Reed Smith, Benefits Selling's 2016 Broker of the Year, has studied the industry from all angles, giving him a unique and comprehensive perspective on the needs and challenges of brokers, clients and carriers. He exemplifies the next generation of brokers, focusing on consumer-driven health care, embracing technology and preaching the idea that change is just another word for opportunity.
The finalists for the 2016 Benefits Selling Broker of the Year all have a few things in common. They work hard for their clients. They think strategically. They encourage long-term planning. They don't let regulations get in the way of success. They give credit to the people who work with them.
Indeed, they’ve all done more than just survive today's uncertain and unpredictable business climate. They’ve thrived.
Reed Smith's formula for success consists of a few key ingredients that set him apart from other brokers and agents. For starters, he doesn't just sit down with a client and review a spreadsheet to see where he can save them money. He takes it a couple steps further by devising a strategy for his clients to compete in their marketplace. Like other brokers and agents, he has been a leader in encouraging consumer-driven health care. But in order to do so, Smith has embraced technology to engage employees and reduce costs. When the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was passed, Smith conducted webinars for his clients to learn about the law. During those webinars, more than a few employers realized that Smith was way ahead of the game.
Those are just a few reasons why Smith, a senior vice president and practice leader at CoBiz Insurance in Denver, is Benefits Selling's 2016 Broker of the Year.
“He's got a lot of great strengths,” says Todd McLean, president of CoBiz Insurance. “He's a passionate champion for employee benefits and how they impact people. He's also an exceptional team player; he goes 24-7 and will be anywhere for his team and his clients. He gives great guidance to the team, he's articulate and he has all the qualities you want to see from someone in control. He's our practice lead to the entire team and he's an individual everyone on the team feels comfortable going to.”
The 37-year-old Smith joined CoBiz in 2009 and has helped grow the company's employee benefits business from $2 million at that time to $6 million last year. Smith works with about 50 small- to mid-size companies, and his strategies have helped CoBiz's clients keep their health care costs significantly below inflation for four years running.
“We are always pushing ourselves to think about the help our clients need to make sure they’re outperforming the national average and their competitors in attracting and retaining talent because they have a better benefits plan that is more cost effective,” Smith says.
While he's helped his clients manage health care costs, Smith sees his role as much more than acting as a spreadsheet analyst. He talks with his clients about health insurance and benefits packages in competitive terms. The way Smith sees it, helping clients attract and retain top employee talent enables them to beat their competition.
“We spend a lot of time in up-front discussions with new clients, talking about how we can align benefits strategy with their business strategy,” Smith says. “We use analytics, employee education and long-term strategic planning—that's not how insurance and benefits are managed in a lot of places. So when we talk to a new client about whether there are any disparities between their business and how they manage their health care benefits, we tell them we want to be the company that lives in the benefits world and brings them actionable intelligence.”
Smith has worked with Cochlear—an international manufacture of implantable hearing devices with offices in Centennial, Colorado—for the past four years. Kim Coleman, a senior director of human resources with the company, points toward Smith's understanding of her company's culture and business objectives as attributes that have set him apart from other brokers and agents. In fact, Smith's contributions to Cochlear were deemed so valuable that CoBiz was able to retain the company as a client after the company changed CEOs.
“He looks at and listens for what's going on in the market and what's going on in the organization—what we’re trying to achieve from a benefits perspective,” Coleman says. “We have a very close partnership to align Cochlear's benefits strategy with what's going on in the local and national market.”
“We’re very fortunate to have a base in Colorado,” Smith says, “which is continually recognized as one of the fastest growing economies and one of the best places in the country to live and work, so employers are moving here all the time. There are huge national employers that are building infrastructure here, but we also have these small and mid-size clients who are competing for talent. We tell employers—whether you’re a customer today or a future customer—that if you don't view health care as an advantage today, it will become a disadvantage down the road.”
Teaching and technology
One key strategy for helping employers contain health care costs has been to engage employees and help them act as better consumers. That's nothing new in the employee benefits game. Smith's approach is to communicate to employees about their health care choices and educate them about how their benefits work.
At Cochlear, Smith has been instrumental in helping the company make fundamental changes to their health care offerings.
“We’ve been shifting and educating our employees about how to engage with benefits,” Coleman says. “We began offering a high deductible plan, and we’ve been moving toward self-funding. Before, we had a paternalistic, family approach and CoBiz helped us navigate that. Again, Reed understood our organization and started having discussions with our carrier. He told us about what was happening and what we needed to watch. I had not experienced that with any other advisor.”
At CoBiz, Smith has been a leading proponent of using technology to help manage health care costs. Talk to Smith for any amount of time and you will hear him espouse the benefits of telemedicine. Smith says that while telemedicine is relatively new, it has already helped reduce costs. For instance, telemedicine has gotten to a point where some illnesses can be diagnosed and treated without a trip to a medical facility.
“The emergence of digitalization in health care benefits has gotten a lot of attention in the media and Reed has been a champion of digitalization before it was everywhere,” McLean says. “Where he's giving us guidance is in the telemedicine area, along with Skype and FaceTime. He's going to be fundamental to our business as we move forward with the digitalization of health care. He's a great student of what's evolving in the sector.”
A holistic view
After Smith, a native of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, graduated from the University of Colorado-Boulder with a degree in business management, he began looking for a career path. He ended up attending a job fair on campus, which led to a position at Great West, a health insurance company active in Colorado at the time. Cigna eventually acquired Great West and Smith found himself on the inside of a publicly traded Fortune 500 company. He worked on the carrier side of the industry for about 10 years and was a national sales leader six years in a row.
It turns out the experience has been a great help to his clients over the years. Many of the chief financial officers on his client roster appreciate his carrier background, Smith says, because it helps them strategize how to represent themselves in negotiations. But Smith has also learned how to make carrier negotiations successful for all parties.
“The years I spent at Cigna gave me such incredible perspective about what goes on behind the scenes and how they’re tasked with meeting the demands of Wall Street,” Smith says. “Moving to the broker side, when we’re having a discussion, we’re seeking a win-win proposition. We tell people all the time that a win-lose situation isn't feasible. Our job is to make sure both sides think about a long-term winning situation.”
Navigating the future
In 2012, Smith started a monthly webinar to help educate his clients about the ACA. In the beginning, he recalls seeing 20 to 30 employers in the sessions, but it has now grown to around 300 employers. Smith's webinars have helped attract new clients to CoBiz as some of those attendees realized they weren't getting similar information from their benefits companies.
In addition to shepherding clients through ACA, Smith has realized that his future success meant shifting his role from broker to advisor. He also encourages current and potential clients to investigate changing the way they do things. In fact, Smith describes much of his job as establishing CoBiz as a “thought leader” in the industry.
“There was a lot of industry clamor that the ACA was going to end the broker,” Smith says. “To one degree, I agree with that. In a post-ACA world, employers don't need a broker or an agent. The historic definition of a broker is not the role employers need in the future. They need an advisor or a consultant to address a more holistic view of benefits.”