Financial wellness is a priority at Meredith, the Des Moines, Iowa-based media conglomerate that puts out venerable titles like Better Homes and Gardens and Ladies Home Journal.

With 3,400 benefits-eligible employees and a self-funded medical plan, the company spends a hefty $22 million a year on health care costs. Along with the usual initiatives for smoking cessation and preventive screenings, the company invests in its employees’ financial wellness.

Employees older than 50 get a one-time $500 reimbursement for services of a financial counselor of their choice. All employees are encouraged to take an online financial fitness assessment, establish a baseline score, and track their progress over time. There are seminars on seasonal topics like preparing taxes, maximizing flex spending and saving for vacation.

Participation isn’t mandatory, but employees who join earn “Well-Bucks” toward financial counseling services, massages or workout gear.


Meredith is hardly alone: Corporate America has become a conduit for connecting workers to financial educators and advisors. Financial wellness has become such a buzzword that 80% of employers named it a top priority in 2013, according to Aon Hewitt. Over half of U.S. employers offered some financial education to their employees in 2012, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Employer-based programs tend to focus on the here and now — managing debt, improving credit, budgeting and saving for vacations — as well as the retirement needs of the future. It’s now known that employees who suffer from money anxiety cannot perform well, and are apt to be sick, absent or spending work time dealing with creditors. So large corporations like Aetna, IBM and Meredith, along with smaller ones, are addressing financial wellness in an effort to boost productivity and reduce health care costs related to stress.

Doing employer engagements can mean a shift in emphasis for advisors. Benefits run the gamut from phone helplines to webinars to lunch hour classes to one-on-one counseling. “A lot of the work has to do with budgeting and being wise with your money, as opposed to what we usually think of — investment management and asset allocation,” says Rodney Loesch, CFP, a Waddell & Reed advisor in Columbia, Mo.
Loesch started providing financial wellness programs for small and midsize companies almost five years ago.

Now he spends about 20% of his time on them, a change from his past three decades of mostly doing money management and 401(k) work.

He offers employers a series of five to nine lunchtime sessions with up to 20 employees. “One topic that always evokes interest is protecting your credit. Usually someone has a horror story about that,” Loesch says.

The employer engagements are strictly fee-based. In some cases the employer pays the entire fee, while in others the employees share the cost.

Either way, each participant comes away with an individualized plan.

“They are free to go down the street to a wirehouse or another planner to implement. I absolutely do not discuss products during the information sessions,” Loesch says.


That emphasis on pitch-free advice is key to working with employers.

Norbert Kaut, 51, general counsel at Meredith, has been at the company for 15 years and attends every workshop he can. As a father of four, he says the program keeps him laser-focused on his college planning goals.

In an early phase of the Meredith program, he attended a trial session led by a vendor of retirement services. No one liked it because the teacher had an obvious conflict of interest. “It was a disaster because I could tell the guy was just selling me on his products,” Kaut says.

Objective advice doesn’t preclude a continuing relationship with the employees, on occasion. Advisors just need to work with the employer to discuss a preferred protocol.

“If an employee hits it off with an instructor and wants to work with that person, they sign a form stating that they are entering that agreement separately,” says Tim O’Neil, Meredith’s manager of employee health and financial wellness. “We don’t ever want participants to come back and say they were solicited.”

Advisors who charge hourly or flat fees, rather than a percentage of assets under management, may find employer-backed engagements the best fit. “As a fee-only organization, we are able to provide advice that some can’t, since we can bill hourly or use a flat retainer,” says Matthew Olver, senior vice president of Spero-Smith Investment Advisors in Cleveland. “We are in a position to expand in a way that is cost-effective for the client and still profitable for Spero-Smith.” 

One edge, Olver says, is more efficient software, which has shaved the time needed to produce quality advice. Years ago it took many hours to run different retirement scenarios based on tax rate, retirement age or risk tolerance; these days, however, it’s easy to change inputs even during a client meeting.

The firm, which has $800 million under management, recently decided to expand marketing toward employers after working with one employer — a local 200-person manufacturing company — for roughly 10 years. That employee-owned company offers a financial planning consultation as a benefit to employees after 20 years of service, or 10 years for those age 55 and up.

“Each employee-owner gets company shares as part of their compensation, so they have been accumulating some wealth,” says Olver.

The employer pays $1,000 for about five hours of meetings, resulting in a summary plan with recommendations. “It’s not a comprehensive plan; it’s a bit stripped down,” Olver says. “The scope of the engagement is limited to directly addressing their concerns. ... So, if they want to take Social Security at age 62, we say, you may not want to do that — but we will not do a detailed analysis of why it’s better to wait till 66.”


Although the employer-paid benefit does not include a follow-up visit, employees who want more time may engage the firm on their own at the regular hourly rates of $150 to $225, or 75 basis points and up for investment management.

About 20 employees have used the benefit over the years, with five or so continuing on as clients, Olver says.

Not all employer engagements will yield new clients. “Generally the participants are not candidates for developing your practice, since they may not have a lot of assets,” says Waddell & Reed’s Loesch. As a result, he says he limits the number of employer engagements he does to about four per year. “It’s a significant time commitment.”

But there’s another strategic payoff, he notes — because employer engagements, particularly at smaller firms, provide a way to connect with a company’s owners or top executives.

“I’m a little mercenary about it,” Loesch says. “If you provide employers with services like education, you have a possibility of getting the business owners’ assets when they eventually leave, with a seven-figure 401(k) plan.”

The bet has paid off for Loesch. From time to time, he says, a business owner has indeed become one of his clients — and “yes, those are in the top 25% of my client list.”

Jeanne Lee is an Ohio-based financial and health care writer.

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