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"From Financial Literacy to Financial Wellness:

A Conversation with Michael K. Smith"

Michael K. Smith does not believe a secure retirement is a privilege reserved exclusively for highly-paid executives and senior management. The Managing Partner of Insight Financial Partners is focused on helping working class Americans prepare for their futures.

“To be able to see our clients retire on their own terms, with dignity, is a privilege to experience,” Michael says. “Our firm has a great opportunity to genuinely do well for ourselves by doing good things for others. We embrace that opportunity to help working-class Americans achieve success through financial literacy that leads to financial wellness.”

Insight Financial Partners works with companies and their employees to provide fiduciary support services and financial education to 401(k) plans that represent the backbone of retirement planning for most Americans. The firm generally works with Chief Financial Officers, Chief Human Resources Officers, and Directors of Compensation and Benefits to build prudent fiduciary oversight and educational plans that enhance and optimize the process of retirement financial planning for employees.

“Most of our clients have between 50 and 2500 employees,” Michael says. “The non-highly compensated population is generally under-served by the financial services industry, while our focus on the employer-sponsored retirement plan market space creates that opportunity to deliver best-in-class fiduciary support services and financial literacy, most often reserved for a small segment of the population, to everyone.”

The fiduciary responsibilities Michael and his firm undertake are complex. In addition to the usual demands of the IRS, fiduciary support services in the employer sponsored plan market space must adhere to Department of Labor standards and the complexities of law, in addition to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

“The responsibilities extend well beyond financial planning and investment management,” Michael admits, “but there are passions that drive us. Most of the plan participants who we deal with haven’t been exposed to the fiduciary support services and financial literacy education we deliver, but I fundamentally believe that we have a socioeconomic responsibility to effectively deliver these services to working-class Americans through employer-sponsored retirement plans. Coverage is a critical success factor for the future financial wellness of our country, and we believe we must ensure that our plan participants optimize the opportunity they have to secure their future financial independence.”

The implications of that realization go beyond personal financial planning. It also acknowledges that how social services are delivered and funded in the future will be impacted. As a result, Insight Financial Partners offers a number of educational initiatives to help their plan participants develop the financial literacy they need.

“We are extraordinarily passionate about financial literacy. We lead seminars, conduct on-site visits with groups of participants and we meet with them one-on-one. Our educational plans are dependent on how the plan is sponsored and how the employer and the employees want to schedule contact,” Michael explains. “We have on-going email communication and distribute content to help each plan participant to learn more about investing and all the tools available to them.”

Leveraging the financial literacy education the firm offers is crucial to being able to recognize the opportunities investing in a 401K offers plan participants.

“When a plan participant’s understanding of finance is limited, they are often intimidated by those very elements of the financial resources and education that could help them in terms of their future financial success,” Michael says. “Clients come to us, and stay with us, because they share the belief that their employee’s retirement preparedness is enhanced by financial literacy and financial wellness.”

It is an opportunity that is not universal. Not everyone has access to an employer-sponsored 401K plan.

“A significant percentage of employers do not sponsor any kind of retirement plan,” Michael explains. “I never underestimate the generosity of an employer who is committed to the investment in time and money to enhance their employees’ futures. It’s very rewarding to see people, even early in their careers, achieve a level of financial success that they could not have achieved without access to their employer-sponsored retirement savings plan.”

The emphasis on hard work and mutual respect for everyone is a perspective Michael gained from his parents. It is one that continues to influence both his professional and personal life.

“I was adopted at birth and grew up in a family of four. I am blessed to have healthy parents who are in their mid-80s,” Michael says proudly. “My Dad was a foreman in a blue-collar manufacturing environment for most of his career, and my mother stayed home while my sister and I were younger, and then reentered the workforce as we got older. They were and are hard-working, humble people who live within their means. They worked, they saved and didn’t overspend. My dad did not have a pension, but he was involved in managing his own savings and only had access to a 401K during the last 10 to 15 years of his working life.”

Watching his parents gave Michael insight into how people go through the evolution of saving for their futures and successfully preparing financially for a long, healthy retirement.

“When I was growing up, I always had what I needed,” Michael remembers. “There was food on the table, clothes on my back, we had all the necessities of childhood. Now, there are so many more pressures. We measure the success of our economy by consumer spending, but consumer spending contradicts what we’re trying to achieve, which is convincing people to live beneath their means and save for the future. The desire to have more, creates societal challenges and pressures. My parents managed to stave off those pressures.”

As a result of his parents’ influence, Michael measures his own success not by what he has, but by what he gives back to his community. In addition to managing Insight Financial Partners, he has a second full time job as an elected public official. He serves on the board of his local community college.

“Promoting continuous education is a pointed focus of my life,” Michael says. “Anyone’s career can be derailed by societal and or technological advancements and changes. Maintaining flexibility is imperative to re-tool or even to transform who you are. Once we embrace the realization that change is inevitable, then you can prepare for the fact you might be doing something completely different at the ages of 20, 40 and 60. Community colleges play a critical role in delivering that education in a cost effective, time-effective way that maintains and supports that flexibility imperative.”

An emphasis on lifelong learning dovetails to his financial literacy practice and financial wellness services. In fact, they are the two pillars Michael sees as key landmarks in navigating the uncertainties of the future with a positive outlook.

“Our future is riddled with uncertainty,” he says. “That creates an imperative for us to help our plan participants minimize some of that uncertainty when it comes to their financial preparedness. We believe that a sound financial backbone will enable those we have the privilege of working with to embrace change as stakeholders in society, while continuously reinventing themselves as they deem appropriate for their health and happiness. It’s about perspective, or belief in ourselves and each other. It’s exciting.”

Kate Baggott's technology and business journalism has appeared in the Technology Review at MIT, the Globe and Mail, Canada Computes, the Vancouver Sun, and on the Business to Business News Network

Kate Baggott is the author of two short story collections.

454 W. Virginia St. Suite 3

Crystal Lake, Illinois 60014

Michael K. Smith

Managing Partner


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