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You can’t be everybody for everything

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I have written many articles on the fiduciary warranty and how that is a deceptive practice in my mind because plan sponsors assume that this warranty protects them a lot more than in the very limited circumstances that it actually does.

When I first wrote an article about it in 2011, someone I know who worked for one of these fiduciary warranty pushing providers didn’t take too kindly to my article and asked me to take his name off of my newsletter subscriber lists. He also indicated that in the past, he referred a lot of work to ERISA attorneys. I got the picture and of course, in the years that I knew him, I never got any legal work from that relationship. Regardless, when you are outspoken as I am about fee disclosure and some of the abuses in the retirement plan business, this is the price you have to pay for being outspoken. Most of the time, my outspokenness gets me more business like the time I was hired by a West Coast registered investment advisor because the competition (the top ERISA attorney in the country, in my opinion) was returning the client’s phone calls from a meeting with a bundled provider client that was known for its poor product and high fees. The client knew that they didn’t want to hire an ERISA attorney who represented providers like that. In the end, you can’t be everything for everybody.

As a plan provider, you have to develop your niche and market yourself to the marketplace you want to work with. A financial advisor, who only wants to work with $100 million plans, isn’t going to join a small business networking group. A third party administrator (TPA) that only handles small, balance forward retirement plans isn’t going to handle a $75 million, participant-directed 401(k) plan.

Plan providers need to their strengths and weaknesses. I worked for a provider with an owner who thought we could do everything and when we tried to handle something out of our element, we’d flop. As Dirty Harry said in Magnum Force:  “A good man always knows his limitations.” Plan providers need to market their strengths and not try to be a provider for every type of plan coming down the pike.

The fact is that the retirement plan business is large enough for providers of all different sizes and shapes. There is enough area for the bundled provider and unbundled provider, as well as brokers and registered investment advisors. To me, it’s all about fit. For some plans, bundled providers may be the solution and there are times when they are the completely wrong answer. Plan sponsors need to find the right team, the team with the background to handle a plan of their size and shape.

Plan providers need to understand they can’t be everything for everybody. Just like I won’t be representing any companies pushing those fiduciary warranties.

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