Business at a Glance as of 12/31/21
- Plan assets under advisement: $12.3 billion
- Median plan size (in assets): $60.1 million
- Plans under administration: 90 plans
- Total participants served: 128,500
PLANADVISER: Tell us about your practice and how you got into advising retirement plans.
Kelli Send: Our co-founder, Mike Francis, began his career in the 80’s as a wealth manager at a large national brokerage firm. One day, a client asked for Mike’s assistance starting a 401(k) for his employees. Part of their agreement was that Mike would provide education to the firm’s employees about their new benefit. It was an eye-opening experience. He saw first-hand how poorly equipped the typical American worker is to make the benefit decisions their employer is asking them to make.
Concluding “this 401(k) thing may have legs,” Mike pivoted his practice and began building a 401(k) plan advisory business. The firm’s overall philosophy is driven by our sincere desire to provide American workers of all income levels the conflict-free financial advice they need to properly answer the financial questions they face every day. In 2004, Mike and I formed Francis Investment Counsel to eliminate all real and potential conflicts of interest when dealing with 401(k) plan sponsors and their employees.
We provide ERISA fiduciary investment consulting services to mid- and large-sized plan sponsors and help their employees do money better. When employees meet with us, they are promised no product sales, no investment jargon and no judgment. They receive completely objective financial planning advice from a highly skilled advisor who gets to know their unique situation. We use our proprietary mobile app and award-winning Money Advice Planner to support that personal relationship. We believe organizations deserve the same kind of independent and conflict-free advice from their investment advisor as they get from their accountants and attorneys.
PLANADVISER: How is your team/process/structure unique? How has it evolved? Where will you be in five years?
Send: First, we are different because we are focused solely on advising qualified retirement plan sponsors and their participants. Because this market segment is governed by ERISA, our firm structure is uniquely designed to eliminate conflicts which allows us to act as an ERISA fiduciary in all of our dealings with plan sponsors and their employees. We never charge an asset-based fee, we accept no remuneration of any kind from any service providers or asset managers about which our clients might one day ask for our opinion, and we do not contract with individuals, no matter how high their net worth, so that when an employee asks for rollover advice, we are objective. We provide employees a financial wellness benefit that offers conflict-free advice on any aspect of their personal financial situation.
We are experiencing a dramatic increase in interest in our financial wellness services. Accordingly, we have recently opened a second office in Minneapolis, and hope to be operating in three additional cities within the next five years. We continue to invest in technology that facilitates our one-on-one engagement with plan participants in a cost-effective manner no matter where they are located.
PLANADVISER: As a retirement plan adviser, what do you take the most pride in?
Send: Our independence allows us to cut costs out of virtually every new plan that engages our investment consulting team. With employees, it’s the “ah ha” moments they experience when they’ve seen the improvement in their individual financial circumstances that is most satisfying to our team members.
PLANADVISER: How do you grow your business? What changes to your practice or service model are you planning for 2022 or 2023?
Send: Our service model is straightforward and transparent: deliver conflict-free & product free financial expertise to retirement plan sponsors and their employees. We see no reason to change this laser focus. We’ll continue to grow by improving our already strong technology and enabling plan sponsors to measure both the qualitative and quantitative changes in the financial wellness of their workforce.
PLANADVISER: What challenges do you think the retirement plan industry faces and what role do you have in addressing and confronting those challenges?
Send: The biggest challenge retirement plan sponsors face is the aggressive push within the 401(k) services industry to monetize the participant. This is evident in the push for managed account products and the use of participant data for cross-selling and marketing of financial products to retirement plan participants. We believe our business model represents the future of the industry and as more plan sponsors understand and experience the benefits of truly conflict-free advisory services it will become the norm in the industry.
PLANADVISER: Why do you feel it is important to work individually with plan participants?
Send: Money is a highly personal thing. And although tech-forward financial wellness solutions provide value, we think a personal relationship with a money coach is the only way to truly drive positive change. Tech based education is helpful for the subset of employees who are already actively engaged in their family’s money management but most, in our opinion, find more value in having a trusted professional who walks alongside them on their money journey.
PLANADVISER: What are the biggest challenges that plan participants face today and how are you helping to address them?
Send: Studies show that money is a significant stressor for the American worker and their families, regardless of income. Let’s face it: most are not excited about dealing with their money. Yet, since the rise of defined contribution plans, employees have had to accept more money management responsibilities. The retirement plan industry has responded by automating retirement plan decisions with features like auto-enrollment, auto-escalation, and premixed target date funds.
These innovations have generally been positively received by employees and have moved the needle in the right direction. But, most still wonder what to do with all of the other money-related questions they face. Our financial coaching services help them with all of that! But instead of providing web-based tools and education only, we provide a live money coach who actively works with them to achieve their goals. Additionally, because we are a registered investment adviser, we can go where the typical recordkeeper or financial wellness provider can’t, by providing investment and financial planning advice for their entire family’s financial matters.