Timothy R. Yee is the President of Green Retirement Plans, Inc., a financial advisory firm with a nationwide presence. He has been an active leader in the financial services industry for more than 25 years and is an ambassador for the Social Venture Network. Mr. Yee is a leader in bringing sustainable, responsible and fossil-free investment options to retirement plans, with corporate and nonprofit retirement plans being his area of expertise.
His extensive experience includes being Vice President, Bank of America, as well as Branch Manager, AVP, T. Rowe Price, Walnut Creek Investor Center. He was appointed to the Office of Supervisory Jurisdiction (OSJ); was the Sales Director for a nationally top-ranked financial brokerage branch; and is currently an advisor for the retirement plans of Etsy in New York, Trillium Asset Management in Boston, and Hog Island Oyster Company and Burning Man in San Francisco, amongst others.
He graduated with honors (cum laude) from the University of California at Berkeley, Haas
Planet Experts: What compelled you to leave a successful Wall Street career and co-found Green Retirement, Inc.?
Timothy Yee: I was managing AIG’s top U.S. branch as the sales and compliance officer. My family and I were at the Top Producer conference in the Bahamas where we were being wined and dined. One night, we were being treated to dinner at Nobu, which was very hard to get a reservation at. I remember there was just course after course of food. After dessert had been served, I remember seeing this waiter coming out with this huge platter of beef. And my son who was with us, we’d gotten him out of school, he leans over and says, ‘Dad, I just can’t do this anymore.’ And he was a teenager, that kid could eat. And I remember thinking, yeah, this excess is beyond belief. I can’t do this anymore.
Shortly thereafter I told the better half I was going to leave AIG, set up a practice using my background in retirement plans and really use it as a platform to express our values. She then said, ‘Well, fine.’ She quit her job and we both jumped into the deep end of the pool just as the market started to crash [laughs]. So we know how to pick ’em.
I will say this, though, in all candidness. That was 2006. We’re now in 2014 going into ’15. We’re still standing, we’re doing very well, we have over 70 retirement plans across the U.S. and 130 individual clients.
PE: And in terms of that big platter of meat, do you now feel like you’re in a better place, morally, emotionally?
TY: I would agree with you. We went to Top Producer Conference again this year – it was down in Dana Point – and I really enjoyed my time there. Because I had gotten there under my own steam with my values, and I knew I had done it by making a difference.
I just saw an email come in about an hour ago saying, ‘Is it possible to be sustainable and profitable?’ They’re not mutually exclusive. You can live your values and have a good existence. You do not have to give up something to live your values.
PE: That outlook would seem to be against the general talk coming out of Washington right now, that going green is detrimental to American business and American workers and the American ethos.
TY: You know, I heard the same thing when seatbelts were first proposed: ‘It’s going to run automakers out of business.’ I think there’s a certain segment of the population that is change-averse, and I understand where that comes from. If you look at Professor Dan Ariely’s work in behavioral economics, there is a resistance to change that is ingrained in us humans. Because the first person out of the cave was the one who got his head snapped off by the sabertooth tiger.
But, having said that, it is change that is necessary. We can’t keep doing business as usual. And I think to hide behind American jobs, when you unpack it – and Naomi Klein does a very good job of this in This Changes Everything – when you start to look at the numbers, you find these things don’t hold any water. If you Google ‘losing American jobs’ you’ll find the number of times that line has been trotted out. It probably was used by the buggy makers when the automobile came out.
It’s interesting. I remember being at a rally with Van Jones in, I think, 2007 and I said, you know, there are jobs that will be lost but does that mean the end of the world as we know it? No, it’s an opportunity to retrain people for new jobs.
There was an auto factory that was converted into a solar plant. Why don’t you take people off an auto line – they obviously know engineering and metal – and couldn’t we train them to make windmills? Well, golly! [Laughs] How about if we tried paying people a living wage next?
PE: That’s if you’re willing to take that second step, to remove them from one field and train them in another. But the knee-jerk reaction always seems to be, ‘No, this is the way we’ve always done it and to do anything else would be nothing short of Communism.’
TY: If somebody comes at it from that point of view, they’re defending entrenched interests. Again, Naomi Klein lays out a really good series of arguments on this, and it’s very thought-provoking. She really takes a look at that argument and why people adhere to it.
