A couple of years ago Kris Allison was running Burnham Benefits Insurance Services, a well established employee benefits brokerage that offered a respectable level of financial services. Darin Gibson was managing a rising financial services firm with a decent book of benefits business. Today their companies, now Burnham Benefits and Burnham Gibson Financial Group, are a united team with one-stop shopping for their growing client base in Irvine, Calif., and satellite offices across the U.S.

“The partnership between Burnham Benefits and Burnham Gibson allows clients to look at their total compensation portfolio,” says Allison, president and owner of Burnham Benefits. “Instead of getting just a piece of the puzzle from one adviser, clients are able to review their compensation in full — from their benefits plan, to pension, 401(k) and any deficiencies in their retirement plan and executive benefits. Clients receive a holistic assessment of their compensation all under one roof.”

As an increasing number of brokerages evaluate their options to maintain a successful business model in today’s post-reform environment, Allison and partner Gibson, president and owner of Burnham Gibson, set an example of a job done right.

A culture of excellence When you hear most employee benefits or financial services firms talk about the importance of retention, they're almost always referring to clients. At Burnham Benefits and Burnham Gibson, Allison and Gibson are equally as passionate about and proud of their nearly 100% employee retention rate. It's this dedication to the quality of their staff that not only sets them apart from the competition, but also helped to create a nearly seamless transition when Allison and Gibson joined forces in 2010.

Client John Cochrane, president and CEO of be.group, first met Gibson and Allison when he joined the senior assisted living, housing and health support services company about two years ago. "It's one thing to meet the principals and be impressed, you kind of expect that and you kind of expect to get a great introduction and a good impression and then never see them again - which is not the case," he says. "The other thing that's been hugely impressive is literally every person I have met in that organization is a top-shelf talent. It's unbelievable. They're absolutely first-rate people."

Keeping that level of across-the-board talent after the merger was a top priority for Allison and Gibson. "I've always had a desire to have a nice, welcoming culture and to protect the culture," says Allison, who is also EVP of Burnham Gibson, just as Gibson is EVP of Burnham Benefits.

To facilitate and maintain a successful joint venture, both Allison and Gibson spent a great deal of time ensuring all employees had a deep understanding of how to include their counterparts in applicable sales.

"It's been making sure that we do a good job on educating both firms on the deliverables and the services and then help each other attract new business and help our books together," says Allison. "So just making sure that everyone is healthy minded and positive and professional and just maintaining the reputation that we have. And that has gone really well. I always say I'm the manager of culture and I like a very healthy organization."

As a client, Cochrane looks to Gibson and Allison for more than employee benefit and financial service consulting - he wants to learn from their successful business structure. "Often I pick Darin and Kris' minds to find: How do they hire? How do they approach running their business? Because every move they make is well thought out and extremely well executed," he says. "It's a great model."

The core foundation of Burnham Gibson and Burnham Benefits, says Allison, is employing people who are truly passionate about what they do. It's not enough to simply like the job. "We want them to love their work, love their clients and the carriers and enjoy it and really be passionate about it," says Allison. "We spend a lot of time finding people with the same values."

The effort pays off not only in year over year growth of at least 20%, but Burnham Benefits was also named the top small business to work for in 2011 by the Orange County Business Journal.

"The employees have a sense that we empower them. We trust them," says Allison. "We give them the ability to make decisions on their clients, whether it's financial or what services they need internally."

Melanie Thomas has worked for Allison for more than 12 years. "Kris has a unique ability to hire the right people and continue to make the company like a secondary home and make it a fun place to come work," says Thomas, vice president.

After starting her career in property and casualty, Thomas became an account manager at Burnham before rising in the ranks. While people often get stuck in their original roles in this field, "here you have the ability to move in whatever direction you want," she says. "Not having that ceiling and not fitting you into that spot is something unique that Kris does."

Allison and Gibson foster a collaborate atmosphere, whether it's sending out a company survey to choose the location of the holiday party to allowing anyone who's interested - regardless of their job title - to sit in on sales and service meetings and expand their knowledge base. "They feel like they're important and that they're included in the decisions and they have value," says Allison.

