The ongoing transformation of the benefits industry and health care world continues to have a dramatic impact on the role of the broker. But while changes in areas like technology, regulation and products continue to occur at a breakneck pace, many brokers’ career paths still follow familiar patterns. So, what can benefits professionals learn from their peers?
At the 2017 BenefitsPRO Broker Expo, one popular session focused solely on the broker lifecycle. Titled “Broker Career Paths in the ‘New’ World,” the panel discussion examined what it means to be a broker in today's environment, and what will be required as the industry continues to evolve. Brokers at different career stages shared their thoughts and experiences, while divulging their successes, areas of growth, and plans to move to the next stage of their businesses.
But one conference session isn't enough to encapsulate the broker way of life. Each day provides new challenges and opportunities, regardless of age or experience. We spoke to a few brokers to discuss what they have done to achieve success, and more importantly, how they plan to keep it going.
One Expo panelist, Taylor Lindsey, partner at Employee Benefits Consultants, Inc., found his way into the business by way of those before him—his father, grandfather, and great grandfather all worked in the industry. In fact, Lindsey's company is a fourth-generation family operation based in Richlands, Virginia.
“One of the first conferences I ever went to, I was getting some grief over my age,” says Lindsey, who has five years under his belt as a benefits broker. “I immediately spoke up and said all of us are learning the ACA for the first time. I started in the industry about the same time the ACA began; I don't have years of bad habits to break.”
Colleen Blum, another young broker, agrees.
“I got into this industry just as it was making its biggest changes, which was a blessing,” Blum says. “I was not tainted by older insurance requirements or past ways of doing things. I came in with a fresh mind and was able to absorb all the new information and regulations.”
Blum is a sales lead at Combs & Company in New York City. Before starting in the industry, Blum worked as a hair stylist. With two years as a customer service representative and three years as a broker, Blum describes herself as “self-taught.” She says, Google was her “best friend” in the early stages of her career, as she read up on industry jargon and policy specifics.
While both Lindsey and Blum say their age has helped them avoid some bad habits of older brokers, being new to the industry also means they don't necessarily have all the answers yet. But their fresh approach to the broker world comes with an eagerness to learn and adapt, as well as overcome the potential hurdles their age presents when trying to build a book of business.
“The greatest challenge in being a younger broker is trust,” Lindsey says. “Many times, I’m sitting with C-suite executives and they are usually more seasoned employees. I speak to them as a peer and address their issues head on. This has forced me to educate myself and build out my team.”
For Blum, a young woman in a largely male-dominated industry, the challenge can be two-fold.
“There is often still a stigma for older men who used to be in rooms and conferences filled by other men,” she says. “As a younger generation, there is a different way we interact, listen and communicate with each other and our clients. Being a female in this industry means you really have to stay authentic in who you are. You don't have to walk into the room and pretend to know what sports team they are talking about. If you are not true to who you are and the things you like, clients and colleagues will see right through you, and it will be difficult to build trust.”
Trust is certainly key for Lindsey and Blum, but so is following in the footsteps of those who have come before them. For Lindsey, that means hearing what others in the industry have to say.
“Listening is learning,” he says. “Education is the key to success in all industries, not just this one, but it is also the pivotal point in becoming valued by your prospects and clients.”
Blum says starting at the bottom helped her earn respect and confidence in her work. And she isn't afraid to speak up when she doesn't know the answer.
“When you don't know something, admit it and ask for help,” she says. “The amount of knowledge gained by sitting back and listening is far greater than any textbook can teach you. You need people around you who are comfortable sharing your defeats just as much as your successes.”
Making a path forward
David Contorno, a former BenefitsPRO Broker of the Year and another panelist during the Expo session, knows his way around the insurance industry. After all, he's been working in it since he was 14.
With over two decades of experience, you’d think someone like Contorno might overlook the younger generation of brokers. But he doesn't.
