Excellence & Innovation Awards

Past winners

Read on for a look at how winners of Excellence and Innovation Awards throughout the years have made a measurable mark in improving retirement outcomes and bolstering the financial wellness of participants.

We hope their projects will inspire you in your own work and serve as a resource.


Excellence & Innovation

American Express Retirement Team

American Express Co.

When American Express Co. saw an opportunity to help its 401(k) plan participants improve their savings rates, it didn’t miss a beat.

The company implemented a non-discretionary company contribution, rewarding its lower-paid workers more than its higher-paid employees. Lower-paid workers now receive a 3% automatic contribution to their 401(k) retirement accounts, while higher-paid workers receive 2%.

The new contribution replaces an annual discretionary profit-sharing contribution that varied from year to year.

“Higher contribution rates for lower-paid employees can really support financial well-being for those most in need,” Barbara Kontje, the company’s New York-based director of retirement and smart saving, said in an application nominating the American Express Retirement Team for an Excellence and Innovation Award, which it won.

Ms. Kontje declined to be interviewed.

American Express also boosted employee default savings rates to 6% of total pay from 3%, a change that positioned employees to maximize the company’s 6% dollar-for-dollar match from the beginning. The twin moves would over time improve retirement income replacement rates for all participants, Ms. Kontje said in the application.

The company also implemented other plan design changes, including allowing former employees to stay in the plan after reaching the age at which they must start taking required minimum distributions and permitting them to make multiple withdrawals from their 401(k) accounts. It also added what is referred to as a “super Roth” feature giving participants the option to automatically convert after-tax contributions to Roth contributions each payroll period.

Participants were especially appreciative of the new Roth capability because the Roth conversions could be done online without the need to phone the call center for assistance, saving time, American Express said.

Judges applauded the plan design changes, saying American Express implemented several best practices and focused on what one described as “equity for employees across the pay scale.” “I love the focus on lower-paid employees,” one judge said.

―By Margarida Correia

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Excellence & Innovation

Hunter Bethea

Director of deferred compensation programs
Tennessee Department of the Treasury

The people most at risk of not having enough money to retire on may not always know the danger they are in.

That’s why the Tennessee Department of the Treasury initiated a campaign aimed at helping high-need participants in the state’s 401(k) plan through one-on-one meetings with financial advisers, said Hunter Bethea, director of deferred compensation programs for the Treasury Department in Nashville, Tenn., and winner — along with his team — of an Excellence & Innovation Award.

State Treasurer David H. Lillard Jr. had long promoted the one-on-one participant meetings offered through the state’s RetireReadyTN retirement program and “wanted to drive more at-risk participants to take advantage of the service,” Mr. Bethea said.

“The purpose of RetireReadyTN programs is to make sure that public employees in the state of Tennessee are on track for a successful retirement, and we want to make sure that these services are benefiting every participant we have to the maximum extent possible,” Mr. Bethea said.

RetireReadyTN officials worked closely with the plan’s record keeper, Empower Retirement, to leverage data from the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System’s defined benefit plan to identify high-need 401(k) participants and improve retirement readiness metrics overall, Mr. Bethea said.

One of the four high-need groups the program identified consisted of participants who were not contributing to their 401(k) accounts. Participants were automatically enrolled in the mandatory 401(k) plan at 2% of their salary, but some participants dropped the deferral to 0%. The $4.63 billion plan, which was made available to new hires in July 2014, gave participants a non-elective employer contribution of 5%.

Individuals with retirement income replacement ratios below 70% were also identified as being at risk, as were individuals over the age of 50 whose 401(k) accounts were more than 75% invested in equities.

The fourth high-need group consisted of individuals with a high level of inflation risk: those under age 50 with less than 25% invested in equities and those over age 50 with less than 10% in equities.

Roughly 60% of the 200,000 Tennesseans in the 401(k) plan and the $650 million 457 deferred compensation plan were at risk in some way, with most having high inflation or equity risk, Mr. Bethea said.

In addition to sending targeted messages to each of the high-need groups, RetireReadyTN heavily encouraged participants to take advantage of one-on-one meetings with Empower’s plan advisers. The Tennessee Treasury Department’s outreach team, for example, introduced advisers at government employee conferences and promoted plan adviser meetings at regular employer and employee information sessions conducted throughout the year.

The introductions were important in helping state employers overcome their wariness in working with outside vendors.

“We teach both employers and employees to be cognizant of businesses reaching out that may not be working in their best interest,” said Ashley Nabors, assistant treasurer for the financial empowerment division of Tennessee’s Treasury Department in Nashville, Tenn.

State employers were assured that the advisers did not work on commissions and did not receive compensation based on the actions taken during the one-on-one meetings.

“Even though they are not employees of the state of Tennessee, they are the only contractor that we authorize to present information on our behalf and conduct these types of meetings,” Mr. Nabors said of Empower’s plan advisers.

Judges commended the program’s focus on high-need participants with one judge praising its clever tagline, “Your investments may be out of balance with your life.”

―By Margarida Correia

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Excellence & Innovation

Karla Kirkling

Executive director of health care and benefits
Chicago Public Schools

When Chicago Public Schools, one of the nation’s largest school districts, realized it was too unwieldy to continue working with three record keepers in running its 403(b) retirement plan and companion 457(b) deferred compensation plan, it moved to downsize to a single vendor.

“It was really about being able to shift to an exclusive provider so we could have more control over our communication and engagement strategy,” said Karla Kirkling, CPS’ Chicago-based executive director of health care and benefits and winner of an Excellence & Innovation Award.

CPS also wanted to align with ERISA best practices even though schools and other public institutions are not governed by ERISA law, she said.

Having three record keepers — Empower Retirement, Voya Financial and American International Group Inc. — meant that the 51,110 participants in the school district’s two plans had different investment lineups, which resulted in inequitable employee access to investments because Empower provided only mutual funds while Voya and AIG provided only annuities, Ms. Kirkling said.

“We wanted to streamline that and make sure that all of our staff had access to the same types of investment options,” she said.

The differences also made it difficult to “get data consolidated” and see how the plans were performing, Ms. Kirkling explained.

In addition, having multiple record keepers created an unhealthy dynamic with leaders of different schools and administrative buildings favoring certain providers over others. “They essentially started to give some of those reps more access to their staff versus others,” Ms. Kirkling said of school officials and their preferred record-keeper reps.

Even more problematic, the three record keepers were cross-selling outside products for which employees were paying high fees. “We didn’t want it to be a commission-based environment where our reps were focused on making commissions as opposed to providing proper education for retirement readiness,” Ms. Kirkling said.

As part of the record-keeper consolidation that ended with AIG winning the business, CPS created a single investment lineup made up of 12 equity, fixed-income and target-date-fund investment options, down from 17 investments that participants were seeing in their lineups before.

“We give them choice but not too much choice,” Mr. Kirkling said, explaining that too many options often lead to participants not picking anything at all.

CPS estimates that the new investment lineup saves participants with a $50,000 balance anywhere from $177 to $492 annually in fees, while those with $100,000 see annual savings of $372 to $1,012. Despite the cost savings, the consolidation effort wasn’t an easy sell, even initially among participants.

Convincing participants that choice was not taken away was the toughest aspect of the consolidation, Ms. Kirkling said, explaining they didn’t always see the benefits of the move.

