Health care reform, rising costs, market consolidation and technological innovations are bringing unprecedented change to the benefits advising business, the full consequences of which remain to be seen. Many an industry veteran has succumbed to the uncertainty, selling their decades-old book of business and wondering why anyone would want to remain. But the answer is obvious to the leaders of the next generation. With change comes the opportunity to uproot the ways of the past and bring fresh ideas in areas such as technology and cost containment, even networking.
EBA searched the country to find this year's 10 "Rising Stars in Advising," all age 40 and under, who are making a name for themselves and moving the industry forward.
Mike Ripley, 26
Employee Benefits Consultant
Old National Insurance
Fort Wayne, Ind.
As a volunteer who logs more than 400 hours a year coaching football and performing other services, giving back to the community is just one of the things that makes Mike Ripley, CEBS, stand out among the crowd.
"Aside from the time that I spend with my wife, volunteering is the most important thing to me," he says. "It's absolutely a passion of mine."
The benefits consultant has been involved with a Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter in Indiana and has been matched with his little brother for three and a half years.
He brings that mentoring attitude to his work at Old National Insurance, which he joined five years ago. Young brokers bring "a ton" of insights and revitalization to the industry, says Ripley.
What's important for a young person getting into this business now, Ripley says, is that the industry itself is in "a state of upheaval."
"By coming in as a new person with no preconceived notions you can bring new life to an industry that is in the middle of one of the biggest changes since ERISA," Ripley says.
Ripley recently sat on a panel comprised of experts for a local newspaper to discuss the impact of health care reform, and was asked to speak at a religious freedom rally in Allen County, Ind.
He is also the recipient of the 2011 Indiana State Association of Health Underwriters Emerging Leader Award, which is given to individuals that have been with NAHU for fewer than five years.
Ripley encourages all young insurance professionals to have a mentor. "It's invaluable," he says. "There's no way to know where you need to go if you don't know where everybody has been. If we can't get the feedback of those who established the last 30 years' worth of business, if we can't get their take on things, their perspective, then we're going to lose all that historical data moving forward."
Garrett J. Durkin, 26
F.B.C. Services Inc.
Not all the up-and-comers in the profession started at ground level. Sometimes they are part of the next generation, the offspring of business owners and the basis for succession planning.
Garrett Durkin, for example, has big plans for his future: taking over his father's business, F.B.C. Services, where he currently works as an insurance consultant.
After growing up outside Phoenix and attending Arizona State University, he helped his Dad, Chris Durkin, who is president and founder of one the largest and biggest insurance firms in Arizona, with little things such as stapling and paperwork.
He moved on to some administrative work and then reached a dramatic life choice: Go to law school or continue working with his father. With law school, Durkin says, you could be $100,000 in debt and work 80 hours a week for 10 years and maybe make partner, or in insurance you could work endless hours and make as much as any lawyer.
It's a decision he has not looked back on, as he says he is at a point financially where his wife does not have to work much and can stay home with their 10-month-old son.
He believes he's one of the youngest people in Arizona to have both Registered Health Underwriter and Registered Employee Benefit Consultant designations. Additionally, he has achieved "Tier 1" producer level with Colonial.
Yet, he credits his Dad for helping him along the way and says having a mentor is key for those joining the profession. "In our business, you get told 'no' 20 times more than 'yes.'
"It's been extremely helpful to have someone who's been there say 'this is normal,' you are on the right track," he says. "For someone successful like my Dad to say you are doing it right, that's tremendous help," he adds.
Jennifer Skinner-Mitchen, 35
President & CEO
Hoosier Benefit Plans
With past as prologue, Jennifer Skinner-Mitchen trusts the fruits of hard work will sustain her through the next few years of health reform and beyond.
"As long as you're in the right place at the right time with the right attitude there's no reason why there won't be a place for a consultant to help the consumer figure out their options," she says.
As President & CEO of Hoosier Benefit Plans, Mitchen has two pieces of advice for those emerging in the industry that has already given her a share of success.
"No. 1, join NAHU, and get involved with your local chapter - especially if you're on the agent side. No. 2, get a mentor - get five," she says.
From an early age, Mitchen started learning about employee benefits from a close mentor: her father.
"He's been in the industry ever since he graduated college in the '70s. He talked me into taking a sales job with him, and I've never left" the profession, she says.
In 2000, she stared out selling mostly voluntary plans to brokers in the Midwest with GroupLink. Then, she moved to the West Coast to expand the vendor's regional presence there.
Young and single, Mitchen opted to take up residence in Phoenix. A few years later she decided to move to the broker side, at which time she began writing small to mid-sized groups for a friend who owned her own agency. During those six years she doubled the book of business and then decided it was time to go out on her own. And she couldn't think of a better place to open her own agency than back home in Indiana.
"It helps to have a lot of connections with hometown family and friends nearby," she says.
At Hoosier Benefit Plans she offers group, individual and Medicare, and urges young professionals to stay similarly diversified.
Mitchen saw a need to network with other entrepreneurial women so she and a friend stared a group this year, Indianapolis Women's Professional Development Community. "It's great and so inspiring," she says about the fledgling group of 15 members. "After a meeting it makes you go back to your office and do 10 times more work."
