirement plan sponsors meet and manage their fiduciary responsibilities under ERISA [Employee Retirement Income Security Act] and, in doing so, provide the foundation for their employees to become financially prepared for retirement.”

Lander’s firm has no marketing professionals or sales support staff, growing the practice exclusively through referrals.

“I started the firm to serve solely in the consulting role, not to focus on growing the practice and handing off clients to support staff or other advisers,” Lander explains. “As a result, all of my clients are extremely well-engaged with their plans and participant outcomes, without exception.”

Evidence of this engagement can be seen in the fact that 100% of Lander’s plan sponsor clients offer an asset-allocation solution, whether a target-date fund (TDF) or managed account, and 100% have designated a default investment.

In terms of client plan performance goals, Lander says, the firm targets participation rates of 90% and up, with 80% or more participants utilizing an asset-allocation solution. Additionally, the firm aims to ensure participants defer at least 6% of their salary to the retirement plan annually, which, combined with the employer match, should get them close to if not above a 10% savings rate.

Because RBA was built on referrals, “our clients tend to be within specific industries,” Lander says. Many are owned by non-U.S. companies, and many are in the investment business. “Their plans tend to be very generous, and, given the engagement, our clients allow us to push the envelope on plan design and features,” she notes.

Lander says it typically takes only about two years of ongoing client engagement to get new plans close to these success targets—and, of course, there are nuances to consider across any given group of clients when it comes to defining success metrics. For example, some groups of participants, being in the investment industry, do not use an asset-allocation solution. In addition, some plan sponsor clients’ participation rates remain below 90% due to workforce issues with non-U.S. companies and their non-U.S. citizen employees.

Rather than being perturbed by the potential complexity of working with so many non-U.S. companies, Lander instead embraces the challenge.

“All of RBA’s clients know that we are available at all times and for whatever question or concern they might have,” she says. “They never deal directly with the recordkeeper, other than on payroll remittance issues.”

According to Lander, a big part of her firm’s holistic service approach is helping plan sponsors understand how they can analyze and reorganize their benefits spending to maximize employee outcomes and reinforce the benefit to the employer.

“Whatever dollars are being spent, we want to help the plan sponsor deploy these in a way that has the biggest impact for employees,” she says.

Lander’s firm further stands out for its egalitarian approach to its diverse plan sponsor base. The firm provides the same services to every client regardless of its size, and Lander says this will not change, as the firm plans to maintain its identity as a specialist boutique.

According to Lander, clients have been receptive in the last several years to small increases in the advisory fee the firm charges, because they understand the strong value of the services being delivered.

To recognize growth in assets, which oftentimes makes the plan more complicated than when we first took on the client, we have implemented a ‘cost of risk’ factor and increase our fees by 2 or 3 basis points [bps] of assets above a certain threshold,” she says. “The threshold depends upon the client, its plan, and information we may be aware of as to future growth plans, for example through M&A [mergers and acquisitions] activity.”

To ensure plan sponsor clients understand what they are paying and why, all of RBA’s consulting agreements are very specific as to what services are provided for its fees. Other services that a client may want or need at some point are charged on a per-project or per diem rate.

“An example for a per diem rate would be if a client wants us to conduct educational seminars; [we charge] a project rate for conducting due diligence on a potential acquisition one of our clients has identified,” Lander says. “Although we do reserve the right to charge a per project fee for an RFP [request for proposals], we tend to waive that fee—again, depending upon the specific circumstances.” —John Manganaro