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READER POLL: How (and When) Readers Got Started with Retirement

Professional Development

There are a lot of great stories in this business—but none quite so interesting as the “origin” stories—the varied ways in which we all got started in the retirement plan business. This week, we gave readers a chance to tell their stories.

We started by asking how long readers had been working with retirement plans—and just over 6 in 10 (60%) had been doing so for more than 20 years, and another 15% had been for 15-20 years. Just over one in eight had been working with retirement plans for 10-15 years, and the remaining 12% split between 5-10 years and less than five years.

Now, with all that tenure, you might well expect that they had worked for a large number of employers—and yet, asked to tally those, the most common response (roughly 29%) said…two. The second-most common response? Just one (22.7%).

As for the rest:

  • 18%—four
  • 9%—three
  • 7.6%—six
  • 6%—five
  • 3%—seven

The rest had more than eight.

‘Pre’ Plans

Asked what they were doing before they began working with retirement plans:

  • 42%—College/school.
  • 31%—Something finance-related.
  • 12%—Something business, but not finance-related.
  • 9%—Something completely unrelated.
  • 2%—Something education-related.

The rest fell into the “you wouldn't believe me if I told you...” category.

Among the unique pre-retirement experiences cited were “professional baseball,” “straight from the Rodeo Team at Texas Tech and Business School to work...,” high school Spanish teacher, one flew private jets, another was in hospitality and restaurant management, real estate sales came up several times, others started in the mutual fund business or wealth management, and found their way “over,” another was in a call center working in a credit department for a large national retailer, and many got their start with college internships for firms in this field. And then there were readers who:    

“I ran my family's business,” explained one reader. “It was a party equipment rental (tents, tables, chairs, etc.) and paper store. I hated it.”

“I originally went to school and graduated with a degree in culinary arts,” another shared. “I'd been in the food service business since I was able to work at age 13. Eventually I got burned out from that industry...went back to school, and ironically a guy I worked with in Food Service recruited me to F* and the rest is history.”

Another reader said, “I was an ESL teacher in Bangkok Thailand out of college. I then took a position at a small, local Independent Broker Dealer in their operations. I decided after 1 year to go back to school to get into teaching (math). I was told at that time that Actuaries make more money doing math than math teachers, and not knowing what an actuary was I decided to take that avenue instead, collecting higher level math credits, self-studying for the Actuary exams and working as a bank teller. I took a job with a local TPA to get my feet wet in the actuarial math space and never looked back. I stopped pursuing the actuarial path and got my fill in plan design and testing. I grew there slowly getting the necessary license to educate, train and build plans.”

I was new to the business, working with individuals, and had a business owner who had a plan. It seemed to me that it was more logical to go after large "pools" of money, rather than individuals, if only to be more efficient in my prospecting and growing my business.

I entered the business as a registered rep in 1997 with a mentor who was a cold call cowboy in NY back in the day. His only business building method was to cold call. I cold called rich old ladies trying to sell muni bonds for a month and wanted to kill myself. I still had to cold call but declared that I needed to cold call businesses instead of individuals. So, it became a question of, "what can I sell a business?" Meanwhile, the internet and discount brokers were killing the value of a "full-service broker" model that charged full commission for trades. Being someone interested in trading on my knowledge, the 401k business felt like a place to go where I wouldn't get replaced by the internet. Knowledge was still a valuable commodity. And it allowed me to cold call businesses.

“After spending some time learning the ins and outs of retirement plans, I decided to try to specialize,” noted another. “At the time [1988], not many advisors tried to pursue the business, so there a was much less competition than now. Additionally, when working with individuals you have a whole series of likes and dislikes, and there is a key behavioral side to managing their money. Companies decided based on facts, not emotional ties to anything. It was easier to manage, if you could get the face time and win the plan.”

Who, What, or Why?

We asked readers to tell us if it was a "who," a "what" or a "why" that got them started (more than one response could be chosen):

  • 53%—a who
  • 39%—a why
  • 23%—a what
  • 12%—a why not


Speaking of “who,” we asked readers if they had had a mentor (and still did), and whether they had been a mentor (and still were):

  • 35%—Had one, still do.
  • 30%—Had one.
  • 19%—No.
  • 15%—Had one, don't now.
  • 1%—Not yet.

“I've been lucky to have a few along the way, one who took me under his wing to teach me salesmanship, one who helped me understand ERISA and plan design at a deeper level, and my current mentor who has coached me through my transition from advisor to business leader, as well as being a great resource for me to bounce ideas off and support me thru speed bumps I encounter,” noted one reader.