Rebecca Purdy, 35
VP of Business Development
A former flight attendant, Rebecca Purdy's first step toward the benefits industry came when her employer, National Airlines, went out of business. Unsure of her next move, first and foremost she knew she needed health insurance.
It was an insurance agent who sparked her interest in the industry. Growing up in a small town in Oregon, Purdy developed a strong work ethic, which she credits for taking her places in the industry and boosting her clientele.
"When you say you're going to call someone, you call them," she says.
She sees a lot of opportunity for younger people today, partly because older industry veterans that have been in the market for a long time are thinking about exit strategies.
After working for a broker for almost five years and selling on her own for three and a half years, Purdy decided it was time for to join Distinctive Insurance. "It's been a blessing," she says. "This agency has been amazing to work for; total synergy."
Jason Pastrano, 40
Brio Benefit Consulting + Solutions
New York City
Although many brokers deplore it, Pastrano sees health care reform as the "opportunity of a lifetime."
"If you're brining value to your clients and you're making their lives easier, there will be a market for your services," he says.
Most important, young benefits professionals must diversify their portfolios and teach consumers about the products they are buying.
"Educate your clients and empower them to make informed decisions," he says of his approach. "Although we're still the experts, our customers and their employees will need to know enough to make an informed decision."
Companies and individuals are going to need assistance now more than ever, Pastrano adds, just to navigate the laws, new plans and the exchanges.
Brio Benefit Consulting has had several clients looking to them for guidance with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Pastrano says, and most of them come down to three questions they need addressed: What does it mean to me and my employees? What steps do we need to take? And, how can your firm help us?
Pastrano has been armed to answer key questions from clients since he dove into the health care industry.
After college, Pastrano started working in the health care industry, contracting with providers and building networks for small health insurance plans in New Jersey. In 1997, Pastrano made the leap into direct sales and joined Oxford Health Plans, followed by a stint with Cigna. In 2005, he decided to go into business for himself.
Pastrano and his partner, Rich Kosinski, have built their business primarily on marketing, networking and plain old hard work, he says, like hitting the phone lines.
The duo has doubled their book of business from 2010-2012, and Pastrano considers it one of their biggest successes to date so far.
Rose Hook, 38
Senior Account Executive
Burnham Benefits Insurance Services
It used to go by names such as "getting together for drinks," or "playing golf." Today, people call it "networking," and rising stars like Rose Hook believe it is important for young professionals and industry veterans alike.
Hook serves as president of the board of directors of the Employee Benefit Planning Association of Southern California, and she is on the board of directors of Professionals In Human Resources Association (PIHRA) District 15.
"It's important to connect, build relationships and to provide assistance," says Hook, a senior account executive at Burnham Benefits Insurance Services.
Two years ago, she opened the Los Angeles office for Burnham, and continues to play a key role in guiding the company's growth path.
"As early adopters of numerous things, especially social media, young people can bring a lot of energy, new ideas and solutions to the table," Hook says.
Young insurance professionals should also join industry associations, she says.
"Not only is it a way to take advantage of continuing your education, but it's a forum to learn about what's out there," Hook adds.
All along her career she has partnered with mentors that helped to give her the inside scoop, and she continues to learn from others in the business.
"Don't wait for someone to come to you. Reach out to someone and ask them to be your mentor; someone that you look up to and that you want to learn from," she says.
One major perk of being in the employee benefit advising industry is there is no glass ceiling and there's a tremendous amount of room to grow, which can be enticing to younger professionals, Hook says.
"You aren't moving from chair to chair each year and waiting for a promotion," she says. "It's really about taking on as much as you can, learning and contributing and being able to grow."
GSLevine Insurance Services, Inc.
Justin Levine was born into the benefits industry. His father started GSLevine Insurance Services, Inc. 25 years ago as a P&C brokerage, which has now expanded its product offerings to employee benefits, personal lines and a financial services department.
"I always respected my dad for what he's done. I always looked at him like a superhero but never had the urge to get into the business," he says.
The younger Levine wanted to have his own direction, but quickly realized their paths would merge. As a recent graduate of University of Southern California, he was recruited to work for Northwestern Mutual out of school to sell life insurance, a product his dad's company did not sell at the time. Levine found himself referring clients to his father, and vice versa. "It took a year and then we said, 'Let's stop kidding ourselves and combine efforts.'"
With PPACA, there's so much uncertainly, and Levine can't foresee how it will affect young people in the industry.
How can companies attract young talent? Levine believes it's up to the brokerages. "It's really up to them to find ways to recruit talent to develop them and give them opportunities to succeed in this business," he says.
Levine encourages young people to join the industry and feels their input is necessary. "Fresh ideas are the lifeblood of our businesses; the innovative, thought-provoking people that want to challenge the status quo, those are the ones that will foster change within not only the industry, but also our nation," he says.
Fostering change might also apply to smaller ambitions such as product innovation. Although wellness programs are often ambiguous, says Levine, he and his team came up with a platform, GetLEANER, to help employees feel healthier, and ultimately slash employers' health costs. "We want to shift their paradigm of thinking health care is this huge uncontrollable expense," he says. "Bring a strategy not a spreadsheet."
View photos of our rising stars in the digital edition by clicking here.
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