Interview with Phil Eckman: President & CEO of Transamerica Retirement Management Cites Lack of Insurance Industry Progress Despite Years of Intense Product Focus; Calls for New Communications Strategies
Back in April when readership of this magazine was much less than it is today, I published this interview with Transamerica’s Phil Eckman. Because many may have missed the opportunity to gain from Eckman’s vision and insights, I thought I’d share it with you today:
In this wide-ranging interview, Phil Eckman, CEO of Transamerica Retirement Management, talks about Transamerica’s view concerning the importance of the Boomer retirement income business as evidenced by the company’s decision to create an entirely new business unit. Eckman also addresses the challenges arising out of the inherently greater degree of complexity of insurance products, and stresses the need to develop superior, consumer-facing communications strategies in order to overcome that complexity.
Macchia – Phil, let me begin by asking you about your work. Please begin by telling us your title, your role and your responsibilities.
Eckman - My title is President and CEO of Transamerica Retirement Management, which is a new business unit that we’ve created within the AEGON USA/Transamerica Companies. My responsibilities center around building a new business unit that is solely focused on the unique needs of the boomers as they move into this transition called retirement. We’re leveraging what we have to offer from our various companies across AEGON/Transamerica family to help with these unique issues that folks are facing.
Macchia - Okay. I understand. Now, the progression of developing a retirement income solution at a large company can sometimes, if not often times, get bogged down with conflict among silos. Sort of the belief system that it’s my solution…no it’s my solution…no it’s my solution. Is what you’re doing at Transamerica an effort to cross silos in an effort of incorporate the best of all silos?
Eckman - Exactly. I believe that while it may not be an explicit objective, I think implicitly as we build out our group, we will cross silos and take ideas that have been working in one area of the company and have them cross over that line and bring them forward in another part of the company to reach a new consumer base. So absolutely, practically what’s going to happen is we will be taking ideas across silos and exposing them to mew markets that otherwise would not have the opportunity to see them.
Macchia - In terms of Transamerica Retirement Management and how it was developed, what thought process led to the creation of this entirely new business unit?
Eckman - Our CEO of AEGON USA, Pat Baird, about 2 ½ years ago challenged the management team of the organization to look ahead, think forward about this large retirement market that’s going to be coming upon our industry; to think hard about how we as a company can best serve the group, putting aside some of the typical issues around silos and short-term business objectives. A task force was put in place to look into these questions. One of the recommendations was to start a new business unit.
Macchia – And I gather the decision to start a new group implies that the entire retirement income business is deemed to be something of a very high strategic priority for the corporation.
Eckman – Absolutely. It has not been a cultural business strategy within the AEGON group to start new business units like this. We have strong, autonomous growth targets and we have a history of acquisitions, so to start a new group like this was entirely new.
Macchia - Phil, would you describe the introduction of Transamerica Retirement Management as an incremental change to the existing business model, a moderate change to the existing business model, or even, potentially, a large change?
Eckman - I think it’s a potentially large change. If we wanted to take an incremental approach, we would get working groups together, we would have senior management from the different divisions collaborate and then go back to their day jobs.
Macchia – As I observe it, Phil, distribution strategies seem to be evolving along somewhat philosophically- based lines. I often liken this to religions, in the same manner that we have various religions in the world. So, we have religions of distribution planning popping up, such as the religion of systematic withdrawal programs, the religion of laddered strategies, the religion of time-weighted strategies, the religion of lifetime annuitizatioin. Do you buy into this description what’s developing in the marketplace, and if you do- or if you don’t- explain how you see it, and where Transamerica Retirement Management might play in this context.
Eckman – You and I have talked about your description of this sort of religion analogy, and I think it’s a pretty good one. Each manufacturer or advisor is going to have a core philosophy around income management. Just like there are many ways to invest and accumulate assets, there are many ways to convert these assets into income. Some are simple, some are complex. Some are product based, some are planning based. Some offer guaranteed lifetime income, some do not.
