Christy Schwan has spent her entire career in the insurance industry. Her passion for insurance has driven her not only to sell it, but also to own her own company, Stellarus Benefits — an all-female benefit firm and one of the largest female-owned employee benefit agencies in Wisconsin.

What’s more, she gives that passion back to the industry she loves so much and to the women she employs — one of the many reasons EBA has chosen Schwan to be one of our Most Influential Women in Benefit Advising. 

See related: The Most Influential Women in Benefit Advising

Her desire to give back, Schwan says, is why part of her company’s growth has not just been about signing new business and new clients, but also about growing new advisers.

After becoming co-president of the company in 1998, which was then known as Northwestern Group Marketing Services, she says, “We would hire a new person about once a year into a new position. Sometimes they had an insurance background, and sometimes they didn’t. But part of our process was grooming them to become really good benefit advisers. Part of life is learning together.” 

“She has taught me a lot about what it takes to be a confident adviser,” says Sandi Staeben, a benefit consultant at Stellarus who has worked with Schwan for almost 11 years. “I came into this business not well educated about insurance and certainly with no experience working with an agent or broker. She has always supported me and challenged me to learn  my true capabilities. I never thought I’d stand in front of a room full of employees or sit with the president of a company and explain insurance, as complex as it is.”

She adds, “Although I believe the two of us together make a great team, I also know that because of what I’ve learned from her I can succeed as a trusted benefit consultant to our clients.”

Growing together

 “I love bringing people in, finding their best capabilities and how they best complement the other people in the organization and how we can all continue to grow together,” she says.

With a degree and background in information systems, Schwan at first had nothing to do with the sales side. She worked for five years in the home office of Northwestern Mutual Life as director of operations. While there, in the mid-1990s and pre-Windows computer operating systems, she notes, Schwan led the team that delivered the first successful client management system for NML on a national basis.

“I’m such a firm believer in insurance. I value the business itself because it’s so important to individuals, whether you’re a business owner or an employee. I just believe in the concept of insurance,” she says.

With that mindset, she opened her own consulting firm, in which she worked with top producers on their business operations, including staffing, technology and process management. But her passion for the purpose of insurance drew her to the benefits side of the business, including a two-year stint with Anthem of Ohio. It eventually led to her 1998 co-presidency at NGMS with her business partner Lynn Steinle and later, in 1999, with business partner Tom Goris. Steinle has since passed away, and Goris is now a general agent with Northwestern Mutual Life.

 “What stands out about Christy is her strategic simplicity and value focus,” says Goris. “I’ve worked with so many business owners who get absorbed with their own needs, but Christy always says, ‘What does the client want and need?’”

From that reality, he says, “Christy builds the business backward to meet those needs.”

That approach has allowed her the clarity, Goris says, to make the tough decisions to stay leading-edge and have the business she’s running stay at the forefront of meeting its clients’ needs. I’m always impressed that Christy has tremendous value clarity. She values the clients’ needs and has tremendous employee compassion.”Goris says Schwan’s values were never more apparent than when their partner, Steinle, passed away from lung cancer in early 2010. “In tough times, Christy’s values really stand out,” he adds. “You know a business needs to make a profit, but that was never a value to Christy. It’s always been serve the client, do things the right way, have compassion, and in the end you will make money.”

Goris and Schwan purchased Steinle’s share of NGMS after her passing. In 2012, Schwan purchased Goris’ share of the company. She now owns two operations in Brookfield, Wis. and Appleton, Wis.

Stellar service

Schwan renamed the company Stellarus Benefits, she says, “in reference to the stellar consulting that its employees have been known for by clients, carriers and competitors.”

Todd Roberts, president of Grafton, Wis.-based Calibre, a metal coating and engraving company and a client of Schwan’s for more than 10 years, agrees with that sentiment, saying of Stellarus Benefits, “I don’t know what we would do without them.

“They’re almost an extension of our human resources department. They’re very responsive,” he says.

“People think with the Affordable Care Act, health care is a complex issue. But, it’s been a complex issue for manufacturers for the past 10 years,” he says. And, without Schwan and Stellarus Benefits, he adds, “I don’t know how we could have that level of expertise in-house.”

Staeben concurs, “I’ve always been impressed with how knowledgeable she is and engaged with our clients.”

“There’s never an appointment or prospect that she’s walked away from with any lack of confidence in our ability as a benefits consulting firm to work with and provide solutions for,” she adds.

It’s not just her professionalism and expertise that makes an impression on her clients and associates, though; it’s her personal nature, as well.

“I quickly learned that in this industry relationships are key and I could tell our clients trusted her with her solid advice, clear direction and viable solutions,” says Staeben.

Roberts remembers one occasion in particular, when Schwan and some of her Stellarus staff were on-site at Calibre working with his employees on renewals, and she stopped into his office “just to see how things were going.”

At the time, he says, his best friend had just died from a serious illness and he was “struggling to write his eulogy.”

Schwan shared with Roberts what she had written for her father’s funeral and, Roberts says, he “used what she had written as a basis for a poem I wrote for my best friend.”

“That’s the kind of personal touch she develops with her clients,” he adds.

In the manufacturing industry, in particular, he notes, relationships are hard to come by when you’re dealing with competing suppliers and vendors. Still, he says, Calibre tries to develop personal and respectful relationships with its suppliers, with the understanding that “relationships are important.”

“And that’s one area where her organization just shines,” says Roberts.

