An HR director who ‘definitely stands out from the crowd’
Garin Danner was working as a recruiter for an independent oil and gas company in New Orleans in 1981 when the oil industry tanked. His company put a moratorium on hiring for an indeterminate amount of time, leaving him wondering what he was going to do next. Instead of laying him off, his company offered him a job in either compensation or benefits. He had never worked in either realm, but he “made a wild guess” and chose benefits.
That was “the best decision I ever made in my life,” says Danner, the Benny Award recipient for retirement planning.
Danner, the director of human resources for the SSI Group in Mobile, Alabama, a healthcare technology company that creates software for large hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices, worked his way up through the benefits world from that point forward, never looking back. He has honed his skills in the retirement space from the very inception of the 401(k) plan, making sure the companies he worked for led the pack in this area. Danner accepted his current position 11 years ago and has “never regretted a day of it since,” he says.
He began methodically going through the company’s benefits plans, attempting to make them more attractive to employees. He started with the company’s health and welfare plans and moved to retirement shortly thereafter. The first thing he noticed about the SSI Group’s retirement plan was that employees couldn’t contribute the moment they were hired and the company was putting matching contributions into the plan only once a year. There was another waiting period attached to the company’s profit sharing plan, depending on an employee’s start date, so it could be a significant amount of time before someone saw money going into that plan, he says.
He tackled the issues one at a time, beginning with the options that were not as costly to the company. The first change he proposed was allowing all employees to begin contributing to their 401(k) plan immediately. He then started working on getting the company to pay matching contributions on a paycheck-by-paycheck basis. Once those were in place, he implemented automatic enrollment.
“We had good participation but not fantastic participation,” Danner says. About 80% of the company’s employees were participating in the retirement plan at that time.
Because of auto enrollment, the plan’s participation rate rose to the low 90% range, but the average percentage that employees were contributing to their plans was between 5% and 6% and he wanted to increase that number.
Danner introduced automatic escalation and increased the company’s automatic enrollment percentage to 6%. Now the plan auto-escalates employees’ retirement plan contributions by 1% annually until they reach a 15% contribution level.
“Each time we do this, there is no pushback from employees whatsoever,” Danner says.
Since then, the SSI Group’s employee participation has risen to 97% with an average deferral rate of 9%, says David Ramirez, chief investment officer for ForUsAll, SSI’s plan adviser and the person who nominated Danner for the award. When Danner arrived at the SSI Group, there was an investment committee in place and the plan had an investment adviser who met with the committee once a quarter. The adviser would give guidance into how they were participating in the 401(k) plan but “that’s as far as they took it. They didn’t take on further fiduciary responsibility than that level,” he says.
He decided to put a plan out to bid for a new investment adviser and found ForUsAll. For the past two years, ForUsAll has helped Danner reduce 401(k) plan fees by 63% and increase plan engagement by rolling out a comprehensive financial wellness program that uses mobile communications to better engage participants and offers employees one-on-one sessions with financial advisers to help them manage their credit card debt, student loans, budgeting, financial and retirement planning.
“Garin definitely stands out from the crowd,” Ramirez says. “First, it is rare that you meet somebody who loves geeking out on retirement plans as much as he does — anything and everything related to retirement plans and financial wellness.”
He adds that Garin was not content with a 93% retirement plan participation rate and “tenaciously introduced and evangelized holistic financial wellness to help those that weren’t in a position to save aggressively for retirement.”
Benefitfocus’ Misty Guinn keeps her finger on the benefits pulse through annual surveys, ensuring her workers remain “Customer #1.”
The SSI Group’s workforce is very intellectual, with roughly 380 full-time employees working in information technology, development, analytics, marketing, sales, compliance and other professional positions.Attracting talent and retaining it are challenges that many high-tech companies face in this era of low unemployment and high competition.
“We are constantly looking for ways to help our employees,” Danner says. hat is what he loves best about his job in human resources. That and problem solving.
“I like that challenge. I like the ability to do that and have fun at it. We’ve got a great staff here, and it is just enjoyable to come to work every day, so why quit?” he says.
After 38 years in benefits, Danner says he is in no hurry to retire. “I’d like to get a few more years under my belt.”
His advice to other people working in the benefits space is to make sure they secure the proper type of help and assistance.
“You want to have a good third party administrator for the plan, and you want to have a good adviser,” he says.
Danner also recommends using an adviser that will take on additional fiduciary responsibilities “because they can and will do more for you in the process, which takes a big burden off your mind.”
Benefits professionals must keep abreast of what is going on in the industry and investment community and also keep tabs on the reports the record-keeper produces to ensure there are no mistakes or abnormalities.
The benefits industry has “really been a major passion in my life — all aspects of benefits and especially the 401(k) plan because I see the vulnerability that individuals have if they’re not paying attention properly in those arenas,” Danner says. “I like other aspects of HR, but benefits is my passion.”