“When they hear the idea of someone downsizing to an exclusive provider, they say ‘wait a minute, you’re taking my choice away from me,’” she said of participants.

To assuage participant concerns, CPS hosted webinars stressing the new low-fee investment options and other benefits of having a single record keeper.

Judges commended CPS for taking on the challenging task of consolidating record keepers, a move that significantly reduced costs to participants. Bringing down the cost of a $100,000 account balance by $372 to $1,012 annually “is a significant cost saving for a teacher,” one judge said.

―By Margarida Correia

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Excellence & Innovation

Marco Merz

Managing director and head of defined contribution, UC Investments
University of California


Hyun Swanson

Interim executive director, systemwide human resources
University of California

Being first at anything is hardly ever easy.

So it was with the University of California, the first employer that dared to offer participants in its 403(b) retirement plan a qualified longevity annuity contract, or QLAC, by having it embedded in the plan’s UC Pathway target-date funds.

The feat was difficult because it had never been done before, but for Marco Merz, one of two joint winners of an Excellence & Innovation Award, the hard work was well worth the effort.

With new employees increasingly choosing to participate in the university’s defined contribution plan over its defined benefit plan, the university felt it was important to give its DC participants some form of guaranteed income to protect them from outliving their savings in retirement, said Mr. Merz, managing director and head of defined contribution, UC Investments at the University of California in Oakland, Calif.

By incorporating deferred lifetime income into the target-date funds, DC plan participants are able to purchase a guaranteed income stream at a time when they most need it, he said. The offering officially rolled out in August 2021.

As a result of the effort, participants between the ages of 62 and 69 can now buy a QLAC in an amount ranging from $10,000 to $145,000, with monthly payments starting at age 78.

A 62-year-old single participant looking to buy a QLAC in the amount of $100,000, for example, would receive lifetime monthly payments of $1,254 beginning at age 78, according to an interactive estimator on the university’s website. Participants pay for the QLAC with the assets in their target-date fund.

The QLAC is also available in the university’s 457(b) and 401(a) plans.

The challenges were many. The university had to create “virtually everything from scratch,” secure buy-in from numerous stakeholders and overcome difficult legal and operational issues, Mr. Merz said. “We had to build everything from the ground up,” he said. “There was nothing we could leverage that already existed for the most part.”

The legal structure, in particular, was tricky. The university entered into a group annuity contract with the insurer, MetLife Inc. but the individual participant contracts are held outside of the plan, an arrangement that involved a great deal of coordination with Fidelity Investments, the record keeper for the three plans, Mr. Merz said.

Participant communication was also a huge challenge, said Hyun Swanson, University of California’s interim executive director, systemwide human resources, in Oakland, Calif., who also received an Excellence & Innovation Award as a joint winner.

“QLACs are unfamiliar to most of our participants, and so we had to educate people on what a QLAC is,” she said, adding that biases around annuities were persistent.

Individuals were reluctant to pay for the QLAC upfront not knowing whether they would live long enough to recoup their money back, she said.

Ms. Swanson assured participants that the QLAC offered a “return of premium” feature that not all annuities have. A return of premium provision gives the employees’ beneficiaries the right to receive the remaining premium not paid out prior to the employee’s death.

Getting buy-in from the multiple stakeholders – human resources, labor unions, the retirement system advisory board, the retirement savings advisory committee and the board of regents, to name a few – was also challenging but worthwhile given the “superior solution” it wound up with, Mr. Merz said.

Originally, the university wanted to default participants into the QLAC, but after discussions with its stakeholders, decided to have participants “opt-in” of their own volition instead.

Defaulting participants into an unfamiliar structure like a QLAC “was just not palatable,” Mr. Merz said.

“We can’t have participants that have never heard potentially about a QLAC automatically be defaulted unless they say no,” Mr. Merz said.

Judges praised the university for taking on such a technically and logistically complex project and lauded the communications campaign built around it.

“Bravo,” said one of the judges. “Indeed, a herculean effort,” said another.

―By Margarida Correia

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Excellence & Innovation

Christopher Moss

Senior manager of employee benefits
Sonoco Products Co.

After shuttering its defined benefit plan in 2021, global packaging company Sonoco Products Co. knew it needed to turn its attention to its $1.2 billion 401(k) plan.

“It was time to focus on the 401(k) plan and freshen it up as far as the benefits were concerned to make it appeal more to the contemporary workforce,” said Christopher Moss, Sonoco’s Hartsville, S.C.-based senior manager of employee benefits and winner of an Excellence & Innovation Award.

The company eliminated its 4% non-elective contribution and used the savings to boost its 401(k) match. Under the new matching formula, employees now receive a dollar-for-dollar match up to 6%, an improvement over the 50 cents they were receiving on the dollar, up to 4%.

“We would always get gripes about our lousy match,” Mr. Moss said, referring to the previous 2% maximum company matching contribution.

Sonoco also eliminated caps on the employee contributions of high-income earners making more than $135,000. Previously, highly compensated employees could only contribute 6% of their pay to their 401(k) accounts.

“Highly compensated employees never had the opportunity to maximize their savings under the plan,” Mr. Moss said.

The company also raised the auto-enrollment savings rate to 6% from 4% and added an auto-escalation feature that automatically raised deferral rates 1% per year, up to 10%.

For many years, the company auto-enrolled participants at 3%, which Mr. Moss said was probably too conservative. “People were stuck at the 3% level, so now we’re getting more people in the 4, 5 and 6-plus category,” he said.

As a result of the auto escalation and other features implemented, 56% of Sonoco’s 13,000 participants now contribute at least 6%, up from 39% who were doing so prior to the plan redesign.

As of Aug. 31, deferral rates averaged 7.2%, up from 6% before changes were implemented.

Participation rates, which were already fairly high prior to the changes, jumped even higher to 97% from just over 90%.

“We went from 900 people not participating at all to 100 people not participating,” Mr. Moss said.

As to direct employee feedback, Mr. Moss said: “I’ve not had anybody complaining.”

Judges praised the company’s effort to help employees secure their retirement absent a pension plan. “While you hate to see another employer shifting from a defined benefit and defined contribution model to a defined contribution model only, the effort made by Sonoco to help ensure that employees not only participate in the defined contribution plan but also save enough to stay on track toward long-term financial goals is commendable,” one of the judges said.

“A lot of very positive changes,” said another.

―By Margarida Correia

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Excellence & Innovation

Kim Olson

Director of retirement plans
Wespath Benefits and Investments

Wespath Benefits and Investments, a non-profit agency serving the United Methodist Church, knew its popular retirement income modeling tool had the potential to do a lot more for the roughly 1,000 clergy members retiring each year.

The tool had been successful in showing clergy how much they could withdraw from their retirement accounts without straying from their “safety zone” but needed more options for members wishing to delay their Social Security benefits and those looking for guaranteed income, said Kim Olson, Wespath’s Glenview, Ill.-based director of retirement plans and winner of an Excellence & Innovation Award.

“As the United Methodist Church considers transitioning to a defined contribution model, we wanted to offer features that maximize the participant’s income distribution while minimizing their risk,” she said.

