Financial education is the foundation for this adviser’s retirement strategy

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COVID-19 has flipped the retirement industry on its head, with volatile swings in the market putting retirement savings and 401(k) plans at risk. ForEmployee Benefit Adviser’s Retirement Adviser of the Year winner Julie Yusko, a solid financial education has helped her navigate her clients through this challenging year.

As a senior consultant at Portfolio Evaluations Inc., which goes by PEI, Yusko helps provide not just retirement advice but emotional support for her employer clients who have been forced to make drastic changes to their retirement benefit plans.

“Many of my clients have unfortunately had to suspend their benefits or reset their company match, but they want to know how to make sure their employees are taking care of themselves financially,” Yusko says. “So it's making sure that people are staying the course and not being reactive to the changes in the market right now, and that they're still focused on their retirement as a long-term plan.”

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Yusko’s long-term view comes from her own early financial education. Her father worked in finance, and she grew up understanding the importance of how her financial decisions could impact retirement down the road. As a consultant, she wants to educate employees so they get on the right path as early as possible.

“I had a father who was in finance, and I fell into this industry at a young age. So I’m on track in saving for retirement because from a young age I learned these things,” Yusko says. “I hope my experience can help others be in the best position when they're starting their careers, so that we have fewer people who are approaching retirement age and wondering how they're ever going to retire.”

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At the start of her own tenure at PEI, Yusko was hired as an analyst at the financial services firm. But within a year of starting, Yusko gravitated toward consulting, where she was paired with Attila Toth, one of PEI’s cofounders, through the company’s mentorship program. Toth recognized her drive and desire to learn right away.

“Julie always made time, even though she had a job as an analyst, by either coming in early or staying late, to get that part of her job done so that she could be free to go with me to my client meetings,” Toth says. “She was interacting with clients very well, and she understood everything that was needed for her to bring the right resources to the client.”

As her knowledge as an adviser grew, so did her confidence, Toth says.

“When you start meeting with clients, there’s an intimidation factor when meeting with a chief financial officer or a chief human resources officer, so it was very fascinating to see Julie get over that hurdle of fear,” Toth says. “Julie would walk into a room, and I would always remind her that she could do just as much if not more than anyone else in the room. And it takes time to appreciate that and really believe that. That’s one of the main areas I've seen her really grow.”

Over her 14-year career with PEI, Yusko’s confidence has also enabled her to stand out in the often male-dominated financial services industry.

“For women in this industry, so often we have to embrace being strong and using our voices and not being afraid to speak up, even when we are the minority in the group,” Yusko says. “It's earning the respect of your colleagues so that you're not perceived by your gender, but by the ideas that you share.”

Now, Yusko has a roster of 20 clients and manages retirement plans ranging from $15 million to $2 billion. While the pandemic has forced the PEI team to maintain their client relationships remotely, Yusko has been able to grow her client base without the benefit of face-to-face interaction.

“Getting to a place where everyone is comfortable making decisions and engaging in these discussions virtually has been something that we've all had to adapt to,” Yusko says. “It's a really unique experience during the pandemic that organizations have continued in their efforts to hire consultants and have gotten to a place where they are comfortable doing that without actually meeting me in person.”

While the pandemic has had its challenges, Yusko says it’s more important than ever for employers to provide financial education beyond retirement benefits.

“Within the retirement industry itself, we're going to see a renewed focus on financial wellness and providing education to employees to help support them,” she says. “In many cases, an individual’s financial profile has changed so employers should focus on helping them get back on track. Beyond a retirement plan, support for budgeting or debt management will take on a more important and significant role as we try to return to a state of normalcy.”

Yusko continues to be focused on educating her clients and herself. Before the shutdown, she completed her law degree after attending the program part time. Navigating the demands of her curriculum with the needs of her clients helped her solidify her priorities as an adviser, she says.

“I had to make a significant commitment to really put my clients first and myself second. This required looking as far ahead as possible in terms of my clients' needs, and then filling in the gaps with the curriculum,” Yusko says. “It has reinforced my role and my purpose in this industry to be able to share and impart my knowledge. To have clients be appreciative of that support makes me feel good about what I do.”

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Adviser of the Year Retirement education Financial wellness Retirement planning Adviser strategies