The Great Untapped 401(k) Buyer’s Market

Fred Barstein

Following my own advice to go to events where I know very few people, this week I am attending the SHRM national conference in DC with more than 14,000 attendees, mostly HR professionals, and hundreds of vendors.

Beyond suffering the ignominy of very few people knowing me, what struck me was how few plan advisors and service providers were exhibiting. And most of the big name record keepers exhibiting were not highlighting or even mentioning their retirement plan services.

So what gives? Why are only five advisory groups, including the national Bank of America Merrill Lynch group along with a local Raymond James office, as well as a small Florida firm, exhibiting? And why are only three record keepers listed in the retirement planning section of the exhibit guide? Aren’t these HR professionals the buyers or at least the gate keepers for small and mid-size plans?

The media covering corporate retirement planning focuses on large and mega ERISA plans; the media covering benefits for smaller companies focuses on health care. So it’s been difficult if not impossible for retirement providers and advisors to deliver their message to small and mid-size HR professionals. Certainly it’s easier to go to retirement-focused conferences where everyone is interested in DC or DB plans – but that is also where all the competition is.

So are the HR and benefits professionals at small and mid-size companies where the puck is going or is it just a forgotten corner not worth visiting? The founder of HR.com, which boasts 1 million monthly visitors, said that 401(k) is the hottest eLearning module on her site. There is no doubt that small and mid-size plans are waking up to the realities of DC plans – whether because of the DOL rule, lawsuits, media coverage or the growing importance of retirement outcomes and financial wellness.

These undertrained and overworked HR professionals who wear many hats are emerging from being unconsciously incompetent to becoming consciously incompetent on the road to becoming consciously competent. If that’s true, then advisors and providers that get this market and figure out how to get to these people with the right message will have a huge advantage.

You won’t get fired or go out of business for staying at the tried and true, crowded fishing hole, but neither will you break away from the competition in what has become a commoditized industry with falling prices.

Opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of NAPA or its members.

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