Grading the Performance of Your Company’s Retirement Plan

Imagine giving your company’s retirement plan a report card. Would it earn straight A’s in preparing your participants for their golden years? Or is it more of a C student who could really use some extra help after school? Benchmarking can tell you.

Mind the basics

More than likely, you already use certain criteria to benchmark your plan’s performance using traditional measures such as:

  • Fund investment performance relative to a peer group,
  • Breadth of fund options,
  • Benchmarked fees, and
  • Participation rates and average deferral rates (including matching contributions).

These measures are all critical, but they’re only the beginning of the story. Add to that list helpful administrative features and functionality — including auto-enrollment and auto-escalation provisions, investment education, retirement planning, and forecasting tools. In general, the more, the better.

Don’t overlook useful data

A sometimes-overlooked plan metric is average account balance size. This matters for two reasons. First, it provides a first-pass look at whether participants are accumulating meaningful sums in their accounts. Naturally, you’ll need to look at that number in light of the age of your workforce and how long your plan has been in existence. Second, it affects recordkeeping fees — higher average account values generally translate into lower per-participant fees.

Knowing your plan asset growth rate is also helpful. Unless you have an older workforce and participants are retiring and rolling their fund balances into IRAs, look for a healthy overall asset growth rate, which incorporates both contribution rates and investment returns.

What’s a healthy rate? That’s a subjective assessment. You’ll need to examine it within the context of current financial markets. A plan with assets that shrank during the financial crisis about a decade ago could hardly be blamed for that pattern. Overall, however, you might hope to see annual asset growth of roughly 10%.

Keep participants on track

Ultimately, however, the success of a retirement plan isn’t measured by any one element, but by aggregating multiple data points to derive an “on track to retire” score. That is, how many of your plan participants have account values whose size and growth rate are sufficient to result in a realistic pre-retirement income replacement ratio, such as 85% or more?

It might not be possible to determine that number with precision. Such calculations at the participant level, sometimes performed by record keepers, involve sophisticated guesswork with respect to participants’ retirement ages and savings outside the retirement plan, as well as their income growth rates and the long-term rates of return on their investment accounts.

Ask for help

Given the importance of strong retirement benefits in hiring and retaining the best employees, it’s worth your while to regularly benchmark your plan’s performance. For better or worse, doing so isn’t as simple as 2+2. Our firm can help you choose the relevant measures, gather the data, perform the calculations and, most important, determine whether your retirement plan is really making the grade.

Could You Unearth Hidden Profits in Your Company?

Can your business become more profitable without venturing out of its comfort zone? Of course! Adding new products or services may not be the best way for your business — or any company — to boost profits. Bottom-line potential may lie undiscovered in your existing operations. How can you find these “hidden” profits? Dig into every facet of your organization.

Develop a profit plan

You’ve probably written and perhaps even recently revised a business plan. And you’ve no doubt developed sales and marketing plans to present to investors and bankers. But have you taken the extra step of developing a profit plan?

A profit plan outlines your company’s profit potential and sets objectives for realizing those bottom-line improvements. Following traditional profit projections based on a previous quarter’s or previous year’s performance can limit you. Why? Because when your company reaches its budgeted sales goals or exceeds them, you may feel inclined to ease up for the rest of the year. Don’t just coast past your sales goals — roar past them and keep going.

Uncover hidden profit potential by developing a profit plan that includes a continuous incentive to improve. Set your sales goals high. Even if you don’t reach them, you’ll have the incentive to continue pushing for more sales right through year end.

Ask the right questions

Among the most effective techniques for creating such a plan is to consider three critical questions. Answer them with, if necessary, brutal honesty to increase your chances of success. And pose the questions to your employees for their input, too. Their answers may reveal options you never considered. Here are the questions:

  1. What does our company do best? Involve top management and brainstorm to answer this question. Identifying your core competencies should result in strategies that boost operations and uncover hidden profits.
  2. What products or services should we eliminate? Nearly everyone in management has an answer to this question, but usually no one asks for it. When you lay out the tough answers on the table, you can often eliminate unprofitable activities and improve profits by adding or improving profitable ones.
  3. Exactly who are our customers? You may be wasting time and money on marketing that doesn’t reach your most profitable customers. Analyzing your customers and prospects to better focus your marketing activities is a powerful way to cut waste and increase profits.