In pursuit of that goal, the non-profit in April rolled out an upgraded modeling tool that now factors in two new options that the 65,000 participants in Wespath’s $7 billion 403(b) can elect when planning their drawdown strategies. Participants can choose what’s called the Social Security bridge, which lets them use part of their account balances early in retirement so they can delay claiming — and therefore increase — their Social Security benefits. Participants can also buy a qualified longevity annuity contract, or QLAC, that provides guaranteed income beginning at age 80.

The modeling tool adjusts the withdrawal amount that participants can take out each year based on their circumstances and automatically gives them cost-of-living adjustments “should their funds be sufficient for them to have that increase,” Ms. Olson said. The tool also helps them understand how the optional QLAC and Social Security bridge will impact their withdrawal amounts, she added.

Participants wishing to buy the QLAC must do so when they start drawing funds from their retirement accounts, which can be as early as age 55 or as late as age 74.

Wespath deliberately chose a deferred annuity as its annuity option because “it affords participants that which an annuity does best,” said Martin Bauer, Wespath’s senior managing director of benefit plans in Glenview, Ill. “It reduces the longevity risk without incurring the cost of having a lifetime annuity.”

Mr. Bauer added that the QLAC is significantly cheaper because it only starts paying out at 80.

Both the QLAC and the Social Security bridge had strong participant uptake. Since going live in April, nearly 30% of the participants retiring this year enrolled in at least one of the two features with many enrolling in both, Ms. Olson said.

Judges praised the initiative for giving participants the ability to use their retirement plan balances in a way that would let them delay their Social Security benefits, something one judge said “isn’t an explicit goal in a majority of plans.”

Too many defined contribution plans hand participants “a big bag of money” at the end of their career without any guidance about what to do with it, Mr. Bauer said.

“Wespath’s motto is we care for those who serve,” he said. “Clergy by definition serve the church for a lifetime and we therefore felt it is important to support them throughout a lifetime.”

―By Margarida Correia

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Excellence & Innovation

Allyson Tucker

Washington State Investment Board

A dash of private equity, private real estate and other spicy investments typically found in defined benefit plans could go a long way in boosting the returns of participants saving for retirement in defined contribution plans.

That was the thinking behind The Washington State Investment Board when it decided to add a mini or “unitized” version of its DB plan to the target-date funds offered in its DC plan in late 2021.

The unitized version of WSIB’s pension plan — known as the Total Allocation Portfolio or TAP — included private market investments, which were not available in the DC plan. By tucking it into the DC plan’s default target-date strategy, participants would have exposure to asset classes that have performed well over time.

“We wanted to improve outcomes for our participants by adding these asset classes that otherwise would not be there,” said Allyson Tucker, the Olympia-Wash.-based chief executive officer of Washington State Investment Board and a winner of an Excellence & Innovation Award.

In addition, Ms. Tucker noted that the WSIB was looking for greater parity between the two types of retirement plans.

“We wanted the DC members to have access to the strong performance record and competencies that we’ve built on behalf of the DB plan,” she said.

The revamped target-date funds, which include the private investments or “TAP component” in their glidepath, are the default option for more than 343,000 participants in both the DC plan as well as WSIB’s deferred compensation plan, which together had $25.1 billion as of June 30.

Revamping the funds, however, did result in a modest increase in overall fund cost, which the WSIB justified given the potential investment outcomes.

“Research showed that on a net-results basis, the historic return premium was easily sufficient to justify the small increase in cost,” Ms. Tucker said.

Fees increased to 20 basis points from 12 basis points with the addition of the TAP, she said.

The seemingly straightforward initiative turned out to be more complicated than expected. “It seemed like it was a very simple idea to put the unitized version into the target-date fund,” Ms. Tucker said. “It surprised us that it was a lot more complicated than we anticipated.”

For starters, the TAP had liquidity constraints unlike the target-date funds, which have daily liquidity. The WSIB had to work through the “different alignment of liquidity measurements,” Ms. Tucker said. In addition, there were legal considerations as well as operational issues associated with working with the plan’s record keeper and target-date fund managers to make sure all the information was shared and priced appropriately, Ms. Tucker said.

Judges praised WSIB for giving participants access to asset classes they typically wouldn’t be able to access in a DC plan. “It is innovative and something other public plans should consider or ERISA plans could push the Department of Labor to offer an exemptive solution on,” said one of the judges.

―By Margarida Correia

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Excellence & Innovation

Robert Beideman

Director of retirement and financial well-being
Southern Company

Financial wellness is built step-by-step and needn’t involve drastic changes.

That was the thinking behind Southern Co.’s myMoney Challenge engagement campaign that won Robert Beideman, the company’s Atlanta, Ga.-based director of retirement and financial well-being, a 2021 Excellence & Innovation award.

The five-week campaign, which launched in April to coincide with National Financial Literacy Month, was designed to “provide employees with information about small steps they can take each week to improve their financial well-being,” Mr. Beideman said.

Each April for the past three years, the gas and electric utility holding company has run a myMoney Challenge campaign tied to National Financial Literacy Month with this year’s theme being “step-by-step,” a reference to the idea that financial health is incremental.

In addition to encouraging employees to take a step-by-step approach to their financial well-being, the campaign also aimed to familiarize employees with the tools and resources that Southern offers, including its $8 billion 401(k) Employee Savings Plan.

“We have a lot of resources and programs available to our employees, and we want to make sure that they are utilizing those resources to their advantage,” Mr. Beideman said.

This year’s winning myMoney Challenge campaign covered broad topics that challenged participants to take actions in support of their financial well-being each week over a five-week period. In week one, for instance, participants were asked to assess where they were financially by using the Merrill Lynch financial wellness tracker. They were given a choice of action steps or “challenges” to take, such as reading articles or watching videos, upon which they were quizzed and entered into a contest for gift cards.

To drive engagement, employees who completed a quiz were added to a leaderboard, which raised employee competitiveness, said Kimberly Lovingood, Southern Company’s Atlanta, Ga.-based retirement manager who reports to Mr. Beideman and was involved in the campaign.

This year’s campaign included a podcast series, with topics ranging from maximizing 401(k) plan investments to planning for long-term care, which Ms. Lovingood said received both “good downloads” and “good feedback.”

“We’re excited to use another form of communication,” she said.

Judges praised the campaign for its innovative use of podcasts, quizzes and prizes, with one judge calling it a “great all-around effort.”

Participation in the campaign, however, was off from the previous year, a reflection of people worn out by pandemic-induced “email and Zoom fatigue,” Ms. Lovingood said. Some 1,602 employees engaged with the campaign this year, down from 3,624 in 2020, she said.

However, there was a silver lining as the people who participated in the myMoney Challenge engaged with it to a greater degree. The myMoney Challenge site, for instance, logged 41,663 page views, up from 25,675 page views the year before.

More than half of those who engaged with the campaign (52.6%) completed a weekly challenge, up from 28% in 2020.

Participants also spent much more time on the website than they did last year, spending an average of 9:54 minutes per session, up from 6:09 minutes in 2020.

“This year people stayed on the site for about 10 minutes, and so they didn’t just go and click around and then try to get on the board to win a gift card,” Ms. Lovingood said. “It seems like they were really engaged in trying to figure out what might help them.”

―By Margarida Correia

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Photo by Jennifer Bishop
Excellence & Innovation

Paul M. Colonna

President, CIO
Lockheed Martin Investment Co.

