2023 RPAY – Strategic Retirement Partners

Business at a Glance as of 12/31/22

  • Plan assets under advisement: $15.14 billion
  • Median plan size (in assets): $5.06 million
  • Plans under administration: 1,000
  • Total participants served: 268,000

PLANADVISER: Tell us about your practice and how you got into advising retirement plans.

Strategic Retirement Partners: Jeff Cullen is the CEO of Strategic Retirement Partners. He grew up in a small town in Illinois as the 4th- generation member of his family’s wholesale business. Jeff’s father stoked his entrepreneurial flames early in his life. Jeff’s family wholesale business was slowly being gobbled up by the WalMart machine, so upon college graduation, Jeff helped his dad sell the family business. Jeff then learned the trust department at their hometown bank had been churning his dad’s (and grandfather’s and uncle’s) profit-sharing account for more than 20 years, leaving them with a negative 20-year annual return. As a result of this churn, Jeff’s father could not afford to retire after selling the family business and was forced to work another decade. These events fueled Jeff’s desire to make a positive impact on the retirement plan space by helping employers take care of their people. To make the broadest impact possible, he knew he had to scale his business nationwide.

Today SRP is a nationwide, independent team of retirement plan geeks dedicated to helping workers sift through the complexities of their financial lives to achieve financial freedom. Since inception, we have been very intentional about changing the “face” of financial services. Jeff’s first hire, Deane Mayerhofer, was brought in as COO and an equity partner. They were in alignment on the goal of changing financial services and wanted to build a firm their daughters would choose to work at (both do). Accomplishing this objective required robust training programs, ongoing mentorship, empathy, emotional availability, transparency and clear vision.

SRP has been named Best Places to Work in Money Management four years running and Best Places to Work for Financial Advisors three of the last four years.

PLANADVISER: How is your team/process/structure unique? How has it evolved? Where will you be in five years?

Strategic Retirement Partners: Strategic Retirement Partners was created in 2015 with $111,000 of capital and one idea: build a company where advisers achieve operational efficiencies in a shared service model, apply technology at scale, thereby giving advisers time back to focus on what truly matters: helping Americans achieve financial independence. We recruited a small group of advisers with a collective 400 retirement plans and $5 million of gross revenue. Fast forward to 2023, and SRP now services more than 1,085 retirement plans and has more than $22 million of gross revenue. We specifically highlight the initial investment, because SRP has never had a capital call and has never taken outside money. We’ve bootstrapped our way to success, and that start-up, can-do, innovative spirit still permeates the organization.

Our vision of a shared service model is a growth engine by design. It allows advisers to outsource marketing, compliance, IT, relationship management, investment research, participant education, portfolio management and trading, HR, benefits, financial planning, legal and finance to SRP, so that their most precious commodity, the hours in the day, can be laser-focused on value creation by meeting with clients, prospects and centers of influence. This is the foundation on which we built our teams. We’ve recruited people with diverse backgrounds from a multitude of industries in an effort to make this foundation more dynamic and sustainable. We’ve attracted people from outside the industry, and interns as well, by highlighting our mission of helping hard-working folks achieve financial independence. We enjoy a near-perfect track record of interns joining us full-time at the completion of their internships. Our success with interns and bringing in young talent from outside the industry has put us in an enviable position of skewing much younger than most firms in our industry. This is impossible to do without a massive commitment to mentorship, career development and career stewardship. One of Jeff and Deane’s mottos is, “We are stewards of our people’s careers.”

One of the factors that makes SRP so unique is our remote work force. Deane and Jeff have worked remotely since their partnership began in 2007. It was born out of necessity, but it quickly became their modus operandi. Of the more than 120 people at SRP today, more than 80% are remote-based (a handful of our advisers choose to maintain a local office; SRP corporate has none). This dedication requires a heavy emphasis on technology and culture creation through other means besides hanging out at the water cooler. It is our belief that this work-life integration has created leverage for SRP in retention, productivity and overall happiness of our people. Over the years, we’ve surveyed our people about getting a physical office, and they’ve always responded with an overwhelming “No.” They “never” want to go back to “Corporate America.”

Our quest for innovation has been a key driver of SRP’s success. By driving operational efficiency through automated, integrated solutions, SRP quickly achieved scale. While most of our industry believes in renting technology solutions, we believed in the opposite: SRP needed to build it. From the beginning, we’ve reinvested in our foundation by having in-house IT developers dedicated to automating wealth management and retirement plan processes and workflows. From 2015 to present, this quest for innovation resulted in a 70% productivity increase. Over the next five years, our expectation is to continue our exponential growth and scale through continued reinvestment in our people and technology.

PLANADVISER: As a retirement plan adviser, what do you take the most pride in?

Strategic Retirement Partners: We take a great deal of pride in making a positive impact on our employees, the employers we service and their participants. Many of our advisers, employees and leadership, including Jeff and Deane, come from blue-collar roots and take special pride in taking care of the “forgotten” 70% of Americans who live paycheck-to-paycheck. While the financial services world largely ignores this population, we know that employers desperately need to retain these people, show them they care about them and provide them with a path to getting out of living paycheck-to-paycheck. We relish our role in facilitating that path out. On the retirement plan employer side, we enjoyed more than 99% client retention in 2022. We feel this is proof positive that our clients feel we are in alignment with their goals, and employee retention is chief among them. Lastly, we feel strongly that our ability to continue fulfilling our commitments to clients and participants hinges on making sure we take wonderful care of our people. Being the steward of their careers means putting their goals above ours and seeking alignment for a joint future where we, collectively, and our clients, succeed. Watching that play out in real time over the last eight years has been the most rewarding part of Deane and Jeff’s role.

