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Saving Grace

401k Coach Program is a Nationwide Resource for Financial Professionals
Charlie Epstein and 401k Coach Program

The 401k Coach Program team in its Springfield offices.

Charlie Epstein, a financial advisor based in Springfield and owner of the 401k Coach program, isn’t looking for fame (necessarily), but he is selling his message on a national stage.

“I love getting out there and doing a little ‘edutainment,’” he said, noting that in the five years since he launched the 401k Coach program, which works with retirement-planning professionals to help them strengthen their business practices and, ultimately, their bottom lines, he’s traveled around the country sharing a detailed plan of action.

Americans have some real issues with saving money for retirement, he said, and moreover the financial-advising profession is one that is more complex and competitive than ever before, currently handling about $4 trillion in 401(k) assets. But before he gets to the nitty-gritty, Epstein is careful to break the tension with a story or two — he reminds his pupils that Mick Jagger is the new face of retirement, for instance, and at 64, even Jagger is still hard at work.

Epstein’s audiences have included advisors working with Nationwide, ING, MassMutual, and other firms, and the 401k Coach program’s unique approach to explaining often-tough concepts is garnering some great reviews.

Among other accolades, Epstein was recently included in 401k Wire’s list of the 50 top influencers in the industry for 2007. The news service, an affiliate of InvestmentWires, one of the most well-respected financial-services publications in the country, placed Epstein at No. 28 not only for his success as a financial advisor, but for his latest contributions to the sector.

And with a little bit of creativity, Epstein, who has a background in acting as well as financial services, is positioning 401k Coach for further ovations.

Encore Performances

Epstein created the 401k Coach program in 2002 as a means to train financial advisors across the country to optimize their businesses, in turn strengthening the investments and saving habits of their clients.

The program was designed specifically for financial professionals such as insurance agents, brokers, financial planners, CPAs, third-party administrators (TPAs), and plan providers — companies hoping to introduce their own retirement products to new audiences. Participants must commit to at least one year of membership in the three-year program, and sessions occur every 90 days, so key concepts and skills can be repeatedly revisited and reinforced.

Epstein has boiled these tenets down to 10 components he says are critical to building any retirement-planning business. Four of these, plus the 10-point system itself, are trademarked, and include the 401k Business Development Matrix, which deals specifically with pricing services; the 401k Coach Retirement Plan Solution, a six-step sales and service process; and the Quantum Leap, which introduces various management tools and systems aimed at spurring growth within a 401(k) business.

Many of these tools and systems are also trademarked properties of 401k Coach, and are designed to further assist financial professionals in initiating change. But there are other, broader attitudes Epstein tries to instill as well, such as taking the ‘old’ thinking, figuratively and literally, out of the retirement-planning equation. He refers to retirement plans as ‘desirement plans,’ which better reflects why people must save, and how financial advisors can help make the things their clients have worked for in life reality.

The first year of the program focuses on sales, including creation of a marketing system, developing and packaging an advising process, and mastering practice management, while in the second year, members learn to employ ‘repeatable systems’ for leveraging alliances in the marketplace and generating recurring opportunities, among other topics. Finally, in the third year, participants explore ways to create entrepreneurial capital, from branding a practice to acquiring the competition.

Epstein said the genesis of the multi-faceted program was his frustration with the financial advising industry, of which he’s been a part for 26 years.

“There was no one source to which practitioners could go to create success,” he said. “No one was teaching us how to be entrepreneurs, and people, my peers, needed to know their value. Financial professionals give away so much of their knowledge for free, in hopes of one day selling a product. But individuals don’t approach us for products — they approach us to learn from what we know.”

Epstein explained that there are several standards of service that all fiduciaries must adhere to legally and ethically, including disclosing fees, educating plan participants, and monitoring trends, but a financial advisor can meet all of these requirements and still fall behind in terms of business development and assembling a strong base of clients and referrals.

“This is a business in which we’re always asking ‘why?’” he said. “Why should I partner with this company or that? Why should I choose a certain product over another? We have to keep recreating the tools we use and how we assist our clients.”

What’s more, Epstein added, the financial marketplace is more saturated than ever before; entities that were once sources of referrals for fiduciaries, such as banks and credit unions, are now competitors.

“We’ve never had to market ourselves before,” he said. “This industry is being turned inside-out, and there’s $14 trillion in retirement plans out there. That means not only is this profession a full-time specialty, but it’s also one that requires incredible rigor.”

The Biggest Piece of the Pie

But beyond the challenges facing financial professionals today, there’s another, broader issue at hand that Epstein said plays a large role in moving 401k Coach forward, and that is the state of saving in the U.S.

Drawing a pie on a notepad in front of him, Epstein illustrated the problem.

“This here,” he said, carving out a slice, “is what you know.”

Then, carving out a second, similarly sized slice, Epstein pointed out that just as much of that pie is devoted to what people don’t know about financial planning.

“But that still leaves half of the pie, and that half is what we don’t know we don’t know,” he explained. “Therein lies the importance of the financial advisor: the people who are in the trenches, identifying what people don’t know, every day.”

But it’s not just financial professionals who need to step up their game. While Epstein focuses on training his peers through 401k Coach, there’s a marked trickle-down effect to business owners and individuals, who gain a better understanding and appreciation for retirement planning from their advisors.

“There is a huge savings problem in this country right now, and I want to inspire people to save,” he said. “People need to get responsible, and 401k Coach is well-positioned to make an impact. We’ve worked with 500 financial advisors, and I’m just getting started. Our goal is to work with 5,000.”

As the program continues to evolve, Epstein said a sort of master class is being added for members who have completed two years of coaching. The first session will be held in March on a dude ranch in Arizona, and its central theme will prompt financial advising companies to evaluate where their businesses will be, or could be, in three years.

Other opportunities are surfacing as well, as a greater number of industry players get acquainted with the 401k Coach model and approach Epstein with new proposals. These include coaching in more specific arenas, including marketing and hiring.

“I expect that we’re going to keep going in that direction, offering more specific advice and firm consulting,” he said, adding that he’s also working on a book that will help advisors and laymen alike think more deeply about long-term planning.

Fame: I’m Gonna Save Forever

“Maybe then I can be on Oprah!” Epstein joked, adding quickly that, while his primary mission is not to secure his 15 minutes of fame, any extra exposure does plenty to drive the central theme of the 401k Coach program home: that a retirement plan is successful only if it leaves individuals with enough money to actually retire.

Today, said Epstein, this dictum applies to virtually everyone, and requires everyone’s involvement.

“Pension plans are dead — it’s a global economy now, and the 401(k) plan is America’s savings plan,” he said. “But everyone has to take it upon themselves to make it work, and I want to inspire people to save.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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