Jerry Verseput has a plan to grow his advisory business in 2010: focus on 401(k) clients.

Verseput, whose firm, Veripax Financial Management LLC in El Dorado Hills, Calif., oversees $14 million for about 80 clients, says a fifth of his business is already retirement plans for small employers, such as a local construction firm and a not-for-profit. But those accounts have largely come piecemeal, in at least one case because a local business owner was already one of his individual clients.

Meanwhile, the 401(k) market, which is growing rapidly but still dogged by small plans with bloated administrative costs, seems like an opportunity.

"Plans are way too expensive for what they are achieving," he says. "It's not an area that's been served all that much."

About one in three financial advisors hope to make retirement plans a bigger part of their business or add them for the first time, according to a recent survey of about 1,500 advisors across the country by Cogent Research LLC, a business research firm. About half of advisors currently oversee plans, the study found.

That doesn't mean retirement plans make easy clients, says Fred Barstein, chief executive of 401kExchange Inc., whose company works with advisors that handle plans. Advisors that really want to get into the business often end up specializing, he says, in part because of complicated and constantly changing laws and regulations and in part because dealing with bureaucratic corporate clients can be a far different experience than dealing with individuals.

"We say to people, 'don't dabble,'" Barstein says, "You can get into a lot of trouble if you don't know what you are doing."

While Verseput acknowledges the obstacles, he points out that other areas of the advisory business are complicated and highly regulated too. Meanwhile, in the current business climate, many employers are eager to re-examine their benefit plans.

"I'm talking to companies that don't understand why they are getting these (administrative) fee bills," he says. "Businesses seem more likely to cut 401(k) expenses, when a while ago it didn't seem all that important in the great scheme of things."

By researching plans based on exchange-traded funds, Verseput says he's found options that would allow some potential customers to cut administrative expenses by up to half. ETFs' novelty doesn't necessarily mean they're better than conventional index funds, but it has helped with marketing, as has an informal partnership Verseput struck up last year with a local employee-benefit insurance broker he met at an industry golf tournament. The partnership, which involves mutual referrals but no money changing hands, helps Verseput find new clients and establish his credibility.

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