Why Due Diligence Is Essential to Your Executive Benefits Plan
Credit unions charge board members with making decisions that are best for the membership and retain top management. One of the incentives they use is providing executive benefits and compensation packages that supplement an executive’s salary or bonuses. A common benefit is a split-dollar collateral assignment, a legal agreement between the credit union and executive that incorporates retirement distributions with life insurance coverage. On C.U. on the Show, Doug welcomes Michael Blank, executive vice president at the Sheeter Group. Michael has more than 20 years of experience offering guidance to financial services boards and executives in designing and implementing a successful supplemental benefits package, particularly with tools such as a split-dollar plan. In the episode, Michael offers valuable insight into why thorough and ongoing education and due diligence in your executive benefits package is essential to its success as a retention tool.
Executive benefits are complex, so Michael explains it’s critical to understand every aspect of a plan and its primary purpose before diving into one. In addition to board and executive education, Michael walks Doug through the process his team follows and offers practical tips, including:
- The importance of documenting your plan selection and implementation process using a board checklist
- How to analyze and compare multiple carriers; their experience with credit unions; and how their service model will support industry changes and market fluctuations,
- Why you should conduct an annual review with your benefits consultant
Michael encourages credit union boards and executives to be their own advocates when it comes to plan selection and education. Doing your research, asking the right questions, and having a thorough understanding of the complexities of your plan can help you support your management team, prepare for regulators, and be equipped for the unexpected.
Stream the full episode to hear more insights, including:
- The risks and rewards of using a split-dollar collateral assignment plan
- Why a credit union board should choose a plan based on factors other than just cost
- How to prepare for when an executive is planning to retire
Audio Transcription (pulled from the podcast)
Hello credit union executives. Welcome to C.U. on the Show, where we give you up-to-date information on how you can reduce risk, keep key talent, and take a strategic approach to your personal financial wellness. Hosted by me, Doug English, a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ and former credit union insider with Act Advisors.
My guest today is Michael Blank, executive vice president of the Sheeter Group. Michael has over 20 years of insurance and financial services experience and specializes in non-qualified deferred compensation and succession planning specifically for credit unions.
In this episode, we talk about the process of getting executive benefits, the importance of due diligence, and the risks and rewards of the collateral assignment split-dollar program. So, Michael, tell me about how you got started working with credit unions and the credit union movement.
Well, I got out of college and went directly into working in the community bank industry, doing executive benefits. I worked there through about 2006 and joined a firm that specialized and moved all their business to credit unions. And so we adapted to the non-tax market and we essentially sold all our bank business and focused strictly on credit unions. And we’ve been working with credit unions and I’ve made some changes since then. And so it’s been about 20 years of service with executive benefits, 15 of those specifically with credit unions.
So it’s something that is for me, it works well with how we do business. The credit union movement itself is members and not clients and doing what’s right for the industry and the credit union movement, their goals correlate to our goals at the Sheeter Group. So it’s a great niche to be in, great people to work with. And I enjoy going to work every day with them.
It is a movement, not just a means of everyone earning a living right there. There’s a lot more to what’s going on in credit, correct. It’s a different type of people that work with credit unions.
You can tell. And I noticed that going from banks to credit unions, and what’s nice about it is they truly are trying to help members out. And it speaks a lot to them and those are the people I enjoy working with.
Wonderful. All right. So let’s pretend we’ve got a couple of situations. Let’s talk to a listener that is a credit union executive, or perhaps a board member that’s considering adding executive benefits to their credit union, a suite of benefits. So let’s kind of talk about the process of, if you get into executive benefits, what kind of ongoing obligation are you going to have as an institution? So let’s first talk about that. And the other thing I’d like to hear for our listeners is if you are already in an executive benefit program, what are the things to watch out for from your service provider, from your annual requirements? I know that’s a lot, but let’s start out with the first question. I’m someone considering getting an executive benefits program. What am I getting into for ongoing requirements?
