Elevate your game: Structure

Build and grow a world-class retirement plan practice

People are the essential ingredient of every defined contribution retirement practice. What makes your firm go and grow are the harmonious talents of hard-working individuals. But building a high-performing team requires special skills and knowledge. 

It’s a critically important topic because the way you design and build your team is a factor in how fast and how effective your practice can grow.

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How retirement practices actually look

We divided the practices we studied into four groups by assets under advisement (AUA) and found that changes in size accompany other changes. Here are the patterns:
Source: 2017 Ann Schleck & Co. Practice Management Survey  (265 practices) * We calculated caseloads by dividing the average number of retirement clients by team size, resulting in a number of plans to team member. This metric doesn’t account for scenarios where multiple team members support each client

How retirement practices work

Retirement plan practices are like sports teams: they have multiple positions with different functions of varying importance. They’re also like armies: they can be small or big, and they grow by adding non-leadership positions. But mostly, retirement practices are like small or mid-size white-collar offices anywhere, in any discipline, with one exception: their work is highly specialized, so the principals and many of the workers have knowledge and skills focused solely on helping people save for retirement.

Primary positions


Leads the practice and is accountable for managing and growing the business.

Financial advisor/relationship manager (FA/RM)

Primary client contact responsible for delivering consulting services to plan sponsors. The FA/RM usually has sales responsibilities.

Investment specialist

Designs optimal fund menus, monitors investment performance, and creates reports that help clients meet fiduciary responsibilities.

Participant education specialist

Works directly with participants to help them make good retirement savings and investment choices, and increase the likelihood they’ll have enough money to retire.

Office administrator

HR, bookkeeping, IT software and support, purchasing and finance, and other back office functions not specific to a retirement practice.


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Retirement team composition by practice size:

Different retirement practices and their benefits

There are four primary models of practice structure, and scores of ways to mix and match them.  See which of the four best meets your needs, then customize as you see fit.
  • Book of business
  • Functional
  • Hub and spoke
  • Shared service retirement and wealth management
Each advisor owns a book of business. A team of generalists is responsible for delivering most services to the clients in it. Teams are occasionally segmented by size, and some resources may be pooled.
  • Easy to scale
  • Encourages teamwork
  • Flattens bureaucracy and hierarchy
  • Encourages originality and innovation


  • Creates silos and duplicate roles
  • Allows inconsistent processes across teams
  • Creates loyalty to the team, not the firm
  • Discourages the development  of expertise
The practice is organized by function and each specialist supports the entire book of business.


  • Promotes consistent processes
  • Provides specialized expertise for clients
  • Discourages silos
  • Reduces redundancies
  • Promotes profitability


  • Difficult to scale
  • Difficult to segment clients
  • Limits career advancement and therefore harms retention
  • Promotes hierarchical  decision making
A centralized home office supports scalable services, while field offices handle sales and client relationships.


  • Highly efficient
  • Highly scalable
  • Suitable for national practice and therefore provides a geographic growth plan
  • Promotes flexible, independent client management


  • Defaults to pre-packaged solutions from centralized services
  • Discourages customization
  • Makes it difficult to control field staff
  • Field office teamwork replaces practice-wide teamwork
The practice delivers comprehensive services to both retirement clients and wealth management clients, keeping the practice areas separate but sharing a central pool of support services.


  • Promotes consistent processes
  • Manages risk by diversifying income and clients
  • Reduces redundancies
  • Facilitates cross-selling of executive level clients
  • Facilitates growth


  • May require additional staff
  • Clients work with multiple practitioners
  • Difficult to scale client-facing staff
  • Promotes hierarchical decision making

Key takeaways

What’s the optimal way to organize a retirement practice?

1.  Your business goals should determine your practice structure because some structures are better than others at accomplishing specific goals. 
2.  There are four basic models of practice structure, each with its own strengths and weaknesses that should align with your business goals.
3.  Specialists don’t have to be homegrown; many practices, for example, engage outside ERISA specialists on retainer.
4.  Many professionals on a team do a variety of roles; hybrid roles are the norm, not the exception.
5.  Think ahead; many practices scout for talent throughout the year.

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The subject matter in this communication is educational only and provided with the understanding that Principal® is not rendering legal, accounting, investment advice or tax advice. You should consult with appropriate counsel or other advisors on all matters pertaining to legal, tax, investment or accounting obligations and requirements.

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