Trying to get participation in your retirement plan above 75%? It takes a plan sponsor that goes above and beyond.

Luke Vandermillen, vice president of worksite solutions for the Principal Financial Group, led a panel discussion during EBN's 25th annual Benefits Forum & Expo on what the best retirement plans are doing differently. On the panel were three of the 10 companies ranked by Principal as the best for employee financial security - those that, as Vandermillen said, "go above and beyond in terms of taking care of their employees through their benefit plan[s]." (for the full list of 2012 winners, go to

Pamela Peterson, human resources director for Alabama-based Davidson Technologies, wants to retain workers who are most capable of meeting customer needs. A good 401(k), she said, is the ultimate long-term return on investment.

"Our main objective is to recruit and retain as many highly skilled employees as we can," Peterson said. "It allows that continued stability in the work environment and it keeps our customers happy."

Vandermillen agreed. "You can't afford to let 20 years of experience walk out the door, regardless of your industry," he said, noting that the firms that made Principal's list "have a turnover rate that is less than half the national average." Turnover at Davidson Technologies, for example, is less than 4%.

The companies on Principal's list have low turnover, but are high touch when it comes to retirement and financial education.

"What the best companies, in our view, have done is they've taken that education and made it more personal and more holistic," Vandermillen said. "Because it's not just, 'Here's my 401(k);' it's debt management, it's college education, it's home equity ... it's the whole enchilada."

Vandermillen stressed that financial education around 401(k) benefits is key, particularly for those whose savings aren't likely to swell on their own.

"The people who benefit the most from that aren't the executives or the management team," he said. "It's the average employee, who for the most part [is] underserved by the financial services industry. The person making $39,000 a year - no one's ever talked to them about 'are you saving enough for retirement,' or, 'what are you thinking about for your kid's college funding?'"


Common challenges

Garry A. Markle, COO of the Spiratex Company based in Michigan, said that talking to manufacturing workers about retirement savings is a particular challenge, both for practical and demographic reasons.

"A lot of them are younger; they don't really think about retirement," Markle said, praising auto-enrollment programs and independent advisers for helping Spiratex make inroads among its hard-to-reach population.

Another education obstacle for Spiratex: its 24-hour production schedule. This round-the-clock schedule not only makes it hard to reach employees, but also makes it difficult to involve spouses and families in the retirement education efforts.

Karen Roch, a senior vice president at Arizona's Credit Union West, also acknowledged the specific challenges shifts and size can pose for offering meaningful retirement education. At CUW, Roch needed flexible providers and service structures to accommodate her firm's dozen locations, but, she said, CUW's small workforce of less than 200 was an even bigger impediment.

"There were so many obstacles because of our size," Roch said "The big insurance companies didn't want to play with someone with 150 participants. It really made it hard."


Integrating benefits

One of the things all of the panelists said they do differently is to integrate health care, retirement and other benefits. For CUW, Roch said, that means wellness.

"We completely changed our health plans to focus on wellness, and our last phase has really tied in with retirement plans," she said. "We have initiatives ... we actually have employees earn HSA dollars from those initiatives, and we've tied that into our retirement as well."

Roch said CUW's plan participation rate is more than 90%, and urged benefits managers and HR reps to measure twice and cut once when it comes to designing plans. "Do your research upfront," she said, advising to learn from the mistakes and successes of others and to do comparisons with companies "not necessarily [in] your industry, but [of] the same size."


Execs say benefits more about retention than attraction

Peterson and Markle both stress that benefits programs should be tethered as closely as possible to retention and customer satisfaction. Good health care and retirement options are attractive to new hires, they say, but the real return on investment comes with nurturing someone through the company.

Peterson says the turnover rate at Davidson Technologies is less than 4%, and that keeps Davidson's production "on solid ground."

"It keeps our customers happy," Peterson says. "What we have found is continued high levels of customer satisfaction because we are maintaining our workforce and keeping the strong, highly educated, highly skilled employees in their same jobs."

Peterson says employers looking to reduce costs often eye benefits, but should resist the urge.

"When you look at it in dollars, it's kind of a good place to start [cutting], because it's a high-value item," she says, but the damage can run deep. Instead, she says, when the Alabama-based Davidson is looking to reduce expenses, leaders target supplies, unnecessary travel and other "things that don't impact our employees."

The Spiratex Company's Markle says retention is critical, but it's also just a start. He says developing future leaders should be part of longterm ROI thinking.

"We would rather have an employee advance within our own company because it's kind of a known quantity," he says. "Just as we want to retain people for their whole career and have them retire from our company, we want them to grow with our company."

Markle says Spiratex, which is based in Michigan, doesn't have a defined leadership program, but it has "started down this road of mentoring" people "identified as potential future leaders," which, for Spiratex, is a literal possibility.

"We are an employee-owned company, so all these people that we encourage to grow with the company are potentially also owners of the company," Markle says, adding that he's been drawing more attention to the company's tuition compensation program.

Peterson says "so much goes into financial wealth" that Davidson offers everything from match for 401(k) catch-up contributions to flu clinics and a gym in order to create an environment where workers feel fiscally sound. "We pay 100% of our employees' health and dental insurance, as well as for their families," she says. "And this is not a highdeductible plan; this is a regular, PPO-based plan."

Markle says it's important to make sure benefits are serving the entire workforce - to balance accessibility and thoroughness. "You have to realize that every job in your company is important," Markle says.

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