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The Successful Retirement Plan Advisor, Pt. 3: Profile in Success— Jason Chepenik

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This is the third in a five-part series defining success for retirement plan advisors by Liz Davidson, who as president of Financial Finesse has a unique vision of who the most successful retirement plan advisors are, and what they have in common.–Ed.

In my first article in this series for AdvisorOne, I talked about the three most common traits I’ve seen in highly successful retirement plan advisors.  One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from advisors over the years is that the most critical and most difficult thing to do in this industry is to stand out. I hear this sentiment reinforced by many of the Fortune 500 plan sponsors we work with—they often share with me the qualities they look for in plan advisors or in some cases, what it is that stood out to them in the advisor they’re already working with.

Time and time again, what I find is that the advisors who win business share two key traits. One, they take a consultative approach with their clients, seeing them as partners and customizing their services every step of the way to match the needs of their specific culture, plan goals and overall vision. Two, they are experts, specializing in one niche rather than spreading themselves across the board. Among the universe of retirement plan advisors, the most successful understand the full ins and outs of ERISA law and their clients’ benefits so that they’re able to bring more to the table than just plan management or even plan design—they can deliver guidance around the full spectrum of retirement plan issues.

I’ve been fortunate to know many advisors who take this approach to their client relationships, honing in deeply on their specific needs and customizing every outcome based on solutions that work best for their situations. But I’ve also seen many firms crumble because they missed opportunities by following the status quo too closely. That is, rather than looking at every client as a blank slate, they follow a standard set of procedures to determine and design plans that usually end up being inefficient and far less successful than if they had spent more time upfront on crafting a custom plan and program that fits the clients’ specifics.  Today, the advisors who are thriving are doing so because they’ve built a reputation on how they approach working with clients. They are the advisors who are being recommended at conferences and trade shows from executive to executive and they’re the advisors who are winning more deals because they “get” plan sponsors’ needs.

Jason ChepenikJason Chepenik (left) is one such advisor who is separating himself in the market to the point that he’s become a highly sought -after name with mid- to large-size plan sponsors. He has turned his father’s practice into one of the most recognized retirement plan advisory firms in the country today, managing approximately $900 million in assets and servicing over 70 mid market plan sponsor clients.  

What Jason has been able to accomplish is quite significant in an industry that’s growing even more crowded. He has fully immersed himself in the industry, taking on multiple speaking engagements per year, networking with peers and other professionals in complimentary industries and advocating for industry standards. He’s been invited to speak before the ERISA Advisory Council to the DOL on issues related to the spend down of defined contribution assets upon retirement. He’s been named a Top 10 Advisor for the large market, Top Advisor for the middle market by 401kwire in 2010, and an Institutional Investor Rising Star among retirement advisors in 2009, along with many more industry awards. So what’s Jason’s secret to success and how can other advisors use it to differentiate themselves in an industry that’s growing crowded and even more competitive? 

Jason’s main key to success is how he approaches his business. He is passionate and works tirelessly to find the root problem to his clients’ retirement issues so that he develops a strong loyalty and trust from clients and, as a result, sets the stage for future business referrals.

Here are the two key components to a client-centric frame of thinking that can help advisors get more business from plan sponsors:

  • Understand and work to achieve clients’ end goal.
    We talk to plan sponsors every day about their most important vendor relationships, and while they each have a different story, the theme is invariably the same:  Over and over, they articulate the need for a true partner—someone who can immerse themselves in their world and, in the words of the iconic Apple advertising, “Think different.”  Most plan sponsors tell us (and research bears this out) that they are getting more sales pitches than ever, and the vast majority feel like subtle variations of the same thing. Ironically, they want the exact opposite: In our experience, most plan sponsors are hungry to work with advisors who stand out from the crowd by bringing a whole new perspective. Most plan sponsors are surprisingly willing to commit when they have a transformational meeting with an advisor who is able to help them in a way that no one ever has before. 

Jason has always understood this and has built his business approaching each engagement as a blank sheet of paper, diving into the clients’ needs and then partnering with them to brainstorm out-of-the-box concepts that other advisors shy away from, to thoroughly evaluate all alternatives, and to come up with the solution that is just right for that client. 

As a result, he has been able to bypass a formal RFP process with two-thirds of his clients, and with the remaining, he had a strong relationship going into the RFP—something that makes a world of difference in an otherwise sterile process. 

  • Reframe how your clients think about their plan.
    A big part of an advisor’s job is simply to help plan committees avoid group think decisions—decisions that lead them in the wrong direction based on a false understanding or knowledge about the plan, ERISA law or their participants.

What successful advisors have uncovered is this: it’s vital to make the decision makers an active part of the process and get them to see themselves as part of a bigger mission. When you do this, a whole new perspective is gained by the committee. Jason says this is an area he works hard to transform from the get-go so that the decision makers know they have an active part in improving their plan and their employees’ lives.

Jason focuses on even small details like changing the plan committee’s title from Investment Committee to Retirement Plan Committee in every circumstance. Though a minor change, moves like this initiated by the advisor show the committee how dedicated you are to participants’ success. What has an even bigger impact is that it sets the stage for bigger picture thinking, which leads to a better working relationship.

If the committee feels their plan advisor is just as committed to their success as are those who work for the company, then they’re likely to give their advisor more freedom in designing a program. That in turn makes it more likely that the program will resonate better with employees, achieve higher success and improve the outlook for a long-lasting and profitable relationship with the client. 

One example of this is Jason’s client Intersil. When they hired Jason last year to help design a plan and an accompanying retirement education program, they gave him the lead—allowing him to design the program and to hire the vendors that would be involved in a multi-year, multi-vendor, large-scale effort to reach employees with retirement education.

Jason helped by providing the vision for the communication to employees, based on research around the employee base and their demographics. In the end, he designed a program that is a finalist for the Plan Sponsor of the year awards, and that addressed the plan sponsors’ concern around employees retiring early. Though the company had high participation and deferral rates before Jason was hired (more than 90% participated with annual deferrals exceeding 9%) there was overall concern that the employees needed more tailored retirement guidance. 

With so many participants who had retirement in sight, the plan sponsor needed access to more specific and individualized guidance than most record keepers could offer. Jason was able to provide them with a program that had the depth and insight to help participants have a successful retirement.

What Jason has been able to accomplish, others can and have, too—but not without a powerful desire and dedication to helping people achieve true retirement success. In the end, understanding that this is plan sponsors’ biggest concern and driving solutions that help plan sponsors bring their employees closer to retirement is far more effective and valuable to the market. Advisors who grasp this and make their core business about meeting client needs, no matter what it takes or how it’s done, are the ones who have a bright future of growth in this changing industry.

For more profiles in success, we invite you to view our five-part series on how to run a successful retirement plan advisor business.