Dan McNeill will be the first to tell you, voluntary benefits have gone through quite a transition. Once representing a few products geared toward individuals that were priced from binders full of age-based spreadsheets, the industry was a world away from traditional group life and health products and the brokers who sold them. If you've got the money to spend on benefits, those brokers believed, then why not just buy a lower deductible?

But, over the last decade, with costs growing increasingly prohibitive and plan designs changing in an effort to compensate, voluntary benefits have increasingly gained credibility with the broker community as a compliment to the group chassis.

For McNeill, EBA's Voluntary Benefit Adviser of the Year and director of sales at Cornerstone Broker Insurance Services in Cincinnati, that credibility process began more than 20 years ago.


Personal conviction

In the copier business at the time, a life insurance agent explained to McNeill the importance of having his wife covered. McNeill, now 47, bought the coverage, and took it with him when he left to enter the insurance business himself. Fourteen years later, in 2006, that coverage was crucial to keeping his family afloat after McNeill's wife, Barb, died suddenly at age 38 - two weeks after the birth of their 11th child.

"That's actually what not only helped us financially for that first year," says McNeill, "but it also paid for two full-time nannies to help me out for the first two years."

He recalls a dozen or so things that Barb would do for the family that suddenly required outside help, such as grocery shopping that would no longer be done with the care of a budget and an eye toward items on sale. "Everything I did was a little more expensive without my wife," McNeill says.

The experience has given him an intimate understanding of the value a check from voluntary benefit coverage can bring to a family. "I have delivered $6,000, $8,000, $10,000 claim checks that were probably better received than Publishers Clearing House checks," he says. "Everything in life is relevant, and that amount of money meant the difference in the livelihood of a family.

"Like any insurance business, when you have your first claim your conviction level goes through the roof."

McNeill, chosen as EBA's 2012 Voluntary Adviser of the Year through a two-month nomination period that asked applicants to describe innovative efforts, achievements and growth in the field, believes that desire to help others is what gets most health insurance brokers started in the business. Because more and more people are living paycheck to paycheck, it's not just the catastrophic coverage that helps anymore, he adds. It's the little things, like money to cover the cost of missing work to take your child to the ER after a playground injury.

"[R]aising the kids on my own ... when it came to the care of our children and their education, money didn't have to dictate it, because somebody in voluntary benefits sat me down before I was in the business and told me how important it was," McNeill recalls.

Bob Hart, president of Paragon Partners in Scottsdale, Ariz., first met McNeill a few months after Barb's passing, at a Transamerica Employee Benefits company function, and the two grew closer as members of Transamerica's advisory board. "Dan is just a great guy," says Hart. "He truly believes in the benefit that helps the insured. It's not about money with him; it's more about what the benefit can deliver to help the family."

The benefits McNeill delivers - accident policies, critical illness, gap plans and more - help to fill in the holes created by high-deductible health plans, says Hart. "He's truly helped people get there where they can at least afford, God forbid, if they need to go to the hospital or get an MRI, or a [CT] scan," says Hart.


First lieutenant

Despite coming from a large family, not one of McNeill's relatives was in the insurance business. Instead, he got his start in the industry after a conversation with an employee at his copier business who was also an insurance rep. He explained the concept of renewals to McNeill, how it would be like earning a fraction of a cent off of every copier he sold each time someone hit the print button. With that, McNeill entered the insurance business himself in 1994 as national recruiting manager for a company selling cancer, accident and heart and stroke products. From there, he moved to a firm specializing in senior products before opening his own voluntary benefits agency, Integrated Worksite Solutions, in 1999.

About five years later the company joined "the white collar chess match," says McNeill, when he and his partners sold it to a bank, which then sold it to a wholesale general agency.

When Barb died in 2006, McNeill took a year off from the business to care for his family, six boys and five girls, who at the time were ages two weeks to 14 years old.

By the time he was ready to return to work, McNeill started a new company, Voluntary Benefits Plus, which was eventually acquired by Cornerstone about a year ago.

