Burleigh Consulting Group Changes With Times

By Amos Maki

Robert C. Burleigh still enjoys playing tennis four times a week. But the 78-year-old founder of Burleigh Consulting Group admits he is playing more doubles matches these days.

“I’m running a little slower now, so it’s mostly doubles now, not a lot of singles,” said Burleigh with a chuckle.

Employees of Burleigh Consulting Group review the new website before launch, including, from left, John Crews, Jeff Wallace, Joan Fryt, Robert Burleigh, Tim Shanklin and Kim Dang. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

While he may have lost a step or two on the tennis courts, Burleigh hasn’t slowed down at work, where the ever-changing nature of the retirement planning industry has kept him on his toes for more than three decades.

“I’m here six days a week, probably 10 hours a day,” Burleigh said. “I probably don’t need to be here that much, but I love it.”

Founded in 1981, Burleigh Consulting Group works with employers to provide objective, independent advice on the design and operations of their retirement plans. The Memphis-based company, which has 16 employees and more than 500 clients, partners with independent investment advisers and record-keeping platform providers to assure the best possible results are being delivered to employers and their employees.

“We know the pluses and minuses of the different services and platforms, and how one may be a perfect fit for one company and not for another,” Burleigh said. “We’re trying to help bring a total solution to the client.”

In addition to providing third-party assessments of overall retirement plan operations, Burleigh and his partners, John Crews, Jeff Wallace, Nancy Cochran, Kim Dang and Tim Shanklin, also advise companies on a broad range of retirement plan issues, everything from overseeing the plan’s regulatory and compliance requirements to advising on plan design changes and helping human resources departments reduce workloads related to the plans.

Burleigh said the company’s deep bench means a constant infusion of new ideas and future continuity.

“We do have a very diverse team, and the firm is prepared for the future with the partners we have,” Burleigh said.

Burleigh said the best-run retirement plans require close collaboration and communication between a plan operational adviser like Burleigh Consulting Group, record keepers and the plan’s investment adviser.

“Like a contractor that builds a home, they may be building the home, but that doesn’t mean the builder does the electrical and plumbing work,” Burleigh said. “It doesn’t work well if there’s not communication, and we think the same thing is true in the retirement planning field. We feel like we bring the teams together.”

Burleigh said one key to running a successful small business for more than 30 years is being able to keep pace with changes in the industry.

For instance, the explosive growth of defined-contribution retirement plans like the 401(k) radically altered the retirement planning landscape, placing more responsibility than ever on the employee.

“If we go back to the 1980s and the early 1990s, most of the nongovernmental plans were profit-sharing or pension plans where all the contributions were put in by the employer,” Burleigh said. “Employees didn’t have to figure out how much they needed to set aside for tomorrow and not spend today. Today, it’s more employee-driven. The investment landscape has changed enormously.”

Burleigh said giving employees the responsibility for their own retirement plans also means giving them the tools and advice they need to successfully save for a comfortable retirement. Research has shown that many employees aren’t saving enough for retirement.

“Bottom line is employees are not getting enough advice overall and not saving enough overall, and we’re going to have a crisis if we don’t focus on changing outcomes for employees,” Burleigh said. “For firms like us, that means we need to focus on how to help the advisers produce a better outcome for employees.”

Burleigh has recently become a bit of a social scientist, exploring studies on behavioral finance, which seeks to explain why people sometimes make irrational financial decisions, including on retirement savings.

“For people, even those of us who know something about investments, this new science shows that their decisions aren’t always rational,” Burleigh said.

Burleigh Consulting Group continues to evolve with the times. The company will soon launch a new website.

“The first time we did a website was probably 25 years ago,” Burleigh said. “Most of our business comes from referrals, so sometimes we’re not as focused on marketing and technology as we should be. We wanted to explain who we are and what our role is to retirement plans.”

Burleigh said another important factor in the company’s longevity and success is getting to know clients. Instead of dialing an 800 number to get advice or answers to questions, Burleigh’s clients can talk one-on-one with their adviser.

“Sometimes it makes all the difference in the world if you can deal with a person, so we try our best to get to know our clients,” Burleigh said.