We generally believe retirees should build two income streams. The first is guaranteed for life and is made up of Social Security, pensions, and some form of lifetime annuity income. This income stream covers the basic living expenses around food, housing, health care, etc. As retirement may last over 30 years for some couples, they have the piece of mind knowing that these essential expenses are always covered. The second income stream is not necessarily guaranteed and made up of a systematic withdrawal strategy, possible ongoing employment and possible home equity release strategies. This income stream covers the discretionary expenses of travel, entertainment, etc. Of course, the art is working with the customer first to build a plan that meets their unique situation and, second to support them over time to execute and tweak the plan. I guess you could say this is our religion.
Macchia –I did some searching on the internet and read where one of the missions that Transamerica Retirement Management has undertaken is to leverage AEGON’s extensive network of internal and external distribution partners in order to deliver solutions. Is that, in fact, true? And if it is, can you comment or go a little bit deeper into the strategy?
Eckman – Sure. We have to prioritize the opportunities before us as we build this group and march it forward. We’re starting in terms of distribution by connecting with our pension organizations, Diversified Investment Advisors and Transamerica Retirement Services. We are bringing product development, marketing strategies, and an advice platform to these organizations that leverage some of the capabilities across AEGON.
Macchia – I can look back over the period since I came into financial services inn 1977 through the insurance door, and I can remember that the pension business back then was pretty much owned by life insurance companies. Over the course of my career, during the last three decades, we’ve seen life insurers cede away that business to the mutual fund complexes. I wonder if when you look at the distribution opportunity, you see insurers as ready to or potentially able to take back those pension assets, or do you think that there are some fundamental challenges that insurers face that will conspire to hinder their progress in reaching that goal?
Eckman – I think your premise is true. The asset management industry certainly has done a fantastic job serving customer needs within the 401K and general savings space. It’s not surprising because the primary need through the working years is accumulation and investing. But as these investors age and get closer to what we call the third stage of life known as retirement, their priorities and needs change. While investing and accumulation is still important to them, they need to understand the new risks associated with income planning such as longevity and healthcare.
Those sorts of issues obviously play into insurance industry strengths, and our capacity to build solutions to help these folks manage these risks that now have come and moved up the list of priorities as they have moved along in their own life. The insurance industry is in a position to certainly help folks with these important issues.
It’s going to be a lot of work for us, particularly on the marketing side and on the education side. These types of issues, these risk management issues, by their nature are more complicated. So, how can we help people understand the issues and questions? How can we help them make the right choices? Those are going to be the key issues that will determine how the insurance industry, as a whole, and how individual insurance companies will succeed in this opportunity ahead.
Macchia - I think that’s a very insightful observation. You indicated that the very nature of the products that are going to have to be distributed and explained in the future are more complex by definition. Does this make you think that new strategies for communication are going to be in order, and if it does, where does technology play into that? How important do you think technology will be in the coming months and years? How do you see the whole customer communications issue fleshing out in the future?
Eckman – I think it is going to more complicated and it’s going to be challenging. Whether we in the insurance industry are trying to come up with new ideas to help advisors carry the load and get this point across with their customers, or, whether we’re talking to a customer directly. We have to make it clear, transparent and understandable.
Trying to reach people differently, trying to leverage technology to help explain products is definitely an opportunity for the industry. The other point that we haven’t talked about are the compliance issues. With the more complicated suite of products that need to come of the fore, we need to make sure that advisors are able to clearly explain what they need to with their customers. We must have the right tools in place to deliver compliant, clear presentations so that customers fully understand the issues and the options available.
Leveraging technology to help with this challenge is a real opportunity. Video, electronic presentations, those sorts of things, by their nature, can be controlled more effectively.
Macchia – Phil, when I think about the role of consumer-facing technology in the future, one of the issues aside from compliance, and aside from consistency in message- and a myriad of other advantages- when you get down to the very basic question, you realize that there are gigantic numbers of individuals that are going to need to be contacted and provided guidance in the distribution phase of their lives, with a relatively small base of advisors to reach them. Is this something that you at Transamerica Retirement Management have thought about and if it is, what do you foresee as potential strategies that you may use to address this very issue?
