With the benefits industry in what some would consider an infancy state of transformation, it seems appropriate that young benefit advisers are spearheading many of the efforts that promise to keep the profession relevant.

EBA is recognizing 20 of the brightest rising stars in benefit advising. Whether it’s adopting social media marketing, embracing new forms of technology to ease benefit administration or promoting new educational tools for clients and their employees, EBA’s 2015 Rising Stars in Advising are not just navigating the benefits industry, they’re paving its new frontier.

 “With new technology, our world is constantly changing and this affects every industry. Young advisers are able to capitalize and utilize new technology to our benefit,” says Amber Kendrick, 31, director of retirement services for CIG Retirement Plan Consulting. Young advisers are also helping employees utilize technology as a resource, she says.

See also: Who are the Rising Stars in Advising?

“We are shaping the industry by being early adopters of LinkedIn, private exchanges, voluntary benefits, group captives, gap plans, etc.,” says Joshua Rubich, 30, area vice president at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.

“I think that because we are not as established as the majority of the industry we are willing to take risks and think outside the box, which has a positive impact on our clients.”

Krista Palmer, 34, carrier relations manager for BenefitMall, agrees, saying, “Young benefit advisers have lived their entire lives with technology, a world of multitasking and an overall mindset on the future. We are not just looking at the tools offered to the industry today but are consciously seeking the next innovation that will support our business. The ability to not only think outside of the box, but to reach outside of it, is something I believe we bring to the table.”

Mark Grisanti, 32, vice president and senior benefits consultant for Corporate Synergies, agrees, saying, “One thing I know about millennials is that we will not accept mediocrity. We don’t accept the fact that something is done a certain way because ‘that’s how it was always done.’ We want to know why it was done that way and why it can’t be done better.”

Technology, he agrees, is going to play a major role in the benefits industry in coming years. “It already has,” he says. “Buyers want information at their fingertips. They want to be able to research things on their phones or tablets and share information with their peers.

“I read an article the other day about the consumerization of health care— that is, a shift toward consumers taking control of their own health care costs and outcomes. The same way that Uber transformed the taxi business in a just few short years, I believe that technology will transform health care. It’s the young benefit advisers who are open to these changes in our industry. We want it done better and we don’t care how it was done in the past.”

Young benefit advisers, Palmer adds, “are finding new benefit solutions and ways to present and implement them more effectively.”

For example, Valerie Leonard, 33, a financial consultant and co-founder of Birmingham, Ala.-based Grinkmeyer Leonard Financial, had a vision to offer employees more guidance on 401(k) investments.

She and her business partner Trent Grinkmeyer “created a comprehensive advisory program to offer engaging and specific education and advice to 401(k) participants, while simultaneously addressing employer concerns surrounding fiduciary responsibility, investment committee guidance, plan design and compliance, vendor negotiations and benchmarking,” Leonard says.

“I believe we’re bringing new and innovative solutions to the marketplace,” she says of young benefit advisers.

“Managing investment portfolios, helping to protect clients from fiduciary liability and minimizing employer costs are all very sensitive and emotional issues for business owners and people in general,” Leonard adds. “When we can instill confidence that someone is acting in their best interest to protect them and save their hard-earned dollars, they value you. This generally entails finding an inventive way to combat new market pressures.”

Market reform

One of the most obvious market pressures has been health care reform and the Affordable Care Act. That’s why embracing technology is not the only benefit young advisers have to offer the industry.

Taylor Collins, 29, owner and vice president of Professional Benefits Inc., says young advisers “getting involved in the regulatory process is vital to shaping this industry.”

The ACA is a great example, Collins says. “There were so many issues that affected us and our ability to help our clients that we have to be at the forefront.”

“Health care reform has revolutionized our industry in such a short time,” says Tom McGaffic, 34, area vice president, Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. “We are all learning these requirements together. The playing field has been leveled for young advisers to grasp and understand these new responsibilities.”

McGaffic says a former manager of his called employees that didn’t learn and adapt to change “one-times-twenties.”

