Chris Carlson
Chief Operating Officer
  • Total Plan Assets
  • Number of Participants
    162 active
  • Participation Rate
  • Average Deferral Rate
  • Average Deferral Rate: 9.4% Default Deferral Rate
  • Default Investment
    American Funds Target Date Funds, share class R6
  • Automatic Enrollment
  • Automatic Escalation
  • Employer Contribution
    QACA safe harbor with a 100% match on a 1% deferral and 50% on next 5%

Northwoods is a software development and consulting company, with corporate offices in Dublin, Ohio. Chris Carlson, its chief operating officer (COO), likes to describe Northwoods as an “innovation company,” working in the field of human and governmental services. The firm’s clients include various entities that deliver and support programs across the areas of child welfare, Medicaid, food stamps and other social services.

“We deliver innovative solutions to these historically not-very-tech-savvy agencies,” Carlson says. “Our clients are so dedicated to the services they deliver, but they need our help to utilize modern technologies as they pursue their critical missions.”

Carlson says the space in which Northwoods operates has a big influence on the company’s goals, operations and identity—a fact that bears directly on employee compensation and retirement benefits.

“We are a company that has a clear mission, and we want to be at the forefront of improving information technology (IT) in the human services area,” Carlson says. “We help the people who help the people who need help, I sometimes say. This identity feeds into how we treat our employees and the benefits we provide to them.”

Apart from the plan’s embrace of automatic plan design features, supported by recordkeeper Empower, Northwoods also regularly benchmarks total plan costs, reviews a 40-point compliance checklist and, in partnership with Everhart Advisors, a recent winner of the PLANSPONSOR Retirement Plan Adviser Team of the Year award, provides a dedicated phone number and email address to field employee investment and financialplanningrelated questions. Participants have access to one-on-one advice and also receive a monthly educational memo about various finance-related topics. 

“As a result of these efforts, Northwoods employees are better informed and, most importantly, better prepared for retirement,” Carlson says.

A unique feature of the Northwoods program is that the 401(k) committee includes three standing membersCarlson as COO, along with the company’s chief counsel and chief financial officer (CFO)but it also includes rotating members from the company’s staff. The goal of this arrangement is to make sure younger plan participants and those with diverse perspectives can help tailor the plan design to serve employees’ unique needs.

In recent years, Carlson says, Northwoods has worked diligently to help employees engage in the retirement plan and invest aggressively in their futures. The company has implemented fiduciary best practices in close collaboration with Everhart Advisors.

Along with regular employee engagement efforts and the availability of personalized advice, Carlson says, automatic features have allowed the plan to reach a participation rate of 94.2% and an average deferral rate of 9.4%. Paired with a qualified automatic contribution arrangement (QACA) safe harbor match, the average participant’s total contribution rate is 13%. During a platform transition in 2017, the company reenrolled participants to the American Funds Target Date Funds, share class R6 as the qualified default investment alternative (QDIA). At the same time, the company implemented an open-architecture investment menu and leveled recordkeeping fees.

Brian Hanna, a partner with Everhart, works closely with Northwoods and implemented a fiduciary fitness program, which identifies weaknesses in a plan and remedies these through education, diligence and process reforms. An outcome of this program has been a move to an unbundled provider approach, such that the adviser, the recordkeeper and the third-party administrator (TPA) are all separate entities.

“Northwoods has a genuine goal of helping its employees be successful in many different ways,” Hanna says. “It has been recognized repeatedly as one of the best places to work in its region, and part of that success is the very generous and thoughtful retirement plan and other creative benefits. It has embraced all the best practices that we have recommended. It’s gratifying to work with this plan and to see such a responsive group of committee members and participants.”

According to Hanna, Northwoods has put a plan design in place that “makes success simple, if not easy.”

“It’s never going to be easy for people to get retirement ready through a defined contribution plan [DC], in that it will take years of steady financial commitment, but Northwoods has made it simple for its employees to get on the right track,” Hanna says. “Our mission is also to help people reach financial security, and we know that we have a tremendous partner in our client Northwoods.” 

— John Manganaro



E_NOTICE Error in file footer.php at line 224: Undefined variable: tag_list