“Our industry is at an inflection point,” Brett Shofner matter-of-factly states. “Advisors need to start owning the success and failure of employer-sponsored retirement plans. The fee war between record keepers, investment management and now with advisors is killing us all.”
His direct, no-nonsense style is exactly what the industry needs now, a bit of brutal truth to ensure participants are on track and retirement-ready.
“Razor thin margins make it difficult for any of us to do our job well,” Shofner, a principal with Work Plan Retire, a 401k advisory firm with offices in Denver, Colorado and Delray Beach, Florida, adds. “The only way to get back to higher margins is to provide better value to the sponsors and participants. It can be done, but as an industry, advisors need to broaden their services to be more comprehensive.”
It’s far from simply talk. He provides comprehensive 401k consulting to employers that covers the investing process, plan administration and participant outcomes, and claims most advisors focus solely on investing and fees and ignore (or attempt to outsource) any responsibility regarding the plan administration or participant outcomes.
“We work very closely with participants and have learned how to scale that part of the business. Ensuring participants retire on time is very important for employers who want to manage their human capital. Aging employees who cannot retire are very expensive, distracting to other employees and an awkward situation all the way around.”
If you sense an intense competitiveness underpinning his attitude, you’re not alone, and it probably stems from a combination of childhood difficulties and his time in sport.
“I grew up in a typical family with two good parents and was the oldest of three children. My dad contracted a terminal illness and died when I was just 13 years old. When you lose a parent at an age like that, and never have that male role model replaced, it’s difficult.”
He got through it, he says, but his siblings struggled. He nonetheless credits the situation with building his perseverance. And as a former athlete, his fitness routine is consistent; three to four times per week in the gym, complemented with basketball, fitness classes, cycling or yoga.
“My one vice might be enjoying a glass of red wine or a scotch whiskey drink,” he adds with a laugh. “None of us are perfect.”
It’s not surprising then, that when we ask about working with a coach, he immediately thinks athletics, rather than life or career.
“I was lucky enough to attend a basketball camp at Duke University and get some time with Coach K [legendary leader Mike Krzyzewski] and some of his assistants. Just seeing how they handle players and the strength of their relationships was a true life-lesson.”
The firm has a flexible work environment, since he’s more concerned with results and how they “get done.” He names Allianz, BlackRock and his own proprietary software as important tech tools to assist clients.
“Allianz offers a very cool plan-audit tool that can show employers deficiencies in plan design. BlackRock offers a tool that can show an employer how improving plan design directly impacts participant outcomes. We are creating some proprietary software that defines overall plan governance for clients.”
When asked about influential books he recommends to help advisors be “better,” he has two at the ready—Give and Take by Adam Grant and David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell.
“Grant is a Wharton Business School professor and centers on the behaviors we see in business, but it’s helped me understand how to better deal with clients and my personal life.”
The Gladwell book contains anecdotes about being nimble in business and examples of how David beat Goliath in the famous biblical fight.
“It provides inspiration on how to succeed in business regardless of the size your organization. You need to be good, not just big.”
Both books focus on leadership and understanding, something Shofner emphasizes.
“Our industry is extremely complex, and the clients (both employers and employees) desperately need guidance and advice. Learning how to communicate effectively and clearly with people is the key to becoming an elite advisor. The job has evolved to one of trust, leadership and inspiration, rather than solely investment advice.”
Ross Marino, CFP, CPFA, CeFT is the founder and CEO of 401(k) Rekon | Excel 401(k).