Business at a Glance as of 12/31/21
- How many plan assets do you have under advisement? $1.2 billion
- What is your median plan size (in assets)? Approximately $9 million
- How many plans do you have under administration? 197
- How many participants in total do you serve? Approximately 13,000
PLANADVISER: Tell us about your practice and how you got into advising retirement plans.
Gimenez: I attended culinary school right after college to pursue my passion of great food and healthy eating. At 21, I founded my first of four restaurants. My focus on macrobiotics was ground-breaking (and risky!) at the time, but people paid attention when John Lennon dropped in one night to sample the kake soba with vegetable tempura. After 10 exciting but arduous years, I left life as a restauranteur for the hospitality industry.
I used my food service experience to become a food and beverage director, and later a director of catering sales at Marriott and Omni. I mention this background because it laid the foundation for success in my financial services career. When you’re a restaurant entrepreneur at 21, you are the chef, bookkeeper, owner, staff trainer, motivator, manager, graphic designer and occasional dishwasher. The leadership experience of managing, motivating and educating staff began to lay the framework for successful mentorship. My later work with Marriott and Omni hotels cemented my pursuit of excellence in customer service, always putting the needs of my guests front and center. All of these experiences instilled in me the basic tenets of the fiduciary standard—that my clients’ interests come before mine.
My interest in helping others, especially those who need extra guidance to achieve financial security (as I once did!) led me to my third career of retirement planning and financial services. After studying at night to pass my licensing exams, my first job was commission-only with no base salary. Hard work and perseverance allowed me to get my head above water after two years. One of the bright spots of this sink-or-swim start was the wonderful mentor I had. I had the good fortune to share an office with a very experienced adviser and insurance professional. I reflect on the countless hours he spent sharing his knowledge and guiding me in the right direction. I will forever be grateful to him as his help was a selfless act.
After acquiring my first retirement plan client in 1995, I expanded my scope to include life insurance, group health and welfare benefits, as well as investment sales. In 2005, I joined another firm and again had the good luck of the owner being a seasoned adviser who was supportive and generous with his time. It was here that I began specializing in retirement plans, a focus I retain to this day. One of the most valuable lessons I learned at this firm was the importance of relationships: there was a strong culture of team building, mentorship and sharing successes, a rare collaborative spirit in a competitive field. In the period of about eight years, we took our business from zero retirement plans to a thriving practice with over 55 plans.
The most recent phase of my career brought me to the Washington, D.C., area where I got the opportunity to build out the team of a fledgling retirement plan practice connected to a thriving employee benefits practice. In seven years, my team and I have grown the practice from $175 million in AUM to over $1.2 billion, all the while having a great time and supporting and learning from one another.
I’m particularly proud of our focus on nonprofits—nearly half our plans are in the nonprofit sector. People don’t go into philanthropy for the money, but rather to contribute to social good. So, it feels great to be able to help them prepare for their retirement years.
PLANADVISER: How is your team/process/structure unique? How has it evolved? Where will you be in five years?
Gimenez: Our team started out with just two of us. But we quickly added two additional staff to help support our growing practice and have since grown to a team of eight. We have four advisers, an education director, two analysts and a customer service specialist. Our four advisers have nearly 100 years of experience among them.
I attribute much of our success to our biweekly collaboration meetings and the encouragement of continual improvement, no matter how small. My leadership philosophy is not to dictate, but to bring out the best in our team through creating an environment of empowerment and a forum to openly express views and ideas. A benefit of this leadership style is that staff turnover is almost non-existent, and we attract motivated employees that don’t need to be micromanaged.
One of the areas that I think makes us unique is the investment and effort we put into training new staff. A new employee is connected to one of our seasoned advisers for a minimum of six months. This mentorship helps ensure that new employees learn our culture and many of the finer points of our business. We also find that they appreciate the attention and guidance paid to them, and rise to the challenges presented.
Now that Raffa Retirement Services is now part of HUB International, I anticipate accelerated growth not just in the retirement practice but also with our partners on the business lines and employee benefits with cross-selling opportunities. I am planning on tripling our AUM over the next five years.
PLANADVISER: As a retirement plan adviser, what do you take the most pride in?