Tia Cirksena certainly feels empowered by Gibson's leadership at Burnham Gibson. "He looks to me for ways we can grow our business, find solutions for our clients," says the director of retirement services. "Often we have brainstorming sessions and those occur without judgment or criticism so it's a very empowered and safe work environment."

The philosophy comes from Allison and Gibson's own backgrounds, each having started from the ground up. "We were young and we worked our way through," says Allison. "One thing that we've done here is that someone can start as a receptionist or an account assistant and grow to be an account manager, an account executive, a producer, and we don't put people in a box."

Years in the making Allison entered the employee benefits business in 1980, cold calling employer groups to quote on their group medical policies. She then went from the carrier side to the broker side, working on large self-funded groups in the early '80s before joining the burgeoning employee benefits practice of a national firm known for its P&C business. When the opportunity arose to work for a regional privately held firm then known as John Burnham and Company, Allison took advantage of the chance to work in a more intimate environment. After helping to build out the employee benefit practice for several years, Allison purchased into the company in 1995 as one of three partners in the firm, which then changed its name to Burnham Benefits.

"At the time I was really naïve, I didn't know what buying into a company meant, but I did it," Allison recalls. "I thought I had more control of my destiny if I was an owner."

For the next six years Allison continued to buy more and more of the agency until she became the full owner in 2001.

Meanwhile, Gibson got his start as an assistant in his father's CPA office at age 13 where he picked up skills such as typing 120 words a minute that would help him land a job in college as an administrative assistant for a district manager with Equitable Life. He learned "a whole lot about the business in a very short period of time," working 25-30 hours a week while also a full-time student. "It was a good exposure to all facets of the business," says Gibson.

After a year and a little prodding, Equitable hired the 19 year old as the company's newest agent. By the time Gibson earned his MBA with a focus on tax and finance a few years later he was ready to develop his own practice, which he grew for 16 years before teaming with Allison.

The pair first met in 2003 through a mutual 401(k) vendor. Both impressed with the other's business ethic, they began to refer clients back and forth and the relationship strengthened.

Tom Reed, CFO of Schultz Steel, is a long time Burnham Benefits client who started working with Gibson as well about four years ago. He credits Allison's personality and ability to get the client what they need with keeping him from working with brokers the 500-employee company uses for other lines of insurance. "Kris, and more recently with Darin, has kept a personal hand in our account. She stays in the kitchen - she doesn't go back into the back office," says Reed.

When Allison and Gibson officially joined forces in 2010 it was a "seamless" transition, Reed adds: "Darin, very similar to Kris, brings a level of expertise to the business that they didn't have internally."

Strategic transition As the referrals between Burnham Benefits and AXA Advisors (which remains Burnham GIbson's broker dealer) grew more frequent and successful in the years following Allison and Gibson's first meeting, it got to the point where they would have weekly phone calls and meetings. "We had a high degree of trust for one another and just thought that, with our core competencies between the two agencies, if we merged we'd have a much more holistic approach to serving our clients," says Allison. "Each industry has become so much more complex and compliance-oriented. On the group health side Darin was starting to realize that this wasn't his strongpoint. ... So we just go to know each other through our clients and referrals and seeing how each other worked."

Gibson found those meetings before the official merger in the spring of 2010 to be rejuvenating "because we'd get together and we'd talk about different business opportunities," he says. "Especially after you have your business practice for a while things kind of get a little complacent and every time we came together we fed off of each other and started talking about different business opportunities and strategies and so it was a natural fit and it was fun and it suddenly sprung a ton of ideas in different directions that we could go.

"We just got closer and closer over time and it was a natural fit when we finally fully merged and came together."

The uncertainty amplified by health care reform - the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act had just passed when the companies merged - was also part of their long-term planning. Allison saw the writing on the wall a few years earlier, and knew it was time to make a decision: "either be all in or [keep] the status quo."

On top of the partnership with Gibson, Allison invested in hiring two underwriters, a communications specialist and a compliance attorney.

At the same time, Gibson knew that with health reform coming down the pipe just as the securities side was facing increased regulation and compliance scrutiny "it was really forcing the industry to specialize and make sure you were doing a good job for the client," he says.

