In a recent blog, Steve Holman recounted two career paths: the first leading to the 1992 Summer Olympics as a professional track-and-field athlete, the second to Vanguard, where he is now head of Vanguard Retirement Plan Access™ (VRPA), our defined contribution retirement plan service for plans up to $20 million. Mr. Holman describes our client-focused approach and what differentiates VRPA’s offerings, in this next leg of a two-part Q&A.

You mentioned some future aspirations—such as a financial wellness offering for defined contribution plans and cash balance plans—in a previous blog. Describe the progress on these efforts.

I’m very pleased that we launched cash balance plans in January 2019. We’re still in the process of building awareness and educating people about cash balance options, but it’s a feature that I anticipate will gain momentum over time. We’re also on the cusp of introducing a financial wellness program to plan sponsors who would opt in to provide it to their employees. The service will provide educational resources to participants to help them address financial questions and concerns beyond retirement readiness, and complements education that an advisor may also provide to a plan.

A Cerulli study shows that 90% of 401(k) plans have less than $5 million in total plan assets. Do you expect small businesses to continue to make up the bulk of 401(k) plan growth? Can you speak more to this trend?

This highlights broader U.S. employment and industry trends—that small businesses make up the vast majority of businesses out there. While a majority of 401(k) assets are concentrated in plans sponsored by large corporations, there is tremendous opportunity to better serve the millions of small employers and their employees. The stats highlighted by Cerulli indicate that the bulk of future retirement plan growth will be from smaller-market employers, and we are seeing a growing number of small businesses offering retirement plans to their employees.

That ties back to VRPA’s mission to reach as many plan sponsors and participants as possible. These participants don’t often have the options or the flexibility of their counterparts who just happen to work for larger companies. What we’re offering with VRPA are the investment options, features, and benefits that they could get from larger plans in a small-market package at a reasonable cost. How America Saves 2019: Small Business Edition shows VRPA’s success concerning the overall consistency of participation rates and other measures between VRPA clients and corporate giants featured in our main report How America Saves 2019.

What differentiates VRPA in the marketplace?

I see three things that set Vanguard apart. The first is brand. Being a part of Vanguard means something to a lot of different people. It’s the trust, goodwill, and reputation that we’ve built over a 40-plus-year period of low costs, our enduring investment philosophy, excellent service, and unwavering focus on putting our clients’ needs first.

The second is value. We deliver significant value for the fees our clients pay. The features, benefits, and capabilities of our VRPA offer—plus the service experience—is why we’ve been able to grow and why our client retention has been consistently strong. From an investment standpoint, as we continue to grow, clients benefit from that scale in the form of lower expense ratios. Vanguard is different because our owners are our clients (investors and participants), and we return our profits to our client-owners in the form of lower investment costs. Through VRPA, you can access the same low-cost funds that we provide in our largest 401(k) plans.

Third is our unique partnership with Ascensus. It’s a winning combination of Vanguard’s thought leadership, investment options, and brand—with Ascensus’ small-market retirement plan recordkeeping platform and client-service expertise. We trust them because they’re really good at what they do, they complement what we do well, and we share a common mission of client focus.

Does VRPA have a best-kept secret? Is there something our clients and prospects may not know we can offer them?

If you were highlighting all of the good things about VRPA, you might say “brand” and “cost” are the top two attributes. But I would argue that “service” should be right up there with them. Our partnership with Ascensus is built on a shared passion for creating the best client experience. If you look at it in terms of our 98% client retention rate,1 93% client satisfaction rate,2 and world-class net promoter score (NPS) of 83%,3 it’s remarkable. I was recently honored to be their guest at the PlanSponsor/PlanAdviser Excellence in Retirement Awards dinner, where Ascensus won a number of awards related to the client service experience.

Client service is always a top priority, but it’s an ongoing effort, as evolving technology identifies new needs. Can you speak to some of our efforts in this area?

Our partners at Ascensus are focusing on innovation for advisors, plan sponsors, and participants that will improve desired outcomes and make tasks easier. For instance, they’re investing in evolving their recordkeeping platform capabilities. That way it’s easier for participants to increase savings rates, or for a plan sponsor to connect with their payroll provider, or for an advisor or third-party administrator to review statuses of all their clients. Beyond that, they’re investing in creating a next-generation user experience that will be clean, simple, intuitive, and, most importantly, will help clients achieve their investment goals.

What one thing do you hope advisors and plan sponsors take away about the VRPA side of Vanguard’s institutional business?

That we’re committed to this business. We’re committed to achieving the potential that we see. We’re committed to truly becoming the partner that advisors deserve, aspiring to be the go-to resource to help them be more successful. And we’re committed to working with Ascensus to continue to ensure that our offer has the capabilities that will maximize client outcomes and differentiate us as providing best-in-class retirement plan services to small-business owners. But it’s a marathon, not a sprint. We’re committed to seeing the race through.

1 Ascensus data for 2018 plans.

2 Ascensus, Onboarding Client Satisfaction Survey, as of April 1, 2019.

3 Source: 2019 NPS data, as of April 1, 2019. NPS scores higher than 70% meet world-class standards.


  • All investing is subject to risk, including the possible loss of the money you invest.
  • Retirement plan recordkeeping and administrative services are provided by The Vanguard Group, Inc. (VGI). VGI has entered into an agreement with Ascensus, LLC, to provide certain plan recordkeeping and administrative services on its behalf. Ascensus is not affiliated with Vanguard Marketing Corporation, The Vanguard Group, Inc., or any of its affiliates. Ascensus is a registered trademark of Ascensus, LLC.
  • Ascensus provides administrative and recordkeeping services and is not a broker-dealer or an investment advisor.