Advisers fight the status quo in a changing market

NEW ORLEANS — Benefit advisers must innovate or see their business escape into the hands of someone more ambitious and harder working.

That was the consensus of a panel, called “Disrupting the benefits status quo through simplicity,” last week at the Benefits Forum & Expo, hosted by Employee Benefit News and Employee Benefit Adviser.

The panel consisted of Adam Berkowitz, founder and president of Simpara HR; Brett Brummitt, senior partner, advisor for AG Insurance Agencies; Braden Monaco, managing partner of Blue Horizon Benefits; and Carl Schuessler Jr., managing principal of Mitigate Partners and BenefitStrategies. Eric Silverman of Voluntary Disruption served as moderator. An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Eric Silverman: How do you use innovation to land new clients?

Brett Brummitt: I ask employers and CEOs how many of their workers have a GoFundMe for paying for a serious illness, and they say that they don’t. I say give me 10 seconds, and I’ll find you one. And when I do, they are shocked.

Silverman: Do you ever think of reverting back to the status quo? Falling back to tried-and-true ideas of running your business to do the job, get the sale and get it done?

Brummitt: Absolutely. Every day. I probably had my worst sales number year in the last four or five years to date this year. It’s tough to go through a metamorphosis. Mine was conflicted about the way we talk about health plans as much as it was talking about beta testing software. I kind of want a respite now and then. It’s hard to give up old ways and not give up some of the mission and passion. It's hard to take people on a journey to a better tomorrow.

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Carl Schuessler Jr.: No way. I was talking to somebody at 6 p.m. on a Friday night, and they asked me, “If your business is good, why aren’t you on the golf course?” If you want to be an active manager of a health plan, you are working your tail off. If you want to be a passive manager of a health plan, you can call fewer people and do less work. You can spreadsheet them, but what value do you bring?

I have to have something that drives me. I want to help people and help them save money. We have a chance to have a big impact to the employee base we deal with. In financial planning work, they have a great chance to help an employee save for retirement. It’s a big help. We have a chance to enrich their benefits.

Adam Berkowitz: It is so easy to keep clients for three or four years and know that someone will come in and steal them, but you made a boatload of money for those years. We’re all guilty of having that thought. Some of us do.

Braden Monaco: Our job is to help employees save on benefits so they can have a good life. My business is new, and I am not going to use the excuse that the market is crap. In the Northeast, there is change. It’s understanding where the clients are today and where they want to go and being a conduit for change. Our biggest innovation is the true partnership approach and the way we deliver concierge-style service day-in and day-out to our clients.

Silverman: How do you use technology to innovate?

Brummitt: In 2014, our firm was paper and filing cabinets and we did renewals in Microsoft Works. It wasn't even Excel. We finally graduated to that. It has been a big journey organization-wide, and to do that we had to test a lot of technologies along the way.

When you see the technology that has changed in the past few years, all of a sudden you understand the impact technology has. You can disconnect from the human experiences of technology implementation and change. So having that moment where I understand what I can handle from a change in workload process, and understanding what I experience is not what everyone else will experience … this helps me step back and see how other people will view this technology as a win.

Silverman: Did you get resistance?

Brummitt: Tons of resistance, even from my most savvy clients. A lot of clients have resisted, but three of my clients who resisted the most thanked me the most. They came back and said, ‘I didn't want to do this; I’ve bypassed the system; but now I use it, and my employees trust me more.’ Just a small tech implementation can help the whole workforce.

Silverman: For a new adviser entering the industry, why now?

Berkowitz: There is no better time for being in this space. When you look at the toll of the price and complexity of healthcare on the middle class, it has almost destroyed them. We have seen 20 years of low wages and high spending, and it almost all has to do with the rising cost of healthcare.

And this has happened through old-school broker models – rising deductibles, cost shifting to copays and to premiums. We have seen middle-class wage stagnation. So we have an influential and powerful role, and it’s cool to be in that role and have that influence. If their costs are going down, there is nothing cooler than that.

Monaco: I will take a semi-opposite approach: I think change is opportunity. I came in in 2008, and someone said they were talking about compensation being cut. I asked ‘What was it before?’ When I came in during the recession, the construction companies were hurting the most. You had to find opportunities back then, and I have to do the same thing today. Now, they are working harder and bringing in more money than ever before, and that’s a different challenge.

Silverman: What are your biggest challenges, being an entrepreneur?

Schuessler Jr.: Generally you are working in the business, and you’re not working on it. Finding the time to work on it is difficult when you are trying to help clients save 40% on their healthcare.

Monaco: For me, I like business development, working with clients and solving problems. I truly enjoy the relationships I build with my clients and their employees. Coming into this business — and now I have my own business — myself and my other partners learned the entrepreneurial spirit.

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