“Everything these individuals know they learned their first year in the business and they repeat this for the next 20 years. Seasoned consultants that do not adapt to these massive changes will likely be replaced by those willing to understand the new landscape of employee benefits consulting. Young advisers are realizing that the old way of doing things is not acceptable anymore,” he says.

The industry is in a state of flux, says Drew Leatherberry, 31, health and wellness benefit consultant for Forsite Benefits. “The ACA has provided ample opportunity for change. While many have been adverse to change, I believe young advisers don’t have the history or habits that can be a default barrier because things are not being done ‘the way they always have been.’”

Young professionals in the benefits space that have flexibility, he says, lend themselves to influencing the direction the industry goes in.

“While the health care industry goes through this age of reform, it’s vital that it happens from the bottom up — one employee at a time and one employer at a time. That means embracing strategies that address core issues proactively through consumerism, wellness and education,” he says. “Those strategies often take more of an investment in time and knowledge that the industry has been reluctant to embrace. Young advisers can use these strategies to attract and retain clients who are hungry for a better way to manage their expenses.”

Innovative strategies

Leatherberry believes benefits-integrated wellness strategies are one of those innovative solutions he and other advisers can help employers embrace in the face of the changing benefits landscape.

“I believe that the future of attracting and retaining employees will rely on the ability to proactively engage them in a robust benefit package centered on wellness and I’m committed to leading employers there,” he says.

Blake Weller, 33, vice president of BB&T Insurance Services, agrees that wellness is becoming an important aspect of the benefit package and feels young advisers can help “educate younger generations about the importance of a healthy lifestyle and consumer engagement; both of which are ultimately needed to curb the rate of medical inflation.”

“Young advisers are realizing a massive shift is happening in our industry,” says Rick Lindquist, 30, president of Zane Benefits. “They are much more willing to focus on new solutions. One thing young advisers all have in common is a willingness to try new things.”

One of those advisers is Tim Tracy, 34, vice president of Gerard B. Tracy Associates, who co-founded with his sister InsuringCT.com, an online brokerage and consulting firm serving Connecticut residents.

He says young benefit advisers are changing the industry through technology and creative problem solving.

“We have grown up with technology and we are just starting to see how beneficial it can be in the benefits industry,” he says. “That being said, I still think it is incredibly important to have that personal relationship with your client and their employees. You need to find the balance between technology and personal relationships.”

Young benefit advisers, “embrace change and constant evolution of the industry, thus benefitting our clients,” says Amad Owidi, 34, a Morgan Stanley financial adviser.

Challenges

While their use of new strategies and innovations in the industry can be an asset, young advisers also say employer resistance to change can be a huge hurdle.

“Our industry does not love change, so those benefits that young advisers bring to the industry are also some of the biggest challenges,” says Emily Robbins, 35, account vice president at Virginia Asset Group. “We are having to fight to see some of the improvements we believe will help us better communicate and connect with our clients.”

“Change requires effort,” says Leatherberry. “That’s what holds the industry back. While young advisers can bring the necessary energy and effort to create the change, they have to overcome the objections of employers and employees.”

Employers understand how a small adjustment can create a ripple effect throughout their entire organization, he says. “That’s what makes them object to implementing different approaches to benefits. It also keeps them in the same annual mode of only addressing health care expenses through plan design adjustment because it can be the path of least resistance.”

Without decades of experience, Leatherberry says, young advisers can struggle to find the credibility that encourages employers to feel more comfortable making recommended changes.

Rubich, of Arthur J. Gallagher, agrees, saying a common challenge young advisers face is “the belief that gray hair equals great advice.”

“Although there is some truth to that notion,” he says. “The reality is that more has changed in this industry in the past four years than in the past 20. This has proven to have leveled the playing field and required all advisers to understand these changes and how they impact their clients.”

Jed Kerkhoff, 30, vice president of employee benefits with Assured Neace Lukens, agrees credibility with older clients can be a challenge, but being more accustomed to the newer technologies and regulations is a bonus for young advisers, as well.

“The days of getting business just because the HR director or owner is your buddy are gone,” says Melissa Oliva, 35, employee benefits consultant/director of executive benefits with Power Group Companies. “Business owners are looking for a true consultant with industry experience to help them navigate health care reform.”

