When nominating his friend and colleague Rob Shestack to be Employee Benefit Adviser's 2011 Voluntary Benefit Adviser of the Year, Mike Shiomos commended the managing director at Marsh U.S. Consumer for being one of the most recognized names in the voluntary marketplace. From product development and innovations to leadership in enrollment strategies, client retention and revenue generation, Shestack is the industry's authority.

Says Shiomos, "When carriers want to know how their products stack up to others, they call Rob Shestack. When carriers want to know how to make their products better, they call Rob Shestack. When enrollment companies want to know how to better secure working conditions and create innovative calls-to-action they call Rob Shestack, and when conferences need someone to discuss what the future holds relative to product innovations, they ask Rob Shestack to speak."

Who better to set the bar as EBA's first annual Voluntary Benefit Adviser of the Year?

Among the many reasons to nominate Shestack, Shiomos describes his capacity for and depth of knowledge about voluntary benefits. "The guy probably has some of the greatest intellectual capital in all the voluntary benefits arena - very innovative, very creative," says Shiomos, a senior vice president at Marsh. "He's so highly respected. The first thing you think of when you think of Rob Shestack and his footprint in the industry is he just brings tremendous value to all that surrounds him; whether it's carrier relations, brokerage relations, customer relations. All of the above. He's as good as it gets."


Voluntary strategy

Since he became National Sales Leader for Marsh's Employer Benefits Business in 2010, the 2011 revenue projections for Shestack's division have exceeded the new and expanded revenue brought in by voluntary business in 2009 and 2010 combined - an increase of more than 50%.

Shestack is quick to credit his whole team for the success. "It could be attributable to the economy starting to get a little better last year. I would hope it was me and the team that we put together," he says. "It could be a lot of different things, but as an organization, I have a very good team behind me and I think collectively as a group we're doing very well. Whether it's training, whether it's strategic solutions we're bringing to the marketplace."

Sales calls are not just about leveraging the Marsh name to gain business. Shestack brings strategy into the process by working with his sales team to analyze possible connections to the client (Has he worked with them in the past? Does he know an associate there?) and provide benchmarking data to let them know where their peers stand and how their employees are likely to perceive voluntary benefits.

"We want to engage them on a personal level, know we understand them and have experience in their business and it's not just Marsh - it's leveraging our name and our relationships in the marketplace to bring the best products, the best service, the best pricing," he says. "Anybody can go out there and offer voluntary benefits. It's how are we more strategic in nature on solving problems, communication issues, education of their employees, offering voluntary benefits that fit their profile?"

Now voluntary benefits practice leader at Buck, Amy Hollis has known Shestack for 10 years. The pair met when Hollis was worksite national practice leader at Marsh and Shestack was with AmeriFlex, the enrollment firm he founded. Shestack's ability to think in a strategic fashion, combined with his intimate knowledge of the business is a rare combination, says Hollis.

Both were on the consumer-driven track with voluntary benefits before the term "consumer-driven" was even in the industry lexicon. "It was just a rare find to see somebody that was of like thinking above the normal selling voluntary benefits but really helping to craft a solution for the employer that fits strategically into what they're trying to accomplish for their benefits program," says Hollis, "literally leveraging the resources that were inherent within voluntary benefits to support the bigger picture - communications or cost sharing or alternative funding."

Ron Agypt, senior vice president of broker sales for Aflac, has also known Shestack for about a decade and sees him as an industry leader and advocate. "What he does that's really been effective is he's been very consistent in all the years of always promoting voluntary benefits and always promoting a consultative sale to both the brokers and to the clients," says Agypt. "Rob's a big believer that if you get the right value for both brokers and/or clients that the sales will come in with the right value and quality of service."

Agypt is also impressed by the consistency with which Shestack is dedicated to consultative voluntary sales. "He's always been consultative and he always looks for the best value," says Agypt. "He believes that if you bring the right value and you're consultative business will follow. And he's been right."

It's easy for Shestack to bring the value of voluntary home for clients. Eleven years ago his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and although the family had excellent major medical coverage, they still found themselves with $13,000 in out-of-pocket expenses related to the diagnosis and needing to take care of two young children at the time. If his benefits had included a critical illness policy, the family would have been protected, Shestack recalls.