"I've been doing the exact same thing for 15, 16 years but I've had this constant struggle: Am I that visionary to own my own company and build and grow it or am I a good first lieutenant? My ego says I'm the good eccentric visionary," he says, "but the reality shows that I'm at my best performance when I'm a first lieutenant for somebody."

Plus, not owning the company gives McNeill much-needed family flexibility. "That's really, really important because when I get home at night that's when the job really starts," says McNeill, who remarried two years ago after reuniting with a former high school classmate, Lisa, who did not have any children of her own.

McNeill's children, the oldest of whom is now 21 (see sidebar), have yet to show an interest in dad's business, but he hopes one or two of them will. For McNeill, finding his way into the voluntary industry specifically, rather than the individual market, was helpful. Because, with growing family, he realized the only way to stay in the business long term was to be in the worksite market, which wouldn't require the night and weekend work of meeting with individual clients.

Nights and weekends are filled with his children's activities, and McNeill wouldn't have it any other way. "My kids are my hobby," he says. "We said that before we got married, my first wife and I ... our kids were always our toys, what we did on the weekends."

The McNeill's met when they both worked at McDonalds, and married in their early 20s. It was their goal to have an even dozen children. "It was just always the goal and the plan," he says. "Barb was in what we thought was perfect health. Never really sick a day in her life and her heart just stopped one day."

A month or so after Barb's funeral, McNeill was horsing around with his two-year-old son, tickling his feet, when one of the boy's long toe nails scraped him across the face. "I realized that moment that I had 11 children with 10 fingers and 10 toes and I'd never had to cut a toe nail or finger nail. It never even crossed my mind," he recalls. "It is now 100% my responsibility. And I broke down pretty bad there for several days because I realized I don't know what I don't know yet."

Like he does in the insurance field, McNeill lined himself up with experts - only this time for childcare.

He brought in a professional nanny to work from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and also hired one of Barb's best friends, who would know how she would have liked things to be run. "You've got to go to the experts," he says.


Trust factor

In the voluntary industry, McNeill has earned go-to status himself, thanks to the level of trust he has earned from brokers. In fact, in his nomination for McNeill to be Voluntary Adviser of the Year, Gary Hollander, CFP, and owner of Hollander & Associates LLC in Cincinnati said, "To know Dan is to trust him."

Early on in his career, McNeill knew he must make the decision to go wholesale or retail - not both. "One of the complaints I often heard from brokers was that those types of companies that were captive one day would call on the brokers to have them help them get in one of their cases, and a week later they'd find out they were competing against them in their own case down the street," he says. "My whole career in voluntary benefits has been working for brokers. I've never done a direct case."

Having never sold a group health insurance case, or acquired a P&C or securities license, McNeill has made voluntary and worksite benefits his sole focus. Brokers trust him because they never compete against him, he says. He also credits his father, who was in sales in the Akron, Ohio, area, for setting a proper example. McNeill recalls many instances where, when he was in the copier business, he'd go on cold calls "and you weren't always treated with respect in the receptionist area. [Then,] the owner would walk by and ask if I was Jerry's son and they'd say, 'Come on in.'

"So I learned early on before I even had children how my dad could have screwed the whole thing up. I could have had an even tougher job, but I was able to get into businesses just because I carried my father's last name. It's important to me to pass that legacy onto our kids."

And part of that legacy is knowing how to walk past an easy sale. "When I bring an enroller in to help with a case, one of the first things I try and teach them is you have to learn to walk past a sale that you know, because of your training and skill base, you could have sold," he says. "But you have to walk past it because you know it's the right thing to do."

Step By Step Academy in Worthington, Ohio, has worked with McNeill for more than two years now, according to Mary Smart, director of human resources. A broker brought him in after a Step By Step employee died from cancer and the academy's insurance rates subsequently increased sharply. McNeill introduced a gap insurance plan with a critical illness, accident protection and wellness rider to help employees cope with their new high-deductible health plan.