It’s a great question. And one that I really focus on a lot when I look at doing plans. And so what I try to do is explain to the board, even if it’s a HR executive, such as the CEO asking me the same type of question, is what should we be doing when we implement one of these types of structures. First and foremost, I think you gotta make sure you’re doing your due diligence. There’s a lot, when you say due diligence, there’s third-party vendor qualifications you need to evaluate, there’s products, there’s plan design. And there’s also just looking at the overall risks and returns of doing a plan. And I’ll start off by saying this is a complex structure. It’s something that you can’t get done in one or two meetings. My belief is you should educate yourselves on the risks.
And also when I say risks, the pros and cons of the plan. So there’s a lot of reasons why credit unions do these plans. And mainly they’re good as a retention tool for their management team to stay in place and with anything you do, there’s always some type of risk associated with it. And so just understanding, and I think that’s what regulators have been harping on more, is just understanding the risks and making sure you’re just not diving into it. You’re hearing all the good things about it. You sign up for these plans and then it hits you a few years down the road. It’s like, hey, I didn’t realize this was going to happen, or this could happen. And so the most important thing that I think is to come up with a structure of a request for a proposal or an outline of what you’re needing. We’ve helped clients and prospects put something together like this, saying here are the things that we need to evaluate when we put these plans in place.
One of those, you know, is vendor selection and NCUA is nothing new; they want to make sure that you’re doing proper third-party administration and vendor selection for any type of business that the credit union gets put in place. And it shouldn’t be different for executive benefits. So when we talk about third-party evaluations, what does that look like? Who are you working with? What’s their service model? How long have they been doing it with credit unions? And are they outsourcing some of the servicing? Are they in it just as insurance salespeople, or are they benefit consultants? There’s all these different questions that we see in our industry. And I think just getting to know your vendors, one of the more important aspects of doing that, getting a comfort level of working with them and making sure you evaluate their references.
One of the big things I’m noticing is you have companies hiring new consultants. And what they’ll do is they’ll base their references on plans they sold 20 years ago by the former owner. Doesn’t make that new consultant any more educated on what’s out there and what they’re telling them, but they’re referencing a lot of that. So, you know, ask for references. A little tip is ask for references specifically to that consultant and who they’ve worked with, how many cases have they maybe personally put in place and how many cases did they lose and lost any clients? So there there’s aspects of that I think are important when you’re talking about vendor due diligence. The second item is just education for the board and making sure they understand these plans. I think the biggest thing that we’ve seen is the NCUA came out in 2017 with some updated examination guidance.
And the big thing that is from that takeaway is maybe you don’t need to listen to your consultant a hundred percent of the time; you need to do your own homework. And what I mean by you, I mean the board. And so making sure that what the consultant is telling you and going over that, you’re also keeping in mind that you’re doing your own education and your own analysis of maybe the companies they’re using, their structures and their risks. So what I like to use with my clients is that I’m going to go through everything, but I’m going to give you some homework assignments that you need to do on your own. And it’s important because you need to illustrate and document for your next regulator, when they come in, to show that you understand these packages, you understand the risks and rewards and like why we’re doing it. And you can be able to explain the rationale why we put one of these plans in place.
All right, great, Michael. So what I’m hearing is a need to document your initial evaluation of vendors of the insurance companies they’re working with, of the process that you used, and that you understand what you’re getting into. Once you’ve done that, and you fund a plan, what in year 2, 5, 10 20, what are your ongoing requirements like?
Yeah. It almost goes back to the original conversation I was talking about when it comes to vendor due diligence, talking about their service model. That is something I would highlight very highly when I’m looking at companies and consultants. So when it is in regards to these types of structures, what specifically is your service model, and give me an outline of how that’s gonna work for years to five, 10, like you just talked about.
The big thing I see is that these plans are a lot of front-end loaded when it comes to commission. And so when you see the service models, they’re not as important to a typical salesperson, but with someone who actually cares about the industry and cares about the business, it is important to them. And so what we always structure at the Sheeter Group is we put a plan in place, but we always promise that we’re going to be there to service the plan and make sure that we’re there to answer questions for years to five, 10, like you said; down the road, there are a lot of things that change. When I put in a plan for someone who’s say 45 years old, I’m pretty upfront and honest and say, this plan is probably going to change in 10 years from now. Okay. There’s so many dynamics moving in the credit union industry of mergers and acquisitions.