Photo by

Using a strategy of “less is more,” Paul M. Colonna supervised the restructuring of investment lineups of the seven defined contribution plans run by Lockheed Martin Corp., Bethesda, Md.

“Our pitch (to top management) was talent attraction and retention,” said Mr. Colonna, president and CIO, Lockheed Martin Investment Co., Bethesda, Md., which manages the plans’ investments. “We started the conversation that we are going to improve our employee experience.”

The “less” part of Mr. Colonna’s strategy included removing eight stand-alone investment options that accounted for less than 10% of total DC assets, which reached $50.2 billion by late April 2021.

There also was a “more” part to his restructuring effort, too. He added an actively managed core-plus bond fund, providing participants with greater exposure to several segments of the bond market.

Another “more” component was a revision of the plans’ customized target-date series, in collaboration with AllianceBernstein LP. He added three underlying investments — global equity, defensive equity and private real estate — to improve performance, enhance diversification and offer greater risk-adjusted opportunities.

In addition, Mr. Colonna changed some core funds’ underlying investments and rebranded actively managed core funds as white-label products.

“This was a very thoughtful and methodical approach,” one judge wrote in endorsing Mr. Colonna for an Excellence & Innovation Award. “The material they sent people was comprehensive.”

The communication strategy focused not only on what was new but also on what advantages the Lockheed Martin menu had vs. retail investment options.

“If you’re thinking of moving your retirement account option, be sure to compare fees,” said the brochure that described the changes.

“We spent a lot of time on communication,” said Mr. Colonna, describing the 22-page brochure. “We wanted to make it in a clear and visual manner.

The communication effort was a success as two-thirds of active employees — about 55,000 people — responded by resetting the amount of future contributions “or affirmatively declaring that they want them to stay unchanged,” according to his application to the Excellence & Innovation Awards.

“We delivered on what my vision was initially,” he said.

Achieving Mr. Colonna’s vision took about two years of planning and communicating before the restructuring took place in March 2021.

In addition to internal staff, he enlisted Callan LLC to assist in the review process with Lockheed Martin benefits staff to assess how the many plan changes would be received by participants.

Mr. Colonna acknowledged that the success of the Lockheed Martin Investment Management Co. effort was due to a staff of 45 investment specialists, attorneys and operations personnel — a commitment that may be hard to match by many companies.

Still, he encouraged other corporate investment managers to step up their efforts. “The industry underinvests” in their internal investment management, he said. Without greater internal investment, “they can’t innovate and do transformative projects.”

Despite the many changes at Lockheed, Mr. Colonna said his team needs to do more research on issues like retirement income. He is willing to look at options that feature embedded annuities or guaranteed withdrawal benefits, “but we just don’t know what it will be.”

The same goes for alternative investments in the DC plans such as private equity, hedge funds and private real estate. Lockheed Martin uses alternatives in its six defined benefit plans, which were unaffected by the changes for the DC plans.

“We believe this is a robust investment, but it has to be thoughtful,” he said, noting that fees and fiduciary duties are at the top of the list in deciding if ­— or when — alternatives belong in defined contribution plans.

“We know there will be a Lockheed Martin 2.0 and maybe a 3.0,” Mr. Colonna said.

―By Robert Steyer

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Watch our interview with Paul

Photo by Joshua Albanese
Excellence & Innovation

Johara Farhadieh

Executive director, chief investment officer
Illinois State Board of Investment

Auto enrollment is common among corporate 401(k) plans, but in the public deferred compensation plan world, it’s a different story.

Wage garnishment laws and other legal roadblocks mean that 25 states prevent auto enrollment for deferred compensation plans, nine allow it and 16 allow some auto enrollment for these plans, according to the National Association of Government Defined Contribution Administrators.

Illinois is a member of the group of 16 thanks to a 2019 state law. Acting under that law, Johara Farhadieh, executive director and chief investment officer of the Illinois State Board of Investment, Chicago, implemented an auto-enrollment policy for some employees in the $5.7 billion State of Illinois Deferred Compensation Plan. She also made some concurrent plan design changes, and these efforts earned her an Excellence & Innovation Award.

More communication and less bureaucracy were essential in implementing the law, which affects people who were hired after July 1, 2020. The deferred compensation plan is a supplement to employees and retirees who are also covered by three state pension plans, whose assets are managed by ISBI.

Illinois had to deal with “existing procedures for enrollment, deferrals, and beneficiary designations across 23 payroll agencies, requiring custom programming by some,” according to Ms. Farhadieh’s application to the Excellence & Innovation Awards.

“Legacy processes relied on each agency to provide forms to new employees,” while salary deferrals were sent to the appropriate payroll agency, and investment elections were sent to the plan’s record keeper, the application said.

“We focused on the timing and on the steps, process and key dates to ensure new hires knew auto enrollment was in place, when payroll deductions would start, how the process works, and the key dates to make any changes if they so choose,” Ms. Farhadieh said in an email.

“Once auto-enrolled, participants are sent a postcard to remind the participant of the initial default investment in stable value and the impending transition to the age-appropriate target retirement fund,” she added.

During the first 12 months of auto enrollment, 92.3% of eligible employees — those who were auto-enrolled and those who chose their own deferral rates — participated. Among this group, 87.6% were auto-enrolled at the 3% default rate.

“I believe this aspect is noteworthy in terms of impact on the industry, if other state legislatures follow suit,” one judge wrote.

Auto enrollment took effect while Ms. Farhadieh was supervising other plan design changes.

She merged the plan’s money market fund into a stable value fund. “We undertook an analysis of the lineup which showed the risk-return profile of the stable return fund which was better suited for the plan while achieving capital preservation objectives,” she said.

As of Dec. 31, 2019, the money market fund accounted for 1.4% of the plan’s asset allocation and the stable value fund represented 12.4%. By June 30, 2021, the stable value fund — including the merged money market fund — accounted for 13.2% of the deferred compensation plan’s assets, she said.

Equities continue to dominate the plan — 84% in June 2021 vs. 82.4% in December 2019 — thanks to strong stock market performance, she added.

The plan also provided white labels to investment choices. “The communication strategy used for the investment lineup changes and to use white-label names was intended to help participants understand the changes and encourage participants to continue to take a long-term view on their asset allocations,” Ms. Farhadieh said.

―By Robert Steyer

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Watch our interview with Johara

Photo by Brett Kramer
Excellence & Innovation

Algretta Hatcher

Senior director of retirement
RWJBarnabas Health

Photo by Ciara Cusseaux

Personalization is the way to a plan participant’s heart.

That’s what Algretta Hatcher learned as she struggled to get participants to engage with the 401(k) and 403(b) plans she and her team developed for some 33,000 employees of RWJBarnabas Health, a health-care provider in New Jersey.

“We took a lot of time working on our plan design,” she said, “but we just didn’t have the level of participant engagement that we knew we could have.”

After extensive surveys showed that employees were “totally lost” when it came to navigating the company’s $2.2 billion 401(k) plan and $1.3 billion 403(b) plan, Ms. Hatcher and RWJBH’s executive leadership team partnered with Capital Group to launch an intranet site called MyRetirement that is personalized to match the needs of three employee groups the organization identified as “avoiders,” “late bloomers” and “motivated savers.”

