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Bloomberg writes that the Dresher, Pa.-based recordkeeper roll-up seeks a buyer; no matter, Ascensus continues to hire, bringing aboard Todd Engman as its latest regional vice president for 401(k) sales in the Northern Regions.
October 9, 2018 — 7:22 PM UTC by Oisin Breen
Brooke's Note: If you are owned by private equity investors, you are pretty much for sale. And forget about the old seven- or eight-year cycle. In a hot market like financial advice, tweak, revalue and run is a good strategy. So Ascensus is reportedly for sale but it's certainly not because management grew disinterested. The TPA roll-up and white-label recordkeeper of 401(k) plan simply never stops buying assets and talent. It hardly sounds sexy when you are talking about vacuuming up business units called third party administrators. But client acquisition is sexy and only comes with hustle. Recordkeepers are a prize -- ask Fidelity -- because they are snowballing, steady-inflow buckets of assets. But they hold extra allure as the front door to millennials who have the rest of their assets nowhere. Don't expect the pace to slacken and it may include a sale to an investor that wants to grow even more aggressively.
Uncertainty about Ascensus's future ownership is rising but its torrid M&A activity and hiring spree show no signs of slowing. Todd Engman is the latest to joins the Dresher, Pa.-based record-keeper, but he does so as Ascensus's private equity backers look set to flip the firm after just three years, according to Bloomberg reports.
Genstar and Aquiline purchased Ascensus from J.C. Flowers & Co. in 2015 based on what was a $750-million valuation.
Indeed, according to PEHub sources, the auction has already begun, advised by Barclays and JP Morgan. Fresh private-equity backers are also understood to be leading the bidding process, which may be heading to a third round.
Nevertheless, the firm just keeps on hiring, as well as rolling up small third-party administrators (TPA). It's made seven new executive hires and six new acquisitions in the past six months.
Ascensus, founded in 1980, started its M&A assault on the TPA market at the end of 2016. In the last 20 months, it's snapped up 21 firms, including 401(k) TPAs, health and benefits TPAs and IRA custodians and administrators. It is a cash cow, raking in $150 million in annual EBITDA, Bloomberg reported.
The grab for TPA consolidation comes as the 401(k) industry begins to hit critical mass and snowball, getting millennials into an investment account.
It also comes at a time of growing optimism that such a spaghetti of old software could be woven into a fine mesh. It's a category of fragmented businesses without a consolidator, making it a "blue ocean" by roll-up standards.
Engman joins the Dresher, Pa.-based record-keeper as a regional vice president for retirement sales in the northern region, which covers Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
His hire on Sept. 14 is the latest of move. It compares with Ascensus's bold August move to risk the wrath of its largest customer, Vanguard, by poaching Scott Lind. In something of a power-play, Ascensus boasted when it hired Lind that Vanguard would benefit more from his employment at Ascensus than it did when he worked for them.
This was despite the fact that Lind was integral to the roll-out of Vanguard's famously successful robo-advisor in 2015. At Ascensus, he'll head up user experience and digital strategy for retail.
Ascensus also appointed ex-Sage Advisory Services managing director Jerry Bramlett as head of TPA solutions in April followed in June by 18-year FINRA veteran Robert Kaplan as chief compliance officer. Two new regional vice presidents for its retirement plan sales team, also were hired in June. See: Ascensus just keeps on hiring -- an ex-FINRA pick for CCO and two more regional vice presidents.
Just prior to hiring Engman, on Sept. 10, Ascensus also promoted Barb Yearout to president of Chard Snyder, the employee benefits TPA that it acquired in April. After three years at the firm, Yearout will take the reins at the end of September, as founders Joy Snyder and Ken Chard step down.
A spokeswoman declined to comment whether its recent flurry of hires, or its continuing acquisitions were part of a strategy to prepare the firm for an early sale by Genstar and Acquiline.
People talk, she says. "We are not surprised, based on our growth and success, that there has been industry chatter, but we can’t comment on speculation."
The firm remains equally coy about whether it plans further hires in the Northern Region or elsewhere.
Ascensus is the largest independent service provider of retirement and college savings plans in the US, a sizeable TPA, and it provides white-labeled retirement software to firms including Vanguard and RIA heavyweight Fisher Investments in Camas, Wash.
Hired by plan sponsors, TPAs like Ascensus don't manage assets, but handle the painstaking day-to-day details of running 401(k) plans, including preparing and editing plan documents, making distributions and making sure plan sponsors don't run afoul of ERISA and the IRS.
Ascensus' products and services support more than 60,000 retirement plans, over 4 million 529 education savings accounts, 1.6 million IRAs and health savings accounts and the firm has $187 billion in assets under its administration.
The search ends
Although Engman's appointment is perhaps less high-profile than some other recent Ascensus hires, it, nevertheless, brings to a close a nationwide search for an candidate to be based in the northern region.
What made him stand out was a combination of his experience, his strategic know-how, and how well he communicates, says Jason Crane, head of retirement sales at Ascensus
That said, his appointment shouldn't suggest any new direction; it's another steady-hand at the tiller appointment. “Todd’s hire does not indicate a change of strategy in the region,” he explains.
As for what Engman expects will stand him in good stead, it's the tried and true basics of sales, as well as the experience he's gained over a ten year 401(k) career, he says.
Prior to joining Ascensus, Engman spent four years and 11 months at Radnor, Penn.-based Lincoln Financial Group, an insurer and investment management firm, where he was a 401(k) sales director for the northern region in its Minneapolis office.
He also spent two years at Ameriprise Financial Services building out marketing, strategy and training for 401(k) sales; as well as six years in the Madison, WI. office of the Chicago subsidiary of the London-based accounting and advisory firm Baker Tilly. He worked there initially as a 401(k) investment advisor and later as its director of client development.
Engman, who has a BA in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, continues to be based in Minneapolis. In 2017, he was named one of NAPA's Top 100 DC industry wholesalers. In his new position, he reports directly to Anthony Bologna, vice president of retirement sales at Ascensus.
Since RIABiz' last major coverage of Ascensus, it has continued to pursue a private-equity supported roll-up shopping spree. In the last six months, it has snapped up a further six TPAs, including, most recently, the Roseville, Calif.-based firm PenSys. See: Vanguard's 401(k) recordkeeper, Ascensus, gets set to roll up a world of third party administrators to create a small plan superpower.
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