The pre-retiree market is huge and growing, but the time to start going after this business is slipping away for financial services companies and producers, a leading consulting firm concludes in a new analysis.

Insurers and banks could lose out on a major share of these assets unless they move now, while the market is still maturing, warns the analysis, “The Retirement Journey,” by McKinsey & Co., New York. It notes that the first wave of baby boomers already have retired, while the main body of boomers will be marching steadily in that direction for the next 15 years or so.

Those born at the boom’s peak in 1957 turn 55 in 2012, a prime age to begin pre-retirement planning, McKinsey notes.

These retirees and pre-retirees represent pre-tax earnings of $66 billion on all of the retirement-oriented assets they possess now, and that will grow to $158 billion in 2012, the consultant estimates.

That will put significant amounts of money in motion as people shift from accumulating wealth to setting up an income stream for their retirement, it says. McKinsey estimates maturing defined benefit and defined contribution retirement plans alone will let loose over $1 trillion of assets within six years.

“Driving this growth is a demographic shift unprecedented in modern U.S. history,” it adds. “The retiree segments [pre-retirees, people transitioning into retirement and full retirees] will far outstrip other segments in growth over the next 15 years, swelling by 36 million to over 100 million people.”

Pre-retirees have about 25% of investable assets right now, and the segment will grow to 30% in the next 10 to 15 years, McKinsey estimates.

But once they move into retirement, these assets will present lost opportunities.

With many boomers now well past 50 or rapidly approaching that milestone, a significant portion are running out of retirement choices, McKinsey points out. If they don’t get help, and soon, from financial services firms, they could have to keep on working long past normal retirement age or face years of lowered living standards.

“Financial firms that win their trust during a crucial stage in this transition are likely to enjoy long-enduring relationships with these consumers, who will soon possess two-thirds of U.S. financial assets,” McKinsey states.

A main lesson to learn from the study is that consumers look at retirement as a pie, while financial institutions often look at a narrow slice of that pie, depending on what they specialize in, says Alok Kshirsagar, a principal of McKinsey and a co-author of the report.

Insurers and producers, for instance, “look at VUL, life insurance, single-premium annuities and so on,” he says. “However, consumers look at all their assets, 401(k) plans, IRAs and bank savings, and all of that put together are the assets they are going to draw on.”

To get a bigger piece of the pie, organizations need to build teams of specialists whose knowledge and skills complement each other, the study concludes. Advisors themselves may need to ally with others whose know-how balances their own.

The study notes, for instance, that older Americans face more than just investment and savings risks. There is also the threat of critical illness costs not covered by Medicare, while longevity itself can create problems if people outlive their savings.

Banks and insurers have an opportunity to dominate the marketplace for retirement products, the study notes, if they act now to develop suitable marketing initiatives.

“In the five to 10 years prior to entering retirement, people become more acutely aware of their future needs and make significant and often permanent decisions about their finances,” McKinsey declares. “They are often more willing to take advice and even consolidate assets for easier income management.”

Once they approach retirement, however, this window shuts. McKinsey’s survey found only about 21% of those 65 and older are interested in financial planning advice, compared to 59% of those 55 through 64.

The main problem for financial services firms in capturing these assets is affluent consumers are less than enthusiastic about their ability to help.

McKinsey found, for instance, 40% of these consumers had a positive view of the top investment companies, while just 28% had such favorable views of leading brokerage firms, 24% of leading life insurers and 18% of the top banks.

McKinsey thinks financial firms need to develop a “portfolio of initiatives,” that is, a variety of programs designed to capture key segments of the pre-retiree market. For instance, a short-term bet might consist of capturing IRA rollover assets, while longer-term tactics might involve developing income-oriented advice for pre-retirees and penetrating worksites, McKinsey suggests.

Similarly, product opportunities might consist of developing retirement products that can be introduced quickly, then following up with high-return options such as income-oriented products and health savings accounts for more affluent clients.

To stay on target, such programs need to be given specific financial milestones and watched closely by senior management, McKinsey concludes.

For their part, financial advisors need to avoid “cookie cutter solutions,” says McKinsey’s Kshirsagar. Pre-retirees are looking for advisors who understand their personal circumstances, such as their employee benefits package, he says.

“People also go to advisors who understand the emotional aspects of retirement, recognizing many retirees expect to continue to work, so will be making tradeoffs between work and leisure.”

Kshirsagar cautions against “complacency” in this new environment.

“Some see boomers the same as they did 10 years ago, as if nothing has changed,” he says. “So, they think they don’t need to do anything differently. For instance, they may not recognize the longevity and health risks facing today’s pre-retiree clients, so many still are using planning models assuming a longevity of 82 years. They don’t anticipate potentially catastrophic health events. Most are not even equipped to have a conversation on that.”