You see a lot of growth with the credit unions, with the new loans coming out from the government, you know, the financials are all getting all tweaked left and right. So there’s always the growth of some assets. So you jumped from 800 million to a billion. Now compensation is behind, and now we have to restructure these contracts. And so staying on top of it year to year is very important. So what I always say is you should do an annual review each year for the plan, make sure you’re updating and talking to the board and putting in your board minutes that you’ve talked to your consultant and that you did your own review. That is important because it covers both that we’ve done it through the third-party administrator, but we also did it on our behalf. And I think when you do that annually, that should be the minimum requirement you should do.
Above and beyond that, I think every three to five years there should be a thorough review. Or if there’s something that jumps out that you weren’t anticipating, I’ll give you an example. When COVID hit, interest rates fell almost to the floor, giving us the ability to go back to our current clients and reduce the overall loan rate of our split-dollar plans. That task really was going through each client, evaluating it and doing a thorough review, really helping them strengthen their plans. There was no commission or sales or anything. It was all about service and that should have been done for all their clients. And that’s what we did. And when we evaluated it, we did thorough reviews. And so every three to five years, if nothing happens, you should do a thorough review. If something like that does have interest rates drop, or if you have some changes in the industry with any type of interest rates, regulations, products that you do a thorough review.
And then if you can adjust some of these plans, you should. And all you’re trying to do is strengthen and make sure that the credit union has safety and soundness, but the benefits for the executive are stable and going to be able to be provided at the anticipated distribution date.
All right. So several times, both in the initial process, as well as in the annual process, you’ve referenced the need to do some of your own work and not just entirely rely on the consultant. So you can prove that you’ve done that, but I imagine many credit union leaders and boards don’t really have the background for that. They probably need some third-party assistance, like a consultant or actuary or something like that to help. Can you tell me any guidance about that process or where people will reach out to?
Well, I think the context of what I was saying is just educating themselves about the risks of these plans. A regulator will come in and come and ask specific questions. Who’s the administrator of the plan is just a simple question. A lot of times the board will say, oh, it’s Michael Blank of the Sheeter Group, but I’m not the administrator of the plan. I’m simply a third party. The board is always the administrator of these plans. Just a little trick question that they do is what I see them doing where they can write you up. And so the issue, really what it comes down to, is understanding and actuaries. Unfortunately, with these complex situations, you can work with some attorneys to understand the legal aspects, but maybe not so much of the product. That’s why working with a trusted consultant is so important.
My job is very challenging. I have to understand legal, accounting, regulatory, ERISA benefits, credit union regs, there’s all these little things that we always have to just keep our eye on. And so the most important thing that prior to implementing a plan you should have done is a pre-implementation manual. That manual should consist of an outline of all the risks that you’re evaluating. One of the things that we try and do for our clients is we give you that outline. We say, here are the things that you need to be considering. And as we go through this process, we’re going to have a book that is going to be completed by you, that’s going to go through, why did we do those benefits? Are these benefits reasonable? What carriers did we look at? They do look at any other type of insurance carriers.
Is it just whole life? Did you look at index whole life? Did you look at universal whole life, on and on? So we try to help ask those questions that you need to know, but you as the board need to answer those very well.
So several times you’ve mentioned risks, the risks of one of these plans. Can you talk a little bit about some of the risks of the plans of what can go wrong? What have you heard go wrong throughout your 20 years?
So that’s a good question. You know, the split-dollar has so many advantages and it’s such a great tool for retention and also for just overall retirement.
And you’ve seen, it’s incredible in a financial plan. When I have a split-dollar for an executive as a part of their plan, it gives me this incredible leverage to time tax consequences and to say, all right, well, it looks like there’s going to be an increase in taxes.
Let’s just skip this year and not pay taxes. Oh yeah. I won’t get Obamacare for virtually nothing, too. I mean, it’s unbelievable as a benefit. I love it when I see it.
I have the same product on my life and my wife’s life, too. So, I mean, the context of it works so well, the concerns that I have, or the questions that I’ll ask people that when they go into these plans, they’re always told all the great highlights of it and never have asked what if they were to leave the credit union? How do you unwind these plans? That’s one of the questions. There’s not a lot of people that understand how to unwind a split-dollar fund. I think the biggest risk that I see when we go into a competition and I’m going against another carrier is the credit union will look at it as a product.
