Why It’s Important to Understand Retirement Finances With Chris Brown of EconSys

Episode summary

Chris Brown cannot be stopped. After retiring from a 34-year federal career in 2008, he was back in the workplace within two months, working for EconSys. He started out in its Human Resources Group before moving on to head its retirement seminar programs as the Deputy Director of Federal HR Software and Services.

“I’ve never really thought of myself as being a retired person. I’ll say I’m a retired Fed, but I am not retired. I have never actually retired.”
Although he’s not interested in retiring himself, Chris has spent his second career helping others in the federal workforce prepare for retirement through seminars he designs and teaches.

In this episode of Government Enabled, host Linda Sue Kirschner talks to Chris about his journey teaching retirement seminars, which have taken him all across the country and even abroad. Chris also shares when he might just consider retiring.
Though there’s no exact date in mind, one thing’s certain — he knows what to expect when that day comes, even if he’s not quite there yet.

“I tell people, you also need to have a nonfinancial plan. What is it you’re going to do every day? What time will you get up? What’s the first thing you’re going to do? What’s the second thing you’re going to do? What is that plan? I don’t have one of those yet, which tells me I’m not yet ready to give it all up and just be a retired person.”

Guest at-a-glance

Key insights

Chris worked for years in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), where he first encountered EconSys, the company he would eventually work for. In the OPM, he had to examine big hiring initiatives — for example, those of people with disabilities or military veterans — to determine whether certain policies would contribute to a high-performing workforce. This was a challenge that required the help of an external consultant, and it was EconSys that would eventually assume that role.

Chris is dedicated to making sure his seminars are fun, but more importantly, extremely informative. He wants attendees to leave fully prepared for the economic aspects of retirement. This means understanding how much retirement income is necessary. Chris starts with the basics, looks at federal pensions in detail, then Social Security benefits, federal insurance programs and finally, the Thrift Savings Plan, something he believes is especially critical to the program.

Since his seminars largely revolve around the finances of retirement, Chris thought it would be best to have a financial planner come and give lessons on the basics of financial planning. However, he quickly realized that these individuals often had a personal agenda, hoping to gain a few clients in return. This didn’t line up with Chris’ vision for the training programs. To avoid bringing in planners with ulterior motives, he went back to school and became a certified financial planner himself.

Episode Highlights

Seeing an opening for digitalization

“I began writing some concept papers on how our calculator in our other software could support OPM’s retirement system modernization effort. OPM had been trying to essentially digitize the federal retirement process for about 25 years and had never been successful at it. So we, George and I, both saw a really good opportunity there for us.”

Getting the seminar programs off the ground

“We sat down and began building seminars, building the PowerPoint presentations. I think the first thing we developed was a two-day model. Derek Day, using his contacts all across the various state National Guard human resources offices, began calling, reaching out to these people he knew in those offices, offering to come out and do retirement seminars for their National Guard technicians. We got a little bit of work from that initiative right away.”

Claiming a spot in the marketplace

“Over the next few years, we acquired some really good documented experience, which we were then able to use when we began bidding on solicitations that agencies would issue from time to time, to have contractors come in and do these seminars for them. These solicitations are issued by federal agencies, and they’re looking for these vendors to come in and do this kind of work. We were fortunate to get a few contracts and gain a little more of a foothold in that marketplace.”

A new career path in seminar teaching

“Right around 2013, 2014, I realized that the seminar line of business had gotten built up to where I was spending very little time in the office trying to sell our retirement calculation software and our other services. I realized that most of my days were being spent out on the road at various agencies in their training rooms, doing these retirement seminars. I decided that was the thing I wanted to do. At that point, I decided, now I have found my second career. I went to George and said, ‘I don’t want to be involved full time with the HR group. I don’t want to market the software anymore. All I want to do is teach seminars.’”

Financial planning: essential to understanding retirement

“I will usually start almost any seminar with a financial planning lesson that focuses the audience’s attention on understanding how much retirement income they are probably going to need. And it is amazing. There’s been all sorts of surveys that the AARP and the Employee Benefit Research Institute has done that indicates that most Americans do not have a clue how much retirement income they’re going to need and what that means, what they ought to be doing in terms of their own 401(k). I explained to them, a third of your retirement income is going to have to come from retirement savings.”

Making seminars entertaining and interactive

“What I try to do when I’m doing these seminars is to bring an element of entertainment to the event as well. I try to use real-life examples. I create characters that have memorable names that people will hang onto and I use anecdotes and stories and other things reinforce the information and that are intended to keep the presentation interesting but also stimulate questions in discussion.”

A shift to online seminars

“I knew at that moment this was a big-C change, that I would probably not be on-site in a federal agency doing a seminar again for a very long time. At first, I thought that might actually force me into retirement or it might be the end of this line of business for us, at least temporarily. But then very quickly, I think within a few days, several of our clients reached out to me by email, asking me, ‘Could you do this over the internet?’ I knew that was the only way we were going to be able to keep this line of business going.”

A peek at the future of learning

“While I’m anxious to get this pandemic behind us, of course, so we can all get back to normal and I can get back into the classroom, I look forward to continuing to use the virtual format, and I would not be surprised if a lot of our clients don’t ever go back to an on-site format. From now on, I think we’re going to have a portion of our business always in that virtual environment.”