Retirement services Featured

7:00pm EDT November 24, 2006

Competition runs rampant in the retirement services sector. Banks, mutual fund companies and insurance companies are all vying for a slice of 401(k) business.

However, not all retirement plan providers offer the same level of commitment when it comes to making sure employees are well-versed in eligible plans.

After all, getting employees to participate involves more than merely letting them know a plan is available. Education is an important component that providers should bring to the table.

“Commitment to the education process is key,” says Frank Ricchiuti, vice president and retirement plan consultant at Comerica Bank. “A successful 401(k) plan usually has good participation levels. Education is the driver to good participation.”

Smart Business spoke with Ricchiuti about what functions a retirement plan provider should be responsible for, how often a retirement plan should be reviewed and how service providers can assist in employee education.

What are some key factors to consider when looking for a retirement plan provider?

The wish list is obvious: competitive pricing, quality investments, efficient service and great technology. Unfortunately, this reads like every providers’ marketing brochure. Some plan sponsors know what they want; many know they have a problem but don’t know how to fix it; and some don’t know what they don’t know. So the combination of product marketing and not knowing enough to cut through the spam makes it very difficult for a plan sponsor to identify and evaluate those key factors.

What functions should a retirement plan provider be responsible for?

The three main components are record-keeping, administration and investments.

The less obvious but equally important issues are compliance oversight, ongoing due diligence of the investments and the level of commitment toward participant education (preferably live meetings). These services do not totally relieve the plan sponsor of fiduciary obligations, but they can certainly assist the employer to make prudent decisions in selecting a provider.

Once in place, how often should a retirement plan be reviewed?

This is a huge fiduciary liability issue, and many plans have now established investment policy statements for guidance in this regard. Investments move in and out of favor, so they should be reviewed at least annually.

Larger plans review their investments quarterly, which may be the result of a very specific investment policy. We also believe that plans should have an administrative review to measure the overall efficiency and competitiveness of the program in a fast moving industry. We find that many of our clients are not being offered these reviews by current service providers.

How can a company encourage its employees to participate in retirement plans?

This varies by employer. A high-tech company or a law firm does not have the same issues educating participants as a manufacturing company has.

Employers concerned by productivity and thin profitability margins are often reluctant to make 401(k) plan enrollment meetings mandatory. We also see successful 401(k) plans where enrollment meetings are presented in other languages (e.g. Spanish) with enrollment materials to match.

The new Pensions Protection Act brings a potential solution to the problem — automatic enrollment and auto deferral increase — options we expect plan sponsors to consider in the future.

How should employees be educated about retirement plans?

Ultimately, it is the fiduciary responsibility of the employer to provide that information. The employer achieves this by partnering with effective resources.

Those resources can be the actual service provider and/or a good broker or consultant who will focus on developing and driving an effective ongoing action plan. Multiple tools are available now with more being developed all the time. We’re seeing live workshops with worksheets and pencils in hand (even PDAs); seminars to existing participants on different investment-related topics; Webinars; Internet-based education and financial planning models; and user-friendly investment options that promote asset allocation through target retirement date funds. The key is choosing the right team, because a dedicated retirement plan consultant can make all the difference.

FRANK RICCHIUTI is vice president and retirement plan consultant at Comerica Bank. For a no-obligation assessment of your current retirement plan, reach him at (714) 433-3235 or flricchiuti@comerica.com.