New leader is—literally—invested in my529

Ellis brings years of financial experience (and 15 family accounts) to Utah’s plan

Like any my529 account owner, Richard Ellis wants the best for his beneficiaries.

As the new my529 executive director, he wants the best for you and your beneficiaries, too.

Formerly the my529 senior director for compliance, communications, finance and investments, Ellis officially took the helm in early October.

Morningstar Inc., an independent investment firm that rates 529 plans, noted the recent change in my529 leadership when it awarded my529 the Analyst Rating™ of Gold in October, calling Ellis an “experienced financial steward.”

“Having spent four years here before the transition took place really grounded me in the things we do day to day,” Ellis said. “While I had observed from the outside for more than 20 years, [being at my529], overseeing important pieces of the operation, I think, makes it a smooth transition.”

Ellis has been with my529 since November 2015. However, his experience with the Office of the Utah State Treasurer starting in 1996 put him in the unique position of watching the plan grow from the beginning. When my529 launched that year as the Utah Educational Savings Plan, the treasurer’s office administered the initial investment options.

Ellis served as Utah state treasurer from 2009 to 2015, as chief deputy state treasurer from 1996 to 2003 and again from 2006 to 2008. His oversight helped Utah maintain its triple-A bond rating. During his tenure, the treasurer’s office also managed a $12 billion local government investment pool. He also directed the (Utah) Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget from 2003 to 2006, and was an adjunct faculty member at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Management for 10 years.

Key to Ellis’s work at my529 was his service on the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB). 529 plans are municipal fund securities under the jurisdiction of the MSRB.

“I think my experience of having served on the (MSRB) regulatory board and understanding that environment also brings something to the table,” Ellis said.

Teen investor

Ellis’s interest in finance and investments started early.

“My dad used to buy and sell stocks, and I was always intrigued by that,” Ellis said.

His first foray into the stock market came in his teens when his father gave him 300 shares of American Motors Corporation (AMC). From there, he said, he started saving, buying and selling his own stocks.

Ellis, who hails from Klamath Falls, Oregon, attended the University of Oregon before completing a bachelor’s in finance at BYU. He earned an MBA from the University of Utah.

A summer job gave Ellis some perspective on what it takes to pay for college. He also saw how a four-year degree isn’t necessarily one size fits all.

“When I took off to go to University of Oregon, you know, the world was different then. I could work in a lumber mill in southern Oregon and make enough money in three months that it paid for room and board, books, tuition and spending money. It was all covered in just a summer’s work,” Ellis said. “And that was making $7.50 an hour, which was big money. A lot of kids would drop out and work in the lumber mills because the money was so good. I hated the work, so I was glad to go back to college in the fall.”

‘New phase of my529’

As executive director, Ellis said he looks forward to getting the word out about 529 plans. He also aims to enhance the my529 account owner experience into “the best experience we can” so that multiple generations of families can use my529 to invest for their futures.

Ellis is excited about how my529 and the 529 industry are maturing.

“We’re in a different place, I think, as we start to see money flow out as these kids have grown up and they’re off to college and technical schools,” Ellis said. “That’s what we’re here for, to help that, but it changes our cash flows and the dynamics. I think there’s a real opportunity and challenge in preparing for this new phase at my529.”

The work and mission of my529 also energize Ellis.

“I’m fortunate to work with a lot of extremely talented people. We have a fantastic staff here,” Ellis said. “They could do lots of other things with their lives, but I think they’re here because they buy into the mission also.”

‘We want to make a difference in people’s lives.’

As the father of six boys, Ellis said his sons range in skill sets from a doctor to an oral surgeon to CPAs, with another son for whom “technical college is probably the right place.”

“I’ve seen the difference education makes in [my sons’] lives. We need to get the message out that to change people’s lives, education helps to build a skill, whether it’s a technical skill or a professional skill.”

Ellis has 13 my529 accounts for his grandchildren, and he still has accounts for two of his sons.

He said he was “late to the game” saving for his children’s college costs, though all of his sons but one finished their undergraduate work without student loans, “and a 529 plan was a big piece of that.”

And what would a seasoned account owner—or an executive director—tell families as they begin saving for college or technical school?

“Start now. Be disciplined. It doesn’t have to be a lot of money. If it’s $25 a month, that’s going to add up to something when the child gets to school,” Ellis said. “There will always be expenses. You can’t count on scholarships or anything else, but what you save will make a difference.”