At the start of the year, 11 year-old Ascension Insurance, ranked by revenue as the country’s 45th largest agency, rebranded itself as Relation Insurance Services. The move follows three straight years of strong growth.

Curious about the rebranding and how Relation is successfully navigating its employee benefits consulting business in the face of the market’s current challenges, Employee Benefit Adviser reached out to Joe Tatum, Relation’s CEO, and Keri Lopez, the president of its benefits business unit. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

EBA: Why the name change? What prompted it? What message are you trying to send the market?

Joe Tatum
Joe Tatum

Joe Tatum: Given the investment we’ve made in people, process and technology over the past few years, we wanted a name that better reflected our culture, how we plan to move forward and the relationships that we have with our clients, our markets and with our employees.

We’re coming off three solid years [of growth] — which wasn’t the way the company started, just to be frank. It really struggled at the beginning. So, the management team wanted to put its collective fingerprint on what we’ve accomplished. That really drove the name change.

EBA: Keri, you were just named president, employee benefits. How does that tie into Relation’s benefits strategy?

Keri Lopez
Keri Lopez

Keri Lopez: Given our growth and all the changes going on in the market, we needed someone to drive our benefits practice at the national level.

EBA: Changes indeed. How is all the turmoil surrounding the Affordable Care Act affecting how you manage your business?

Lopez: Uncertainty creates opportunity — and our business unit ended the year almost 30% above our sales goal for that very reason. Our work helping employers navigate the constant turmoil that seems to be happening on the legislative front.

Internally, our compliance team is working to understand whatever changes to the ACA that are being made, which we then take out to our clients.

EBA: What are the other key trends currently shaping the employee benefits market?

Lopez: Specialty medications are a big issue. The number that have been approved by the FDA and their cost are both astronomical. The opioid crisis, and the costs associated with treatment, are a big part of that. We continue to have an unhealthy population, and restructuring wellness programs continues to be a big discussion among our clients. The other big thing that keeps popping up is very large, inpatient mental health claims that we haven’t seen before. All of these tie into rising healthcare costs.

Another interesting trend is market consolidation. CVS buying Aetna; Amazon looking to get into the prescription drug business — how will that impact our world? On the technology side, there’s the increased use of telemedicine to help control costs. But there’s also the risk presented by all the data breaches — the cyber liabilities that are occurring.

On the broker side, there’s all the increased competition, whether from new companies like a Namely or a Gusto, or from established companies like ADP and Fidelity trying to get into the brokerage business.

Those of us who have been in the industry for many years see this as an unprecedented amount of change.

EBA: What’s Relation’s value proposition for the broker community? And speaking of increased competition — how are you differentiating yourselves from your competitors?

Lopez: None of us are doing things much differently. But there’s the saying, ‘Different isn’t always better, but better is always different.’ What we’ve focused on is a ‘legendary service’ campaign – whether it’s day-to-day operational support or in terms of analytics, strategy, compliance and communications. We’re empowering our brokers, our producers and our client services teams to help employers take a holistic approach to their benefits package. For instance, we’ve implemented online decision-support tools that help increase the value of the benefits package in the eyes of the employees.

A lot of brokers may say they too take this approach. But when we get with a prospective client, nine out of 10 times they’ve never looked at their employee benefits plan in this way before.

EBA: How big an impact is the digital revolution having on your business?

Tatum: Everyone has access to a lot of information. How you utilize it and make it digestible for clients is the key. We’ve really spent a lot of time, effort and software development dollars on that process, and we’ve made extensive investments in both people and technology. For example, mobile phone-based apps that we developed for the Generation Z and millennial markets have really helped us grow those segments of our business.

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