April Bettencourt
Senior Director, Global Employee Benefits
  • Plan(s)
    401(k)
  • Total Plan Assets
    $976.3MM
  • Number of Participants
    6,536
  • Participation Rate
    96%
  • Average Deferral Rate
    7.7%
  • Default Deferral Rate
    2%
  • Default Investment
    Prudential Retirement GoalMaker
  • Automatic Enrollment
  • Automatic Escalation
  • Employer Contribution
    100% of 5% + possible profit sharing
  • Provider(s)
    Recordkeeper, Prudential Retirement; Adviser, Retirement Benefits Group
  • Financial Wellness Educator(s)
    Financial Finesse, Financial Soundings, Prudential Retirement, Retirement Benefits Group


“We use pretty much any communication vehicle we can. We grab their attention wherever we can.”

Vision Service Plan (VSP) shares retirement-planning messages virtually anywhere employees can think to look: in snail mail and email, on signs in office elevators, kitchens and even bathroom stalls. After all, when you have 6,500 participants across multiple locations—and with many of the employees not working at computers—you have to be creative with your 401(k) communications. To that end, the vision insurance company, located in Rancho Cordova, California, has a multichannel communication and education strategy that, besides the above, includes digital signage, wellness fair events, one-on-one counseling and direct-mail retirement readiness reports.

“We use pretty much any communication vehicle we can,” says April Bettencourt, senior director, global employee benefits at VSP. “We grab their attention wherever we can.”

The company’s intranet is also an effective place to post messages, she says. In addition, the sponsor ensures that all of its vendors have mobile-friendly websites for employees’ convenience.

But among all of VSP’s communication tactics, the “porcelain press,” as the sponsor jokingly calls bathroom signage, is among the most effective. Last summer, when VSP wanted to promote coaching through Financial Finesse, the sponsor displayed posters in the restroom that read, “Privacy, please. Having a conversation with a financial coach is confidential … holding it in doesn’t do you any favors.”

Another unique promotional piece was putting inserts in the cafeteria napkin holders with the message, “Don’t leave your finances a mess. A coach is here to help.”

The sponsor also uses short, interactive videos through GuideSpark to help employees understand financial topics. “They do a nice job with getting the messaging concise so that someone will actually watch it,” Bettencourt says.

Larry Deatherage, founder and managing principal at Retirement Benefits Group (RBG) in La Jolla, California, says, in his 30 years in the business, he has never seen so many employees in a company know about the financial wellness programs available to them. He credits creative communication initiatives for this success.

A team effort for education

Both adviser RBG and recordkeeper Prudential Retirement, which VSP has worked with since 2013, conduct regular, on-site group and one-on-one educational meetings. RBG financial consultant Winston Ventura meets with employees in person, through calls or via the web. Last year, VSP’s educational program was expanded to address overall financial wellness; participants received personalized “gap” and recommendation statements coupled with phone and in-person access to counselors. Topics now include budgeting, achieving long-term financial goals and preparing for unexpected financial emergencies.

Bob Belanger, vice president of key account management at Prudential Retirement in Orange County, California, coordinates with the adviser and sponsor regarding the financial wellness topics they want to cover. The program “is really broad scope, not just focused on retirement,” he says. “It really steps back and takes into account [everything] people need to be financially well—what they should be doing or thinking about.”

Through another of its third-party vendors, Financial Soundings, each VSP active or retired employee receives a yearly, customized retirement readiness report that includes plan-specific information on the individual’s engagement in the plan.

With Financial Finesse, employees can receive financial coaching over the phone, as well as resources to help them plan for retirement and other life events such as buying a home or putting their kids through college. VSP surveys employees on their Financial Finesse goals and finds that, through working with the program, they have taken actions including increasing contributions to their retirement plan, working toward paying off student loans, using calculators sent by Financial Finesse or reviewing their asset allocation in the 401(k) plan.

VSP values and supports diversity and inclusion, and offers its employees specific resource groups—e.g., the Black Heritage Business Resource Group, the Military Veterans Business Resource Group, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Allies Business Resource Group, and many more—to encourage wellness and to give opportunities for professional growth.

Plan offerings and design have produced positive participant outcomes. Belanger notes that the company was an early adopter of automatic features in its 401(k), which took participation from about 50% to the current 96%. The plan has a generous dollar-for-dollar match up to 5%, plus possible profit sharing up to 10%. Loans against one’s account are capped at two.

The plan has also worked to decrease its fees over time, with the lineup consisting of some of the lowest-cost collective investment trust (CIT) index funds available. Most of VSP’s 22 investment options are low-cost, institutional investments such as the CITs, and the plan also offers Roth contributions and lifetime income investment alternatives. VSP recently conducted an extensive six-month stable value search that resulted in lower fees, greater transparency and higher crediting rates for the employees.

Sometimes when a 401(k) plan is so generous, it actually creates a problem in that employees don’t want to contribute as much of their own money, Belanger says, “but that dynamic is not taking place at VSP.”

The projected average retirement income replacement rate for VSP employees is 77%, and the average account balance is $152,000.

‘Care and diligence’

For the future, VSP is exploring whether to decrease the number of loans allowed to one, Bettencourt says, adding that the plan once allowed three loans.

The committee has noted that the number of loans in the 401(k) plan is worth exploring, Belanger says.

“One thing, from a behavioral standpoint, [that we’ve seen] in the past year is a segment of the population that consistently has multiple outstanding loans,” he says. “Almost using it like a revolving credit line, so we’re considering limiting them to one loan. But we need to discuss it more, because we don’t want to shock the system and take away from something that’s needed [by participants].”

In addition, the sponsor is exploring whether there’s a way to use the sizable profit sharing to address student loan debt. Bettencourt says, although VSP’s average employee age is 44, student loan debt is a growing issue for employees in general. “The decision is either, I’m going to contribute to my 401(k) or pay down my student loan—a tough decision to make,” she observes.

Belanger says it’s evident the sponsor feels an ethical duty to keep employees in the loop about important financial topics that can help them plan for the future. “More and more each day, employees are looking to employers to help in that regard,” he says. The sponsor exhibits “care and diligence,” with a “consistent eye on what’s best for the participants.”

The plan committee has weekly project calls about the retirement plan, as well as formal investment and plan review meetings quarterly through the adviser, and it reviews the plan data monthly. On a yearly basis, the committee conducts fiduciary training. Recently, it also instituted data security and process reviews for preventing fraudulent access. Every other year, Deatherage runs an independent request for proposals (RFP) and benchmarks fees, for Prudential, as well as overall plan costs, Belanger says. “In every meeting, we’re talking about the performance of the lineup and the costs,” he adds.

The sponsor takes the time to understand how the plan features it has implemented affect its employees, Deatherage says, adding, “It has gone to great lengths at the participant level.” —Corie Hengst

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