Interview with Courtenay Shipley

Advisor Q&A: Courtenay Shipley Brings Creative Fuel to the Retirement Industry

Retirement Advisor Council Board President Courtenay Shipley, Founder and “Chief Planologist” at Retirement Planology, talks about her unique perspective and what fuels her passion for the industry

Benjamin Franklin once said, "If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.” That explains a lot about shipley cCourtenay Shipley, Founder and Chief Planologist at Retirement Planology, a consulting and investment advisory firm dedicated to helping organizations make smart decisions about their employee retirement plans. She juggles that role, family responsibilities, and many others every day. Moreover, her commitment to the retirement industry and helping Americans retire with dignity and financial surety never waivers.

Currently, Shipley serves as the Board President of the Retirement Advisor Council (RAC). The Council advocates for successful qualified plan and participant retirement outcomes through the collaborative efforts of experienced, qualified retirement plan advisors, investment firms, asset managers, and defined contribution plan service providers. As her tenure as RAC Board President draws to a close, we took the opportunity to ask her a few questions about the Council, the industry, and what she sees for the future of both.

Q: You have been active in the retirement industry for some time. You’ve been recognized by Financial Times Top 401 Retirement Plan Advisors annual list, named a Top Women Advisor All-Star by the National Association of Plan Advisors, and named a 2018 NAPA Young Gun: Top 75 under 40. What fuels your passion for this industry?

A: From the moment I stepped into this industry over 20 years ago, I found it was a perfect place for my skills and expertise, and I believed I could make a difference. I founded Retirement Planology with a focus on the 'smid' market—small and medium-sized businesses, with our sweet spot being those with 500 employees or less. Our client base is diverse, spanning across industries, non-profits, for-profits—the whole spectrum. Our clients are growing companies dedicated to making thoughtful business decisions, especially about their retirement plan. Working with this size of organization allows us to foster a more holistic relationship with leadership for value creation, and with the employees.

Q: What are your clients asking for and are those questions leading indicators for the industry itself?

A: We've been having refreshing discussions about retirement plans and financial education lately. We are moving past the so-called 'latte effect'—the idea that giving up a $4 latte could magically fund your retirement plan. Hint: no one wants to give up anything to save in their plan! But the combination of the Pandemic and inflation has flipped the focus on life and money. It’s about empowering folks to think about what truly matters to them, choosing where to spend their money, while ruthlessly cutting back on things that don’t matter as much. If that latte is your daily joy, that's fantastic! Let's work to ensure you'll have the funds to savor it in retirement, too. It's all part of a fresh perspective on retirement plans, woven into the fabric of a broader financial conversation.
The retirement plan is one piece of a puzzle—the comprehensive benefits program. Let’s talk data because that’s what everything leads back to now! Enter the HRIS systems, the unsung heroes in the world of compiling and managing that data--the central hub for performance management, providing valuable feedback to management while tracking trends and spotting opportunities. In this hiring environment, everyone wants engaged and motivated employees, boosted retention rates, and constrained budgets well spent. Cutting edge retirement advisors leverage that data to help with plan design, communication, education, and reporting. Plan Sponsors want effective benefits and now seek an elevated level of support from their trusted consultants and advisors to serve the big picture.

Q: Your perspective is unique. What fuels that?

A: My background is different than most advisors; in college, I majored in music performance. This education and experience have uniquely equipped me and our team to understand the intricate interplay of content, context, and composition. That symphony also applies to how I see our industry. I am analytical. I see the details. But, true to my training and education, I see the big picture as well. Creative thinking fuels creative plan design which fuels business value. Whether it's crafting strategic approaches to total compensation packages, employee retention programs, or optimizing retirement plans and HSAs, each of these components forms a crucial piece of the larger, harmonious whole.

Q: You’re very involved in the Retirement Industry more widely as well. What drew you to the Retirement Advisor Council in particular?

A: While our industry is full of associations, events, and organizations, each carrying its own significance, The Retirement Advisor Council stands out as unique. It distinguishes itself through a genuine spirit of collaboration and ongoing conversation within its membership. Notably, the Council operates with a distinctive approach: the membership actively shapes and molds the in-person meetings and virtual sessions. There is no predefined agenda. The content of every meeting and event is set by the membership.

Q: How specifically does the membership of the Council as you said, “shape and mold” the direction and content of RAC events and activities?

A: The Retirement Advisor Council serves as a hub for industry conversations—discussions that delve into the future direction of our field, the current pulse of the marketplace, emerging trends, and the challenges that professionals are encountering. Our focus is on Retirement Plan Advisors deeply committed to their clients, their clients' businesses, plan participants, and the refinement of their practices. Membership to the Council is by invitation only, and my mission has been to amplify those voices—the thought leaders, thought-sharers, and influencers—bringing them to the table with our partner service providers in the business to make a difference.

We maintain a year-round connection, extending beyond our two semiannual in-person meetings, fostering a vibrant and engaged community. My efforts have been centered on reinvigorating the mechanisms that facilitate our collective work. At the heart of this is a call for all members to actively participate in committees; each with specific and diverse goals. From meeting planning, agendas, and government affairs to research, strategic initiatives, marketing and PR, advisor tools, and financial literacy -- committees form the backbone of our collaborative efforts and thought leadership.

Q: Financial Literacy. That is certainly a hot button these days. What does the Retirement Advisor Council Financial Literacy committee do?

A: In 2022 we surveyed the Council and found that by a large margin, financial literacy was critically important to RAC members. We also discovered two things: Financial Wellness Programs are not the endgame – financial literacy really starts young and in schools. And second, grassroots efforts on the local level are clearly the most impactful.

Recognizing the pervasive impact of financial literacy, RAC launched FinLitFuture$ ( We shifted our focus from giant, national programs to making a local difference. FinLitFuture$ is a collaborative endeavor organized by the Council, rallying the collective volunteer and advocacy efforts of members of the retirement industry. Our shared commitment revolves around advancing financial education in schools and community programs. We’re proud of this initiative. We look forward to seeing the results for 2023/24 and set the goals for the next stage. All the credit goes to our incredible Financial Wellness and Education Committee – they did an awesome job!

Q: What is next for you on the Council in 2024?

A: I plan to continue to support the Council and of course, incoming president Alex Assaley. I’m sure the transition will be seamless!

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