The site features quizzes, articles, videos and fun facts that are specific to the three “personas” that emerged from RWJBH’s research, said Ms. Hatcher, the organization’s Somerset, N.J.-based senior director of retirement and winner of a 2021 Excellence & Innovation Award.

“It’s fun. It’s very geared to this century,” Ms. Hatcher said of the MyRetirement site, adding that participants can “like” articles and post them to Facebook and Instagram.

RWJBH doubles down on the site by sending participants quarterly email nudges specific to each of the three groups. Late bloomers — those identified as nearing retirement who are either catching up on their savings or seeking answers to critical questions — for example, might receive an email nudge containing articles on why “it’s not too late to still save some money,” Ms. Hatcher said.

Motivated savers — participants under 50 juggling multiple competing priorities — on the other hand, might receive nudges on how to prioritize their finances, while the “avoiders” — disengaged participants who persist at the auto-enrollment contribution rate of 3% — might receive information explaining the advantages of pre-tax contributions.

“A lot of our avoiders are mainly the younger generation who don’t understand what pre-tax means,” Ms. Hatcher said, adding that participants can now click on links in the email and access the record keeper’s website directly to make a change to their contribution rates.

In previous engagement campaigns to boost employee contribution rates, employees reported not knowing where to go to up their contributions, Ms. Hatcher said. “There were just too many clicks,” she said.

The new MyRetirement intranet site provides “easy, one-click access” to Fidelity Investments, the record keeper for each of RWJBH’s two retirement plans, an improvement that Ms. Hatcher says employees welcomed.

The site-driven engagement campaign, which launched Jan. 11, has produced strong results for RWJBH. During the first 100 days of the campaign, 2,025 participants increased their contributions, up 54% from the 1,314 participants who boosted their contributions during the same time period in 2020. In addition, average contributions rates jumped to 14% from 9% before the campaign started.

For those who engaged with the intranet site, the results were encouraging. Fourteen percent of participants who visited the site increased their contributions, double the uptake of those who didn’t check out the site.

Among the disengaged avoiders, the site made an especially strong impression, with 6.95% of those who visited the site increasing their contributions, more than three times the rate at which non-visiting avoiders raised theirs.

―By Margarida Correia

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Photo by Brett Kramer
Excellence & Innovation

Suzanne Mayer

Chief benefits officer, interim executive director
Illinois State Universities Retirement System

Photo by Brett Kramer

More flexibility, more simplicity and more participant control over their retirement accounts were the highlights of multiple changes to a 401(a) plan at the Illinois State Universities Retirement System, Champaign, prompting judges to honor Suzanne Mayer, chief benefits officer and interim executive director, with an Excellence & Innovation Award.

SURS replaced two record keepers and hired a new record keeper. That helped cut the size of the investment lineup and reduce record-keeper fees.

The new record keeper, Voya Financial Inc., helped SURS offer a new default option called the SURS Lifetime Income Strategy, or SURS LIS, and is incorporated into a customized target-date fund series that automatically adjusts as participants reach age 50, moving participants’ assets into a lifetime income option. This lifetime income strategy was developed by AllianceBernstein LP.

“With SURS’ focus on a retirement income solution, most members and plan assets were defaulted to the SURS LIS, and these members are on the path to secure retirement income,” Ms. Mayer said.

As of Sept. 30, approximately 92% of plan members are invested in the SURS LIS and 85% of members have their total account balance in the SURS LIS, she added. The SURS LIS assets account for approximately 82% of all assets in the $3.7 billion plan.

Ms. Mayer and her team spent six months reviewing proposals from record keepers and from providers of retirement income solutions — six of the former and 20 of the latter. SURS chose Voya, effective in September 2020, replacing Fidelity Investments and TIAA-CREF.

SURS had been looking to replace its previous lifetime income strategy, which was an annuity. The fixed annuity required participants to annuitize their entire account balance. Approximately 60% of DC plan retirees chose to take a lump sum rather than take the annuity, a decision that could hurt some participants in the long run, she said. The traditional annuity option remains available.

But lifetime income was only part of the story as SURS sliced the number of investment options to 16 from 29. “A lot of this was duplication” caused by having two record keepers, Ms. Mayer explained. The 16 options “are everything participants need to build for long-term investments.”

The record-keeping revision enabled SURS to cut fees by 36% from one former record keeper and by 58% from the other. “We wanted to do this simultaneously,” said Ms. Mayer, referring to the hiring of Voya Financial, making plan design changes and choosing the lifetime income strategy. “We wanted to make sure a record keeper could do this.”

SURS also added a few stand-alone options — a high-yield bond fund and a multisector bond fund as well as an equity-based ESG fund and a fixed-income-based ESG fund.

The SURS plan uses a white-label strategy because “we got away from brand names,” Ms. Mayer said. Initially, plan executives were “a little concerned” about participants’ reactions, but there were few complaints, she said.

The restructured lineup contains investments from multiple asset managers as opposed to the proprietary products offered by Fidelity and TIAA. “Open architecture was very important for us,” she said.

All these changes were accompanied by SURS launching a deferred compensation plan, which began enrolling participants in February 2021. It has the same lineup as the 401(a) plan.

“It was good to see they consolidated record keepers, reduced fees and streamlined the lineup,” one judge wrote. “From the more innovative side, they seem to be changing their focus from accumulation to decumulation,” with an option that “allows members to retain control of their account balance and not forfeit any earned benefits that come with staying in the plan.”

―By Robert Steyer

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Photo by Brett Kramer
Excellence & Innovation

Jeremy Yonan

Senior director, total rewards
Crate and Barrel Holdings Inc.

Photo by Brett Kramer

It took Jeremy Yonan and his team about 10 months to restructure the 401(k) plan at Crate and Barrel Holdings Inc., Northbrook, Ill., but they packed a lot of activity in less than a year governing the plan’s design and the investment menu.

“I noticed that pockets of people weren’t engaging” with the plan, said Mr. Yonan, former senior director for total rewards.

Among the changes, Mr. Yonan recast the $300 million plan’s qualified default investment alternative. He moved to a hybrid concept — a target-date series for younger employees, which morphs into a customized managed account when they reach age 45.

“I wanted to get the people better personalized advice,” Mr. Yonan said.

The custom managed account, offered through the plan’s adviser, Mesirow Financial, incorporates more than factoring in age for an investment strategy, according to Mr. Yonan’s Excellence & Innovation application. It looks at a participant’s lifetstyle, financial circumstances and goals “to create a strategy that is tailored to that individual,” the application said.

The strategy is constantly reviewed with the participant so that “appropriate adjustments” can be made. The number of employees using the advisory services rose to 3,249 in December 2020 from 136 in June 2019.

Among other changes, the plan reduced the number of active loans to one from three, added three ESG funds to the investment lineup and eliminated revenue sharing in favor of per capita fees.

Mr. Yonan’s application also pointed out that Crate and Barrel had to develop effective communications to reach the many employees who work in stores or distribution centers and who don’t have daily access to a computer. He encourages participants to register on the plan’s website and provide some personal contact information as well as information about beneficiaries and preference of receiving communications.

Catering to participants’ communication preferences, he added, should increase response rates and engagement.

Another new feature is a discretionary wellness credit, offered to participants who achieve certain financial goals outlined by the Crate and Barrel staff.