When you face a world that cannot exist if we keep going the way things are going, I think change is necessary. And I’m sorry that some people don’t agree, but I certainly am not going to be the first person living on the moon. It doesn’t seem too nice up there.
PE: Green Retirement was the first financial firm in Oakland, California to be certified by the Bay Area Green Business Program. What does that entail?
TY: We submitted ourselves for examination. It’s something we believed in. The program really certifies a company as green, so instead of greenwashing and saying ‘we are green,’ it puts teeth into the program, it puts standards in place and then says how do you stack up against the standards? And then they come out and verify it. One of the things we said in ’07 was that we drove a hybrid – and the auditor went out into the parking lot to verify we indeed had a hybrid.
And so we were the first financial firm certified green by the Bay Area Green Business program. We went through the scrutiny, which was a fair amount, because it’s who we are, it’s what we believe in. We wanted to stand out from the noise and say these are our values, this is what we believe in. It was a fairly rigorous process and then they re-audited us some years later. So it’s not a one-and-done thing.
PE: Your website indicates that Green Retirement is built on three pillars: Environmental Stewardship, Social Responsibility and Community Commitment. What do these pillars mean to you and what role do they play on a practical level in your business?
TY: First we look at it from the business that we do, which is 401Ks. In all of our plans, we have investments in those plans that focus on the environment, on social responsibility and on the community. We are literally channeling money in the 401K into these areas. That is a very practical application in our business. By the same token we ourselves practice what we preach: I think about environmental stewardship and the number of beach cleanups and things that we’ve done.
On the social responsibility front, I think about Kitchen Table Advisors. They support young farmers. They’re focused on farmers who get organic, get local, get sustainable, but also need business advice This is a group we are proud to support. The issues they are addressing affect all of us.
And then community commitment. Again, Kitchen Table Advisors, very much a local group here in the Bay area, we’re heavy supporters of them. It’s our belief in giving back to the community. And I could stretch back even beyond that with other non-profits. Both Rose and I served on non-profit boards. I remember serving Thanksgiving dinners and working in food kitchens. It is imperative that business give back to the communities it works in.
I don’t say this to toot our horn, I just think business exists beyond just profit. There is a true giving-back that needs to happen. Business can be a force for good, and that’s what we’re doing here.
PE: Do you ever find yourself having to convince your clients about that idea, or do they typically come to you with that already in mind?
TY: I would say they don’t necessarily come to us in the 401K world because of those values, they come to us for our 401K expertise. I wish I could say people are seeking us out strictly because of our values. I don’t think people are there yet.
It sort of flies in the face of logic. Shouldn’t green businesses naturally want a green 401k? But it’s what I hope through Planet Experts among many platforms that we can get the word out. I’m not putting the burden all on your shoulders, of course, Pierce. But you would think that, first off, if I have a green company, they have a green 401K, that would be natural.
PE: It seems like it’s right there in the name.
TY: You would think it. But many don’t know that they can use their 401K money for good. They assume that their choice is to go to Fidelity, get a 401K and there they have it. Many are surprised by the option of being green. There are those who still believe that you have to give something up if you’re invested in a social or fossil fuel-free portfolio. The performance numbers don’t show that. The numbers actually show that you can beat your indices or benchmarks by being socially responsible or fossil-free.
We have clients who are in fossil fuels. Ultimately it is the client’s decision. I will give them my best advice, I will lay out the business case, but as with any change you have to get to a tipping point.
I do have clients who are not socially-responsible themselves. We have a publicly-traded technology company in the LA area. Nothing really socially-responsible, but they realize that they should have these options in their plan, and they’re there. There’s an import-export business in the U.S. and, frankly, I would say the owner was fairly…on the right. At the same time, he realized that his employees were asking for this, and so those got put into play.
PE: As the price for renewables comes down and climate change rises in the public consciousness, we’re hearing more talk about fossil fuels becoming stranded assets. Is this a valid concern for investors?