It is not a product, even though we use life insurance, it is more of a design of how a plan is done and the use of the products, because one of the pitfalls I see is I’m just gonna use the lowest loan rate, lowest loan outlay. And that’s the one we’re going with thinking it’s the best price for the best product, as it sounds like the lowest cost. So the pitfall with that is, I can show any type of outlay, but is it going to work 20 years out or 10 years out? That’s the question. What kind of cushion? And are they building into these products and what are they right now? Rates are at X. Well, what if they are dropped 50 basis points? Did they do that type of analysis or are they just taking the policies and just throwing them at you and saying ours is $300,000 less than the other provider?
I think that’s a huge pitfall because when you go in through it, it’s not basically about the loan rate. It’s about what products are available, understanding those products. And you’re talking about products, for instance, let me just say, the whole life index UL does well. Other types of insurance out there, they all have different rules of how you illustrate those products. One can illustrate, assuming this one can illustrate, assuming these are those assumptions, reasonable. Those are the questions that the board should be asking. And why not? Are we looking a lot of times when we’re implementing the plan, they’re only showing one product. There should be several products. You should have some selection with it. It’s just, a lot of times we don’t take the time. I see consultants not taking the time to actually consult and go through the whole process.
They just try and just do it here. Here’s one plan, do this plan. And that’s how this plan works. And there’s so many variations and levers that you can pull. So evaluating some of the products I think is important and can help with some of the pitfalls. The other big pitfall is how you write the document. I think that’s something that is important to make sure that when you’re going through the numbers, how those numbers relate to the verbiage that’s written into the legal document, they need to go hand in hand; if they don’t, they’re not going to be strength in the numbers. They’re going to follow what’s written in the legal document. So one of the big pitfalls is making sure you’re using an attorney that has experience, and that knows how to write these documents exactly how they pertain to the numbers of being shown to the board.
Yeah. So the plan design matches the actual plan implementation in seeing individual policies for people. The challenge with working with illustrated benefits is the complexity of the illustration system, the assumptions around it, and the things that can change because they’re not guaranteed. I mean, it seems like in universal life insurance, most everything is not guaranteed except for the super high cost maximum rates that you hope you never ever pay for a board and executive team to understand that. I think they’re really pretty dependent on their consultant to be open book and to look at the long term, I’ll look at this as a long-term relationship and not just a quick sale.
I think it should go back to compensation philosophy. When I usually start with a board, I try to first listen and figure out what they’re trying to do.
Every board is different in a sense, but most boards are the same. It’s weird. The credit union board is made up of volunteers. And what they’re trying to do is make sure they’re doing what’s right on behalf of the membership, also doing everything in their power to retain their executives. And so when we do that, you go into these types of arrangements. And what they’re just wanting to do is safety and soundness. They always ask what other credit unions are doing, and when you can provide what others are doing in their asset class and their market space, I think that just adds to the value of their education, what they’re knowing about how these plans work in their area and who has those, we go through that, but I also just listen to their compensation needs.
This is part of the compensation philosophy. This is their long term. So they talk about salary and bonus, and then these fines are kind of like the third piece to it. And what I like to understand is where are they at? What are they trying to accomplish? And so when we go through that, they may start with a small plan and then maybe years down the line add to it. But it means when you go into a plan right away, that’s guaranteed the plan for the next 20 years. And that’s where I say these annual reviews are why they’re so important because we constantly tweak and look at them. And so when we do one of these plans, we want to make sure that they are done in a manner that every executive understands what is involved with the plan. And like you said, being not a defined benefit, being based on performance of an insurance policy is one of the big highlights I try and work and educate everybody about not just the board, but more importantly, these executives, because it’s a common question you get is, you know, I thought I’m getting X dollars amount and it’s just like your 401k
There’s things that could happen up and down for your 401(k), just like this plan. So having a monitor of where you’re at and that’s where I think those annual reviews are important. And also those really thorough reviews of taking around. Is there anything we could do from a legal standpoint to improve the plan? Because a lot of times these plans start at a percentage of final salary and salaries rise higher than anticipated. Who’s going back those years, three to five, to evaluate those? So that’s something that I think is part of the review process, but absolutely agree about the defined benefit and making sure they understand that these plans cannot be defined.
illustrated benefit. Right? Talk to me about what happens for the annual review process or any of the service when you start to get to the other end of the pipe, when some of their executives start to retire and they’re making withdrawal requests, and there must be some guidance that needs to be provided around how much those withdrawals can be.