It's a reality of illness that's all the scarier in these slow economic times. "As more people file bankruptcies and more people have out-of-pocket risks and exposure and as employers start to cut back on things that were a stable of benefits such as short-term disability or higher levels of term life, the voluntary benefit community are the ones that need to come in and help solve those problems," Shestack says. "We need to be a supplement to the employer's core benefit program."


Setting the stage

It's not about selling a product but about solving a problem, Shestack adds.

With all the value that voluntary brings, Shestack is still not surprised that some smaller, independent brokerages remain hesitant to join the market. "Voluntary benefits is a very unique group of folks and voluntary benefits are far different than group benefits," he says. "The products are different, the state regulations vary, carriers have different types of products out there, they don't necessarily all look alike."

A couple of years ago when Julie Bahnick was preparing to graduate from Temple University with a degree in the HR/benefits field, it was Shestack who, as her senior project mentor and fellow Temple graduate, encouraged her to pursue a career in voluntary. Although Bahnick knew she wanted to work for a brokerage, "through Rob he really opened my eyes to voluntary benefits and before that I really didn't know too much about it or didn't have that much of an interest in it," she says.

Now a voluntary benefits underwriter at benefits administration firm Trion, Bahnick feels a sense of job security she may not have had in the group benefits market. "Commissions are constantly changing and obviously they're decreasing and I think just with health care reform voluntary benefits is more popular than ever and everyone's talking about it," she says. "I feel more stable than some of my peers."

Shestack recruited Bahnick to work for Trion when he was national practice leader, shortly before joining Marsh. "Out of every person I've met so far in this industry he is, if not the most knowledgeable, one of the most knowledgeable people I've met," says Bahnick. "He knows so much about the industry and he is so passionate about it. That makes you really become passionate about it yourself, learning from someone who really believes in what they're doing."

Shestack has been honing that knowledge base for more than 20 years. His benefits career started with a job at consulting giant Towers Perrin, now Towers Watson, in 1987, followed by five years doing ERISA compliance at a law firm before founding AmeriFlex in the mid-'90s.

Through AmeriFlex Shestack partnered with leading voluntary benefit providers such as Colonial Life and Unum, as well as enrollment companies like Univers Workplace Solutions and The Farmington Company.

While performing FSA administration and core and voluntary benefits enrollment at AmeriFlex a customer asked the company to conduct a survey to gauge employee satisfaction with the process and offered benefits. Soon afterward AmeriFlex began its own benchmarking and trending studies of nearly 50,000 employees in its client base of employer groups with 100-500 employees.

"I started getting all this data. So we'd do an analysis on a group and we'd have an idea of what products would sell better than others, what the client would be looking for, what the employee would be looking for based on their profile," says Shestack of his time with AmeriFlex. "So we were doing some of these analytics 15 years ago before a lot of other people were and I just started to gather a whole bunch of information."

When Shestack sold his interest in AmeriFlex to become SVP of strategic development for Univers in 2002 he continued the trend by meeting with both broker partners around the country to find out what their clients were looking for and carriers to hear about their product developments and what their broker partners wanted to see.

It wasn't long before Shestack became a product expert and could use the information he learned to compare carriers, ask them why one company offered a certain benefit while theirs did not. He also learned about upcoming product releases and pricing structures months before they were out, therefore allowing him the best opportunity to help clients plan their future benefits strategy.

Overtime, several of the leading voluntary carriers asked Shestack to sit on their advisory boards to take advantage of his industry knowledge and predictions for the future.

"He's a tough dude," jokes Aflac's Agypt. "He fights for the client. Sometimes carriers don't necessarily like him but they respect him because he's always fighting for the client, which is what he needs to do. He'll ask a lot of carriers."


Future outlook

Along with Shiomos, Khai Lovan, vice president of strategic development for Marsh, also nominated Shestack to be EBA's Voluntary Benefit Adviser of the Year. Lovan describes Shestack's visionary outlook: "When people want to know where the voluntary benefits industry is headed in the next three to five to 10 years, Rob is one of the first calls they make. He has the ability to predict what the future holds as evidence from his past practices."

