MADISON, Wis. — With the backing from senior management and a sales team beating the pavement, CUNA Mutual Group said efforts to expand its 401(k) retirement program to select employee groups, business members and other local businesses are starting to pay off.

Just four months after the retirement program’s new direction, CUNA Mutual has signed on 174 financial advisers and five broker-dealers, including CUNA Brokerage Services Inc. There are also 73 credit unions participants.

“This is a line of business credit unions are interested in because it can develop new and broader business from their business members,” said Kevin Thompson, vice president of asset accumulation products at CUNA Mutual.

Some of the program’s newest clients include CUE Financial Group, CUSO Financial Services, Arrowhead Financial Services, a subsidiary of $1 billion of Arrowhead CU, and PrimeVest Financial Services, a broker-dealer and subsidiary of ING. Thompson said CUNA Mutual plans to initially concentrate in the credit union space with the aim to establish more relationships outside of the industry.

The $345 million Sun East Federal Credit Union signed on with the 401(k) program over the summer, said Jonathan Barrett, vice president, market development and programs. Because select employee groups had already secured alliances with other providers given the time of the year, Barrett said they are looking forward to the next open enrollment season.

“We were able to take some select businesses, have conversations and begin sowing the seeds,” Barrett said. “We’ve certainly provided them with another alternative to look at.”

Sun East FCU was familiar with CUNA Mutual because of an existing relationship with the company’s MEMBERS financial services division. This time around, Barrett said he realizes that the 401(k) program is an investment for the long term and nurturing will be a pivotal piece.

“The approach we came up with is very personal as opposed to just mailing things out. This is not something that will happen overnight. It’s an investment in the companies and their employees,” Barrett said. “Over time, we’re sure we will reap what we sow.”

Many credit unions have a strong track record of helping individual members prepare for retirement on a retail product basis through certificate of deposits, mutual funds and annuities, and it’s a natural progression for them to also help members with their institutional retirement plans at work, Thompson said. As further leverage, more than 97% of all 401(k) plans in the industry are sold through an adviser or broker, which is why it makes sense to build resources and a distribution channel based on an advisory model, he added.

Thompson said the program’s early success is possible because of a commitment from senior management and a sales team headed by Micah DiSalvo, director of retirement plan sales division. The team also includes four internal and external wholesalers. As a result, CUNA Mutual has eight confirmed sales representing $3.5 million in assets and another 24 proposals on the table totaling nearly $29 million, Thompson noted.

The company has held two retirement plan symposiums. The most recent one in San Francisco attracted 64 attendees including presenter Fred Barstein, president/CEO of the 401kExchange, a business development firm serving the retirement service industry.

The industry may be wondering whether CUNA Mutual’s 401(k) retirement program outreach could stall in light of the markets’ cycles of instability and recoveries. Thompson says no. He added that Jeff Post, president/CEO of CUNA Mutual, had recently reiterated the company’s commitment and the untapped potential.

“I don’t want to give the impression that we’re immune to what’s been happening. It would be na??ve to think there would not be any impact but what we’re doing still makes good strategic sense probably now more than ever,” Thompson explained.

Indeed, one of CUNA Mutual’s metrics tracks deposits in existing plans. Thompson said the company is ahead for the year and there are “less cancellations and withdrawals than we planned for.”

“We’re not seeing credit union employees panicking and pulling out [of plans],” he said.

–msamaad@cutimes.com