And talk to me about what that process looks like year to year.
Well, just like marriage is communication, communication, communication. I think that’s the biggest thing that I do. Really. You have two parties, you have the participant and the board, you also throw another party in of the actual insurance carrier. All the carriers should have, whenever you do a split-dollar plan, all those plans should have a collateral assignment associated with that. What that means is that the insurance carrier has on record that there’s another party involved in this arrangement with the life insurance and that they won’t release any of the dollars unless we have that signature from that other party, meaning the credit union. So when we talk about the servicing and the annual income distribution stages it’s communicating with the carrier, the executive and the credit union.
And so making sure that we are anticipating there should be a meeting. Like I can just tell you how I do things. I have a meeting of the minds, four to six weeks prior to any distribution where we sit down and talk about, here’s the distribution. We run a new analysis to evaluate what can be distributed out. We share that with the executive, we discuss the executive needs and concerns, and that’s where you come into play. You may defer some of the funds; I’ve seen deferrals. I’ve seen, maybe we need to enhance it and move the money up. So there’s that communication between the executive, his people that he’s working with, CPAs, attorneys, financial planners; once we get some determination and everything’s gotta be agreed upon in the legal document, mind you, then we have the conversation with the board, making sure that they understand what the distributions are and that we are able to provide those and go through the risks and making sure that the plan is holding up.
And so when we’re able to go through that with the board, communicate to the board, communicate to the participant, the participant communicates to his financial planner like you. Then we all agree on a dollar amount. We submit it to the carrier to get distribution, and we start there. And so that is something that we do each year. And so it’s important that we talked about annual reviews. We also do annual reviews with the participants and that’s something that is not typically covered. I see a lot in the service model of other vendors. You see, we’ll update the board, but how are you? And that’s the question I always ask if I was entering these plans is, this is all sounding great, but who’s going to be there when I’m in the distribution phase and who has experience with that? And that’s where I think it’s important for the executives to know how that process works and how to make sure that we communicate it to all parties involved.
Typically I’m seeing people, you know, within a few years of retirement and then long past that the annual process of getting money out is a bit of a long process, right? You know, the amount they think they’re going to get has been illustrated for years, but the actual amount that you’re going to take when it comes time to take the money is based on the way the figures look at that time. And I haven’t seen anyone have a tremendously bad experience at all. It doesn’t mean it might not happen. I haven’t seen it.
Have you seen someone’s projections and their reality be very different?
Yeah. I saw just recently, because when you have interest rates drop, and just like, if you’re showing a plan, it doesn’t matter if it’s a MassMutual, Minnesota Life, New York Life, whatever carrier, but when interest rates all drop, dividend rates, all internal index rates, everything has also dropped the cap rates.
And when we re-illustrate a plan, the plans sometimes don’t look as well as they were originally put in. And that’s something that we saw as a whole, with all our clients that goes back to my conversation earlier that we were talking about is when you build a plan, when you’re at that stage to adopt a plan, it’s not about the cheapest product, it’s are you building it with a cushion, assuming that you might have some of these fluctuations and interest rates? And so you properly design it from day one. And I would say a lot of our plans were able to still support this drop. It’s still performed because we built a cushion. I think one of the things that is important is that you look at it and anticipate some of these market changes going forward.
But when that happens, does that mean the interest rate environment is going to be low for the next 30 to 40 years? No, it’s once again, this communication of here’s where we’re at, does that mean five years from now It’s going to be there? So when you have people close to retirement and with this interest rate drop, those are the ones that are affected the most, and also people into a distribution phase as well. So when you ask me, I think it’s important that you do an illustration every time you take withdrawals out of a policy; by doing so, you look at how those policies are holding up and use assumptions that are today’s rates going forward. You can anticipate what that’s going to look like in the future. And I have those conversations. They’re hard to have, but to say, if interest rates stay like this, your benefit might be reduced by this.
