Joshua Itzoe, a partner with Greenspring Wealth Management, a fee-only wealth management and retirement plan consulting firm in Towson, Md. and Athens, Ga., stresses the importance of gaining technical expertise and being patient.

"It's not a quick hit," he says. "While we were growing the business, there were times I wanted to beat my head against the wall." The sales cycle, he learned, can be six months to three years.

Greenspring currently manages more than 40 401(k) plans representing roughly $425 million in assets, and it manages another $125 million for private wealth clients. The firm began its venture into retirement plan consulting about five years ago.

"We thought our fee-only model and independent approach would be an advantage on the retirement side and we weren't scared of the word fiduciary," says Itzoe. But clients didn't exactly line up at the door as he says he naively expected.

Itzoe, managing director of Greenspring's institutional client group, spent much of those first few years becoming technically proficient. He also published the book Fixing the 401(k), which examines the role of plan fiduciaries and tackles such issues as hidden costs, fee disclosure and conflicts of interest.

Greenspring's focus on best practices to fiduciary oversight has helped it distinguish itself from those competitors who concentrate mostly on investments and participant education.

The firm also takes a very proactive marketing approach, which Itzoe says is easier to do on the retirement plan side because of widely available public data. Searching Form 5500 filings within a 100 mile radius of a ZIP code and looking for plans with $5 million to $50 million in assets is a good way to get started, he says.

Greenspring has attracted many clients through speaking engagements on best practices. The firm puts on workshops and invites companies and other professionals to attend, along with their clients. Itzoe has built professional relationships with lawyers, CPAs, human resources and employee benefits professionals, and industry peers.

Such a relationship led to Greenspring's acquisition earlier this year of (k)larity Group, an Athens, Ga.-based retirement plan advisory firm focused on small to midsize 401(k) plans. An acquisition hadn't been part of Greenspring's strategy, but the opportunity presented itself when (k)larity's owner, whom Itzoe and his partner had shared ideas and best practices with, decided to sell the business to pursue other career opportunities.

How does Greenspring hold its own with the big guns in the 401(k) business? "If clients think we're competing with Fidelity, Vanguard and T. Rowe Price, we haven't done our job of explaining what we do," says Itzoe.