The days of employee benefit advisers operating by the old playbook are long gone. In a business landscape of record low unemployment and lavish employee benefits from social media and tech companies, employers are scrambling to offer their workforce compelling and attractive benefits in order to keep their best talent. This is where this year’s crop of employee benefit advisers steps up.
The annual Adviser of the Year awards recognize excellence in the benefit adviser space. These are the men and women who deliver outstanding benefits in the categories of wellness, voluntary, retirement and technology as well as the overall Adviser of the Year.
Here’s a look at EBA’s Adviser of the Year for 2018.
Adviser of the Year
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David Sokol President Wilshire Benefits Group
As a decorated U.S. Army officer veteran, David Sokol relied on his West Point leadership training to pursue a post-military career. He served as an Army captain in Kuwait and Iraq during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star and later entered the insurance arena.
After he bought Wilshire Benefits Group in 2014, Sokol boosted the Troy, Michigan-based brokerage’s gross revenue to more than $3.7 million in 2017 from $1.05 million in 2013. His forecast for 2018 is gross revenue of more than $4.2 million.
Sokol is planning to expand his team to 39 advisers and support staff from 23 in the southern Michigan firm’s six offices. When asked what qualities he is looking for in new advisers and staffers, he acknowledges that a business and tech background are important. Still, he is looking for something extra.
EBA: What was your biggest work accomplishment this past year? Fine: Helping to adopt the Gallagher Better Works Strategy, offering holistic focus on employee and organizational well-being. The Gallagher Better Works Strategy provides solutions to improve the overall organizational well-being of clients, which in turn results in better physical and emotional well-being, better financial well-being and better career wellbeing for employees.
EBA: What makes you stand out as an adviser? Fine: Expertise in retirement plan consulting, bringing both experience and depth of resources to a plan sponsor thereby helping their employees and executives effectively plan for retirement.
Howard Labow President and CEO National Enrollment Services
EBA: What is the best thing about your job? Labow: The overwhelming satisfaction of being able to help tens of thousands of employees capture valuable “found money” from the government, through our assistance and education services with the Earned Income Tax Credit law while earning revenue through the sales of voluntary benefits. EBA: What makes you stand out as an adviser? Labow: In addition to guiding employees through the often murky waters of purchasing voluntary benefits, our firm is able to help tens of thousands of employees capture valuable “found money” from the government through the Earned Income Tax Credit program — which helps improve employees’ lives while they are living on the low end of the wage scale — ultimately enhancing employee satisfaction and stabilizing retention.
EBA: What is the biggest trend to watch in benefit advising for 2019? Labow: Flat fees for brokers. I believe commissions will continue to be squeezed in the health benefits marketplace. For this reason health benefits consultants need to reach out to enrollment firms to partner with in order to provide voluntary benefits to clients, thus generating additional commission income to replace the lost revenue in health insurance sales.
EBA: How would you describe your client base, by industry type? Where is your area of focus? Brummitt: I really don’t look for industry, more about employers that desire to have a higher degree of feedback and engagement. As a firm, the industry typically aligns to the producer’s interests or industry knowledge points. For me, I gravitate to medical practices and non-profits. My partners at AG may gravitate more toward manufacturing, construction, legal firms and more — but we are pretty collaborative group so we all get a broad experience and viewpoint.
EBA: What advice can you give to new advisers? Brummitt: You are so much more than an adviser or broker. You are the collection of failures, learning experiences and successes from each person you meet and each project you undertake. It is an great privilege to share that knowledge with your prospects, peers and clients. If you can understand how vital a role that is, keep your eyes and ears open during each meeting, you will never feel inferior or incompetent.
EBA: What is the biggest trend to watch in benefit advising for 2019? Brummitt: Data reporting and decision-making tools for both employers and employees. There is a huge wave of development as more products saturate this market.
“The difference in our whole office, as far as how it looks at voluntary benefits, has totally taken a complete turn,” says Kathy Passantino, area senior vice president at Gallagher, of her colleague Dana Simms.
“I’m on track in saving for retirement because from a young age I learned these things,” says Adviser of the Year winner Julie Yusko. “I hope my experience can help others be in the best position so that we have fewer people who are approaching retirement age and wondering how they're ever going to retire.”