Shestack predicts big things for the future of voluntary. Currently about a $12 billion industry, he thinks revenue has the potential to double by 2014. "Voluntary benefit carriers have done a tremendous job in keeping up with innovations in products and listening to customers and brokers and developing new riders and new features to their benefit programs," says Shestack. "Voluntary benefits I feel are just going to significantly grow at least up to 2014 and then beyond because there's going to be a lot of out of pocket. The need for disability insurance is not going to change whether we have health care reform or not. The need for life insurance is not going to change whether we have health care reform or not."

Joe Alfonsi, a senior account executive with Unum, first worked with Shestack back when he was administering cafeteria plans with AmeriFlex. "Rob was forecasting even back then that medical premiums were going to skyrocket and plan designs for medical plans were going to change," says Alfonsi. "So he was on the forefront of that by a good five, six, seven years."

Just as Shestack saw the supplemental tide turning from a focus on disability and life to critical illness, accident and cancer plans, Alfonsi is impressed now with Shestack's commitment to benefit communication and administration. "I think Rob sees that as the next five-to-10-year window of opportunity," he says. "OK, we've made these changes to our health plan. We have all these great products. How do we deliver them - but more importantly- how do we maintain them?"

While most in the industry are focusing on improved communication, Alfonsi sees Shestack taking it a step further to improved benefit maintenance; how to control costs through an improved administration system; how to align benefits in the most advantageous order. For example, while voluntary choices are traditionally placed at the end of the enrollment process, "where Rob has been a visionary is let's align these products. Why do people buy a critical illness or a cancer plan or an accident plan? Because they need to supplement their health coverage," he says. "So why not align those benefits and group them together all with health insurance? I know that's where Rob is focusing a lot of his energy."

Shestack believes employers may go back to the old cafeteria plan rules and simply give employees a certain amount of money to choose their own benefits. "It may be that health insurance becomes a voluntary benefit," he says. "So who's going to be able to provide them with health insurance? Who's going to be [providing voluntary]?"

Buck's Hollis knows Shestack is equipped to do just that. "The buzz word today is 'employee engagement.' A lot of it is centered around how do we support the movement toward individualization of benefits? And Rob, from the method he deploys with his clients and the way he thinks outside of the box, has been able to support employers' initiatives in going in that direction," she says.

Shestack likens a benefit firm not having a voluntary strategy to a TPA not offering debit cards - something unthinkable for those wanting to be successful. "I think everybody needs to have some voluntary benefit strategy whether you partner with somebody or not," he says, adding that Marsh has many strategic partners, particularly property and casualty brokers that don't want to dabble in the health business.

However, he warns that voluntary is a big investment, requiring specialized account and project managers that understand the intricacies of the space. "It's hard to take somebody who is a group medical specialist that understands major medical better than anybody and understands group life and disability and then put them into a voluntary benefit situation," says Shestack. "It's going to be confusing because the products are so vastly different."

A small community now, Shestack says there's plenty of room for new blood in the voluntary benefits business. "The people in this business are just amazing but it's going to be growing, which means there's more opportunity for insurance professionals to get into the voluntary benefit space," he says, noting that many carriers are making financial commitments to build their voluntary business or signing joint ventures with other carriers to sell their benefits, such as Aetna and Allstate.

Unum's Alfonsi is excited to see Shestack recognized as EBA's Voluntary Benefit Adviser of the Year. He believes Shestack's listening skills allow him to excel at voluntary. "Rob's a great listener," says Alfonsi. "Especially when you get elevated to the position he has, a lot of times the higher up you go people tend to listen less. Rob's never been one of those people. ... No matter what level he's achieved he treats everybody the same. I think that's helped him because he knows he can learn a lot from all different aspects of people."

For Shestack, it simply comes down to a love of the job. "I love my industry. I'm privileged to have a great job, privileged to work with great people day in and day out - not just Marsh people but people that are in this industry," he says. "I wake up every day saying I am such a fortunate person and to be recognized for having that passion is really nice."

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