The role of the benefit adviser

Schwan’s belief in the role of the benefit adviser and how the help they can provide for their clients is what part of what prompted her to purchase the company’s Brookfield and Appleton operations and transform them into Stellarus Benefits after Steinle’s death and during the uncertain rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

“I bought the companies right in the throes of health care reform, when a lot of brokers and advisers were wondering whether we should stay in the business or not,” she says. “But I was confident — and still remain confident — that our clients need professional benefit advisers.”

In fact, she says, “I feel like health care reform really positioned us even more strongly. Whenever the government gets involved, rightly or wrongly, it gets more complicated. That’s when employers and employees need us even more.”

Schwan says she sees the role of the benefit adviser as akin to that of a certified public accountant or attorney, saying, “an adviser is an expert in an area that employers are never going to be an expert in. They’re never going to be experts in benefits, and they don’t want to be.”

The role of a benefit adviser, she continues, is to filter through all of the new rules, actions, buzz and other events happening in the marketplace and help employers “filter down their options, simplify their decision-making and help them find the best value in the marketplace to fit what they need so they can focus on doing what they do best, which is their own business.”

Certainly the benefits industry looks different than it did before health care reform, Schwan says, but she adds that changes come in all shapes and sizes.

“There will always be something that changes your business,” she says. “You have to be adaptable. You have to be agile. You have to be willing to take risks and make decisions only when you have partial information.”

She adds, “You have to be willing to invest in the people within your organization, as well as the tools and resources to help simplify the decisions for your clients.”

Bottom line, Schwan says, “You have to be passionate about what you do. I certainly believe in insurance and the whole concept of insurance.”

“We will never be the biggest organization,” she says, “But my goal is to be counted among the best because of the regard we have from our clients and the work that we do on their behalf.”

One of the things Schwan says she’s most proud of is the passionate team she’s built at Stellarus Benefits, which now has about 15 employees and services more than 400 companies, ranging in size from small employers with two to 50 employees, mid-size employers with up to 1,000 employees, and some large groups with as many as a couple of thousand employees. Stellarus handles employers’ needs with medical, dental, vision and supplemental insurance. The majority of their clients are in Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota and Illinois. 

Schwan says there’s not a single employee at either of her locations in Brookfield or Appleton “that isn’t passionate about benefits.” When her advisers see they have to deliver an employer bad news about a renewal increase, Schwan says their first thought is “‘How am I going to help my client?’ They take that to heart.” Some of that compassion for their clients may come from the fact her advisers are all female, although Schwan doesn’t like to dwell on the fact her staff is all-female, saying “we’re not good because we’re females; we’re good because we’re good.”

In fact, she says, the all-female makeup of her firm was not by design, as she’s had men work with the agency in the past. Still, she admits, she’s found the women she’s hired tend to be “very detail-oriented, very process-oriented, and at the same time very flexible.” Every client is unique, Schwan says, and her advisers are “very adaptable.” Schwan says most of her staff are long-tenured employees — another source of pride for the business owner. Tina Wagner, a benefits consultant with Stellarus for the past seven years, says Schwan provides a good environment within to work and grow. “I’ve worked in four agencies over the course of my career and she’s probably the hardest working owner I’ve worked for. But she’s not a micromanager. She’s there if we need her.” Wagner adds, “She values our hard work and gives us flexibility in return,” — a key benefit for many of the advisers who are working mothers.

Stellarus Benefits also operates under the highest code of ethics and morals of any of the agencies she’s worked for, Wagner adds.

And, although she’s a benefits veteran, Wagner says in the past, working predominantly for men, she’d mostly been expected to take a second chair on accounts to her male counterparts. But not at Stellarus, where Wagner says she’s working on increasing her market size and taking the lead on some large-group business accounts. “Christy is helping me with both of these things,” she says.

Staeben adds, Schwan is the most “optimistic person I’ve ever worked with. Christy looks at each loss in this competitive industry as an opportunity to learn and grow,” she adds. “Her vision in the success of Stellarus Benefits is not to be just average or good but to be great. She achieves this greatness through hard work, dedication and passion exhibited not only by herself but also the strong team that she’s hired.”

Survivor

Schwan’s tireless spirit translates into all areas of her life. A breast cancer survivor, Schwan turned her experience into a journey of hope for other women with breast cancer. In 2005, she published the book, The Blue Tattoo Club: A Breast Cancer Sisterhood, a collection of stories about 12 breast cancer survivors.

“My hope is that their courage may bolster you, their fears may dispel your own, and their laughter may lighten you,” she writes in the book.

Schwan speaks across the country about the book, usually in hospital systems.

That same year she published a second book, Hello My little Poppy Seed — an illustrated book dubbed a “love poem for expectant mothers.”

Schwan and her husband have also built seven homes together. She also enjoys envisioning the layout and design of gardens, although her husband then does the actual gardening. She compares this with her entrepreneurial spirit and business sense.

“I’m the vision person. I’m the person who lays out the plans and says, ‘This is the path we’re going to take.’”

Her employees then execute the plan, she says, adding, “That works well for us.”

Schwan is a co-founder of a coalition of nine business owners who were all associated with NML and went on to purchase their own firms. The group meets three to four times a year. She is also vice president-elect of the Wisconsin Association of Health Underwriters.

“It’s important for me to connect people,” she says. “I really enjoy connecting different advisers together and helping other people along the path who might be a little behind where I am now.”

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