Bryan Brenner grew up on a farm, learning to be grateful for those he worked with, to treat them with respect and to listen to their ideas. It was an environment that built dedication and a sense of community, he says.
Those lessons from early life produced "a lot of loyalty that carried forward to how I think about business," says Brenner, now founder and CEO of Indianapolis-based FirstPerson Benefit Advisors.
Loyalty is also among the traits FirstPerson's 46 employees and 298 clients see every day, and what helped Brenner become EBA's 2012 Health Plan Adviser of the Year. After a month-long nomination period that asked applicants to describe innovate efforts, achievements and growth in the last year, it ultimately was Brenner's customer-first attitude and the praise his colleagues and clients place on him that earned him the accolade.
Getting to 'yes'
Brenner spent his childhood - ages 4 to 13 - on a 600-acre farm his family owned which had cattle, swine, chickens and other livestock. His family employed multiple people who made the farm work, and members of the rural community near Clark's Hill, Ind., took care of each other.
That mentality helped shape the person he would become. Brenner also credits his grandfather for making him the businessman he is. With only an 8th grade education, his grandfather, Jack Good, who passed away nearly four years ago, rose through the ranks in a local factory and helped raise Brenner after his parents divorced.
"He was very focused on customers, solutions, making things happen," says Brenner, who was deeply influenced by these experiences.
That has translated into one of Brenner's key traits - tenacity, says Paul Ashley, an adviser at FirstPerson. "You see that in Bryan daily, every moment of every day. ... A lot of it comes from his upbringing on the farm where hard work goes a long way," Ashley says. "He brings that to the firm here and instills that quality in all of us. It's about getting the right answer. When you are told 'no,' it's just you haven't got a 'yes' yet on behalf of the clients."
After attending Butler University, Brenner, 39, started working for a third-party administrator in 1995, and in 1997 joined Miller & Associates, his father-in-law Edward H. Miller III's firm, where he started his own health and welfare consulting business, Benefit Associates.
In 1999, Brenner purchased Miller's benefit book and bought and sold companies over time. He eventually purchased Benefit Consultants in January 2010 - an acquisition that grew his company by 35% - to form FirstPerson.
Dianne Olthaus was Brenner's first employee and is now a client advocate at FirstPerson. Throughout the last 13 years she says she has watched Brenner change a lot. In fact, Olthaus originally turned him down for the job because she was "a little worried it was just him and me. He was a lot younger and I felt I needed someone that would be around for a while."
Yet, with Brenner's persistence, she joined him and calls it one of her best decisions. "I have had absolutely no regret or worry that the office was going to close down. Bryan impressed me from the day I walked in the door - he was very client-focused," she says. "[Yet,] he also had a lot of learning to do. As we progressed we learned by mistakes, what worked, what didn't work."
Although Olthaus has watched Brenner mature 100 times over, she says, his values have not changed. "His concern has always been No. 1 for his employees and No. 2 for his clients from day one. I don't think that will ever change."
More than an adviser
For ExactTarget, an Indianapolis-based interactive marketing software company, Brenner has become more than a health plan adviser. "He is a strategic partner whose primary focuses are around the benefit plan, but he is ready, willing and able to do much more than that for our business needs," says C. Todd Richardson, ExactTarget's senior vice president of strategic HR and risk management.
Brenner and FirstPerson help ExactTarget - which has grown from 300 employees to more than 1,200 employees in less than four years - even with items not in FirstPerson's wheelhouse. Richardson recalls a time when FirstPerson conducted an employee survey for his company and other times FirstPerson has helped with administrative items.
Brenner understands the challenges facing ExactTarget - a growing company and workforce with an average age of just under 30 - and Richardson says he trusts him 100%. "He is one of my trusted advisers," Richardson explains. "I will sit down with him on a periodic basis and just bounce general ideas around. ... [Bryan] knows how difficult it is for us to recruit at the level we need to. So if there are new, progressive things in the benefit world, he will bring them to us to consider so we are an employer of choice for many years."
For FORUM Credit Union, Brenner is a partner, not a vendor, says Jenny Budreau, the Indianapolis-based company's chief operating officer. "FirstPerson has an interest in making sure our folks receive the best advice," she says. "To have someone who is on the same page, on the same team with you is important. It's extremely beneficial, not only for me, but for the whole organization. They know, and I know, if FirstPerson is involved, it is going to be quality work."
It goes beyond helping clients with their businesses - Brenner also helps them with their personal lives. Jeff McDermott, a partner at Carmel, Ind.-based law firm Krieg DeVault, recalls an extraordinary set of circumstances when his wife was denied coverage for a major medical issue.
Brenner was the adviser to both McDermott's law firm and his wife's CPA firm. McDermott contacted Brenner "and he listened to our problem and didn't assign someone to it, he stepped up himself and participated. ... He used his connections and diplomacy to get to the right people at the highest level of the [insurer,]" and got the issue resolved.
Like so many people with a health care crisis, McDermott's wife needed someone to advocate for her. "She couldn't do it herself," he says. "She had me, and I had Bryan."
For Brenner, it was just another day of business, and another instance of his values at work. "The closer you can get to a customer, the more trusted you can be, the more profitable you can be over a long a period of time," he says.
And that's exactly what Brenner's employees are taught as well, Olthaus says, who explains the company takes training very seriously. "It's basically teaching you to give 101% to your client, don't ever leave them needing a little bit more," she explains. "Bryan always wants each client to feel like they [are] our only client. I know that lot of people say that, but Bryan truly lives that. And his employees truly live that because of his leadership."
