Lexa Turner
Human Resources Benefit and Compensation Manager
  • Plan(s)
    401(k)
  • Total Plan Assets
    $163MM
  • Number of Participants
    1,200
  • Participation Rate
    97%
  • Average Deferral Rate
    7.8%
  • Default Deferral Rate
    10%
  • Default Investment
    Not applicable
  • Automatic Enrollment:
  • Automatic Escalation
    Yes
  • Employer Contribution
    25% of up to 10% + additional discretionary match
  • Provider(s)
    Recordkeeper, John Hancock; Adviser, Morgan Stanley
  • Financial Wellness Educator(s)
    Morgan Stanley


“We sliced and diced in any way we could think of to make sure we reached our audience and got them the information they need to be successful.”

Phifer, Inc., values having a tightknit community, and what the company does to foster that makes employees tend to stay. The average worker tenure is 17 years, notes Russell Dubose, human resources (HR) director at the woven fabrics manufacturer, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

“We’re one of those privately owned employers where our owners work here every day, and they’re out on the floor, meeting, seeing and talking with our employees,” Dubose says. “We call it the Phifer family. Once you become an employee, you become a ‘Phifer-lifer.’ That’s the culture we have, from an employee’s perspective.”

Phifer’s 401(k) plan has achieved a 97% participation rate, with an average deferral rate of 7.8%, despite never having implemented automatic enrollment. The sponsor contributes a stretch match of 25% up to an employee’s 10% deferral and, additionally, contributes 5% through 7% based on the person’s earnings.

“We’ve been told by some in the industry that these kinds of results for a manufacturer without automatic enrollment are unheard of; for us, it’s just the Phifer way,” says Dubose.

According to Lexa Turner, HR benefit and compensation manager, the company’s focus on one-on-one engagement, along with tailored education, contributes to the plan’s success. Instead of auto-enrolling workers into the plan, Turner would prefer speaking to them about the plan’s policies and benefits face-to-face.

“I’d rather teach them about the plan and encourage them as to how being enrolled in it could help them throughout their life, no matter how old they are,” she says. “I like that initial one-on-one engagement with them, but I also like to continue the conversation. Every time they come into the office, I’m usually grabbing them and saying, ‘Hey, what can we do today [to contribute toward your savings]? Let’s make sure all your choices are up to date.’”

Dan Nahorney, a director of strategic communications at the plan’s recordkeeper, John Hancock Retirement in Westwood, Massachusetts, has worked with Phifer since 2011. At that time, he was amazed at the level of participation and employee commitment to the plan, as well as the company’s average tenure. “I thought, this is great that they have such participation because they meet with the employees,” he says.

What auto-enrollment doesn’t do

As his work with the plan evolved, Nahorney noticed that employee engagement goes well beyond enrolling. “Lexa, Russell and the whole staff continue to meet with their employees throughout their tenure, to make sure they’re not just ‘in the plan,’ but they’re saving at a rate that can get them to retirement, that they have a beneficiary set up, and all those other things auto-enrollment doesn’t do.”

Phifer’s proactive approach distances itself from the high-tech educational practices common in today’s work world. Turner argues that other practices, including e-delivery, or even mail, disclosures, fail to motivate in-depth and personalized conversations or follow-ups. “With mail, they don’t get the whole ‘holistic conversation’ that helps them choose how much they want to defer, for instance, and pre-plan their options for open enrollment,” Turner says. 

Nahorney believes Phifer’s action-based attitude with financial and retirement planning is just part of the company’s DNA and likely explains why people stay. “I’ve been working with them for nine years and have really gotten to understand what the ‘Phifer way’ means and how they feel about their employees,” he says. “They really care about their employees because they believe it’s the right thing to do.”

Phifer’s open communication approach puts participants on the path to retirement readiness, right from when they start to work there. Last year, Phifer partnered with local community college Shelton State to add “Ready to Work”—a financial literacy education class with a FICA [Federal Insurance Contributions Act]-approved curriculum—to the company’s pre-employment training program. Once completing the curriculum, new hires have foundational knowledge about retirement planning before they start in their new roles. “We wanted to introduce financial literacy not only as a competency but as a skill we can assess and present [participants] with a certification [for],” Dubose explains. “All new employees have to complete this program. When [they] begin the process of enrolling in a retirement plan, they can then understand the terms associated with it.”

Additionally, Phifer expanded its onboarding experience to include personalized meetings between the employee and a member of the company’s benefits team; added snack-and-learns and lunch-and-learns, where employees speak with benefits staff during lunch or a quick break; and has offered focus sessions on topics such as investments, Social Security and Medicare. “We sliced and diced in any way we could think of to make sure we reached our audience and got them the information they need to be successful,” says Dubose.

Nahorney notes how meeting with employees individually takes a significant commitment, even just once a year, given the amount of time and attention a representative dedicates to each worker. Live meetings that the employer holds for its staff “are very well-attended. Workers are engaged; they ask questions,” he says.

Stay healthy, save more

Phifer employees and their families are encouraged to use the Phifer Cares Wellness Program, a platform initiated to combat the harmful effects of rising health care costs. Introduced last year, the benefit provides a free primary and urgent care on-site clinic, including free lab tests, immunizations and prescription drugs; a voluntary results-based incentive program focused on top health influencers such as cholesterol, blood pressure and nicotine use; and the Phifer Cares Park, offering free educational and recreational activities including aerobics, Pilates and access to a fully equipped gym. “It’s the convergence of wellness, health and wealth. It makes our employees healthier, so they could have a better quality of life,” observes Dubose.

When employees save money on medical costs, this lets them put more toward their retirement plan, he continues. Phifer regularly checks in with employees on their selections, to see whether they are allocating correctly based on their circumstances. “I always tell them that I want them to retire when they want to, not when they have to,” Dubose says.

For this year and beyond, Phifer is continuing its wellness strategies and aims to implement a Roth 401(k).

Not to be left behind as the world grows increasingly digitalized, Phifer is embracing these advancements. But it still maintains its individualized approach, Nahorney stresses. This year, the company plans to add corporate apps for smart devices. Employees and family members may schedule health and wellness visits and access nutritional information on a financial wellness platform that connects users to John Hancock Retirement. “They’re adding digital tools to their holistic communications,” Nahorney says, “but they’re not forgetting that a personal touch can really make a difference.” —Amanda Umpierrez

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