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Retirement Planning > Saving for Retirement

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SOUNDBITE: “The stakes have never been higher. Our members are very thankful they have an association that is now watching the financial regulatory reform debate with a laser-like focus and advocating on their behalf.”

Talk about a rebranding initiative. In just under a year, the former National Association of Variable Annuities changed its mission, moved its headquarters, ramped up its lobbying effort, introduced a robust Web site and — no surprise here — hired a new CEO.

Goodbye NAVA. Hello Insured Retirement Institute. IRI, as it’s called, launched in July as the self-described “authoritative source” for both advisors and consumers on annuities, insured retirement strategies and retirement planning.

“The name that we started out with 19 years ago was somewhat limiting and more narrowly focused than what the association has grown into,” notes president and CEO Cathy Weatherford. “As we work harder to financially secure millions of Americans’ retirements, we felt we needed a new name and look with a broader view and scope. We changed our mission, our initiatives, our focus and our goals — all toward providing much more education and advocacy in the best interest of advisors and consumers.”

A key focus of IRI’s new direction is to have an enhanced, strategic presence on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures across the nation. To that end, the organization has assembled a strong government-affairs team: Lee Covington, senior vice president and general counsel, and a former Insurance Commissioner for Ohio, and John Little, vice president of government affairs, a former Capitol Hill chief of staff. Along with its communications and public-affairs team, IRI now has four former Capitol Hill staffers on its roster.

Weatherford herself is no stranger to the Hill.

Just recently, she testified before the entire House Financial Services Committee on the creation of a consumer financial product agency. Also on her radar as Congress addresses financial regulatory reform: the fiduciary standard of care, tax issues and systemic risks to the financial system.

The move to update NAVA’s identity was already under way when the trade association’s board of directors tapped the 54-year-old Weatherford in September of 2008. (She succeeded longtime NAVA president Mark Mackey.) But Weatherford’s imprint is all over the retooled organization.

“It was our desire as a board to elevate the status of our organization overall and to really seek out a CEO who was going to transform the organization and take it to the next phase,” says IRI board member Lynne Ford, head of retail retirement at Wells Fargo. It was Ford who led the executive search. “Her trajectory has been straight up. She’s gone from zero to 60 in the blink of an eye. It’s nothing short of remarkable in what’s she accomplished in such a short time. Experience does count.”

Weatherford, a graduate of the University of Central Oklahoma, headed the National Association of Insurance Commissioners for 12 years before joining IRI. Under her watch, she oversaw the development of significant technology initiatives to support the regulatory community and the insurance industry in going paperless. Last year, more than half a million insurance product filings were handled online — an achievement for which Weatherford can take credit.

In the early 1990s, Weatherford was the first woman to serve as Oklahoma’s Insurance Commissioner. Before that, she was a senior policy advisor to the Oklahoma governor. Her interest in legislative affairs comes naturally: Her father was a state lawmaker.

Until recently, Ford says the former NAVA wasn’t top of mind for people who had questions about variable annuities and retirement income. Under Weatherford’s leadership, that has changed. As Ford puts it: “She knows the industry, she has connections. She has immediately been able, through her networks and her relationships, to make us a go-to source.”

What does that mean for the organization’s 280 member institutions and their individual advisors? For starters, IRI now has a voice in the regulatory reform debate — critical, Weatherford says, in light of last year’s market meltdown. The group is also providing education on the entire annuity space and representing new and evolving products. It may expand into other insurance products used in retirement planning such as long term care.

“One of the things that have frustrated advisors is complexity. We’re going to see less complex products and products that will evolve around the most valued benefits. We may see things embedded in products that have senior-type benefits: benefits for assisted living, for example, or adaptation of housing for the handicapped, or, in annuities, riders for payment of significant medical expenses that aren’t covered,” according to Weatherford. “There will be new and creative ways to finance and fund some of those significant life events as we age. This will be extremely valuable to us baby boomers as we get older.”

IRI’s new look is perhaps nowhere more in evidence than at its new Web site, “It’s one of my big babies,” Weatherford admits about the online component, a year in the making. IRI just reached an agreement to carry all of FINRA’s podcasts. Weatherford is also using Twitter to put out informational tidbits. This fall, the organization is launching a password-protected members-only Web site. Coming in 2010: the release of at least 24 research studies — some proprietary, others done in conjunction with partners such as AARP and Cerulli.

At IRI’s annual meeting in Boston in September, AARP announced a new statistic that has Weatherford even more focused on her mission: 33 percent of baby boomers have no retirement savings at all.

“Clearly, there are going to have to be some strategies to help these people have a guaranteed paycheck for life,” she says. “We really believe a true evolution of insured retirement products is going to come out of this economic crisis. It has never been more important for us to be a voice for both advisors and their clients.”


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