“I’ve found that doing your homework on understanding the industry problems, along with some examples of how real solutions have overcome those issues, can bridge that credibility gap,” Leatherberry says.

“There are many challenges that all advisers face in our industry,” agrees Rion Shearer, 33, employee benefits consultant for Johnson & Bryan, but he adds that “the most successful people will identify how to create opportunities out of challenges.”

“The biggest challenges today come from cost, compliance and technology. Clients are looking for solutions that make their lives easier. Advisers that keep this in the front of their mind will be successful,” says Shearer.

Eric Silverman, 34, principal/owner of Silverman Benefits Group and Aflac Regional Sales Coordinator agrees, saying, younger benefit advisers often times believe they’re at a disadvantage because of their age, lack of experience and how they’re perceived by older professionals and clients. But, he says, “Confidence is something that will always break down any wall or barrier.”

“All too often I see young benefit advisers try to take shortcuts when there are simply no shortcuts that can or should be taken,” he says. “There’s a reason we do things the way we do them and thus, there’s a reason they work and have been successful for us. Young benefit advisers must take the time to become true students of this industry from every angle. It’s what they do when nobody else is looking that will allow them to stand out and not simply be looked at as just some ‘kid’ in the insurance business.”

Isaiah Davis, 28, director of business development at Cammack Retirement Group, says he feels the current generation of young benefit advisers is the “first trusted generation since the baby boomers.”

“Gone are the days when you need gray hair and 25+ years of experience to be hired. As the baby boomers transition out of the workforce, employers are seeking young, sharp advisers to guide their organization through the next 20 years,” he says. “With this acceptance in the industry, young advisers are pushing the envelope, providing new twists to old strategies and shaking up the standard process.”

Trusted adviser

With these changing times in the industry, Chris Free, 35, a principal at Rapport Benefits Group, says it’s important for young advisers “not to fall into the trap of thinking you are an insurance sales person.”

The insurance sales model is on the way out, he says. “Employee benefits can be provided using many mechanisms other than insurance sales. Understand your client’s budget and goals, charge a fee, and build them something effective and efficient. We all need insurance, but it’s not the only way to pay for health care costs. Be creative.”

Michaelyn Tynan, 31, vice president of Mesirow Financial, says she hopes to see more young benefit advisers entering the field. “Those that are entering the field are bringing a new level of energy and perspective that is much needed,” she says.

She also feels the industry needs to find a way to mentor and foster young talent.

“There need to be young producer programs in place to help people to both learn the business and succeed. We can no longer expect young producers to show up out of school and figure it out as they go,” she says. “The industry has become more complicated with very sophisticated buyers that require added experience. The more we can help as a peer group, the better.”

BenefitMall’s Palmer agrees, saying, “There is so much to be said for having a solid mentor. I owe much of my success and career growth to the support and teachings of my mentor.”

She suggests young benefit advisers “seek out someone that has come up within the industry but is still growing within it. Develop a partnership with them for their knowledge and advice to grow and enhance one’s own career.”

Arthur J. Gallagher’s Rubich suggests young advisers “find a mentor that wants to see you succeed.” 

“This business has a very steep learning curve and you can’t do it by yourself,” he adds.

BB&T Insurance Services’ Weller says he’s had the same mentor for almost 13 years, “which has been invaluable to my professional growth.”

The firms’ McGaffic agrees, saying “the drive to continue to learn and grow in a fast-paced environment is critical.”

Collins of Professional Benefits Inc. says at the beginning of her career, her mentor challenged her to read every contract she could get her hands on.

“Being an independent firm that was a tall order sometimes, but I ended up really enjoying it,” she says. “It made me a better adviser because when push comes to shove the benefit will pay out how the contract reads, not how the sales rep describes it.”

The first piece of advice her mentor gave her, Collins says, was, “When the client starts talking, you close your mouth and listen.”

“That’s something I’m constantly practicing,” she says. “If I don’t listen to what they really need then I can’t be an effective adviser.”

McGaffic agrees, and says as an adviser he also strives to be curious, creative and empathetic. “You have to be curious and challenge the way things have always been done. I believe that creativity is what differentiates an average adviser from an extraordinary one.”

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