Not only did it please employees, but it also reduced the academy's enrollment fee down to 7% from 28.5%, according to Smart.

"I've been doing benefits for a long time, but I was having some trouble trying to understand exactly what he meant by all of that and he just did an outstanding job coming in," she says.

McNeill met with all 200 employees and walked them through the benefits, and is still available for them at any time, says Smart. "If they pick up the phone and call him to ask a question or send him an email he doesn't send them over to somebody else, he handles it personally for them," she says.

Smart also appreciates the time McNeill took to understand how the academy, a mental health center for children and adolescents with autism, works in order to partner with them effectively.

"He's got a great personality," she says. "He really gets kids and he can explain things at everybody's level. I just love working with Dan."

CFP Hollander agrees. He also appreciates McNeill's work ethic, honesty and integrity.

"He works really hard. I don't know how he pulls it off. He's credible and fun to work with. He's dependable, and in my world, I've been in this business for 37 years, 'dependable,' 'credible,' it's not a usual thing," says Hollander. "You meet people, they're here today, they're gone tomorrow. They come up with these great new ideas and after I sit back and analyze it, it's just one more marketing/sales concept that's going to be gone in six months.

"When you've been in the business so long there's only so much BS that can be re-tweaked, and this isn't that. This is a good guy."


The future is bright

For group brokers interested in entering the voluntary business, it's important to partner with someone who is a steward of the industry, says McNeill.

McNeill himself has approximately 15 different magazine subscriptions to keep up with the latest news, and attends as many seminars and conferences as possible. He also sits on multiple advisory boards for industry organizations.

"Everything I have I took from somebody else. I try and learn a new line, a new 'ism,' I try and look for where the market is short and really study," he says.

It must be working. John Carroll, CEO of Cornerstone, calls McNeill the "most knowledgeable person in the industry" who was voted best salesman by the company's 3,000 agents.

Larry Kropp, regional vice president at Transamerica Employee Benefits in Ellicott City, Md., has known McNeill for more than a decade and says his experience is what makes him so good at voluntary benefit sales. "He has a good understanding of the products and all the different carriers that are out there," says Kropp. "He's very concerned about doing the right thing. More concerned about getting it right than being right. He's very driven."

Hollander met McNeill through Cornerstone about a year ago. While his primary practice is financial planning, he also does benefits for mom-and-pop type small businesses and was looking for new concepts to combat the cost of health care for his clients. "Dan came in and he's got these new ideas with worksite benefits, which has been almost amazingly, shockingly wonderful new concepts," says Hollander.

With President Barack Obama's reelection signaling health care reform will move forward, McNeill believes the voluntary benefits industry has a lot to gain under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Reading up on health care systems overseas that have a single-payer type structure, he's heard that voluntary or supplemental benefits will often move a patient to the front of the line for health care. "As Americans, we're spoiled. We really want the best of everything, and if $8 to $10 a paycheck is going to get someone the type of benefits that Obama or Romney can have on their own, than that's what they're going to do, they're going to pay that extra money to do it," says McNeill.

Hart, of Paragon Partners, predicts health reform's exchange system will hurt voluntary benefits when it goes live in 2014 - but only temporarily as health insurance premiums adjust to new community ratings. "I think it's going to hurt the voluntary market for six to nine months until it gets settled," he says. "Then after that I think voluntary benefits are going to become a big, strong part of the health care delivery system."

Health brokers who got into the business for the right reasons are "kind of punch-drunk" right now, adds McNeill, but voluntary benefits can help to "put a little skip in the step of their sales day," he says. "They can still help people, it's just the package they used to sell them isn't the same as the package they sell them today."

McNeill likens himself to an eye doctor: listening to the symptoms and seeing what solution looks most clear for his clients. "There's some great products out there, there's some great underwriting, there's some great commissions to be made," he says. "Claims and customer service with technology has gotten so much better, so I think timing-wise it's like the perfect storm for us and our industry."

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