Oh, great—it’s time for another in what feels like an interminable series of Monday morning Zoom meetings. The first few virtual sessions were productive, but by this point in the lockdown your co-workers are starting to look more than a bit frayed around the edges, not to mention the need for some serious hair care.
The pandemic has, perhaps permanently, changed the office work and client activities paradigms. It’s proved possible to continue servicing clients effectively and to run a retirement plan business remotely in an era of masks and social distancing. But most advisors whom I’ve contacted recently report some significant changes in their operations. Here’s how they’re coping.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Several factors influenced the decision on whether to continue working from the office or to go remote. Local government edicts determined which businesses were considered essential and would be allowed to stay open. Other factors included the office layout’s adequacy for social distancing, management and staff’s willingness to remain in the office, and the adequacy of and experience with remote-work technology.
Bob Rubin, president of Your401kSource.com, a subsidiary of Rubin Wealth Advisors in Boca Raton, Fla., says that his firm was considered an essential service and continued operating from its otherwise largely empty office building. The company serves about a dozen defined contribution (DC) plans and a comparable number of defined benefit (DB) plans. The firm had experience with remote work because its clients are located around the country, and one of its four employees had been working remotely already. Clients used a range of virtual conferencing and sharing technologies, including BlueJeans, Microsoft Teams and Join.me.
Post-lockdown, Rubin teamed with record-keepers to host online webinars in which a specialist from the record-keeper would present to plan participants. The response to these webinars has been surprisingly strong. “We bring in a specialist and have a webinar with 50 or 100 employees and just go over the benefits and the details on that particular record keeper’s website,” he explains. “What was interesting about it is usually you might try to do something like that and out of 100 invites you might get 14 people. Now, we’d invite 100 and 92 would show up. We had a meeting last week with one of our clients and they have 200 participants; 120 people signed up and 125 people joined. The HR person called me after and said, ‘I’ve never seen that before (where) more people joined than signed up.’”
Rubin’s staff is busier now than pre-pandemic because clients want to get into the details about suspending their match, adding CARES Act provisions or talking about the details of their plans, he explains. The business continues to operate at full capacity and he just made a new hire for marketing.
Girard, a Univest Wealth Division, has a large operation. According to Scott Mulvaney, a Souderton, Pa.-based vice president and retirement plan consultant with the firm, the organization and its affiliated trust group have more than 75 employees in five locations. They service over 100 clients with roughly 6,000 plan participants and assets just over $500 million. Most of the participants are in 401(k) plans with some in 403(b) plans.
The firm began making pandemic preparations in late February and by mid-March all of the staff was equipped and working remotely. Univest implemented Salesforce two years ago, and it is the primary technology used across all divisions to manage workflows and communication with clients. “Since the onset of Covid-19, however, we’ve incorporated other technologies,” Mulvaney explained by email. “For our internal staff communication, as well as for client communications, WebEx has been our go-to technology.”
Shifting to remote work was not disruptive, says Mulvaney: “This is really nothing very new to us. Typically, our participant and plan sponsor meetings are conducted face-to-face, but we’ve also done virtual web-based presentations in the past for plan reviews and enrollment meetings.”
Girard’s mix of services has not changed at all, he says, but one area the firm has focused on specifically has been providing guidance to help clients interpret the recent CARES Act provisions and what it means to them. “We’ve done a number of webinars and conference calls to answer their questions and discuss some of the key provisions, while also providing informational links that we’ve found helpful,” he says.
New Business on Hold
Although their firms are coping well, both Rubin and Mulvaney note that new business development has stopped completely since the lockdown. Rubin had eight or nine new plans in the pipeline immediately before the pandemic, but those proposals “came to a grinding halt at the beginning of March,” he says. “Literally, it went from working hard and meetings and going at it to nothing, just like a switch. It was the darndest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Mulvaney’s experience was similar. “What hasn’t worked out has been our ability to bring on many new plans and effective business development,” he says. “Plan sponsors haven’t been focused too much on their 401(k)s and have prioritized other important business issues.”
The good news is that states are loosening restrictions in stages, which should help revitalize new business development. Given the disheveled state of so many haircuts, barbershops and hair salons could be the next hot market for new plan installations.