“Already a plan with strong features, I like the continuous improvements they are trying to make,” one judge wrote. The discretionary wellness credit “seems to be able to create a sense of need and urgency among participants,” the judge wrote.

―By Margarida Correia

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Eric Dill

Senior vice president of human resources and talent development at the American Arbitration Association

Sometimes the best way to get at a problem is to hit it sideways rather than head-on.

That’s the approach that the American Arbitration Association took to boost participation in its $75 million 403(b) plan. The association attacked the issue of poor credit scores — or the lack of credit scores — among American households, a problem that often leads people to secure payday loans and high-interest-rate credit cards to deal with emergency situations, said Eric Dill, senior vice president of human resources and talent development at AAA in New York.

“Something like 60% or 65% of American households could not absorb a $350 emergency bill for something like a car repair without having to put it on a credit card,” he said.

The stark realization spurred the association to launch a campaign to help employees with poor credit, an obstacle that the association felt might be preventing some employees from putting money into their retirement plan.

The campaign, which won Mr. Dill an Innovation Award, kicked off with the mailing of a $1,000 check to all employees to either establish an emergency savings fund or to pay down a high-interest-rate credit card bill.

Employees were shocked when they received the check in the mail, with some wondering whether the checks were legitimate. “We had some employees call us up thinking that the check was a scam,” Mr. Dill said.

In fact, the checks were just the first part of the educational campaign to teach employees about credit. The checks came with a letter from AAA President and CEO India Johnson, introducing the association’s credit-building initiative, which consisted of an initial one-hour on-site seminar on the importance of having good credit followed by a voluntary 18-month program of individual credit counseling.

As part of the 18-month program, employees had the option of taking out a $300 low-interest-rate loan that was repaid through payroll to help employees increase their credit score. The loan, if paid back according to the schedule, could increase employees’ credit score by 20 to 30 points, a difference that could “correlate to hundreds or thousands of dollars in interest payments on a car loan,” Mr. Dill said.

Employees who participated in the 18-month program met with counselors for an hour for the first couple of sessions, with the balance consisting of check-ins, Mr. Dill said.

One individual with a particularly low credit score due to payday and high-interest-rate loans taken out while unemployed was able to get his life back on track. As a result of the program, he was able to pay down the loans and then “repurpose the money” toward his 403(b) retirement savings, Mr. Dill said.

Program participation was high with 360 of the association’s 600 employees, or 60%, attending the on-site credit-building seminar and 27% signing up for individual credit counseling.

Judges commended the campaign for the indirect way in which it addressed retirement issues, with one judge lauding its “very thorough approach and clean submission with great details and results reporting.”

Feedback from plan participants was also strong. “We received hundreds of emails from staff talking about how they felt they were being helped,” Mr. Dill said.

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AJ Padilla

Chairman of the City of Austin (Texas) Deferred Compensation Committee

Innovation doesn’t always happen on a grand scale. In the case of the City of Austin (Texas) Deferred Compensation Plan, innovation took the form of a simple tab on the city’s online benefits portal.

The $545 million supplemental retirement plan elbowed its way onto the website to make sure that it was part of the annual open-enrollment process, the most opportune time to promote the plan to the city’s 17,000 employees, said AJ Padilla, chairman of the City of Austin Deferred Compensation Committee.

Before the creation of the tab on the benefits portal, Mr. Padilla’s team tried to market the 457 retirement savings plan by meeting with different groups, including new hires, throughout the year, an “inefficient way of reaching employees,” Mr. Padilla said.

“We wanted to make it as easy as possible instead of having us go through all these goings around town,” Mr. Padilla said. The move proved to be effective. Raising the plan’s visibility lured 5% of the 7,861 eligible, non-participating employees to enroll in the plan during the six-week open-enrollment period beginning in October 2019, a remarkable increase given the short time frame, Mr. Padilla said.

“Most plans don’t see that sort of increase in participation in such a condensed period of time,” he said. In addition, the initiative enticed 12% of existing participants to bump up their contributions, an effect that Mr. Padilla didn’t expect.

“We got a twofer out of it,” he said. “Not only did we capture new people but people already in the plan updated and reset their benefit during the open-enrollment process,” he said.

In creating a tab for the plan on the benefits portal and making it part of the open-enrollment process, Mr. Padilla was borrowing a page from the private sector’s playbook. Unlike private-sector employers, the public sector does not typically offer the option of voluntary enrollment in the defined contribution plan during open enrollment, Mr. Padilla said.

“There’s a lot of interest in the public sector in what we did and the success we had and how we went about it,” Mr. Padilla said.

The innovation caught the attention of the judges, which recognized Mr. Padilla with an Innovation Award. While retirement is one of the top three commonly searched topics during open enrollment, most organizations simply focus on health and well-being benefits during this time, noted one of the judges. “The plan sponsor did a great job of incorporating enrollment in the defined contribution plan with open enrollment,” the judge said.

Roughly 8,400 of the city’s 17,000 employees are enrolled in the plan, a notable achievement given that the plan — under the state’s wage garnishment law — is not allowed to have automatic enrollment and employees are required to participate in an applicable pension system, Mr. Padilla said.

Still, Mr. Padilla is aiming for even higher participation. “The goal,” he said, “is to have everybody in it.”

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Katie Balestrieri

Director of benefits and compensation at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe

Law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP wanted to go one step beyond merely offering a target-date fund as the qualified default investment alternative for the firm’s $680 million 401(k) plan.

After some shopping around, it decided to go with a new type of QDIA that marries target-date funds with a managed account for participants aged 45 and up.

“We felt it was the great new next step in furthering our participants’ retirement goals and doing what’s best for them,” said Katie Balestrieri, the firm’s San Francisco-based director of benefits and compensation, who received an Excellence Award for her efforts.

The new “dynamic QDIA” offered through Empower Retirement – the plan’s record keeper — would default participants under the age of 45 into a target-date fund and those over the age of 45 into a managed account. Participants initially invested in a target-date fund would eventually transition into the managed account once they hit age 45.

The law firm offered a managed account option in its 401(k) plan some 15 years ago but had to eliminate it due to compatibility issues with the record keeper it used at the time, Ms. Balestrieri said.

“We’ve always been looking for ways to reintroduce it because we felt that it was such a valuable option for people in our plan,” she said.

The firm introduced the new QDIA option in June 2019 with 90% of the plan’s 1,710 participants adopting it.

Since its reintroduction, the firm has observed positive participant behavior. More participants, for example, are now in age-appropriate investments, Ms.Balestrieri said. As of March 31, 83% of participants had an asset allocation within 10% of the age-appropriate target-date fund, up 15 percentage points from June 2019.

The new QDIA option has also led participants using the managed account to add assets outside the Orrick 401(k) plan. The new managed account service allows participants to link directly to outside 401(k)s, IRAs and other savings on a real-time basis. “The values are live,” Ms. Balestrieri said, adding that transparency into participants’ outside assets helps “get into the nitty-gritty of what their situation is.”

Since its introduction, 15% of participants using the managed account have added outside assets, she said. Ms. Balestrieri touted the low asset-based fee associated with the managed account. “Even at the highest tier of cost, it’s well below what anyone would pay to have their accounts managed professionally,” she said.