Brenner realizes that standing out in a competitive market requires creativity and innovation. From day one, Olthaus says, Brenner taught her it is about the client and what they need, not about what FirstPerson wants to sell them.
"He will walk away from a client if he doesn't like their culture. ... If [a client] doesn't want to form a partnership, he will turn them away," Olthaus says. "I think that's very admirable of him because he is thinking what he truly believes.
"He wants to learn about the client, he wants to investigate their processes and then walk away and see what [we] can bring in to help them be who they want to be, not who we want them to be," she adds. "I don't think I ever looked at our business like that before. It was always about selling the benefit, which is not how Bryan thinks."
Brenner did just that at Krieg DeVault. For nearly five decades, the firm's 250 employees had a PPO that McDermott says was "killing us from a cost perspective." Brenner helped move the firm to a consumer-driven health plan, which resulted in lower-than-expected health claims in 2008 and 2009, "spurred by employees judiciously spending health care dollars based on high deductibles," McDermott says. "Those two years were followed by a year with zero increases in insurance premiums. And it continues."
For McDermott, it speaks volumes about how Brenner listened to what the firm needed, and then reacted. "Our firm's tagline is 'Lawyers as solutions, not obstacles' and Bryan lived our own tagline for us," he says. "He provided us solutions, not obstacles or reasons why we couldn't fix it."
Brenner prides himself on having an entire team of innovators who find he always has an open door and open mind for new ideas.
"He always listens to what we have to say," says Kim Spencer, client advocate at FirstPerson. "A lot of what we currently do started as an idea that Bryan gave us the ability to run with it and make it work. As an employee, it makes you feel more a part of the company when your voice can be heard and you can be part of the solutions we bring to clients.
"When I worked at a TPA, I had to do things the way they said and everything was in a box and this is [the] product. This is what you do. ... Coming to work with Bryan, it's a much more creative environment. We kind of talk about what has worked in the past, what has not worked, what we can do to make changes in the future," Spencer adds. "It's very much a collaborative environment, rather than the corporate world where you don't go outside your box."
For Brenner, that comes from working at a TPA where he says most managers did not want to hear from him - the young kid. "I was the irritant who would ask a lot of questions," he remembers. It was "disheartening to be in an environment where people poo-pooed you because you were new.
"I decided I wanted to have an organization where people could get hold of stuff and carry as much water as possible. ... Our clients like that we have this spirit about us, that they can feel a sense of moving forward," he adds.
FirstPerson will often test out ideas internally before bringing them to their clients. The old adage of "believe it, live it" is a mantra in their offices. "If we are going to 'live it' with clients, we need to believe it first," Brenner says. "By trying things and putting ourselves to the test, we can live it a lot faster."
One example of that is Nuvita Corporate Wellness Solutions, a relatively new Albuquerque, N.M.-based wellness program that focuses on cardio, nutrition and basic stretching. Before rolling it out to a handful of clients, FirstPerson tried it with its own employees, and even hosts the Nuvita staff at their offices to this day.
Further, FirstPerson started providing health screenings in 2000, "before it was the cool thing to do, and shortly thereafter most of our clients started doing it," Brenner says. "If we want to tell people this is important, we should do it ourselves."
Charity and awards
Brenner places great emphasis on supporting his community. FirstPerson matches donations employees make to charities up to $500. If employees cannot make a financial contribution to a charity, they also receive up to eight hours of matching time off for volunteer work. FirstPerson was the first company in Indiana to commit as a gold-level sponsor for Special Olympics Indiana Extreme Triple Challenge.
"It goes back to growing up on a farm where you relied on other people to help you in times of need," Brenner says.
Brenner also serves on the board of the Oaks Academy, a private urban organization; is chair of Aspire Indiana's board, the state's largest advocacy organization for individuals afflicted with mental illness; and serves on the Board of Visitors for his alma mater, Butler University.
A busy chief executive, Brenner can't get to as much non-profit work as he would like, he says, but enjoys enabling employees to become active. "It's a no-brainer for me and I really want my associates to have the same opportunity," he explains.
In addition to his newest title of EBA Health Plan Adviser of the Year, Brenner has been named to the "Forty under 40" from the Indianapolis Business Journal. FirstPerson, meanwhile, has been consistently named one of the Best Places to Work by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
"I feel honored, I feel lucky," Brenner says of the awards. "I knew I wanted to do well for the customer, I never wanted to be the largest. I wanted to be most revered for doing really good work, which has led to some recognition and is affirming our direction. That direction is to serve clients well."
And FORUM's Budreau says it is no surprise. "They are an awesome group to work with and there is definitely a reason he was selected as Health Plan Adviser of the Year," she says. "He makes a difference for organizations. He is a local guy, knows the marketplace, has great connections and is a great connector with people.
"I value the fact that if there is a resource I need, he is someone I can turn to and trust," she adds. "He makes my life really simple."
Dan Hunt had a lucrative career at a trucking company in North Carolina, but in November 2011 - at age 53 - he uprooted and moved to Indianapolis to join Brenner as FirstPerson's president.
Hunt's trucking company, Worldwide Logistics, was Brenner's first client, and the two have known each other for almost 15 years. Making the switch was surprisingly easy, given the major differences in trucking versus benefits, Hunt says. He made the change because he knew he wanted to work with Brenner.
"When I started thinking about moving forward and who to do that with, it wasn't so much industry focused as a matter of who I like to work with," he says.
It's a decision he does not regret. "Bryan has been fantastic to my wife and I. The entire firm has accepted us," he says. "To change industries at this point in my life, there had to be something valuable about Bryan and his business."
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