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IBM’s newly minted personal finance and education benefit program for its 127,000 employees, “IBM MoneySmart,” heralds the beginning of the type of program retirement finance professionals believe will increasingly become the norm in corporate America.

The program is all the more significant, says Bonnie Hughes, a planner and founder of Kennesaw, Georgia-based A & H Financial Planning and Education, Inc., because it has been inaugurated by IBM, one of the most prominent companies both in the U.S. and worldwide.

“If it does this program in its usual high-quality manner, then a template can be set for other companies to follow,” Hughes says.

IBM MoneySmart will provide all manner of financial planning advice to IBM employees and their spouses via specially trained representatives from Fidelity and The Ayco Company, a unit of Goldman Sachs. The program, which launched in March, kicked off with a series of seminars that took place via in-person group meetings at IBM sites nationwide and through interactive Web conferences. As of April, IBM employees had access to unlimited one-on-one counseling over the phone with reps from either Ayco or Fidelity.

“We have a group of people specially designated for IBM,” says Michael Conway, VP of marketing and financial related services at Ayco. “For any aspect of their financial planning, IBM staff can go to our team, and they can ask for the same person all the time. We also have a Web portal on which we’ll house everything we have said to an employee, as well as any other resource they need, so they can also track their own financial life.”

“At IBM, we’re working with a very motivated team that is concerned about the well-being of their employees,” says a Fidelity spokesperson.

Latest in Series of IBM Moves

IBM’s retirement plan offerings have been the subject of controversy for years, first when it switched from a traditional defined benefit plan to a cash balance plan, which it plans to shut down by January 2008 in favor of what it calls a 401(k) Plus Plan, which it has said offers the benefit of a “more predictable cost structure.”

Ayco’s Conway says that the MoneySmart program exemplifies IBM’s commitment to giving its employees the tools they need for proper financial and retirement planning. In the post Pension Protection Act (PPA) era, the bulk of America’s workers are going to rely almost solely on their 401(k) plans for their retirement, he says, and as such, companies need to make sure they, too, are committed toward providing employees the kind of guidance and support that the PPA calls for to ensure these plans deliver in the future.

Going forward, more and more firms are likely to go the IBM route and roll out advice platforms for their employees. This is, in essence, a positive development, but some advisors like Scott Hanson, of Sacramento, California-based Hanson McLain Retirement Services, are nonetheless questioning the future of the independent advisor if companies, both large and small, tie up with giants like Fidelity–arguably the biggest player in the retirement planning space–for advice-giving the way IBM has. If an employee receives advice for free from a Fidelity rep during her working life, there is an almost 100% chance that she will want to continue with that advisor after she retires, Hanson says, and roll her 401(k) account into a Fidelity IRA, rather than seek out an independent advisor.

“The independent advisor is going to have a tough time; having to compete against Fidelity and the like is not going to be easy at all,” Hanson warns. “I look upon this as a potential threat, even as I agree that the IBM case is good, and with Fidelity and Ayco, employees there are going to profit from this.” Hanson and his firm specialize in efficiently providing advice to many employees with relatively small balances in their 401(k)s.

Indeed, what rank-and-file employees across America really need is quality advice, Hanson says, and IBM staff are going to be far better off availing themselves of the services of Ayco and Fidelity than, say, attending a seminar given by a local advisor in their area.

Easier access to top-quality financial advice will also help increase overall participation in company retirement plans, Hughes says. Furthermore, employees who know that they are being well taken care of, who are confident of having been given the right tools to make good, informed decisions about their financial future, are bound to be more enthusiastic and productive workers, she says. Ultimately, therefore, companies like IBM stand only to gain by investing in programs such as these.


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