Five months after two rival health-services companies merged, they created a retirement system that put aside past cultural and operational differences so the new whole was greater than the sum of its former parts.
"It was always us vs. them," said Taft Simmons, corporate director for retirement plans at Ballad Health, Johnson City, Tenn., recalling the competition between Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System. Employees at one company would go to the other — and sometimes back again.
"We were competitors for so long," Mr. Simmons added. "It was important to create a new culture."
The new company name was part of the new culture, as was the new company motto: "It's your story. We're listening."
The ballad of the Ballad Health Retirement Program is a story about how communication and education can lead to the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. Plan participation has risen to 64% vs. 55% prior to the July 1, launch of the program. Along the way, the retirement program, with aggregate assets of more than $800 million, consolidated multiple DC plans under one roof, selected a single record keeper, simplified the investment menu and, in some cases, offered less expensive mutual fund share classes.
Managing all the moving parts required addressing different corporate cultures and different retirement plan strategies in a health-care system that now covers 29 counties in northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia, northwest North Carolina and southeast Kentucky.
The two health-services systems, Mountain States Health Alliance, Johnson City, Tenn., and Wellmont Health System, Kingsport, Tenn., merged on Feb. 1, 2018, giving plan executives five months to prepare for the new retirement system in time for the start of a new fiscal year. "We wanted to quickly start building the Ballad Health culture and one way to help facilitate that was to bring team members onto a common benefit and retirement structure," Mr. Simmons said.
Educating the more than 16,000 participants was a daunting task. Plan executives had to reach not only retirees but also employees in 21 hospitals, long-term-care facilities, an addiction treatment facility, retail pharmacies, outpatient service facilities, home care and hospice service businesses and a medical management corporation.
From mid-June to mid-August 2018, Ballad, its consultants and record keeper held 139 group meetings, 3,019 meetings with individual participants as well as 329 online appointments. Among participants taking one-on-one meetings, 40.5% raised their contribution rates.
This effort by Ballad and its record keeper, Lincoln Financial Group, earned first place in Pensions & Investments' recent Eddy Awards in the plan transitions category for not-for-profit/other employers with more than 5,000 employees.
"It was important not to hold onto the Mountain States way of thinking or the Wellmont way of thinking," Mr. Simmons said. "We were careful about messaging about Ballad. We didn't look back."
The new company name and the plan name were part of looking forward. "When researching the name, we talked to the communities," Mr. Simmons said. "We asked them what they wanted. They said they wanted health care from someone who listens."
Executives settled on the name Ballad because "a ballad is a song that tells a story," said Mr. Simmons, adding that the region is rich in storytelling. Nearby Jonesborough, Tenn., is home to the annual National Storytelling Festival and the International Storytelling Center, a Smithsonian Institution affiliate.