ABG: Keeping on the Cutting Edge

by Sara Browning

Teamwork, faith and family came together to turn a staff of three into one of the largest independent retirement plan record-keepers in the nation. 

What has Alliance Benefit Group of Illinois (ABG) been doing since it opened its doors in 1968? Going from good to great…

For more than 40 years, ABG has built up more than $2 billion in retirement plan assets to provide administration for more than 40,000 retirement plan participants. From its humble beginnings as Small, Parker and Ackerman, ABG, now located in the Twin Towers Office Plaza in downtown Peoria, employs nearly 70 associates and more than 75 consulting and service staff. The firm also houses a Chicago office and a branch office in Madison, Wisconsin. Customer service coupled with knowledgeable, dedicated staff has spurred business growth, combining the strength of a national company with the individual attention of a regional office.

“I joined the firm in May 1968,” says ABG President and CEO John Blossom, adding that the firm did not become a family business until later when he met and married his wife, Linda. “Linda came on board in 1974.”

Linda, the daughter of a farmer, was born in Pontiac and moved to Deer Creek and later to Roanoke when her father decided to go into the ministry. After attending Illinois State University and graduating with a degree in music education in 1973, she moved to Franklin Park and worked for various companies until interviewing with Small, Parker, Ackerman and Blossom, Inc. in 1974. “I met John in the business,” she says. “He’s my boss, but we work together as a team.”

Pioneers of the Industry
For decades, Alliance Benefit Group has been on the front lines, assisting employers and employees in making the most of their retirement by walking clients through each step of the retirement planning process. Independently owned and operated, the firm provides administration, record-keeping and investment consulting as a Registered Investment Advisor to employer-sponsored retirement plans in 40 states, and specializes in designing participant-directed 401(k), 403(b)(7) and 457(b) plans. ABG also provides administration for Section 125-Flex Plans, non-qualified retirement plans, Health Savings Accounts and interfaced payroll services.       

The company pioneered Health Savings Accounts development, which enables pre-tax savings for healthcare needs, and its Flexible Savings Accounts administration provides employers with the opportunity to offer paychecks and invest retirement plan deferrals. ABG’s SmartPlan, recognized by Investment News magazine as the No. 1 communications tool in the industry, helps clients secure a proper risk-based asset allocation. The process involves no paperwork or employer involvement.    

“We’re blessed to have built a strong and diverse retirement plan company with 68 associates who are part of that,” says John. “We are partially known as an ESOP, and lots of our employees hold stock in the company. We are nationally prominent, and that is because of the hard work and dedication of a professional staff.”

John also credits marriage teamwork for the firm’s success. “Linda’s very smart. She’s a very hard worker.”

“We support each other,” adds Linda, “and we hold each other accountable. Many times, I’ll provide the background information, and he takes the ball and runs with it.”   

Providing plan sponsors and participants with retirement and investment education services that go beyond expectations is ABG’s primary objective. The firm offers everything necessary to equip clients with substantive income for retirement, including complete benefit outsourcing. Not only is it CEFEX-certified to ensure the business functions with the utmost integrity, but its recordkeeping service is SAS 70 Level II-audited by an independent firm to ensure quality.     

The ABG staff, comprised of highly trained administrators, consultants and actuaries with several professional designations and years of experience in the field, commits themselves to providing personalized attention to every client for prompt, thorough response time to reporting, compliance and other client needs.

“We all share a passion for the business,” says Linda. “We help 40,000 clients achieve their retirement goals.”

“Our success really causes us to step back and ask how we can do things in new and better ways to attain the next step of growth,” says John.

Something New
ABG has grown considerably since Linda came on board in the 1970s. At that time, the firm’s staff encompassed just nine employees. Inexperienced in the industry, Linda said she found John to be a “wealth of information. In the early stages, I constantly looked to John for guidance…because he was in it for years before I joined him.”

After attending the Center for Fiduciary Studies in Pittsburgh in 2002, an intensive course that helped enhance her understanding of an investment auditor’s fiduciary role, Linda was designated an Accredited Investment Fiduciary Auditor. A current member of the ABG Investment Advisory Team, today she has more than 25 years of experience in the design and administration of qualified retirement plans, and is a leader in specialized services for 401(k) plans. Her title is vice president of Investment Services.

Linda says this includes overseeing compliance requirements of the firm’s status as a registered investment auditor, and overseeing procedures and tracking of the annual investment policy review (IPR) process for clients. She also serves as an interface between John and other associates after he has developed a new plan or met with a current client for their annual IPR to help put the plan in place.     

The Family Thread
“There are two dimensions of family dynamics,” says Linda. “Working with family frees you to be more direct and open about challenges and problems, but you also need to be more sensitive in your approach.”
John says trust plays a huge role when working with family. “I feel that I can be much more open and honest about things I’m feeling regarding what we’re accomplishing.”

“And in what we’re doing as an organization,” adds Linda. “It’s helpful for him to use me as a sounding board. John is a great visionary and a constant student. He’s always learning.”

While trust and confidentiality are essential business builders, teamwork plays a huge role in a husband-and-wife-run company. John says the teamwork he and Linda share is invaluable. “I can tell her anything. I can share my goals and biggest dreams about our firm. I’ve found it’s very helpful to work within the marriage setting in a business.”

Sometimes, that means bringing work home. “When you’re in business with your husband, the clock doesn’t stop at five,” says Linda, adding that there are times when “you just have to leave work alone and back away. We need our rest and downtime as much as we need each other’s talents in the business.”

Forgiveness, John says, plays a huge part in helping marriage and business work together. “We have to be forgiving to move on from one challenge to the next. It’s a healthy partnership within that forgiveness.”

A “Financial Home”
The Blossoms are constantly looking ahead for ways to take Alliance Benefit Group to the next level. “We continue to build the company to a larger scale so that the firm can provide a really sound financial ‘home’ for our staff,” says John. “We have wonderful associates to work with. Some of them have been with us for 15 to 20 years. They’re like family. Their jobs are made more secure and their future is bigger when we succeed.”

But regardless of what the future holds, John says, he knows there will always be challenges…and always something new to learn. “We’ve been in business for 40 years, and I learned something new this week. That’s really fun!”

“There’s a passion I have for wanting to help people accumulate money for retirement,” says Linda. “It makes my work very enjoyable. It’s always a challenge. It’s never dull!” iBi


Source URL: https://www.peoriamagazines.com/ibi/2011/aug/abg-keeping-cutting-edge