In Service of Those in Public Service – Pensions & Investments

A new brand underscores the core mission of MissionSquare Retirement, formerly ICMA-RC, to deliver financial wellness and retirement security to employees who choose a career in public service. In this executive conversation, Lynne Ford, chief executive officer of the $75+ billion nonprofit retirement services company, shares the reasons behind the company’s name change, its unwavering commitment to public service and a number of initiatives aimed at helping employees dedicated to public service sector careers improve their financial security.

Pensions & Investments: ICMA-RC recently rebranded to MissionSquare Retirement. Can you tell us why you changed your name and how you chose it?

Lynne Ford: ICMA-RC has been in existence for 50 years. We thought that our name which, candidly, was a basket of letters, didn’t effectively tell the story of who we are and how passionate we are about what we do to support the retirement needs of those in public service. So, we made the decision to seek a new name. We did an exhaustive search and landed on MissionSquare. We loved having the word ‘mission’ in our name because that is what we’re focused on: serving those who serve their communities. The ‘square’ is a nod to the town square, the center of the neighborhood where government, education, health care and nonprofit professionals come together to serve and impact their communities. So, there you have it, MissionSquare Retirement.

P&I: Along with rebranding, what are some major initiatives underway at MissionSquare Retirement?

Ford: Our goal at MissionSquare Retirement is to serve more plan sponsors and their participants. The rebranding initiative was extremely important in terms of having a public-facing name that told the story of who we are. An additional, very significant initiative we’ve undertaken is to enhance our technology by forming MissionSquare Plan Services with a strategic business partnership with SS&C Technologies. MissionSquare Retirement is very committed to providing a best-in-class platform for our plan participants, and this work allows us to offer them more modern, engaging ways to interact with our company and provide better access to information and ways to more easily manage their accounts. This is a substantial undertaking that will prepare us for our future [capabilities].

Another initiative we rolled out earlier this year is our new financial wellness program. It helps participants get on the road to retirement security and gain confidence in managing their individual finances. Our new program gives our clients access to financial education and content, financial planning tips and wellness tools that make it easier to get and stay on track for retirement. It also includes intuitive digital and interactive features for managing finances, building emergency savings and planning for life’s major milestones.

Another major initiative that I’m excited about is the launch and rebranding of the MissionSquare Research Institute. The Institute provides plan sponsors and participants with research that can address top-of-mind questions that they have, such as the impact of COVID-19 on public service sector teammates. For example, one recent piece of our research found that as of May 2021, 70% of state and local government workers were fully vaccinated and that nearly one in three state and local government workers have had to take on more debt since the start of the pandemic, with 36% having spent all or some of their emergency savings.

P&I: Could you share what your experience has been since you joined the company?

Ford: I assumed the role of CEO of MissionSquare Retirement, then ICMA-RC, on November 4, 2019. Who would have ever predicted that we were just four months away from entering this 100-year-flood type of event, the global COVID-19 pandemic? It was quite a turn of events. The [state of] readiness and preparedness that MissionSquare Retirement had [in order] to pivot to a virtual environment was nothing short of amazing. I know a lot of companies had to pull a rabbit out of a hat during the pandemic, but for my new team at MissionSquare Retirement, this [process] was almost seamless.

We needed to quickly pivot to continue to service our existing clients — plan sponsors and participants — while simultaneously embarking on a strategic planning process that has brought us to where we are today. I’m extremely proud to say that we didn’t miss a beat, and I’m inspired by the focus and energy that the team brought to completing our strategy.

P&I: Why is DEI important to MissionSquare Retirement?

Ford: Diversity, equity and inclusion has always been front and center at MissionSquare Retirement. DEI has long been a commitment for the company and is a core focus for us, our culture and how we work with our clients. Sixty percent of our board of directors are women or people of color, 75% of our executive leadership team are women and people of color and 69% of our overall talent base identify as people of color or women. We’ve had longtime partnerships with the Local Government Hispanic Network and the National Forum for Black Public Administrators. We’re about empowering a broad range of people and backgrounds who radiate the passion, perspectives and promise to take themselves, our clients and our company forward. Long before diversity, equity and inclusion was “in,” diversity, equity and inclusion was “us”; it’s part of who we are. I’m proud to be a female CEO of a financial services firm, and DEI will remain a pillar of who we are going forward.

P&I: What are some key priorities you are hearing from public plans today?

Ford: One priority across the industry — and it’s no different in the public service sector — is providing participants with a holistic view of their finances. Retirement is the single largest financial objective that participants need to save for in their lifetime, but it has to be viewed in the context of everything else [in the participants’ financial, career stage and life situation]. That has led many organizations — including us — to focus on financial wellness and holistic financial planning.

Specifically as it relates to the public service sector, we know that decades ago, employees generally had defined benefit plans that provided them with a pension. Over the last 10 to 15 years however, the public space has been pivoting to more hybrid-like plans. The use of 457 plans and 401(a) plans have helped to bolster retirement income for participants. Most of our participants today still do have access to some form of defined benefit plan. But if we look at the road map for the future, the [defined contribution] plans and products that we provide will certainly put plan participants in a position to be more financially secure than relying only on a pension.

P&I: New digital technologies and employee preferences are shaping the future of work. What does this mean for public sector employees?

Ford: There is a subset of public service sector employees, who are public-facing, that never went into a remote work environment. Many of our participants have been the heroes keeping the lights on during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite not ever having worked remotely.

For example, once we went to a remote-first strategy, our retirement plan specialists began to make virtual appointments with many of our participants. We got positive feedback on that effort. Our participants took advantage of meeting with their retirement specialist at convenient hours, while also being able to include family members in those discussions.

While we will definitely go back to in-person meetings, one practice we will take forward is our digital offering and the ability to meet virtually. Digital technology gives you the leverage to ‘touch’ [more] people.

P&I: What’s next for MissionSquare Retirement?

Ford: One of the most exciting things for me as a new CEO was that our company has a 50-year history of serving people who serve their communities. We are singularly focused on people who have chosen a life of public service as their career. What’s next for MissionSquare Retirement is to invest in this shared sense of service and continue to amplify this focus.

We will build on this idea of being a springboard for appreciation of people who choose public service as a career, whether that be in government, education, health care or nonprofits. We have started to roll out enhancements to our technology. We’ll have new websites and [additional] enhancements to plan-sponsor tools, as well as participant-facing tools. These are more intuitive and modern tools to serve our audience needs in mobile and digital spaces. The financial wellness program is one example of that. We’ve also upgraded our managed-account platform in the last year, and we will continue to focus on leveraging our new partnerships.

Going forward, our goal is to take our current value proposition and serve more people across the country who have dedicated their lives to service. It’s where we’ve come from, and it’s where we’re headed.•