Get that shovel ready

Every business owner wishes his or her company could be more profitable, but how many undertake a concerted effort to uncover hidden profits? By pulling out that figurative shovel and digging into every aspect of your company, you may very well unearth profit opportunities your competitors are missing. We can help you conduct this self-examination, gather the data and crunch the resulting numbers.

Prepare for the Worst with a Business Turnaround Strategy

Many businesses have a life cycle that, as life cycles tend to do, concludes with a period of decline and failure. Often, the demise of a company is driven by internal factors — such as weak financial oversight, lack of management consensus or one-person rule.

External factors typically contribute, as well. These may include disruptive competitors; local, national or global economic changes; or a more restrictive regulatory environment.

But just because bad things happen doesn’t mean they have to happen to your company. To prepare for the worst, identify a business turnaround strategy that you can implement if a severe decline suddenly becomes imminent.

Warning signs

When a company is drifting toward serious trouble, there are usually warning signs. Examples include:

  • Serious deterioration in the accuracy or usage of financial measurements,
  • Poor results of key performance indicators — including working capital to assets, sales and retained earnings to assets, and book value to debt
  • Adverse trends, such as lower margins, market share or working capital,
  • Rapid increase in debt and employee turnover, and
  • Drastic reduction in assessed business value.

Not every predicament that arises will threaten the very existence of your business. But when missteps and misfortune build up, the only thing that may save the company is a well-planned turnaround strategy.

Five stages of a turnaround

No two turnarounds are exactly alike, but they generally occur in five basic stages:

  1. Rapid assessment of the decline by external advisors,
  2. Re-evaluation of management and staffing,
  3. Emergency intervention to stabilize the business,
  4. Operational restoration to pursue or achieve profitability, and
  5. Full recovery and growth.

Each of these stages calls for a detailed action plan. Identify the advisors or even a dedicated turnaround consultant who can help you assess the damage and execute immediate moves. Prepare for the possibility that you’ll need to replace some managers and even lay off staff to reduce employment costs.

In the emergency intervention stage, a business does whatever is necessary to survive — including consolidating debt, closing locations and selling off assets. Next, restoring operations and pursuing profitability usually means scaling back to only those business segments that have achieved, or can achieve, decent gross margins.

Last, you’ll need to establish a baseline of profitability that equates to full recovery. From there, you can choose reasonable growth strategies that will move the company forward without leading it over another cliff.

In case of emergency

If your business is doing fine, there’s no need to create a minutely detailed turnaround plan. But, as part of your strategic planning efforts, it’s still a good idea to outline a general turnaround strategy to keep on hand in case of emergency. Our firm can help you devise either strategy. We can also assist you in generating financial statements and monitoring key performance indicators that help enable you to avoid crises altogether.

An Implementation Plan Is Key to Making Strategic Goals a Reality

In the broadest sense, strategic planning comprises two primary tasks: establishing goals and achieving them. Many business owners would probably say the first part, coming up with objectives, is relatively easy. It’s that second part — accomplishing those goals — that can really challenge a company. The key to turning your strategic objectives into a reality is a solid implementation plan.

After clearly identifying short- and long-range goals under a viable strategic planning process, you need to establish a formal plan for carrying it out. The most important aspect of this plan is getting the right people involved.

Start with people

After clearly identifying short- and long-range goals under a viable strategic planning process, you need to establish a formal plan for carrying it out. The most important aspect of this plan is getting the right people involved.

First, appoint an implementation leader and give him or her the authority, responsibility and accountability to communicate and champion your stated objectives. (If yours is a smaller business, you could oversee implementation yourself.)

Next, establish teams of carefully selected employees with specific duties and timelines under which to complete goal-related projects. Choose employees with the experience, will and energy to implement the plan. These teams should deliver regular progress reports to you and the implementation leader.