PLANADVISER: How do you grow your business? What changes to your practice or service model are you planning for 2023 or 2024?

Strategic Retirement Partners: Our shared service model is a growth engine by design. The COVID environment has been a perfect test of that engine. The first year of COVID was a record organic growth year for SRP. 2021 and 2022 improved upon that. We intentionally seek out like-minded advisers that share our core belief in making a positive impact on all workers (not just the C-suite). Then we free up their calendar by handling the day-to-day responsibilities of running their practice for them. We do not plan to make significant changes in the short term. We will look to offer additional business lines that we feel will enhance our client and participant experiences.

PLANADVISER: What challenges do you think the retirement plan industry faces and what role do you have in addressing and confronting those challenges?

Strategic Retirement Partners: The challenges for the recordkeepers and plan advisers are different. Let’s start with plan advisers. Advisers have a sustainability issue. Advisers are ageing and not reinvesting quickly enough in creating the next generation of consultants. This leaves us with a knowledge deficit as an industry. This will require firms to go outside the industry, as SRP has done, and home-grow talent. Doing that requires the infrastructure, work environment, culture and mission that will attract and retain the next generation. We have always been passionate about making sure SRP is part of the long-term solution for the adviser industry. To that end, we are in the process of doubling down on this commitment, as we feel that the passage of the SECURE 2.0 Act, combined with state mandates across the country, provides an ample training ground for aspiring advisers to cut their teeth on small plans. Small plans are where the idiosyncrasies of plan design are fleshed out fastest and learned.

For recordkeepers, the challenge is personalization. The participant experience must be personalized, but this will require enormous investments in technology, as managed accounts, recordkeeping systems, in-plan income and outside data collected through AI (Artificial Intelligence) integration will have to be synthesized together to create that experience. Creating this experience on top of the enormous tech build commitment that is required due to SECURE 2.0 is daunting at best and impossible for a sizable percentage of recordkeepers. Most will either outsource their tech platform, exit or merge to find the scale required to pull this off. This will cause significant disruption within the recordkeeping space. Disruption among recordkeepers will cause advisers to consolidate business with recordkeepers that take a leadership position on personalization. To this end, we are actively working with technology providers in this space to bring personalization to the masses as quickly as possible.

PLANADVISER: Please tell us about an important experience you have had as either a mentor or mentee.

Strategic Retirement Partners: If we asked 20 people in this industry if they set out to have a career in financial services, we would wager that half of them would answer, “No.” There would be a few more who had a vague idea about being in financial services of some sort of fashion. Our niche of retirement plan and wealth management advising and consulting is not something that a 22-year-old knows they want to do with the rest of their lives. As we were building SRP, the idea of developing people who had low to no experience in financial services was an intentional direction we took. We recruited interns, individuals who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, parents who left the workforce to raise their children and individuals from various non-financial services industries. This type of recruiting strategy can only work with strong training and mentorship programs. The reason why these team members have been successful is because of their raw, maybe not even known to them, talent. A seasoned mentor can bring out those talents and help these team members apply them to their role. We took a different strategic approach to mentorship, coupled with training and professional development. Then, with purpose and intent, we expose our staff to opportunities that may be perceived as above their skill set or experience level, of course with a safety net of their mentor relationships and our operational processes.

One important example of our mentor experience comes from a member of our management team: our director of participant experience and WELLth (wealth management). This individual came to SRP from a national payroll provider with limited retirement, wealth management and people leadership experience. She was looking for something different, and we had an opportunity available in one of our regional practices for a participant education specialist. Because of her success in that role, she was promoted to a national-level role as our director, participant experience. Through continued mentorship, she developed strong project management and people leadership skills and was requested to help us build our wealth management business unit. We gave her assignments that stretched her skillset and provided continuous mentoring on her journey to being the exceptional leader she is today. Because we built SRP on a people-first chassis, coupled with a mentorship foundation, she is now a mentor to the next generation of SRP employees. The above example is just one of our employees, but we have similar success stories across all of SRP, from our interns to operations to plan consultants and advisers.

PLANADVISER: What advice can you give to your industry peers about developing successful experiences for both mentors and mentees?

Strategic Retirement Partners: Our advice is to be intentional in your mentoring efforts, externally and internally, both as a mentor and a mentee. Have a clear objective of what the mentee is hoping to accomplish. This is about the mentee, not you as the mentor. By bringing in diversity through gender, ethnicity and new fresh, innovative thinking, we can be the change our industry talks about. Be invested in your mentee. Be their safety net and their trusted ally.

Our industry has made a lot of strides in getting the word out on the importance of mentorship, but we also need to take personal responsibility, one by one by one, to create change. We need to be a loud voice and encourage our industry peers to “grow their own,” create robust training programs and be mentors to others. We need to be intentional in our mentoring efforts in an industry that tends to be homogenous and see the value that diverse genders, ages, ethnic backgrounds and life experiences bring. In addition to mentoring the fresh-faced finance graduates, look for individuals who do not check all the boxes and see in them what they might not see in themselves. Through diverse recruiting and hiring practices, coupled with strong mentorship models, we can create change in our industry.