“You Control Your Destiny” With Tom Zgainer, CEO and Founder of AB401k

Yitzi Weiner
Jun 26, 2018 · 11 min read
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All throughout my youth, my father would constantly say, “You control your destiny, you control your destiny.” I just did not get for a long time what the heck he was talking about. He was not a highly educated man, and never read any self-help book, that’s for sure. But he certainly had a PhD in common sense, and had a way of getting straight to the point. This was his way of saying my outcomes in life would be a result of my choices. I still find myself saying that phrase to myself daily. “You Control Your Destiny.” It is a constant reminder for me, and helps me to visualize outcomes both personally and professionally during the decision-making process.

I had the pleasure to interview Tom Zgainer, CEO and Founder America’s Best 401k

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I started working in the retirement plan industry in 2002, and over the next 10 years became fed up with the financial services industry treating 401k plans like their own cash cow, robbing the financial resources of now 80 million Americans for whom a 401k is the primary savings vehicle for life after active work. And everyone accepted that was just the way it had to be.

So I set out to create a new model, similar to Netflix rendering Blockbuster obsolete, or ride-sharing companies like Lyft debunking a 100-year-old model whereby the only way to get a ride was from a taxi. So we set out to go toe to toe with billion-dollar companies and create a solution that recognizes there are real people socking away their hard-earned money into their 401k, and rescue their retirement savings from the archaic Goliaths of the industry.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began as CEO of America’s Best 401k (AB401k)?

America’s Best 401k’s roots began in a company named Personal Capital, a private wealth management company that was one of the original “robo-advisors.” Their CEO at the time, Bill Harris, who was formerly the CEO of both Paypal and Intuit, brought me on in the summer of 2012 to build a new 401k option to complement their private wealth business — a 401k option that was entirely different than anything that existed prior. We called it the Personal Capital 401k.

In early 2013 Personal Capital went out for a series C round of funding, about $25 million, and the net result was that the new investors wanted them to focus on private wealth and to get out of the 401k business. Knowing this might be coming, which would have me out of a position there, in March 2013 I went out and bought the URL for americasbest401k.com, just in case. Soon afterward, the VC round closed and on Monday, June 17, 2013, while I was on vacation with my family in Sarasota Florida, Bill called me and said while they needed to shut down the 401k business, the company inside the company was essentially being given to me, including all clients, revenue, rights, etc. So that afternoon I became a CEO, and immediately formed an LLC that same day. (And I will be eternally grateful to Personal Capital for their kindness and for Bill’s friendship and support ever since.)

On Thursday of that same week, June 20th, at about 3:30 in the afternoon, I received a call from Robbins Research International. My initial thought this was a call inviting me to one of Tony Robbins’ events. It was in fact the HR director for one of his companies, saying they were concerned the 401k plan for Tony’s company (over 300 employees) was absorbing excessive fees in their plan via a well-known insurance company. It turned out it was, and in a couple of months they became the biggest client of the newly formed America’s Best 401k.

Just after that, September 22, a Sunday, I flew to Las Vegas to meet Tony Robbins for the first time. He was just starting to write his bestseller MONEY: Master the Game, and wanted to include a chapter about the prevailing problems in 401k plans. After all, he saw it first-hand in his own plan and wanted to know just how big an issue this was across the 500,000 401k plans at the time. A meeting scheduled for 30 minutes went over three hours. At its conclusion, Tony realized that while he was able to fix the problem in his own plan, his passion to end suffering of all kinds would logically carry forth into helping carry forward the mission of America’s Best 401k. He joined our board and became a partner, along with his son Josh (who is now our Chief Strategy Officer), soon afterwards.

Talk about proximity to power! With Tony’s global presence and millions of followers on his social media platforms, he was and continues to be a major factor in the growth of our business.

What do you think makes AB401k stand out? Can you share a story?

The realization that, every day, there are real people and real families counting on the savings they accumulate in their 401k plans to help them live a secure and dignified life in retirement, is what drives our business. Over 80 million people, nearly a third of our population, rely on their 401k to save for retirement. Educating as many of those people as we can that a 1% difference in fees over 20–30 years of investing can effectively rob 10 years of their savings is one of our major goals. We don’t have 10 years to give up! Every day we share a story with business owners which involves showing them, on one page, how easily they can completely change their outcomes at retirement, for themselves and their families as well as all their employees and their families.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

Our entire focus is to let business owners across the country know they can have a modern 401k plan that eliminates middlemen. We’ve been growing at an amazing rate, and growing organically, going toe to toe with companies with 30-plus years in the business — and we now have clients in 49 states. These big players now know who we are.

We will soon announce some very prominent additions to our Board of Advisors. Along with that we’ve recently added a “Board of Ambassadors,” with dentists to start, and soon to include leaders in medicine and law, which will help move the needle among their peers that offer 401k plans and can benefit from lower fees.

In addition, we continue to enhance the day-to-day AB401k experience for our participants, offering them interactive video educational content coupled with live one-on-one financial advice delivered on demand.

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What advice would you give to other C-Suite executives to help their employees to thrive?