Watch out for roadblocks

On the surface, these steps may seem logical and foolproof. But let’s delve into what could go wrong with such a clearly defined process.

One typical problem arises when an implementation team is composed of employees wholly or largely from one department. Often, they’ll (inadvertently or intentionally) execute an objective in such a way that mostly benefits their department but ultimately hinders the company from meeting the intended goal.

To avoid this, create teams with a diversity of employees from across various departments. For example, an objective related to expanding your company’s customer base will naturally need to include members of the sales and marketing departments. But also invite administrative, production and IT staff to ensure the team’s actions are operationally practical and sustainable.

Another common roadblock is running into money problems. Ensure your implementation plan is feasible based on your company’s budget, revenue projections, and local and national economic forecasts. Ask teams to include expense reports and financial projections in their regular reports. If you determine that you can’t (or shouldn’t) implement the plan as written, don’t hesitate to revise or eliminate some goals.

Succeed at the important part

Strategic planning may seem to be “all about the ideas,” but implementing the specific goals related to your strategic plan is really the most important part of the process. Of course, it’s also the most difficult and most affected by outside forces. We can help you assess the financial feasibility of your objectives and design an implementation plan with the highest odds of success.

Using Knowledge Management to Develop Your Succession Plan

As the old saying goes, “Knowledge is power.” This certainly rings true in business, as those who best understand their industries and markets tend to have a knack for staying on top. If that person is a company’s owner, however, great knowledge can turn into a vulnerability when he or she decides to retire or otherwise leave the business.

As you develop your succession plan, consider how to mitigate the loss of pure know-how that will occur when you step down. One way to tackle this risk is to implement a knowledge management strategy.

Two types of knowledge

Knowledge management is a formal process of recognizing and treating knowledge as an asset that your company can identify, maintain and share. Generally, a business can subdivide knowledge into two types:

  1. Explicit knowledge. This exists in the tangible world and typically includes company reports, financial statements and databases. These items are usually easy to access, extrapolate from and append. For your succession plan, however, you may need to dig deeper into your own confidential files, memos or e-mails.
  2. Tacit knowledge. This is information that resides solely between the ears of a business’s leadership, employees and perhaps even service providers. As such, it’s not easily retrievable. In terms of succession planning, this may be the stuff that you haven’t written down or even talked about much.

Typical categories

Typical knowledge management categories include:

• Taxes and accounting,
• Financial management,
• Strategic planning,
• HR, payroll and employment practices,
• Sales and marketing,
• Customers,
• Production, and
• Technolog

In addition, knowledge management should account for your company’s intellectual property — trade secrets, for example. Many business owners keep such details close to their vests and even managers may not know the full value of the company’s intellectual property. This could put your business at risk following your departure.

A comprehensive knowledge management effort related to your succession plan will call on you to undertake a full inventory of every category listed above and perhaps others. Gathering your explicit knowledge may entail compiling years’, even decades’, worth of documents, files and writings. This may not be an easy task, but it’s still a matter of straight research.

You’ll likely find capturing your tacit knowledge somewhat more challenging. One idea is to ask a suitable employee or engage an outside consultant to interview you regarding all the pertinent categories. Many business owners find these conversations arduous at first but eventually enlightening and enjoyable.

A legacy preserved

A solid succession plan is imperative to maintaining the future stability and success of your company. Knowledge management can strengthen that plan and help preserve the legacy you’ve worked so hard to build. Contact us for further information and for help identifying knowledge related to your tax filings, accounting methods and other financial matters.

Is Your Business Stuck in the Mud with Its Marketing Plan?

A good marketing plan should be like a network of well-paved, clearly marked roads shooting out into the world and leading back to your company. But all too easily, a business can get stuck in the mud while trying to build these thoroughfares, leaving its marketing message ineffective and, well, muddled. Here are a few indications that you might be spinning your wheels.

Still the same

If you’ve been using the same marketing materials for years, it’s probably time for an update. Customers’ demographics, perspectives and expectations change over time. If your materials appear old and outdated, your products or services may seem that way too.

