Editor’s Letter | PLANADVISER March/April 2017

What it Takes

What we, as the judges for the PLANSPONSOR Retirement Plan Adviser of the Year award program, look for when selecting the winners.

By Alison Cooke Mintzer | March/April 2017

PA_EditorLetter_AliJust when I think I have a good handle on the world of retirement plan advisers, we conduct our annual awards program, and I encounter a new group of amazing advisers. So many of you are doing remarkable things; therefore, to applaud you and recognize you in our annual awards program is truly an awesome part of my job.

Every year, picking the winners is difficult—in some of our crowded categories, especially difficult, because a few advisers may have very similar strengths. But there are some things that give one adviser an advantage, or, contrarily, make some advisers fall behind others in the pack. Because this is the time of year that I get asked to elaborate on our decisions, I thought I’d share some of the judges’ reasoning, as we wrap up this year’s program.

Our industry is constantly changing, to find the best way to effect change for plan sponsors and participants. To that end, the best advisers continue to grow, find new methods and approaches, and embrace new trends. All of this helps ensure that they will retain their clients and achieve desired participant outcomes. Advisers who fail to adapt and change—or don’t plan to change—will not win the award.

Another point we focus on: Plan advisers who say they consider outcome-based metrics as a measure of success for their plan—many cite goals of the “90-10-90” guideline—but who stop right there. They have implemented no strategic plans with clients to help them succeed and have few or no clients that have met the benchmark.

This isn’t to say that the advisers who win have a client base entirely successful here. Our judges—editorial team members and last year’s advisers of the year—are mindful that many excellent advisers are hired by plan sponsors whose plans need appreciable work to make them a true retirement benefit. Many winners have plans that fall far below those success metrics. But these advisers are persistent in helping convince their plan sponsors of the importance of an outcome-based measure. They establish timelines to give their client a sense of how long it will take to meet those metrics, and have a number of clients who have already achieved them.

Another area we look at is how advisers approach their role. We’ve often talked about the evolution of the traditional investment adviser into a true retirement plan adviser. As everyone in the industry knows—or should know—there is no investment allocation that can get a participant retirement ready if he fails to save or contribute enough. Advisers who still focus mainly on the retirement plan investment lineup are unlikely to see plan outcomes improve dramatically if they neglect taking time to get involved with plan design or playing an active role in education. Let me be frank. This doesn’t mean our judges expect all advisers to actually deliver education—but those who win the award are either involved in developing an education plan or coordinating the communication between education providers and plan sponsors, at a minimum.

Lastly, so many of our interviews or written information from advisers contain some version of “it depends.” Now, to some people, that might sound like a negative, as if the advisers don’t have solid service models. On the contrary, I’d venture that answer indicates the value a great adviser places on customization of a deliverable for a client—considering the plan size, the participant demographics, location and industry, among other variables. Not all clients need—or want—all services or plan design options. An adviser with a cookie-cutter delivery model reflects more the needs of the adviser and less those of the client.

I hope that helps answer your questions about why some of this year’s finalists remained finalists while others were named winners. I know I will see many familiar names in this process next year, and, given the significant work you are accomplishing, I heartily encourage you to remain faithful to taking part in the awards program—and I look forward to meeting that class of new advisers next year. Wishing you all success.