My $50 Million Mistake

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We learn from our successes and failures, except in the latter case it can be very painful. But that’s why I will never forget what I could have done to land a $50 million account.

I remember the meeting like it was yesterday. It had taken me almost a year to persuade the head of human resources for a mid-sized industrial company to agree to discuss their 401(k) plan with me.

A great opportunity

It was a typical plan, populated with expensive, actively managed funds, with a couple of token index funds added to the mix. I was confident that, with the right presentation, I could persuade him to switch the plan to one consisting solely of a limited number of portfolios (at different risk levels) using low-management-fee passive funds. I knew I could demonstrate lower cost to plan participants and higher expected returns.

It was a no-brainer.

I wasn’t going to take any chances with such a large, promising prospect. I wanted to be sure my presentation was flawless. I arranged for the meeting to be held at the office of the fund family I was using, and asked them to have their best client-facing person lead the meeting.

They didn’t disappoint. The person they selected had a Ph.D in finance. He was engaging and articulate. His presentation was flawless. He reviewed the data showing the impact of high costs on performance. He discussed the peril of stock picking, market timing and chasing returns. He provided compelling data on the dismal performance of actively managed funds. He illustrated his points with a few well-designed slides.