Check out the marketing and advertising of competitors, as well as perhaps a few companies that you admire. What about their efforts grabs you? Discuss it with your team and come up with a strategy for refreshing your look. You might need to do something as drastic as a total rebranding, or a few relatively minor tweaks might be sufficient.

Too much reliance on one approach

While a marketing plan should take many avenues, sometimes when a business finds success via a certain route, it gets overly reliant on that one approach. Think of a company that has advertised in its local phone book for years and doesn’t notice when a competitor starts pulling in customers via social media.

This is where data becomes key. Use metrics to track response rates to your various initiatives and regularly reassess the balance of your marketing approach. Unlike the business in our example, many companies today become too focused on social media and ignore other options. So, watch out for that.

Ask yourself whether your various marketing efforts complement — or conflict with — one another. For example, is it obvious that an online ad and a print brochure came from the same business? Are you communicating a consistent, easy-to-remember message to customers and prospects throughout your messaging?

In addition, be careful about tone and taking unnecessary risks — particularly when using social media. It’s a difficult challenge: You want to get noticed, and sometimes that means pushing the envelope, but you don’t want to end up being offensive. Generally, you shouldn’t run the risk of alienating customers with controversial material. If you do come up with an edgy idea that you believe will likely pay off, gather plenty of feedback from objective parties before launching.

Reconstruction work

A marketing plan going nowhere will likely leave your sales team lost and your bottom line suffering. Maybe it’s time to do some reconstruction work on yours. Contact us for more information and further suggestions.

Family Businesses Need Succession Plans, Too

Those who run family-owned businesses often underestimate the need for a succession plan. After all, they say, we’re a family business — there will always be a family member here to keep the company going and no one will stand in the way.

Not necessarily. In one all-too-common scenario, two of the owner’s children inherit the business and, while one wants to keep the business in the family, the other is eager to sell. Such conflicts can erupt into open combat between heirs and even destroy the company. So, it’s important for you, as a family business owner, to create a formal succession plan — and to communicate it well before it’s needed.

Talk it out

A good succession plan addresses the death, incapacity or retirement of an owner. It answers questions now about future ownership and any potential sale so that successors don’t have to scramble during what can be an emotionally traumatic time.

The key to making any plan work is to clearly communicate it with all stakeholders. Allow your children to voice their intentions. If there’s an obvious difference between siblings, resolving that conflict needs to be central to your succession plan.

Balancing interests

Perhaps the simplest option, if you have sufficient assets outside your business, is to leave your business only to those heirs who want to be actively involved in running it. You can leave assets such as investment securities, real estate or insurance policies to your other heirs.

Another option is for the heirs who’d like to run the business to buy out the other heirs. But they’ll need capital to do that. You might buy an insurance policy with proceeds that will be paid to the successor on your death. Or, as you near retirement, it may be possible to arrange buyout financing with your company’s current lenders.

If those solutions aren’t viable, hammer out a temporary compromise between your heirs. In a scenario where they are split about selling, the heirs who want to sell might compromise by agreeing to hold off for a specified period. That would give the other heirs time to amass capital to buy their relatives out or find a new co-owner, such as a private equity investor.

Family comes first

For a family-owned business, family should indeed come first. To ensure that your children or other relatives won’t squabble over the company after your death, make a succession plan that will accommodate all your heirs’ wishes. We can provide assistance, including helping you divide your assets fairly and anticipating the applicable income tax and estate tax issues.

Does Prepaying Property Taxes Make Sense Anymore?

Prepaying property taxes related to the current year but due the following year has long been one of the most popular and effective year-end tax-planning strategies. But does it still make sense in 2018?

The answer, for some people, is yes — accelerating this expense will increase their itemized deductions, reducing their tax bills. But for many, particularly those in high-tax states, changes made by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) eliminate the benefits.

What’s changed?

The TCJA made two changes that affect the viability of this strategy. First, it nearly doubled the standard deduction to $24,000 for married couples filing jointly, $18,000 for heads of household, and $12,000 for singles and married couples filing separately, so fewer taxpayers will itemize. Second, it placed a $10,000 cap on state and local tax (SALT) deductions, including property taxes plus income or sales taxes.

