Small business retirement plans—partnering for success

As a financial professional in the small retirement plan market, do your recordkeeper relationships give you a competitive advantage? Backed by recent research on what business owners are really seeking in a plan, here are a few questions to ask recordkeepers to help you determine—and, ultimately, increase—the strength of your provider partnerships.

Can you help me get business owner prospects off the sidelines?

As of 2020, nearly half of workers in companies with under 50 employees had access to workplace retirement programs. In businesses employing 50 to 99 employees, this percentage rises to just 69%. These figures remained basically flat from 2018 through 2020.

Private sector retirement plan access by employer size

Source: “Exploring Opportunities in the Small Plan Market,” The Cerulli Report, Cerulli Associates, Q1 2021. Based on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ National Compensation Survey. Analyst note (Cerulli): Retirement plans are classified as either defined benefit or defined contribution plans. The private sector excludes agricultural establishments, private households, and the self-employed. The number of workers refers to the size of the employer. Data is as of March for each year shown

As the pandemic subsides, there are indications that small businesses are competing for talent. The National Federation of Independent Businesses reported that 59% of small business owners had either filled or were seeking to fill jobs in April 2021. And 21% of owners planned to create new positions over the following the three months.2 Combine this with the historic underuse of retirement plans in the 99-employee-and-under market (only 46% offer a retirement plan2), and this creates a big opportunity for you.

As always, you’ll need solutions to the factors business owners cite for not offering a retirement plan. These include the expense of offering a plan, their own focus on day-to-day operations, and the need to prioritize other types of benefits, including healthcare.

Top reasons small business owners report for not offering a retirement plan

Source: “Exploring Opportunities in the Small Plan Market,” The Cerulli Report, Cerulli Associates, Q1 2021. Researched in partnership with the SPARK Institute.

By partnering with the right organizations, you can help address each of these barriers through consultation and plan design. Is a prospect reluctant to make employer contributions? Do they insist that the business is too small to benefit from a plan? Work with a recordkeeping partner to illustrate the price-value ratio or develop a plan solution that can start small but also accommodate growth.

What’s the best retirement plan for small businesses? 

Depending on the size of the enterprise and its business objectives, the right retirement plan can vary from an SEP IRA to a full-fledged 401(k) or defined benefit plan. Zeroing in to what prospects want and need will give you a big advantage.

When it comes to a 401(k), three illustrations in The Cerulli Report create a compelling road map to what plan sponsors are really looking for in retirement plans.

The first is a list of winning attributes in the small business 401(k) market, as reported by defined contribution (DC) plan recordkeepers. Total recordkeeping costs come in at number one. But notice number two, the intermediary client relationship, shows the value you bring to the table. Make sure you work with a recordkeeper that also recognizes and appreciates that value.

Top differentiators for winning 401(k) business by plan asset segment

Source: “Exploring Opportunities in the Small Plan Market,” The Cerulli Report, Cerulli Associates, Q1 2021. Researched in partnership with the SPARK Institute. Analyst note (Cerulli): Respondents were asked to select up to three differentiators per asset segment. “Other” includes “participant cost” and “participant communication/education.” 


The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act brought the potential for pooled employer plans (PEPs) to the market, with an eye on small business plans. Employers that expressed moderate to high interest in a PEP were asked what might motivate them to consider it. Their responses, in descending order, were to:

  • Simplify administration and compliance
  • Lower investment costs
  • Lower administrative costs
  • Simplify investment selection and monitoring
  • Gain access to participant education and financial wellness resources
  • Outsource fiduciary liability

But PEPs don’t come without a set of baggage, and plan sponsors brought these potential issues to light2:

  • The possibility of no cost savings
  • Desired involvement in selecting plan investments
  • Preference for a custom plan design
  • Employees might perceive a move to a PEP as negative
  • Lack of capacity for a major benefits change

PEPs may not be right for everyone. But this data shows that putting together a small retirement plan option—especially as a PEP—can benefit from choosing the right partners who can help you offer a solution that addresses these plan sponsor concerns and priorities.

Can you help me leverage my influence in the small business 401(k) plan marketplace?

With their strong local presence and emphasis on personal wealth management, financial professionals hold the keys to the small business retirement plan market. In fact, nationwide, 71% of small plans use their services, showing the ongoing value they bring to the plan and plan sponsor.3

Even 401(k) recordkeepers recognize the influence of the financial professional in determining the provisions and features of smaller retirement plans. 

Primary influencers of 401(k) plan design, according to DC plan recordkeepers

  Plan size
  Up to $5M $5M–$25M
Broker-dealer-based advisor 60% 41%
Third-party administrator 20% 12%
Plan sponsor 13% 12%
Independent RIA 0% 18%

Source: “Exploring Opportunities in the Small Plan Market,” The Cerulli Report, Cerulli Associates, Q1 2021. Researched in partnership with the SPARK Institute.

Making sure you have the right partners—a few more questions to ask

Over the years—and especially in the one just passed—you’ve demonstrated to your clients how your success can be intertwined with theirs. You’ve been there for them, pointed out the pitfalls and the opportunities, and you’re both better for it.

You have the right to expect the same kind of treatment from your retirement plan providers. When you consider what you’ve accomplished with each one:

  • Do they offer the tools, resources, and the market-specific insight you need to create and execute your retirement strategy?
  • Are they teaming with you and the third-party administrators you do business with effectively—and filling any gaps with their own in-house expertise or other trusted providers?
  • Do they make you more adept at designing and managing plans that consistently generate and demonstrate value?
  • Do they treat you like a bonafide partner—helping you capitalize on your unique strengths—and is your retirement practice healthier for it?

If not, springtime is always a good time to explore new relationships.



1NFIB Jobs Report: Small Business Job Openings Reach Record High for Third Straight Month,” 2 “Exploring Opportunities in the Small Plan Market,” The Cerulli Report, Cerulli Associates, Q1 2021. According to Cerulli, respondents with an interest in PEPs were asked, “How important are the following attributes in deciding whether to join a PEP and selecting a pooled plan provider (PPP)?” Those expressing either a positive interest or no interest in joining such a plan were then asked, “What are the barriers or drawbacks to joining a PEP?” 3 “The State of the Small Plan Market,” a webinar conducted on March 26, 2019, at the Retirement Leadership Forum, from 2018 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. 


The content of this document is for general information only and is believed to be accurate and reliable as of the posting date, but may be subject to change. It is not intended to provide investment, tax, plan design, or legal advice (unless otherwise indicated). Please consult your own independent advisor as to any investment, tax, or legal statements made herein

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