Jeff Bezos was recently quoted as saying he disagrees with the notion of striving to create a work and life balance, as if there are just two sides to an employee’s life. Rather, employers should think of an employee work/life balance as a circle where ALL we do in work and life connects. It’s more a matter of when we do all these things during the hours of the day and week. I’ve long felt the idea of “work five days and take off two” is outdated. Why not have time during all the days in the week to think, to work if you like, to recreate and pursue your avocations, along with your vocational responsibilities.

So my advice is this: don’t box your employees into one way of thinking. Hire them because they want to be a part of your company’s mission, whatever that may be. Make sure they understand what is expected in their role, be sure they treat every co-worker as an equal … and then just let them do it. They certainly don’t need to think like you all the time. While some employees will be more creative that others, they ALL have ideas. So foster and encourage them.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

Like most people I’ve been motivated, inspired and encouraged by many people I’ve known at various times in my personal and professional lives. Along with those whose works, deeds, accomplishments, books, etc. I’ve admired but never met.

For me, I give all the credit to my wife Angelika. I was in my late 30s, undecided on a career path, and longing for a family of my own when we met in 1996. She grew up in Germany, was a world-traveler, wicked smart on innumerable subjects, and became and still is the best ear and counsel anyone could ever have.

She kept encouraging me to start my own company, to stop making so much money for “other people,” to hang in there when we had no name recognition, no national client base, no media attention. She just kept saying, “Stick to your convictions, AB401k is saving people’s financial lives, it’s going to work.” Her ideas may not be visible to our participants, but they are all over AB401k.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

As a company, we give a lot of copies of Tony Robbins’ book UNSHAKEABLE to business owners and attendees at conferences. The profits from each book sold go to providing 50 meals to those in need through Feeding America as part of Tony’s Billion Meals Challenge. While the book feeds you with great financial perspectives, it’s great to know a warm meal is getting to so many at the same time. We also sponsor community water projects, currently in Africa, through Water.org. Personally, for many years I’ve contributed to Kiva.org. They use small donations that collectively help entrepreneurs, often in impoverished communities around the world, get funding to start a business. It is fascinating to see how such small amounts of capital can lead to a thriving enterprise. It is very heartwarming to receive updates on their progress, and hear about the lives they, in turn, touch.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. Please share a story or example for each

1. Clint Eastwood said in the film Magnum Force, “A man has got to know his limitations.” Starting a company, you think you have to do everything or can do everything. I found out early during the first year of AB401k that every time I would Google “How to…,” that meant it was time to let an expert who knew how to do that thing do it. As soon as I starting dishing off things not in my lane of expertise, my time was completely freed up to focus on building our client base.

2. You might think you have enough capital to start a business and maintain your standard of living, but you probably do not. When you start hiring out expertise as noted in №1, those are costs not expected or forecasted. Because you intended to do it, until you realize you cannot do it! And in some cases, these things just cannot be imagined beforehand. Build those cash reserves.

3. Lawyers — jeez they are expensive! However, you will need them and want great subject matter experts. Best of all, they help get you to understand things that can protect your business, or reach agreements with third-party vendors to help grow your business.

4. I did not know one person can change everything. Proximity to power, and the power of an influencer, has the ability to accelerate your business like nothing else, except for an overwhelming demand for your product or service. America’s Best 401k, and me personally, have been featured in Tony Robbins’ last two books, MONEY: Master the Game and UNSHAKEABLE. These books are given to his hundreds of thousands of event attendees worldwide. At his Business Mastery events, he and I pitch and catch in front of the audience. We are truly blessed to have a worldwide icon involved with the mission of America’s Best 401k.

If you can align yourself in such a way with someone who is not just a paid spokesperson, but an actual influencer who is passionate about what you do, any historical business model can be busted to make way for your new way of doing it. And as result, your company can thrive and create a new standard.

5. You have to be flexible and you have to be willing to pivot, swiftly, when presented with a better or new way of doing something. This world today moves so fast that no moss can be allowed to grow under your business. In the past six months, we’ve enhanced our platform to include Artificial Intelligence, video messaging via email and conference calls, a chat line, and 10-minutes-or-less onboarding of new clients…all while maintaining live support to participants on demand. Not one of those things were part of AB401k a year ago. Now, we could not exist without them, and we’re constantly searching for more to enhance the experience for our participants.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

All throughout my youth, my father would constantly say, “You control your destiny, you control your destiny.” I just did not get for a long time what the heck he was talking about. He was not a highly educated man, and never read any self-help book, that’s for sure. But he certainly had a PhD in common sense, and had a way of getting straight to the point. This was his way of saying my outcomes in life would be a result of my choices.

I still find myself saying that phrase to myself daily. “You Control Your Destiny.” It is a constant reminder for me, and helps me to visualize outcomes both personally and professionally during the decision-making process.

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Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Can I have a roundtable of eight? Actually, while there are many people across the spectrum I admire, at this time in life, I most enjoy any meal I can have with my wife and two sons. With one son in college and the other about to chart his own path, any opportunity for us to all be together and engage in lively conversation is to be cherished. It was not that long ago that it was mom and dad doing the talking. Any breakfast or lunch where I get to now hear our sons’ opinions, ideas, concerns and passions — some in unison, some in disagreement — will always be my favorite meal.

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