For property tax prepayment to make sense, two things must happen:

  1. You must itemize (that is, your itemized deductions must exceed the standard deduction), and
  2. Your other SALT expenses for the year must be less than $10,000.

If you don’t itemize, or you’ve already used up your $10,000 limit (on income or sales taxes or on previous property tax installments), accelerating your next property tax installment will provide no benefit.

Example

Joe and Mary, a married couple filing jointly, have incurred $5,000 in state income taxes, $5,000 in property taxes, $18,000 in qualified mortgage interest, and $4,000 in charitable donations, for itemized deductions totaling $32,000. Their next installment of 2018 property taxes, $5,000, is due in the spring of 2019. They’ve already reached the $10,000 SALT limit, so prepaying property taxes won’t reduce their tax bill.

Now suppose they live in a state with no income tax. In that case, prepayment would potentially make sense because it would be within the SALT limit and would increase their 2018 itemized deductions.

Look before you leap

Before you prepay property taxes, review your situation carefully to be sure it will provide a tax benefit. And keep in mind that, just because prepayment will increase your 2018 itemized deductions, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the best strategy. For example, if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in 2019, paying property taxes when due will likely produce a greater benefit over the two-year period.

For help determining whether prepaying property taxes makes sense for you this year, contact us. We can also suggest other year-end tips for reducing your taxes.

Catch-up Retirement Plan Contributions Can Be Particularly Advantageous Post-TCJA

Will you be age 50 or older on December 31? Are you still working? Are you already contributing to your 401(k) plan or Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE) up to the regular annual limit? Then you may want to make “catch-up” contributions by the end of the year. Increasing your retirement plan contributions can be particularly advantageous if your itemized deductions for 2018 will be smaller than in the past because of changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).

Catching up

Catch-up contributions are additional contributions beyond the regular annual limits that can be made to certain retirement accounts. They were designed to help taxpayers who didn’t save much for retirement earlier in their careers to “catch up.” But there’s no rule that limits catch-up contributions to such taxpayers.

So catch-up contributions can be a great option for anyone who is old enough to be eligible, has been maxing out their regular contribution limit and has sufficient earned income to contribute more. The contributions are generally pretax (except in the case of Roth accounts), so they can reduce your taxable income for the year.

More benefits now?

This additional reduction to taxable income might be especially beneficial in 2018 if in the past you had significant itemized deductions that now will be reduced or eliminated by the TCJA. For example, the TCJA eliminates miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% of adjusted gross income floor — such as unreimbursed employee expenses (including home-off expenses) and certain professional and investment fees.

If, say, in 2018 you have $5,000 of expenses that in the past would have qualified as miscellaneous itemized deductions, an additional $5,000 catch-up contribution can make up for the loss of those deductions. Plus, you benefit from adding to your retirement nest egg and potential tax-deferred growth.

Other deductions that are reduced or eliminated include state and local taxes, mortgage and home equity interest expenses, casualty and theft losses, and moving expenses. If these changes affect you, catch-up contributions can help make up for your reduced deductions.

2018 contribution limits

Under 2018 401(k) limits, if you’re age 50 or older and you have reached the $18,500 maximum limit for all employees, you can contribute an extra $6,000, for a total of $24,500. If your employer offers a SIMPLE instead, your regular contribution maxes out at $12,500 in 2018. If you’re 50 or older, you’re allowed to contribute an additional $3,000 — or $15,500 in total for the year.

But, check with your employer because, while most 401(k) plans and SIMPLEs offer catch-up contributions, not all do. Also keep in mind that additional rules and limits apply.

Additional options

Catch-up contributions are also available for IRAs, but the deadline for 2018 contributions is later: April 15, 2019. And whether your traditional IRA contributions will be deductible depends on your income and whether you or your spouse participates in an employer-sponsored retirement plan. Please contact us for more information about catch-up contributions and other year-end tax planning strategies.