Gimenez: This is an easy question to answer. It is our customer service. We instill in our team the importance of an immediate response when we have a customer inquiry. In addition, we preach a proactive approach to anticipated issues. Customer activity calendars are set up in the last quarter of the year for the following year. We do not want anything falling through the cracks. Our customer retention is very high. We have never lost a client because of dissatisfaction with our service.
PLANADVISER: How do you grow your business? What changes to your practice or service model are you planning for 2022 or 2023?
Gimenez: I call our approach to business growth multi-dimensional marketing. The key elements of our strategy involve:
- Regular collaboration and sales goals review. Our team and mentorship approach helps to make sure we motivate each other.
- Cultivating Centers of Influence as a source of warm entry to qualified prospects. These include bankers, CPAs, employee benefits brokers, and property and casualty brokers.
- Using social media particularly LinkedIn.
- Cross-selling our existing clients.
- Getting warm leads from well-established relationships with our existing clients. Our goal is to grow laterally and up.
- Inviting prospects to seminars and webinars to educate them on various topics. Many of our best clients today came from educational seminars we have held.
- Cold calling.
- Lead purchases.
In 2022, we’ve established and filled a director of education position to focus on and streamline our educational services, including one-on-one engagement, group sessions, webinars, seminars, FAQs and other resources. In 2023, we have plans to expand our service team and bring on a new adviser to keep up with our rapid growth.
PLANADVISER: What challenges do you think the retirement plan industry faces and what role do you have in addressing and confronting those challenges?
Gimenez: Fee compression. The trend in ever-shrinking adviser and recordkeeper fees is leading to pressure to maintain profitability and quality of services. Our response is cross-selling to generate other lines of revenue and the addition of value-added services to increase revenues while serving the client. These include financial wellness platforms, one-on-one participant engagement, student debt services, emergency savings programs and endowment management.
Challenge: Low participation by Hispanic employees.
We’ve found that many immigrant employees have little trust in a program that “takes” your money and promises to return it at a later date. Our response is extra education and one-on-one participant engagement.
Doing meetings in Spanish. When I speak Spanish and share my own experience, I’m able to answer many “basic” questions and become a trusted adviser to overcome the skepticism about retirement plans. We’ve also translated some of our materials into Spanish.
Challenge: Increasing cost of living and other economic pressures.
Issues like high student debt, lack of emergency savings and stagnating wages are contributing to employees prioritizing immediate needs over saving for retirement. Another problem is people dipping
into retirement savings for a house down payment or college tuition, reducing their balances significantly.
Our Response: Setting up programs that allow employees to allocate their employer matching dollars where they need it the most: their student loans. Also, helping recent graduates restructure student debt with lower interest rates and payments. And, if they work for a nonprofit, we let them know their loan may be eligible for loan forgiveness after 10 years.
PLANADVISER: Please tell us about an important experience you have had as either a mentor or mentee.
Gimenez: I had a wonderful experience mentoring a new adviser. The gentleman was joining our industry from being a sales representative for a leading national furniture wholesaler and retailer. He knew nothing about our business but had a wonderful personality and understood the concept of selling. Despite presenting very well, he was somewhat insecure and nervous about his lack of domain knowledge. To build up his confidence, I trained him for months, but two memorable experiences stand out.
We traveled together throughout the mid-Atlantic region visiting prospects and clients over two weeks. We were able to get into deep conversations about our business and developed a lifelong friendship as well. When he was ready, I invited him to present at the quarterly seminar we scheduled to educate clients and prospects. He was so proud after the first one and seeing that pride and feeling of accomplishment made me so happy for him. We landed many clients from that one presentation and subsequent ones we did together.
PLANADVISER: What advice can you give to your industry peers about developing successful experiences for both mentors and mentees?
Gimenez: Success stems from the passion we have for our work and this enthusiasm will convey to your mentee.
Be honest about your own struggles and hurdles, even the embarrassing ones! Be well-organized and plan ahead. Have regular check-ins. Review progress regularly. I would schedule weekly or at least biweekly reviews of progress. Introduce your mentee to other areas of the practice as well as other team members. I typically schedule time for the mentee to meet with our employee benefits and business lines leaders.
The time you dedicate as a mentor will be well worth it. A big benefit I have found is that it improves retention of quality employees. Employee acquisition and training expenses are high so do it right the first time.
If you’re looking for a mentor, don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who you want to know better. They will likely be flattered and may not have thought their insights and guidance would be valuable to you.