Meet the 2014 Broker of the Year finalists

These five brokers have gotten it right this year. Meet Benefits Selling's 2014 Broker of the Year finalists. The winner will be revealed at the Benefits Selling Expo in Colorado Springs, Colo., held April 1-3. Don't miss it.

John Cerasani

Hometown: Chicago

Company: Northwest Comprehensive, a brokerage firm that focuses on employee benefits for colleges and universities.

On being different: “I think the biggest challenge brokers have today is finding a way to differentiate themselves and distinguish themselves from the competition out there,” Cerasani says.

His story:

John Cerasani meant to play in the NFL, but life had different plans for him.

“I played football in college at Northwestern University,” he says, “and I think that I’d planned up until probably the last game of my senior year that I was going to be playing in the NFL. Then I had an injury and realized it wasn't going to happen. So I started interviewing with every single company that came through the career services center at the university.”

Read John's full profile here.

Photo: John Cerasani stands in the middle of Michigan Avenue near his office. By Bob Stefko.

Ed Oravetz

Hometown: Houston

Company: VISICOR, provider of benefits and compliance solutions.

On what sets him apart: “We don't want the most clients; we’re not looking for numbers,” he explains. “We’re looking for high-quality, high-touch clients that we can actually deliver value to on a daily, weekly, monthly basis.”

His story:

“A lot of times in this industry, we try to find that silver bullet,” says Ed Oravetz, president and senior benefits consultant at VISICOR.

“We say, ‘It must be wellness, or having a clinician on staff, or ancillary or voluntary benefits.’ But I don't think there is a silver bullet,” he says. “I think it's a broad picture of this thing we call employee benefits; I think the difference is, we cannot look at it as just going in and performing a duty. We really have to become engaged. We have to partner with our clients, understand where they want to be — what's worked, what hasn't worked, the long-term vision for their employee benefits package, and then we have to dig deep and find long-term solutions.”

Read Ed's full profile here.

Photo: Ed Oravetz draws his strength from home and family. By Nathan Lindstrom.

Darrell Phillips

Hometown: Manhattan, Kansas

Company: DPI Benefits, which specializes in providing total employee benefits management consulting and brokerage services.

On his company being a team: “We have 100 percent client retention over five years,” he says. “And it's because we have such a great team of people here. Our client services manager is like a psychic; she reads my mind, and she really does truly, personally care about these clients — and her staff then develops that same conscientiousness.”

His story:

Manhattan, Kansas, known locally as the Little Apple, is a small city with small-town values. And Darrell Phillips, owner of DPI Benefits, shares those values.

That's one reason why he's thrived in an evolving industry so many brokers find challenging — but Phillips insists he's only one part of the team he's built, and the team should enjoy any accolades collected.

Read Darrell's full profile here.

Photo: Darrell Phillips loves spending time with his granddaughter when he's not helping clients. By Ryan Nicholson.

Colin Smoak 

Hometown: Mount Pleasant, S.C.

Company: McLaughlin Smoak & Clarke Benefits, a company “committed to providing our clients the best employee benefits advice along with world class day to day client service.”

On what's important: “I still enjoy helping people,” he notes. “I still get a thrill out of educating people. That's the thrill I get out of this: Watching the lights go on in somebody's eyes, and then having them call me up or write a letter saying thank you.”

His story:

Colin Smoak, a principal consultant at McLaughlin Smoak & Clarke Benefits, is the second principal at his firm to be nominated for the Broker of the Year award. His partner, Trey McLaughlin, was a finalist last year.

And that says something, Smoak says, about how their agency does business.

Read Colin's full profile here.

Photo: Former footballer Colin Smoak still loves the beautiful game. By Terry Manier.

butchButch Zemar

Hometown: Chicago

Company: Elite Benefits of America, an independent agency that offers a full spectrum of insurance and asset protection products.

On helping his clients by writing ebooks: “I usually write the articles while I’m on the road in between meetings or enrollments and have to grab a bite to eat,” he says. “I’m an Average Joe, but I somehow have the ability to break things down to make them easier to understand.”

His story:

If teaching scuba diving in Chicago were more lucrative, then it's likely the Windy City would be missing one of its top insurance salespeople.

“I got into the insurance business by accident,” explains Butch Zemar, health care reform consultant for Elite Benefits of America in Chicago. “I went for a group interview for selling products to the self-employed market. It wasn't until the end of the presentation when I asked what the product was — it was health insurance. I didn't even have health insurance myself.”

Read Butch's full profile here.

Photo: Navy veteran Butch Zemar would be underwater right now if he wasn't in the benefits business. By Tom McKenzie.


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