The power of two: Advisers of the Year drive innovation at their brokerage and beyond

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Andrew McNeil and Rosario Avila do their best work in the car.

The duo are famous for their post-client-meeting debriefs, most of which take place on the drive back to the office. After meetings, they buckle their seatbelts and pull out their recorder — talking over the details of the day, including everything from a client’s body language to the food they had for lunch.

They save the recordings — the pair has collected more than 100 since last November — which they revisit before meeting with that client again.

McNeil and Avila, senior benefits advisers at Arrow Benefits Group, a benefits firm based in Petaluma, California, have worked together for the past three years and collectively manage a $1.3 million book of business.

McNeil, a principal at the firm, and Avila also do nearly everything together and, combined, they boast an impressive resume that includes Avila’s leadership of the company’s Spanish language division, Alianza, which she launched, and their YouTube channel, BenefitsTV.

“They can finish each other’s thoughts; they’re so in sync with one another. But they’re also really different and really complementary,” says Lori Zaret, senior vice president of human resources at Exchange Bank and a friend of both.

Avila, 43, and McNeil, 33, share nearly all of their clients, using a casual selling and advising style — a combined approach that is unusual for advisers.

Benefit advising is often described as a competitive industry, one where advisers continually work to assert their value to employers. While brokers sometimes meet with clients in groups, it is not as common for two advisers to share as many clients as Avila and McNeil do.

“When we’re jiving on each other’s vibe, the chemistry is really hard to duplicate,” McNeil says.

The pair do share one more thing in common. They have been named the first joint winners of Employee Benefit Adviser’s Adviser of the Year recognition, joining four other honorees this year.

The ability to understand employers on a deep emotional level is what has ultimately helped Avila and McNeil develop such close relationships with their clients.

“It’s so fresh, so you can get a sense of how you were feeling, how [the client] seems to be feeling, different things that you’re going to forget over time,” McNeil says. “You may remember some of it, but you won’t remember that emotional piece.”

It has also helped them grow their book of business. Monica Finnegan, chief financial officer of Midstate Construction, a general construction contractor with more than 60 employees and a client of the team, says she was initially attracted to the group because they brought a more local perspective to insurance. They also consistently bring the company the best deals on insurance, she adds.

“They have good energy,” Finnegan says. “They’re positive, and they’re forward thinkers.”

Finnegan says she appreciates having two advisers because someone is nearly always around to answer employee’s most pressing benefits questions. “There’s always somebody available,” she says. “It’s fantastic.”

The advising profession has also become more consultative and brokers are frequently asked to take on more of an HR role for their clients. Many are being asked to educate clients on such topics as paid parental leave, HR technology and financial wellness.

Innovation in benefit plan design has become a necessity to help brokers remain competitive in the space.

McNeil and Avila value both collaborative work and innovation, which is something they have showcased through multiple projects at Arrow.

In 2017, Avila launched the company’s Spanish Language Division, Alianza, which serves Spanish-speaking employee populations with hands-on benefits selection guidance in their native language. Employers typically hire a translator during open enrollment for non-English speakers, but the nuances of benefits enrollment often get lost in translation.

“Having a translator there, or having translated material is not enough,” Avila says. “It’s not enough because there’s that cultural piece.”

Avila, who is Latina herself, says in the Latinx community, employees are often not used to having insurance. For example, in Mexico individuals may go to clinics for healthcare, where they have to pay to be seen by a doctor.

Therefore, in-network and out-of-network U.S. health benefits are not intuitive and employees often get confused when navigating the complex healthcare system. It can be helpful to have an adviser who understands the language and can explain the intricacies of health insurance, she says.

“When you’re explaining what a deductible is, employees don’t even know what that is,” she says. “Just the world ‘deductible,’ there’s no translation in Spanish. There’s no meaning to it.”

Employees who need assistance in Spanish can contact Alianza from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. any weekday.

EBA's 2019 Advisers of the Year

Avila says it was important to provide extended hours for workers who may not have time during the day to spend 30 minutes discussing their benefit package. In addition, workers can contact advisers via text, phone or email. They also are looking into including the messaging tool WhatsApp as a way for workers to contact the service, she says.

“It’s another way to contact us where they feel comfortable,” she says.

Alicia Cordova, senior account executive at Arrow Benefits Group works with Avila on Alianza and says the Latinx population is underserved when it comes to benefits.

Many have dealt with translators or Spanish-speaking advisers in the past, but these individuals often lack an understanding of their culture, she says.

“They’ve had this song and dance before,” Cordova says. “[They say] ‘We know Spanish, we’re here to help you,’ but nobody really helps them.”

But beyond Alianza, Cordova says both McNeil and Avila are laser focused on creating a personalized experience for the clients they serve.

One way is through their YouTube channel BenefitsTV. Cordova also has been featured in several videos.

“It’s really interesting, and I’m really impressed that they’ve been able to reach out and gone viral,” she says.

BenefitsTV

The two launched BenefitsTV in January. The service posts short digestible videos once a day to help employers and employees better understand benefits concepts.

Two examples are how small employers can remain competitive in the talent war against their larger counterparts and limited network PPO plans.

The pair shares their videos on YouTube, Instagram and LinkedIn. Clients also have expressed interest in having them create more personalized videos to share with their employees. “It gives us a ton of content that we can send to clients and prospects,” McNeil says. “It’s not a sales pitch; it’s just information.”

The videos are short and easy to understand, McNeil and Avila say. The conversational tone and atmosphere are intentional — they wanted to create something that didn’t feel overly produced or inauthentic.

“It’s really about being genuine with the content,” Avila says. “You’re helping somebody.”

McNeil and Avila say advisers should think more critically about social media. Much of the content that brokers share on social platforms, such as LinkedIn, is promotional, or may be viewed as a sales pitch to employers.

Instead, they encourage brokers to think about sharing informational content that can showcase knowledge while simultaneously being valuable to the client or prospect.

Moving forward, Avila and McNeil say they will continue to look for ways to expand both BenefitsTV and Alianza. They’re also launching a campaign called the Power of Two, which showcases their unique two-person advising style to prospects.

Innovation is important to the duo, and they also plan to find new ways to bring personalized benefits to clients.

While Avila and McNeil may not be sure where the future will lead, they are sure of one thing — they will continue to be collaborative in nearly everything they do.

“We’ve been able to differentiate ourselves in a sea of the same,” McNeil says. “It’s about constantly bringing new ideas to the table and seeing them through.”

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