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Mary Ann Edwards

Manager of total rewards at JTEKT North America

JTEKT North America Corp. worked hard to boost participation and savings rates in its $362 million 401(k) retirement plan and wanted to cap the six-year effort by helping participants draw down their assets in a way that would minimize their risk of outliving their funds.

“We’ve got people with some great accounts now who just really don’t know what to do with the funds when they retire,” said Mary Ann Edwards, JTEKT’s Greenville, S.C.-based manager of total rewards. “To preserve what you’ve saved for the length of time that you’re retired can be very difficult.”

To help take the guesswork out of how best to draw down savings, the manufacturer in October 2019 introduced a new mutual fund product — Prudential Financial Inc.’s IncomeFlex Target Day One Balanced Fund — that for an annual fee of 1% guarantees participants a set amount of retirement income for life. The product allows participants at the age of 55 to lock in a set rate of return on what it refers to as the “income base.” The lock-in rates range from 4.25% for participants under 65 to 5.75% for participants over 70.

“IncomeFlex is a targeted mutual fund that helps participants secure reliable retirement income that they can’t outlive,” said Ms. Edwards, who received an Excellence Award for her work.

The product works in tandem with the plan’s GoalMaker program, which essentially consists of Prudential target-date funds. Once participants hit age 55, a portion of their GoalMaker portfolio is automatically allocated to IncomeFlex depending on their investment style. If participants are conservative investors, 70% of their GoalMaker funds goes into IncomeFlex. If they’re moderate or aggressive investors, the allocations to IncomeFlex are 50% and 30%, respectively.

The introduction of the product helps combat participant inertia, Ms. Edwards said. “It gets people invested in it without them needing to take action on their own,” she said, explaining that participants don’t always engage with new funds, no matter how great they are.

For Ms. Edwards, IncomeFlex is a perfect middle ground between the pensions people used to receive and the 401(k) balances that many people now take to an insurance broker to purchase an annuity.

“It really is a neat instrument that helps merge what people were used to with pensions and what they’re accustomed to with annuities, but it keeps it more secure and within (the) plan,” she said.

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Jeffrey King

Deputy superintendent of operations and finance at School District U-46 in Elgin, Ill.

Too many vendors selling too many products. That was the problem that Illinois’ second-largest school district — School District U-46 — looked to resolve when it slashed the more than 40 vendors serving its 403(b) and 457 retirement plans to just one.

“We didn’t have any control over the type of investments and the cost of those investments that our employees were subject to,” said Jeffrey King, the school district’s Elgin, Ill.-based deputy superintendent of operations and finance. “Some of the providers were aggressive in their sales and we had a lot of employees paying way too much for annuity-type investments.”

Vendors were going to school locations and meeting with employees to push investments that had high fees and surrender charges, and too many employees “were taking the direction” of the investment providers, Mr. King said.

To put an end to the bazaar-like atmosphere, the school district banned people from going into the buildings to sell products and initiated a search for a single provider to replace the gaggle of existing vendors.

The school district interviewed eight to 10 companies that submitted proposals for the job and then narrowed the search to two.

Not surprisingly, the planned consolidation generated a great deal of resistance among the existing providers. “We were fighting a disinformation campaign with at least one vendor that was trying to lobby against us moving in the direction we wanted to move through the employees that were invested with them,” Mr. King said. “Once they figured out that they were not in the final two, they went to our governing board and our cabinet leadership and did just about anything they could do to try to stop us from moving forward.”

The resistance proved futile as the school district had the support of leadership and the board. It ultimately went with AIG as its record keeper.

Judges praised the consolidation effort, recognizing Mr. King with an Excellence Award. “The plan sponsor did an outstanding job with creating a simple-to-understand program while reducing overall plan expenses,” said one judge.

As a result of the consolidation, investment option fees now range from 0.015% to 0.49%, down from over 200 basis points that some employees were paying prior to the change, Mr. King said. The investment menu was also simplified, reducing the level of complexity for the plans’ 2,000 participants. Before the consolidation, there were more than 1,000 investment choices between the 40-plus vendors, Mr. King said. Now, there are 15 mutual funds as well as a series of target-date funds and a self-directed brokerage window.

Since the switch to AIG as the school district’s sole record keeper in November 2019, AIG has given many on-site presentations, which has helped raise employee awareness of the changes to the 403(b) and 457 retirement plans, Mr. King said.

Since June, the assets in both plans doubled to about $10 million, a number that Mr. King would like to see “build strongly” over the next two years. “I think that will help us in the long run when we go back and start looking at the fee structure again,” he said.

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Lavina Mehta

Retirement plans manager at Bechtel Global Corp.

Even though Bechtel Global Corp. knew its pre-retirees were interested in learning about their retirement readiness, it didn’t fully appreciate how intense the interest was until it offered them one-on-one retirement assessments.

The demand was such that the engineering, construction and project-management company had to add two weeks to the original schedule to accommodate all the appointment requests. The retirement assessments were offered to participants over the age of 50 in the company’s $5.7 billion retirement plan as part of a seven-week targeted outreach campaign.

“All the spots were taken up right away,” said Lavina Mehta, the Glendale, Ariz.-based company’s retirement plans manager, who received an Excellence Award for her work.

The 20-minute assessments conducted by advisers over the phone centered on how employees might draw down their assets in retirement, including how to use a Social Security tool to help support the asset drawdown modeling, Ms. Mehta said. The sessions also gave employees an overall assessment of their retirement readiness.

“We found that as people get closer to retirement, they are ready to engage, especially the 50-plus group,” Ms. Mehta said. “They want to talk with somebody; they want to have somebody walk them through their finances.”

Pre-retirees not only signed up for the assessments fast; many were moved to take action by doing things like adjusting their deferral rates. Of those who scheduled assessments, 66% took action, a “really high rate in the DC plan world,” Ms. Mehta said. In addition to the assessments, the campaign featured a one-hour webinar as well as a retirement hub microsite.

Bechtel developed the targeted campaign because pre-retirees make up a significant portion of the participants in its 401(k) plan. About half, 47%, of the plan’s 16,580 participants are over the age of 50.

“We wanted to make sure that they were aware of the services available to them and that they felt as ready for retirement as possible,” Ms. Mehta said.

Some 256 of the 7,872 targeted employees, or 3%, scheduled appointments, with 16% attending the webinar and 16% visiting the retirement hub microsite.

“Considering we included both our current and former employees still in the plan in this campaign, we feel that the engagement is high compared to similar campaigns,” Ms. Mehta said.

Survey results were certainly positive, with 113 respondents giving the retirement assessment calls an overall average score of 4.77, the highest being 5. The survey rated the helpfulness of the retirement readiness conversation, the investment adviser’s knowledge and whether respondents were more or less confident about reaching their retirement goals.

The metrics supported the good reviews the company heard about anecdotally. “We got a lot of feedback from participants thanking us for putting it together and asking for more outreach,” Ms. Mehta said.

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Mohammad "Mo" Raihan

Assistant vice president of HR retirement services at NYC Health & Hospitals

New York City Health & Hospitals’ sudden switch to having employees meet retirement counselors virtually rather than in person pushed it out of its comfort zone, but it’s glad that it did.

The nation’s largest public health-care system discovered that the move to virtual consultations due to the outbreak of COVID-19 allowed it to reach larger swaths of its front-line workers than it otherwise would with in-person meetings during normal times.