Eckman - It is something we’ve thought about and wrestled with. We are like a lot of companies in our position. We have a large advisor community that we distribute through, and they are always looking for help in good, compliant presentation and educational programs that allow them to bring value to their customers.
We’ve got work to do with some sister groups to put that type of tool together in the short and long term. I think that companies like us are going to have to be very successful on that front if we are going to get the time and the attention of the advisor base moving forward. Beyond the advisors there is certainly an opportunity to more effectively reach those individuals that either are not working with an advisor today, or prefer to just do it themselves.
There’s a chunk of the Baby Boomer population that are going to want to do it themselves, and providing more avenues for them via the web and other technological tools so that they can understand, become educated and ultimately make the right decisions for themselves, is going to be an opportunity for the industry, for sure
Macchia – Phil, I’d like to ask you next about products. In our industry there is no end to the talk about new types of products that are being developed, may be debuting in the near future, and may transform the way that products work. It’s stated by many that these new products are going to be very important in meeting Boomer needs.
There is another philosophy that’s sort of out there in parallel that says- and this was reflected to me most recently in an interview that I hadwith Jeremy Alexander- that we’ve got longevity insurance, we’ve got lifetime annuitization, we have products that guarantee principal and simultaneously provide upside potential, we have lifetime annuitization products, and guaranteed withdrawal riders. We have mutual funds, we have equities, we have bonds. In other words, the products are already there. It’s a matter of figuring out how you package them to work synergistically to deliver good long term results for the consumer. I wonder how you feel about this issue.
Eckman – I would agree with it. The product innovation on behalf of the insurance industry is never going to stop, and I don’t know if it will ever slow down. But I think we’ve seen, looking back over the last five years or more, that most of us in the industry are not terribly happy with the results that we’ve had in really driving the growth in all of the income product innovation that’s taking place.
We’re making progress, but in the big picture of things, relative to the mutual funds and other more traditional accumulation focused investment solutions, I don’t think any of us are comfortable with where we’re at. Which then leads you to the question as to yes, products are important, but is it the communication, is it the method or context in which we’re describing them. Do we need to look harder at that?
Macchia – You bring up something that I’ve talked about and written about a great deal. In fact, I’ve said quite publicly that the winners in Boomer retirement are not going to be those companies that necessarily even have the best products, but rather will be those companies that are the best at communicating their value to a large and fluid market place. Does this strike you as true?
Eckman - It does. I’ve heard you say it a couple of times and every time I hear it it rings very true to me. It’s something that is easy to say, harder to do, but the more I think about it the more I realize we must become better communicators.
I think this is coming back to us as feedback from a lot of advisors that we work with in this organization. They want to be more effective in the way that they communicate to their end customer. Let’s not over complicate the product so that we can’t clearly explain its value and ability to solve a customer’s need.
Macchia - When you look forward in the context of your position of heading up this business unit, what do you define as your greatest challenges?
Eckman – I think there’s an inherent education gap that we as an entire industry need to focus on. It’s making a connection between savings and income. In all of the focus groups we’ve done, every consumer understands the notion of a nest egg.
But, when you start asking questions about, “How are they going to put that nest egg to work to replace an income stream or how will they develop an income plan to manage a 30 year retirement?” They have no answer. They have not thought about it. We, I think, have a big job to just close that educational gap and help people to think about income earlier on as they approach this transition so they can start to plan and really understand the issues at stake, and sort of change their way of thinking. They’ve got to begin to think, “Now, I need to move into more of an income management and financial risk management mindset.” That’s a big task.
Secondly, I think it really gets back to your communication point that our products within the insurance industry are going to be more complicated, making it even more critical for us to succeed on the communication front. Finally, we have to understand that to the end consumer, retirement isn’t in their minds primarily a financial event. We come from the financial services industry, so we think of it as a financial event, but they don’t. First and foremost, it’s a life event to them.
We need to understand that reality, and help them with this whole life transition, and help them understand how the financial part of it is certainly an important component, but it doesn’t start with that. When they come to a meeting with an advisor, when they are talking with an advisor on the phone, or when they are going online to a website, they are coming to that meeting or they are coming to that website not wanting to jump right into financial planning, but to just get some general perspective around this life event that’s coming their way. Once this context is laid, it’s easier to weave in the financial aspects of the transition.