His primary book of business was in wealth management services, consulting work, estate and financial planning for mostly family-held private companies, while the employee benefits business was usually a byproduct of providing the other services to the client. "When I walk into a pension consulting case I have no concern that we're not doing the best work possible and that I can beat down any competition," says Gibson. "But when it came to employee benefits I knew that other firms had skills and toolsets that we didn't have available and so it was a natural fit to come together.

"Kris has spent a lot of time and energy and resources on really building out the infrastructure that most firms don't do, so that the professionals here at [Burnham Gibson] can focus on high touch with their clients and providing deliverables instead of trying to run around doing 100 different things."

When the companies merged, Burnham Benefits had about 27 employees while Burnham Gibson started out with about 13. "The biggest issue was expectations," says Gibson. "Whenever I go into something I make commitments and it's very important to me to make sure that we deliver on those commitments. So I just wanted to make sure that I stepped up and I was going to meet Kris' expectations of the whole business and where it was going to be taking us."

Having been a business owner since 1995 and sole owner of Burnham Benefits for almost a decade before teaming with Gibson, it took some time for Allison to get used to working with another decision maker. "After a few months it was very comfortable bringing Darin in on the decisions," she says. "We're great at sharing our strengths and weaknesses and talking through problems and helping each other as a sounding board."

Cirksena calls the merger "phenomenal for both practices and for Darin and Kris." She admires that there are no egos between the two. "No one is jockeying for power. They're truly collaborative and it is a partnership for the best interests of their practices and for their clients," she says. "So what you see is a real compliment in their work styles and personalities. The result is clients get to work with a dynamic and competent team of people."

Advice for others For those looking to duplicate Allison and Gibson's success, both say it's all about finding the right partner. "It's critical that you find a partner and a firm that you know you trust, you respect, that has the highest of ethics, that it's fun to come to work every day, that has the same culture and business values and is on the same page with where you want to take the business," says Gibson.

Putting financial considerations first when looking to merge is "a recipe for disaster," he adds.

"You can't force people to come together and work," says Gibson. "It's a very personal relationship with clients and people are very reticent at bringing outside parties into those relationships for fear that you're going to lose them or you're going to reflect poorly [on the company]. It's from the top down that you put the pieces in place to make sure that everyone's very comfortable with everybody else."

Allison finds it extremely helpful to connect with Gibson every single day. "We talk in the morning, we talk in the afternoon. There's not a lot of time that goes by that there's not a sharing of ideas and strategy and where we're going and looking for talent," she says. It's about giving the employees a sense of security and knowing there's momentum in the organization; "it's more about our legacy than making the money," Allison says. "I think we're both finding out that the more we invest in the company we get it back and then some."

The next step in investing in the company is to look at purchasing books of business. "That's another part of our growth. We're looking at smaller firms that don't have the infrastructure and the resources, they're actually coming to us wanting to be part of the organization," says Allison. "That's what we're learning we can do now, so that's our next area that we're pushing each other on and helping each other grow."

It's important to Allison and Gibson to remain a privately held firm. "In this world where we're changing all the time and there's market fluctuation ... I think it's refreshing to be privately held and to be growing and to know that you're not going to be selling your firm," says Allison. "Darin and I both talk to the employees and say, 'We're in it for the long term.'" EBA

Darin Gibson offers securities through AXA Advisors, LLC (NY, NY 212-314-4600), member FINRA, SIPC. Investment advisory services offered through AXA Advisors, LLC, an investment advisor registered with the SEC. Annuity and insurance products offered through AXA Network Insurance Agency of California, LLC. Burnham Gibson Financial Group, Inc. is not a registered investment advisor and is not owned or operated by AXA Advisors or AXA Network.  Burnham Benefits Insurance Services is not an affiliate or subsidiary of AXA Advisors, AXA Network or Burnham Gibson Financial Group. John Cochrane’s and Tom Reed’s comments are not represented and should not be construed as an endorsement of or testimonial for any product or service offered by Mr. Gibson or by AXA Advisors, LLC or its affiliates.

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