With unique expertise and a fearless independence, Marshall Cobb is emerging not simply as an influential advisor to employers on their retirement plans. The 40-year-old retirement specialist has become something of a champion for clarity and common sense in the field, overrun in recent years by sales jargon, hidden costs and deliberate inefficiencies. As a fee-only consultant, Cobb is a rare breed. But by all accounts he has a great future. "People like and respect Marshall," says a Houston fund manager, "which isn't easy when he's challenging almost every sales pitch."
Cobb's role is straightforward: He de-mystifies the mechanics of qualified retirement plans - principally 401(k) and other defined contribution plans, as well as traditional pension plans - by helping corporate managements identify the true costs of complex investment products, and then communicates plan options to employees and managements alike. In the process Cobb Retirement Solutions has accumulated clients nationally, well beyond his home base of Houston.
Tall and with a commanding presence (he could pass for a television anchor), and consistently positive, Cobb maintains an understated persona ("Twain called it 'The calm confidence of a Christian with Four Aces,'" says a peer). His potentially heated confrontations with commission-hungry salesmen are merely "discussions," and client meetings are "first and foremost educational," Cobb says.
Born in Fort Collins, Colorado, Cobb grew up "all over," for a time in Boston and later Houston as a teen; his father, a performing musician, led a band that covered Sha Na Na oldies and rock hits. But it was hardly glamorous for the young Cobb ("Our big night out was McDonald's once a week," adding "Change was part of my life.") He went on to UT, where he briefly played rugby and majored in Communications.
In many respects he fell into his career: He graduated from college amid "the worst job market in a generation" so he accepted an entry-level position with Variable Annuity Life Insurance Company in Houston, reviewing requests for proposals. But he seized on his opportunities, and over the next decade he worked in the retirement plan sales departments of Prudential Insurance in Newark, N.J., and AIM Distributors in Houston, gaining a fluency in qualified programs and investment products. Later he was a principal at a benefits-plan consulting firm.
In 2003 "I knew I was ready" to launch his own firm, which Cobb has built steadily through a succession of satisfied clients - businesses and corporations that typically have at least $10 million in retirement assets. Peers say Cobb's lifelong development of his abilities - including strong quantitative skills - stems from an unusual drive and determination; his firm's growth reflects that now as well. A longtime Prudential colleague, Thomas Ferrari, joined Cobb and operates a Northeast office for the firm in Scranton, PA.
Cobb, his wife, Tracey, and children recently moved back to Houston after living for two years in Brenham, Texas. His hasn't lost his sense of adventure though: His 1500-cc Honda Valkyrie still makes it out of the garage from time to time.