Macchia - That’s a very… reality-based take on the issue. Which reminds me of advertising. The advertising that’s been done to date to the Boomer audience has struck me as very odd and, arguably, disingenuous. On the one hand you have all manner of statistics that indicate that the typical Boomer is not well positioned to generate a significant retirement income over a retirement that may last a very long time. Social security is uncertain in terms of what may happen to it in the future, the national savings rate is very low, and typically Boomers have more debt than net assets.
So this is a mixture of facts that doesn’t bode well for mass market retirement security. At the same time, we’ve seen advertising that consistently describes retirement as a time to enjoy all of the exotic activities that you’ve never been able to previously enjoy; that retirement is the time to learn to snowboard, for instance, or parachute, or take an around-the-world cruise. I’m wondering if you feel that financial services companies, thus far, have been real and candid? If you feel that the current trend in advertising is misguided? I’m wondering how Transamerica Retirement Management will view the issue in terms of its own advertising?
Eckman - Within our organization we have made it a point to be realistic with all of the content and images we use in our literature and on our website.
It’s possible to be both realistic and optimistic. From a planning standpoint, our group is committed to helping the middle market/mass affluent retiree understand how Social Security, possibly a pension, supplemented by some other form of ongoing lifetime income, and, realistically for a lot of people, some sort of ongoing employment on their terms, can all work together to form a sound income plan.
Let’s face it; the typical picture of the couple on the yacht or in front of the second home on the beach is not realistic for a lot of people. Nonetheless, these folks have the potential, if they do the right kind of planning up front, to have an incredibly fulfilling and financially secure retirement, which is what it’s really all about.
Macchia - Phil, I’d like to ask you three questions that are entirely personal in nature. I’m going to, starting with this interview, include these questions in every interview going forward. The first one is this: if I could somehow convey to you a magic wand, and by sweeping this magic wand you could instantly institute any change that you want to see occur in this industry, what are the first two changes you would make?
Eckman – that’s a tough one. So any two changes within the industry…
Macchia - Anything, this is virtually the power of God I’m describing.
Eckman - Other than tripling everyone’s investible assets to put towards retirement, I presume that’s off the table!
I think number one….I just think a general increase in awareness of the issues and risks- and I don’t mean risks in that scary, negative sense- but just an awareness of the issues that people need to be thinking about when it comes to retirement.
If we can wave the wand and implant that knowledge in peoples’ minds, I think that obviously would be an enormous benefit for all of us.
Secondly, I think there are a lot of things, clarifications that need to be addressed from a regulation standpoint between the groups that govern equity products, insurance products and pension products. There’s a lot of confusion and red tape that needs to be resolved, that slow us down from putting the right kind of education and solutions and guidance in place to help people. So, if I could wave the wand and clarify a lot of issues and get some consistency across all of these different regulatory organizations that govern the various parts of our business, I think that would ultimately be a big help to the end consumer.
Macchia - Good answer. Next question: If you were not CEO of Transamerica Retirement Management but you could have any job at all, in any other industry, doing anything you wished, what would it be?
Eckman – I think that I look back at my career and experiences, some of the most rewarding work I’ve done involves working individually with people on their own issues. Honestly, if I could actually get into the chair of the advisor and truly help individual retirees successfully plan and make this transition into retirement, I think that would be incredibly rewarding.
Macchia - Lastly, I would like you to imagine your own retirement in its most conceivably perfect form, where perfection is anything you want it to be. Tell me what you’d be doing.
Eckman – I think I would be engaged with my kids’ and grandkids’ growth and lives, hopefully in a very active way. I would be enjoying, certainly, time with my wife doing the things we like to do together. I think I would also be engaged in some kind of ongoing professional endeavor or volunteer work.
Macchia - Sounds like a pretty nice vision. I want to thank you for your time and for your answers. I’ve enjoyed it.
Eckman – I have too, David. Thank you.
©Copyright 2007 David A. Macchia. All rights reserved.