I'm a firm believer you should always have a mentor and a mentee. There is always someone you can learn from, to help you stretch beyond your comfort zone. Conversely, you should have someone to whom you're passing your knowledge onto.

I wish I did have one, it would have made the learning curve easier.

I've typically had someone mentor me in each of the companies I worked in for retirement plans. Even today being in the business for over 20 years, I still have someone I consider a mentor because you can ALWAYS learn more and better.

It made all the difference in my career trajectory to have someone who gave me an opportunity, invested in me, taught me, and allowed me to grow. I would not have stuck in the industry without my mentor.

I was a kid, lol. They needed someone who could follow directions on some level.


And speaking of “why,” as for other comments on the topic of working with retirement plans, readers had a lot to share. Here’s a sampling:

“We can take pride in the impact we have.”

“Personally, I've been blessed to have worked with all types of Qualified and NQ Retirement Plans and all sizes of clients (Fortune 50 Master Trusts to "mom and pop" startups). At the end of the day: It's all about helping people create and follow paths to a financially successful retirement.”

“Get on a team that will share their magic with you and if you successfully develop, get a piece of the ownership. Start with your family first and partner’s family too.”

“I am a 100% remote employee. I haven't seen the inside of an office in years! I went from being a printer/paper filer to developing my own system of working and filing electronically when I started working remotely. (I had to move and my firm didn't want to lose me. We figured out how to make it work which mean a satellite internet connection back in the day!) Now remote is all the rage. I feel like a trailblazer!”

“I'm passionate about the industry and love what I do. It's been a great career.”

“I love this business and would encourage everyone that enjoys the true passion of helping others to look into it...”

“It's about relationships. Be kind, be compassionate, have passion and get into this industry if you really truly want to help people become financially well.”

“I got into the space for the math and stayed for the ability to educate and help people build, or fix, an appropriate plan design. I was never much for sales, so our model has been a consult and educate first approach that hopefully leads to a sale down the road.”

“Never fulfilled by working with wealthy. Sure, they need planning, too. But, working with the average American worker and providing them with advice & education is so much more fulfilling and gratifying for me.”

“I always wanted to help people figure out ways to use their money to reach their dreams—in this case their vision of their best retirement.”

“I started in the business because I has a desire to make a positive impact in the lives of everyone with whom I come in contact. No better way than to secure their financial futures! I was fortunate enough to have a solid mentor motivate me to come to this side of the business.”

“How do we get the younger people into this? I'm in my mid-50s so maybe I have 15 years left, and many in this industry are older than I am. Who takes over when we're gone?”

“I got into the industry at a great time. The fish were jumping in the boat—mid 90s and anything was possible. I worked for almost five years at a really screwed up company that produced some quite a few of today's industry leaders. It was fun. Whenever I run into or talk to someone I worked with back in the day we always remember that. Some of these folks are personal friends to this day.”

“I have moved out of the daily grind of admin and now do sales. I love sales. The retirement plan industry has been very good to me. Currently, I am the president of the local ABC chapter and frankly enjoy my relationships with my co-workers and competition in our area. We all have grown up together and I have either worked for or with all of the TPAs in our region.”

“I don't think you generally come out of college saying "Hey, it would be really cool if I could work with retirement plans". So, I think that firm culture is all the more important in attracting/retaining younger employees.”

“I started out working with a medium to large profit-sharing plan. Then I got swallowed up by a huge corporation and worked with very large plans. Now I mostly work with smaller plans. I enjoyed it all.”

“With a legislative focus on increasing savings options for employees, I feel inspired and motivated that the work I do on a daily basis continues to be meaningful.”

“I think on the surface...working with retirement plans certainly isn't sexy but it is a very viable career, especially if you are service oriented (we'll leave the sales people out for now). Whether as an advisor or an RM on the provider side, plan sponsors and participants need help and they truly do appreciate those who can deliver it. If someone is willing to really learn how plans work (plan design), understand investment and the economics of plans…it can be a great career that helps build an incredible network of clients and peers.”

“It's a privilege to build a career in this vitally important industry. You have to have a Servant's mind, heart and soul to focus on it, when the individual wealth space can prove to be more financially lucrative dollar for dollar, but it is truly rewarding.”

Indeed it is! Thanks to everyone who participated in this (and every) week’s NAPA Net Reader Poll!