Lincoln Scott recalls a disturbing conversation he had with an employee at Southeast Health, where he works as vice president of HR.

"One of our nurses had been here for 25 years, and during that time she had all of her [workplace retirement plan] money in fixed income," he says. "She'd had no counseling; no one talking to her. That bothered me a lot because I felt like we were not meeting the needs of our employees."

Southeast Health is a multistate health care system in the Midwest with about 2,300 employees, 1,900 of whom are eligible for the retirement plan. The plan is a 403(b)/401(a) combination with more than $80 million in assets. The majority of assets are in the 401(a) fixed contribution plan that is provided completely by Southeast Health - employees aren't required to do anything to receive this benefit.


Low participation rates

Scott also was bothered by the plan's low participation rates. "I have a basic belief that I've carried throughout my HR career: Part of what you earn is yours to keep; pay yourself first," he says. It's a mantra he passes on to every new employee during orientation and benefits meetings.

"It's exactly the same conversation I had with my daughter when she graduated college 20 years ago - that you need to save," he says.

Prior to Scott's arrival at Southeast Health two years ago, both components of the retirement plan were managed separately by two different providers.

"We were paying double in terms of administration fees, and no one was servicing our employees and giving them investment advice," says Scott, who subsequently asked for bids on Southeast Health's retirement plan.

He selected OneAmerica, in part because of its thorough communications plan and prepackaged portfolios. Communications were rebranded with Southeast Health's logo and language style. Over a period of several weeks, OneAmerica financial consultants were onsite at the health care system's various locations, working all shifts to give all employees a chance to meet and discuss their retirement accounts.

The campaign theme encouraged employees to "check their financial wellness" and prepare for the next chapter in life. The theme was woven into an integrated communications campaign with print materials and a custom website.

"We didn't do iPads or iPhones; we didn't do it with an app," says Denise Preece, assistant vice president of field services with OneAmerica. "We did it the old-fashioned way - looking somebody in the eye, talking to them, having the pen in our hand and then just making it really easy."

More emphasis now is placed on the 403(b) component of the plan, and employees are encouraged to not only accept the "free" money into their 401(a) account but to also contribute funds their own accounts.


Impressive results

Scott's goal was to dramatically increase participation and deferral rates. Before the enrollment campaign, 199 employees were participating in the pretax deferral program, 15 participants in the Roth program, and just five participants in both programs, for a total of 219 participants.

Immediately following the campaign - just six weeks and three payroll periods later - 434 participants were enrolled in the pretax deferral program, 104 participants in the Roth program, 48 participants in both programs, for a total of 586 participants.


Deferals increased

Deferral amounts also increased. During the four payroll periods immediately prior to the start of the campaign there was an average total deferral of $55,850 in the pretax program and an average total deferral of $7,130 in the Roth program. Employees deferred a total of $62,980 per pay period.

Six weeks later, there was a 36% increase in the amount deferred to the pretax program, a 209% increase in the amount deferred to the Roth program, and a total of $98,213 deferred to the 403(b) plan (a 56% increase.)

Over the past six months, the website has seen over 3,200 different account views. "We've gotten people interested in their own futures," says Scott. "And I'm pleased."


More work to do

Still, he's not content to rest on the success of this one campaign. "My goal over the next three years is to move up participation every year by 5% to 10% until I get everybody involved as much as possible," he says. "But where we started and where we are now, I'm extremely excited about how [employees] have embraced this program."

Scott has two pieces of advice for other employers interested in boosting retirement plan participation. "Believe that this is important to your employees," he says. "If you don't believe it, you can't sell it, and I don't care how good of a salesman you are. You've got to believe it because you've got to sell it every day at every employee meeting."

His second piece of advice may be cliché, but he believes strongly in the "communicate, communicate, communicate" mantra.

"Our philosophy is, 'Let me tell you; let me show you what I told you; [then] let me tell you what I just showed you,'" he says. "And get the leadership of the organization - not just the executives but managers and supervisors - to buy in to this so they're talking it up and talking about it in their department meetings. That's the way to get this out there so people really embrace it."

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