Many employees work overnight shifts, “folks who were hard be in touch with,” said Mohammad "Mo" Raihan, assistant vice president of HR retirement services at NYC Health & Hospitals in New York.

With the “modern virtual technology,” even hard-to-reach employees who work overnight shifts are now able to meet with counselors to discuss their participation in the health system’s $3 billion 403(b) retirement plan, Mr. Raihan said.

Before the pandemic, counselors met on-site with plan participants from 9 to 5 but now — thanks to the virtual technology — they can schedule meetings outside those hours for employee working later shifts.

“Our retirement counselors were able to help many folks very late in the evening and sometimes very early in the morning,” Mr. Raihan said.

The health system’s quick pivot to a virtual environment earned Mr. Raihan an Excellence Award for using technology in a time of crisis, an effort judges described as “notable.”

The move to a virtual environment provided a level of flexibility that went beyond giving plan participants greater scheduling convenience, Mr. Raihan said. Participants could meet with advisers face-to-face — albeit over a computer — from the comfort of their homes and have their spouses join the meeting. They could also view screens with the counselors, enabling them to review account information at the same time.

The greater flexibility kept the number of one-on-one counseling sessions on par with what it was before the pandemic, which Mr. Raihan found surprising.

“We were very happy to see that we haven’t gone below what we have been doing,” he said, explaining that the topic of retirement for front-line workers — at least during the initial wave of the pandemic — wasn’t the first thing on their mind.

Some 900 of the health system’s 38,000 plan participants had one-on-one virtual retirement counseling sessions with advisers from March to June, about the same as last year, according to Mr. Raihan. “This is a really excellent number,” he said, given that the workforce was accustomed to live rather than virtual meetings.

Mr. Raihan anticipates continued use of virtual meetings even after the pandemic subsides.

“Virtual is the new norm,” he said. “I feel that it’s going to significantly help plan sponsors work with employees about their retirement savings.”

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Watch our interview with Mohammad


Excellence and Innovation winners 2019 The winners are, from left: Cindy Rehmeier, Jason Culp, Lisa Joe, Hugh Penney, Kate Castello, Diego Ramirez (accepting for Mary Moreland), Laura Mittelstaedt (accepting for Sarah Krause) and Carl Gagnon. Excellence
Director of retirement programs and services
University of Georgia Board of Regents
Retirement plan manager
University of Georgia Board of Regents
Manager of defined contribution plans
Missouri State Employees' Retirement System
Director of retirement strategy and executive compensation
The Boeing Co.
Executive vice president, human resources
Abbott Laboratories
Senior adviser for benefits planning
Yale University
Associate director for retirement planning
Yale University
Honorable mention
Assistant vice president, global financial wellbeing and retirement programs
Unum Group


Excellence and Innovation winners 2018 The winners are, from left: Tricia Miyoshi, Diana Winalski, Tobias Read, Lisa Montalvo, Michelle Ryan, Marco Merz, Arthur Guimaraes, Kerstin Aiello and Mary Nell Billings. Excellence
Senior director, global retirement programs
Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc.
Senior benefits manager
Synopsys Inc.
Human resources manager
Package Pavement Co. Inc.
Head of 401(k) product management
International Paper Co.
Benefits division leader and plan administrator
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Investment program manager
Los Alamos National Laboratory
State treasurer
Director of defined contribution
University of California
Chief operating officer, Office of the Chief Investment Officer, Board of Regents
University of California


Excellence and Innovation winners 2017 Innovation winners, from left: Deborah Goldberg, Massachusetts treasurer; Sandy Blair, CalSTRS; and Katie Archer, Alexion Pharmaceuticals. Excellence winners: Aimee Dodson, Movement Mortgage; Cliff York, BP; Nora Alvarado, Texas ERS; and Kathleen Long, The Farfield Co. Excellence
Thrive director
Movement Mortgage LLC
Head of pensions and benefits, Americas
Manager of health and welfare administration and deferred compensation
Employees Retirement System of Texas
Vice president for human resources
The Farfield Co.
Treasurer and general receiver
Director of retirement readiness
California State Teachers' Retirement System
Director of global benefits
Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc.


Excellence and Innovation winners 2016 The winners, from left: Dana Hammonds, Erika Kirchner, Neil Saxton, Shirley Zabiegala, Sheila Rowaily and Katie Nedl. Excellence & Innovation
Dhief operating officer of the U.S.-Canada defined contribution group
BlackRock Inc.
Executive-engagement strategy
Health Employees Superannuation Trust Australia
Senior director of player affairs and development
National Football League Players Association
Head of investment management
Saudi Arabian Oil. Co.
Vice president of human resources
Bertelsmann Inc.
Director of savings and retirement
Nestle USA Inc.


Manager of defined contribution plans
Missouri State Employees Retirement Systems
Corporate director of retirement plans
Republic National Distributing Co.
Marketing director
Utah Retirement Systems
Chief investment officer
Lewis & Clark College
Executive director of global benefits
ITT Corp.
Vice president and head of total rewards for the Americas
Delhaize Corp.
Director of retirement for the Americas and Smart Saving
American Express
Deferred compensation director
Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds
Legislative liaison
Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds
Assistant vice president of human resources
State treasurer
North Carolina


Director of benefits
The Home Depot Inc.
Senior director, compensation and benefits
Yale University
Group manager, financial well-being
Target Corp.
Director of global retirement benefits
Microsoft Corp.
Plan manager
City of Los Angeles Deferred Compensation Plan
Director of investments
JM Family Enterprises Inc.
Director of retirement services
Fujitsu Management Services of America Inc.
Senior manager, North America benefits
DENSO International America Inc.
Treasurer and general receiver
401(k) product manager
International Paper Co.
Vice president, human resources
Buck Consultants
Director of the New York City Employee Benefits Program, Office of Labor Relations
New York City


Vice president for operations
Verizon Investment Management Corp.
Senior benefits manager
Staples Inc.
State auditor
Executive vice president
Lincoln Trust Co.
Director of human resources and compensation
Intersil Corp.
Senior director, HR operations
H. Lee Moffitt Cancer & Research Institute
Director of the healthcare policy and benefit services division, comptroller's office
Senior benefits manager
Motorola Solutions Inc.
Head of risk management and operations
Chrysler Group LLC
Deputy director, office of communications and education
Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board
Vice president for human resources
Kiva Microfunds Inc.,
Director of human resources
Aloha Petroleum Ltd.
Director of retirement plans
PepsiCo Inc.
Director of Racker Rewards
Rackspace Hosting Inc.
Chief investment officer
General Board of Pension and Health Benefits of the United Methodist Church


Manager of retirement plans
Deluxe Corp.
Director of non-U.S. pensions and savings plans
United Technologies Corp.
Manager of the deferred compensation program
City and County of San Francisco Employees Retirement System
Director of global retirement and smart saving
American Express Co.
Senior director, global benefits and global mobility
Yahoo! Inc.
Adventist Retirement Plans
Director of compensation and benefits
McCarthy Building Cos.
Senior benefits consultant
Motorola Solutions Inc.
Interim director of compensation and benefits
Holy Spirit Health System
Vice president, total awards
HCA Healthcare
Adventist HealthCare Retirement Plans