TY: It is a valid concern. Naomi Klein’s point of view is that we have until 2017 before the planet slides into an irreversible decline. Another group I talked to said 2015 in Paris is the deadline to get something done. Given the latest that we saw from the U.S. and China about carbon emissions and on cutting, ThinkProgress is asking the climate scientists what they think, and what we’re seeing is years are being tossed around like 2025 and 2030. So basically we’re looking at it in under 10 years.
It is very much a valid risk. Stranded asset risk is something we talk about frequently.
It’s sort of common sense. If you have an asset that is propping up your stock price and it is determined that asset cannot be used – in other words, it’s worthless – I would say your stock price is going to be coming down. I can tell you anybody invested in that in their 401K being told, ‘Hey, how would you like to work another 15 years?” – that employee would not necessarily be thrilled at the prospect of working longer because their 401k is worth less.
It’s an ongoing dialogue. It’s one where I keep spreading the message, the more places I can get it out into. People don’t realize the practical implications. Part of it I think is because they’re attention-starved, they’ve got too many things going on.
When you look at the 401K industry as a subset of the financial sector, under five percent of the advisors in the U.S. focus on the 401K. And when you see how many of those advisors have 10 plans or more, you find yourself somewhere in the neighborhood of around 1,000 advisors or under.
PE: Why so few?
TY: Because it is a complicated topic. It’s not fun – it’s also not a get-rich-quick area. If I wanted to, say, sell you a mutual fund – here, sign this, boom, I get paid. With a 401K it’s involving many different people. It’s you and your whole organization. People are slow to act when it involves others.
That’s one of the reasons advisors don’t get involved in it. I know with one plan it took me five years to land it. I can tell you I’m mighty glad that I wasn’t counting on it to pay my bills. And this is a person I had known for 10 years. So if it takes that long just to get the business, imagine how long it takes to get our message through on fossil-free.
PE: Have you seen a significant growth in green investment opportunities over time?
TY: I would say so. Not as much as I would like. The Shelton Green Alpha Fund, for example, started last year, and was up 50 percent. Got very high accolades from Morning Star. But I would like to see more. There are pressing needs that need to be addressed. And if we can’t do it at a policy level then maybe it’s private business that needs to get involved.
PE: What does it take for people to become socially responsible investors?
TY: I’d say it’s something that has to come from the inside.
Rose [Timothy’s wife] grew up in the Philippines under Martial Law. She got the social injustice, she saw the economic issues. I grew up poor in El Cerrito, just down the road in the Bay Area. I think an individual needs to look around and say I see a world outside of myself and this isn’t right.
When you drive off the freeway and you see a veteran holding a sign – we’re the only first-world country out there, we’re a super-power, and we can’t take care of our own? We need to address those things. We can’t let them go unheeded.
I saw a statistic that talked about, I think, we have two to three times the number of empty homes as we have homeless people. Now I’m not saying let’s scoop up all the homeless and put one in each house. You need to have a support structure, you need to analyze why is the person homeless. But seeing a family living in a car, what’s wrong with us as a country? And through my own way I’m trying to influence that dialogue and shift money, because money is what talks in this country. I’m trying to show that business can be a force for good.
PE: Your firm was also a founding B Corp and one of the first businesses in California to become a Public Benefit Corporation. What is a B Corp? What is a Public Benefit Corporation?
We are a founding B Corp. There were 82 or 83 of us back in ’07. There are now over 1,100 around the world. B Corp is a certification. It is a group of businesses who believe that business can be a force for good.
Public Benefit Corporation, that was passed by the state of California – it’s being done on a state-by-state basis, and you have to state that you as a company have a public benefit. Our benefit is offering retirement plan help to those who ask. As a Public Benefit Corporation, we hold ourselves out that we will help anyone who asks for retirement plan help. We don’t have an account minimum. Because everyone deserves help.
This past Friday we met with a person, 40-year-old, who is unemployed. He has $11,000, he’s trying to figure out what to do with it. On Monday we met with a young couple, late twenties, trying to get their feet under themselves.
PE: How do you make a profit by helping people out who are having trouble just making ends meet?
TY: Well, I don’t make a profit on them, but I have other clients who I do make a profit on. If we say, okay, there’s a veteran standing by the side of the road, there is no return on investment for me to stop – as a matter of fact, it’s a waste of my time – I think that’s what’s wrong in this country. If we don’t care about our fellow man and we don’t care about our environment, as one of my Republican clients said, ‘I think we’re all heading for the moon.’
