For years the perception has persisted that the Northeast, New York in particular, remains an impenetrable voluntary no man's land. Who would want to try to break new ground there with heavy-handed regulators watching your every move? With very few exceptions not many have.
Dan Robinson is turning that idea on its head. He has been for nearly 20 years.
Robinson has been in the business since 1993, spending seven years with a handful of major medical carriers before moving on to a number of worksite firms. In fact, over 15 years, Robinson finished in the top five for sales reps for different companies, and topped out at No. 1 three times for three different firms.
"I worked for companies like Aetna and Cigna, which is where I really got exposure to the small and large group market and a number of different funding arrangements, from fully insured to self-insured, running the full gamut of funding mechanisms," Robinson recalls. "I also dealt in the direct and broker-driven market. All of that gave me a nice stable basis for my foray into voluntary, which has been the last eight years."
And it was within the worksite space where Robinson found his niche.
"Back in 1999 or 2000, while in the medical market, Legal Club of America approached me about a position they had bringing legal programs to the voluntary marketplace. While it was a great change from what I was doing, that experience had an incredibly positive impact on my entire life. It's where I believe my calling was because I went to an industry that really is based upon one's creativity and one's ability to truly help people within their own budget. The Legal Club of America gave me the building blocks to be successful with voluntary benefits. I saw voluntary delivered conceptually, was exposed to how it was brought out to enrollment methodologies, to successful and unsuccessful platforms, to value-added processes in order to gain education formats," Robinson explains.
Three years ago last month, Robinson struck out on his own, setting up shop as Fage Benefit Solutions, a turnkey voluntary consulting and enrollment firm based in Elmsford, N.Y. Fage's area of emphasis lies in the 20-500-employee market and proprietary voluntary design and enrollment for employer associations. Robinson remains one of the firm's partners while heading up the entire worksite sales division.
"Fage Benefits Solutions was a brainchild of mine, with the proper financial partners," Robinson says. "We believed voluntary was about to explode [in New York] and in the Northeast. We believed there were some things that we could do to differentiate ourselves, which we believed would be highly successful in the tri-state area. In less than three years, we've quadrupled in premium generated, and we're on the leaderboard of some of the most respected worksite companies in the country."
But, again, the Northeast -- and the regulatory minefield that is New York -- has been historically unfriendly to the broker market. But, as Robinson will tell you, it's nothing personal. It's a reactionary insurance market, resistant to anything new.
"Trends have always seemed to go from west and south, and then bring themselves back to the east. Due to demographic changes, income levels, and strength of product platforms, all of those components have always made the east one of the last areas to embrace change. And this area of benefits is no different. We're seeing tremendous growth in the worksite, and yet we believe that it is very much a reactionary market as opposed to a proactive market. Fage has taken upon itself to try and change that and actually get in at the ground floor with today's brokers and consultants and make it a proactive approach to their client base," Robinson says.
But Robinson's optimism keeps him going, something many might find surprising coming from your stereotypical, jaded New Yorker.
"A lot might take the negative approach, and some of the carriers and [other] worksite marketers feel it would be great if some of the carriers here in New York could get to certain products a little faster," Robinson says. "But what is nice to know is that while it takes a little time to come out -- if at all -- what we're bringing to the client has already been heavily scrutinized. These programs have been looked into so deeply that we know what the intent of the product is going to be; the design and the delivery of the program and the product are going to be exactly as the carrier intended them to be and as the consumer would expect them to look. That brings a sense of relief and great confidence to us to know that those programs are being watched over very carefully to make sure that they work well for the consumer."
When it comes to the enrollment process itself, Robinson insists it is all about communication, and the employer's ability to embrace the so-called soft costs associated with it. The difference between a successful enrollment and a poor one? Robinson will tell you it is simple education.
"This will be no shock to those in the worksite market," Robinson laughs. "If we've delivered correctly to the employer, and they understand and embrace the expense of communication and the importance of education in individually designed benefits that meet people's budgets and circumstances... you're going to have a successful enrollment 99.9 percent of the time."
But it isn't just about the conditions, Robinson quickly points out. Enrollment success also relies heavily on advanced planning, as well.
"You need to bring the proper programs based on the industry, based on the population, the age, all the different demographic factors that go into the case. That's why I believe we're highly successful in what is becoming a broker-driven market, as opposed to a direct market for worksite marketers and the direct riders. We need to take a different approach, and I don't think that same-solution worksite product is going to be the future of the industry. It will be true due diligence because every case has its own unique factors and the same worksite solutions don't fit each case the best. If we ask about a successful enrollment, it goes down to the actual planning, not just about exposing a gap and trying to fill it. It's whether that gap is a gap that does need to be filled and whether the population would be attracted to a particular program. For a successful enrollment, there needs to be calculated planning at the start. There needs to be employer buy-in, and then there needs to be, of course, the proper communication and conditions at the end. Those three components will normally bring out a highly successful enrollment."
And as far as this economic downturn is concerned, Robinson isn't afraid of the R word.
"On the heels of a potential recession in the country, employers have been reducing benefits to offset expense because of some of the challenges that have occurred within the core market and medical and pharmacy and the other things that have impacted employers. [The economic downturn has] introduced more risk than ever before, which actually has created a greater need for some of the programs that we deliver here in New York and throughout the rest of the country. With the reduction of benefits, employers are more open to different ideas that allow them to reduce costs with the ability to still address the exposure that naturally will be put upon the employee. It's part of where Fage Benefits Solutions is going in the next 10 to 15 years with our advanced planning. I think it's all symbiotic and all tied into one another," Robinson says.
"Certain industries have been impacted greater than others. I have a tried and true belief that in good times, the programs that we deliver are necessary, and in bad times that doesn't change. Whether it's a good market or a bad market, the programs that we deliver throughout the country are instrumental and necessary to these people and those risks do not disappear. The programs aren't luxury items; they are necessities."
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