Retirement Adviser of the Year Rob Massa: A strategic vision

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Rob Massa fell into the retirement industry by accident. Graduating from college in 1991, he took a job with Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith as a paralegal supporting small retirement plans by analyzing changes in the law and the Internal Revenue Code.

“I didn’t get through junior high and high school thinking I would be an employee benefit adviser,” says Massa, the director, retirement for Ascende and president of EPIC’s advisory firm Ascende Wealth Advisers.

But its clearly a role he was born to play, chosen as EBA's 2016 Retirement Adviser of the Year after a month-long online nomination process, Massa stood out due to the success of EPIC's investment advisory firm that he created. Launched just five years ago, it has already exceeded $3 billion in assets under management.

Back when he graduated from college, the economy wasn’t great, so he took the job with Merrill Lynch without knowing much about the industry. “Most people start in sales or sales support or something along those lines, a call center. I ended up more than anything reading tax code and figuring out how to explain this to financial advisers in the field who didn’t deal much with retirement plans. They dabbled with it as part of their business,” he says.

After that, he slowly moved his way up the chain with big names in the retirement industry, including MassMutual, PaineWebber Trust Co., OppenheimerFunds, Inc., American General/VALIC and MBM Advisors, Inc., doing everything from document work, compliance testing, Form 5500 work and all manner of consulting, investment advisory and management.

He came to Employee Benefits Solutions, now Ascende, in 2010. When he arrived, the company’s retirement division had about $700,000 in revenue with no investment advisory arm. In 2011, he helped launch the investment advisory division of the company, Ascende Wealth Advisers. The company, which was acquired last year by San Francisco-based EPIC Insurance brokers, now has $3.5 billion in assets under advisement.

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The first thing he did when he joined the retirement division was organize it into different functions, investment advisory, plan management and compliance. “I would say that a majority of plans out there have some kind of operational mistake they’ve made,” he says. That could mean that they misinterpret what the plan document says or don’t deposit employee retirement plan contributions in a timely manner. By working in the Employee Plans Compliance Resolution System arena, the company advises retirement plans on how best to resolve their plan problems.

Massa’s goal was to establish best practices for employers on the investment and operational sides and help them set up procedures and documents for how to mitigate problems wherever they can, he says. Lately, the company has dedicated much of its energy to financial wellness and fiduciary responsibility.

The company holds yearly detailed fiduciary education programs for all of its plans, going over what responsibility they have and where it ends. And while his company does pay close attention to changes in government relations, Massa and his team focus more on court cases. A couple of years ago, fee lawsuits targeted larger companies with deeper pockets and larger retirement plans.

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“These cases are coming downstream to smaller and smaller employers. We educate them to move away from the old way of doing business. Everything should be transparent now,” he says. He adds that there is nothing wrong with charging employees to run the plan, but any fees that are charged need to be negotiated down and benchmarked regularly.

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Employers also must make sure their record keepers are charging reasonable fees. Massa and his team also educate plan committees about fee policies and codes of ethics.

“My job is to oversee retirement as a function. I spend a lot more time these days managing employees, doing some training and teaching. It is more about the strategic vision of retirement and supporting the growth of it,” he says.

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Massa still does compliance work and gets involved in investment strategy with his team.

“My favorite part is working with our clients. I have a policy where I try to make sure every client sees me two times a year. That’s my personal goal. I insist that clients don’t only see me when there’s a problem. I want them to see me when there is not a problem so, when I do show up, they know that I take their account seriously,” he says.

EPIC’s retirement practice has been recognized in the industry as one of the top retirement advisers in the country for three years in a row.

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