I am not interested in being in that outpost. I don’t know about you. But yeah, if we trash this planet, where else are we going? If we don’t take care of our fellow man, what does that say about us as a country?
I speak out of ignorance here but I remember my dad telling me about in the 1960s, neighbors who would help each other out, and you knew your neighbors. Where is that sense of community in the U.S.?
I’m not a sociologist but I wonder if we’ve gotten so wrapped up in ourselves behind our headphones, it’s almost like I put a shield over myself. I don’t want to help. I want to harden my heart so I don’t see it. And you can’t help everyone, I understand that.
To your point, if I spent my entire time helping everyone who doesn’t have two dimes to rub together, yes, I’m not going to be viable. As a for-profit company, I need to be self-sustainable before I can help others. But what happens if we all chip in?
PE: Fossil fuel divestment has recently gained a lot of momentum. I have spoken to fellow Planet Expert Greg Wendt on the Rockefeller divestment in the past, and he contends that divestment alone does not go far enough. Some may be removing themselves from fossil fuels, but there’s still the other side of it, which is, you’re getting rid of those assets but the assets still exist and somebody else will buy them. What’s your opinion on divestment?
TY: I’m actually all for it. Divestinvest.org, the website, when they got started they focused on individual and philanthropy divestment and reinvestment. They didn’t have anything on the 401K, though. So we were approached to be the experts in the 401K field, which is what we do. So they’re now going to be adding a sleeve to that website talking about 401Ks. And I feel very strongly about this. We need to divest 401K assets from the fossil fuels. There are plenty of things to invest in.
That’s usually the point people bring up, ‘oh it’s great to divest but where are we going to invest?’ There are plenty of options. Trust me, I’ve been doing this for 25 years.
And yes, to your point, the person who divests, it means they’re selling, it means somebody else is buying. Well, there will always be somebody there to buy. I’m sure there was somebody to buy buggy whips too. But eventually people are going to realize this is not viable. Sadly, in any stock market downturn there is always somebody buying. And, you know, you hope you’re not the person holding Enron when it craters.
The Divest Invest movement is a very clear, solid project where it represents the voices of everyday citizens. There are major groups that are lining up behind this and we’re working with some of them. We can’t say who they are but major organizations that are looking to move their retirement plans to fossil-free and make a statement about it.
PE: So, divestment, still a good course. Eventually, it’ll gain enough momentum to where the fossil fuel companies will have to understand that people don’t want them anymore.
TY: Yes, exactly. And it’s not ‘We’re against a a specific company.’ I’m not against the Chevrons and Texacos as a company if they’re doing renewables. What I’m against, and what I think every shareholder would be against, is having your money squandered by extracting more natural gas, coal and oil when you already have a stock pile that you can’t use. To me it’s sort of running into a brick wall saying, ‘Ouch, it hurts’ and then doing it again. You know?
At what point do you say, ‘Yes, you made a lot of money out of that. Great. Now, what’s next? How are you going to reinvent yourself?’
And I don’t think this is really uncharted territory. Going back to your comment earlier about American jobs being lost, there are so many other countries that have done it. Take a look at what Germany has done in solar and wind, you look at Denmark and what they’re doing in wind, and why aren’t we doing it? As the world’s super-power, why don’t we?
If you remember, off the California coast we couldn’t have windmills because they would destroy the view. We were in Copenhagen and they actually looked quite nice there.
It’s not like we’re inventing something new. Other people have done it. So what is it? Is it political will that we lack? Is it lobbyists who are telling us to go one way?
I think it’s a lack of political will, I think it’s entrenched interests. I would look at Citizens United here. The politicians are there to represent us and be our voice. Are they really representing us? I don’t think so.
PE: Is green investment a way to change that conversation?
TY: We need to go ahead and vote with our money. Moving the 401K assets, that’s a $7 trillion market. If you factor in government plans and other things it becomes a larger piece of pie, but $7 trillion is one estimate. And we need to as a country say this is what we’re going to do, this is what we believe in. And at the same time we need the viable alternatives.
To contact Timothy Yee, you can email him at this link.