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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 10, 2003 14 years ago

Deadline Filers

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Attorneys at Ward Rovell & Van Eepoel aren't quite so frenzied this week. The deadline for employers to rewriting pension plans is past.

Deadline Filers

Attorneys at Ward Rovell & Van Eepoel aren't quite so frenzied this week. The deadline for employers to rewriting pension plans is past.

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

Alton Ward acts and talks like a CEO who just met a series of critical tax-filing deadlines. That's why the president of Florida's largest employee benefits law firm could take a moment recently to savor the panoramic vista of Tampa Bay from his corner office on the 41st story of Tampa's Bank of America building.

Late last month, Ward Rovell & Van Eepoel PA filed the last batch of rewritten retirement-plan documents with the Internal Revenue Service on behalf of hundreds of small businesses the firm represents throughout the 10-county Gulf Coast region and beyond. Over the past two years, the firm also successfully met similar IRS retirement-plan deadlines on behalf of the numerous publicly traded companies it represents.

"We've been busy burning the midnight oil, drafting and filing documents with the Internal Revenue Service," Ward says. "We met a Sept. 30 deadline that affected hundreds of our clients, rewriting several hundred employee-retirement plans."

In the 13 years since its formation, this business-and-tax law boutique has established itself in Florida as one of the leading practitioners of employee-benefits law under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

"In Florida, where I touch upon most of my clients, I don't know of any other law firm that has an ERISA practice comparable to theirs or even comes close," says Matthew Snook, a Tampa-based principal of Mercer Human Resource Consulting, one of the nation's largest employee-benefits consulting firms. "There are other good individual practitioners. I know of a couple of good ERISA attorneys in other firms (locally) but they're more of solo practitioners."

That is a statement Snook expresses without qualification. For instance, he retained the Tampa law firm when he left Mercer for a while and worked as an independent benefits plan manager. "I've known Al for almost 16 years; I've worked more directly with (the law firm) over the past 10 years," he says. "We had a lot of clients in common. When I went out on my own and needed an ERISA counsel, his firm was the only call I made."

Because of client confidentiality issues, Ward could not disclose the names of the firm's small-business clients. However, publicly filed retirement-plan documents show the firm represents publicly traded companies such as Catalina Marketing Corp., Kforce Inc., Lincare Holdings Inc. and Walter Industries Inc.

And don't think such retirement-plan documents are a mere formality. Retirement plans that fail to meet federal guidelines face the potential loss of tax exemptions. And millions of dollars are stake. Take Walter Industries, for instance. The diversified homebuilding, finance and industrial-products company reported $323 million in its long-term pension benefit obligations for its fiscal year ended Dec. 31, according to company financials.

"The retirement arena is very heavily regulated," says Ward, who originally worked in the employee-benefits industry as a consultant prior to earning a law degree at age 30 from the Stetson University College of Law. "That's because retirement plans and (home) mortgage deductions are the government's two biggest revenue losers."

The law firm's growth as an employee-benefits practitioner rests largely on the professional skills of Ward and Roger Rovell, a national expert in the area of professional employer organizations. The two met while practicing law at what is now Trenam Kemker Scharf Barkin Frye O'Neill & Mullis PA. In 1990, Ward, Rovell and six other attorneys spun off from Trenam Kemker and formed what was then Kalish & Ward PA. When former law partner William Kalish joined GrayHarris last year, Ward and Rovell joined with August Van Eepoel to create the firm's current identity.

Established as a business-and-tax law boutique, the law firm grew from just two employee-benefits attorneys to the eight now on staff. The firm employs 13 lawyers. As it grew, the firm also carved out market niches as legal counsel in several subspecialties of business-and-tax law.

For instance, the firm represents most of the tax-exempt health care providers in the Tampa Bay area, including Tampa General Hospital; Baycare Health Network Inc.; H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute; All Children's Hospital; and Bayfront Medical Center.

Through Rovell's practice, the law firm built a client base of more than 200 PEOs throughout the nation, including Bradenton-based Gevity HR Inc. and West Palm Beach-based Oasis Outsourcing Inc.

The law firm also found a niche as business-and-tax counsel for other professional associations - law, medical and other small businesses. It also established practices in the areas of business transaction, real estate and probate law.

While a leader in the area of employee-benefits law, Ward says the firm's potential for growth actually should come from other areas of its business-and-tax practice.

"We've saturated the market in the area of employee benefits," Ward says. "Going forward we see our growth in the business-and-tax practice area. One of the biggest areas we see for growth is in estate planning and trusts. We represent primarily high, net-worth individuals and small-business owners. With that clientele, estate planning and business are linked together. We do a lot of business succession and estate planning."

The law firm's emphasis on employee-benefits law also is shifting a bit, Ward says. That's because many of the firm's business clients are mired in a perplexing trend.

"The cost of health care for employees is escalating," he says. "So we're helping employers redesign their health (insurance) plans, and it looks like it's headed toward more consumer-driven health plans. They're looking to us and their consultants for a solution to the problem. They want to contain the rapidly escalating (premium) costs. The current thinking is to let each employee make their own personal health insurance decision."

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