INDIANAPOLIS -- Brokers are a hard-working group, with the goal of helping their clients provide the best employee benefits in the most cost-effective manner. And with all the disruption in the insurance industry as well as the turmoil over potential health care legislation, the challenges continue to mount.
The best examples of brokers who are meeting these challenges are the five finalists for BenefitsPRO's 2017 Broker of the Year:
Felipe Barganier Sr., CEO of GAB International LLC, based in Atlanta, Ga.
Lisa Boucher, vice president of employee benefits at Cross Insurance, of Portland, Maine
Susan L. Combs, CEO of Combs & Company, based in New York, N.Y.
Mark S. Gaunya, principal and the CIO at Borislow Insurance and the founder and CEO of Captivated Health in Boston, Mass.
Justin White, partner and employee benefit specialist, Brock & Spencer Benefits, based in Chattanooga, Tenn.
2017 Broker of the Year awarded
The award for Broker of the Year 2017 went to Susan L. Combs. It was announced at the BenefitsPRO Broker Expo today.
“This is one of the most amazing industries out there,” she said in accepting the award. “You can have a good time, help your clients and make a lot of money.”
Combs describes herself as a “Missouri girl in a New York world.”
She came to New York City in 2001 in search of her first job, working in events for a major hotel chain.
That didn’t pan out and she soon found herself working for Paychex, selling workers’ compensation coverage and explaining workers’ comp to her colleagues.
From there, at age 26, she founded Combs & Company in 2005 with the concept of “Do More, Better.” Leveraging her background in hospitality, Combs and her team focus on clients that don’t fit an insurance carriers’ typical profile, such as entertainment, food, and international companies setting up their first U.S. operations.
At a panel moderated by Paul Wilson, editor-in-chief of Benefits PRO magazine, the five finalists shared words of wisdom on what it takes to be successful, some of their biggest challenges and attracting new talent.
When asked about their keys to success, White referred to a saying that is on the wall of his company: “The difference in insurance is the agent.” He explained that although it’s important to understand the insurance industry, you don’t need to be an expert about everything. Brokers shouldn’t be afraid to outsource to experts in different fields if that’s what it takes to provide the best service to the client.
Of the five, Gaunya was the only one who started with any kind of “experience” in health care or insurance. Both his parents were medical professionals so he observed first-hand the issues they and their patients faced. “Success only comes before work in the dictionary,” he pointed out. “You have to have a plan, develop the plan, focus on the plan, and execute the plan.”
Barganier advised new brokers to “early on, find a niche.” He became successful dealing with the public service sector because his mother was a teacher, his father was an Internal Revenue Service attorney and his grandmother worked in public hospitals and he’s passionate about public service. “Clients don’t care how much you know,” he added, “they want to know how much you care about them.”
Boucher emphasized that “It’s important to have integrity and to have your clients trust you. You don’t need to have all the answers; you just need to know who to go to.” She noted that her clients don’t always like what she has to tell them, but they know that “it’s the truth.”
Biggest challenges for brokers
Gaunya believes strongly the most important challenge facing brokers is finding, recruiting and onboarding great people. “You can’t operate without great people; you can’t just settle for good.”
Combs said a major challenge is social media and “all the bad information out there.” It’s difficult to put out the fire of bad information posted on Facebook. She and her team spend a lot of time allaying the fears of clients who are having panic attacks when they read stories on social media about what is happening or will happen to health care and employee benefits. “We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard,” she said, reminding the audience to be careful what they repost.
Barganier noted that new employees see how successful more senior producers are and think that came overnight. They have difficulty understanding that it’s a slow process, and the first couple of years are often a struggle. His firm has hired an outside company to train employees, which has helped minimize the frustration factor.
Health care law changes
White noted the Affordable Care Act has been a blessing for the industry, but the discussions and proposals around repealing and replacing the law keep him and his clients up at night. The ACA allowed brokers to build relationships and earn business that they might not have had access to previously, but what do brokers do if the ACA goes away? That’s one-third of his business.
Boucher agreed the ACA provided opportunities, but the pending changes have made clients nervous. At the same time, she said, you need to remind clients that “we were there for you before the ACA and we helped you through those changes. We’re still here and we’ll continue to help you work through any changes—once we know what they really are.”
In wrapping up the panel discussion, Gaunya described a scene outside his hotel in Washington, D.C., on a recent visit. “I saw taxis lined up waiting for fares, with the drivers standing around outside the cabs complaining about Uber. I saw Uber drivers briskly picking up and dropping off passengers. My takeaway? Disrupt or be disrupted. Uber your business before you’re out of it.”