Tell me about when, let’s say that you’re a credit union leader, and there’s a split-dollar plan that was perhaps there before you got there and the person that sold that is semi-retired or retired, and you just don’t think it’s an ongoing situation that you’re comfortable with. What are the options like Does it make sense to continue that plan and add more funding?
It usually makes sense to add a new plan.
And then what if I’m uninsurable? What do you do then?
Yeah. When you take over a plan or look at an existing plan, there are a lot of things to consider. One is what product was used, and what’s been the performance of that product. How is it designed? What kind of loan was it? There’s intricacies inside of the legal document you can evaluate.
So I think just doing an overall review of what they have, if they want to add to it, you can certainly do it by layering another plan. Typically, I would recommend doing just another new plan or even another type of plan, like a 457F, but just try and present some options that you have available and then leading onto your next question is about the uninsured ability that comes up sometimes with our clients. There are different insurance carriers that take on different risks. So once again, when you’re talking about these plans, make sure that we are going through the different products and designs and not just saying, here’s our one product, here’s our one design. When you talk about the different products, you may put it out for a bid and one may come out standard, and one may get table rating, which is a less of a rating.
So you should have that going through. If you’re completely declined, there’s still other options we’ve done. And as the insured, the owner is still the executive. And so we could do spousal coverage. Once again, that goes back to my communication comment, making sure we communicate that to the board and understand, because that changes the makeup of how we do the document, how the credit he gets paid back. So it adds a layer of complexity to it, but it’s a way to kind of get around that option. I would say that one of my main disadvantages of a split-dollar plan is insurability. I wish it wasn’t so much the case, but we need that life insurance product in place to accommodate all those advantages of using life insurance for retention, too. There are other options available besides split-dollar plans, 457 F models are also a type of plan design where you do not need to be insurable.
And there are different risks and rewards to those.
You may go to a 457F, but it doesn’t have near the power of the insurance vehicle because the tax-free distributions or the loans are just that; that’s the real power that I see in someone’s financial plan again, is that just those distributions coming in year after year, without counting for how much you pay for Medicare Part B, or how much Social Security you get, or anything not counting against anything with the 457 F. Yeah, there’s no insurability question, but there’s this big payoff. And then that big payout causes a huge surge of taxes that year. And then you’ve got to very carefully manage ongoing, and it’s better than not getting the money, but it’s not nearly as good in the financial strategy, in my opinion, as collateral assignment.
So, Michael, what are your parting takeaways for credit union CEOs and board members?
For any board member or executives listening to this, is to use an outline of what you’re trying to accomplish and making sure that we document everything. Two, make sure we evaluate vendors and talk to other folks.
A lot of times I have a great relationship with my clients, but I always tell them, call another vendor just to get another look at it. It’s always good to document that, but if you have a nice outline, all lined up, of doing third-party administration education, there are some things that we can provide if they want to reach out to us, what I call board checklists. I think that is important to make sure we document and make sure they understand everything that’s involved with these plans, because there really are great plans when there’s nothing better than seeing these plans mature and the executive and their spouse and their children get to enjoy the benefits of working so hard and leading that credit union where it was led to and then finally saying, all right, now it’s my time to retire. And seeing that all unfold is pretty amazing. So it’s one of the highlights of my job, and I enjoy doing it and want to make sure that these plans are there for them when they reach that point in their life. So with that, if there’s anything that your clients need, I’m here to help and give them some honest and transparent feedback.
Thank you. Hope you have a good rest of the day.
That’s all the insider credit union knowledge we have for this episode. Are you enjoying the conversation? Be sure to subscribe and share your thoughts with other credit union leaders by leaving us a review. See you next time on C.U. on the Show.
Speaker 3: (33:33)
The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual security. To determine which investments may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor prior to investing. Economic forecasts set forth may not develop as predicted. All performance reference is historical and is no guarantee of future results. Indexes are unmanaged and cannot be invested into directly.
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