“I think the younger, less experienced consultant has a huge opportunity to not get bogged down in the status quo, and can create plans with the end in mind,” he says. “They obviously need a level of technical skill, but we as an industry need to start thinking outside the box. We should be sick and tired of the results we are getting, so we need to try different things and find employers who are willing to join us.”
Reed Smith, the third panelist and another former recipient of the Broker of the Year award, agrees that the industry shouldn't be divided by young versus old.
“We can definitely all learn from each other,” he says. “To be a great consultant, you have to be a teacher. However, the best teachers are also committed to being a student of the industry.”
Given the confusing nature of today's health care landscape, it can be tough to find opportunities to be a “teacher” to clients.
“One challenge is getting in front of decision makers,” Contorno says. “This is difficult because it gets pushed down to the HR level to explore and report back, but the decisions come from the C-suite. We push against this because we feel the C-suite needs to be involved all along.”
Smith, senior vice president and practice leader at CoBiz, believes breaking in with higher-ups can be tough.
“I think the biggest challenge when starting is trying to find a network of CEOs, CFOs, and HR directors who can become potential clients and prospects,” he says. “The best way to overcome this challenge is to commit to who you are and the ‘why’ behind your consulting practice.”
Even with executive facetime and confidence in yourself and your business, there are still bumps experienced brokers and consultants must deal with. Smith says the double-edged sword of growth and success comes with the challenges of juggling time and capacity.
“You have to be careful with your time to ensure you can focus on personal and business priorities,” he says. “The only way to do it successfully is to surround yourself with incredible team members and truly take a team approach.”
Despite the obstacles, both Contorno and Smith keep a close eye on the bottom line.
“Success is 100 percent measured by the impact I have on the plan costs of my clients,” Contorno says. “I don't mean in terms of a ‘less bad’ increase, but actual savings. I really can't see it being measured any other way.”
That's not to say Contorno is only focused on the numbers; there is another standard he holds himself to as a broker.
“The more outside of the box I step, the more successful I become at managing employer health care costs,” he says. “When I first pushed a client away from the traditional route, that was a big moment. But the resulting impact was another important moment. Every step in that direction emboldens me to push harder and faster as the results keep getting better.”
Thinking outside of the box is something Contorno mentions often. As someone who has seen firsthand the ebbs and flows of the industry, the rising costs of care, and the toll taken on employers and employees, it's easy to see why he wants to find a new way to help his clients.
“I think for so long, our business was seen as putting spreadsheets together, putting out fires, and delivering bad news,” Contorno says. “But there is a huge opportunity to change that. At least for me, the business is fun again.”
But this “business” is more than just being a broker.
“Brokering insurance is the easiest thing we do all year,” Smith says. “Employers need a consultant committed to driving sustainable change and ensuring their benefit strategy is aligned with their business strategy.” That means managing this aspect of a client's business with a measurable ROI in mind, as well as long-term planning and employee engagement.
For Smith, financial growth year-over-year is an easy way to chart success, but, like Contorno, helping clients is paramount.
“We truly measure our success by the impact we have on the personal and financial health of both employees and employers,” Smith says. “We are committed to delivering strategies that invest in health rather than waiting for sickness. The greatest wealth is health and the greater our personal health, the greater our financial wealth will be. This is true for an employee, a business, and our entire country.”
The industry veteran
For over three decades, Cornelia Philipson, owner of Philipson Insurance & Financial Services, has worked in the benefits world, but it took some time to get there.
Once a teacher, she married young, had three sons, and decided to be a stay-at-home parent. She spent the next 17 years as what she calls a “professional volunteer” in her community. But after a divorce in the early 1980s, Philipson found herself in need of a steady job. Going back to the classroom wasn't what she wanted, so she found work as a fundraiser for her alma mater, Brandeis University. After three years of working in the non-profit sector, Philipson needed something with a more flexible schedule. She shared this desire with her friend and insurance agent.
“He suggested shadowing him to see if I was interested in taking the insurance exam and going into the business,” Philipson says. “I leaned on him to mentor me to the point where I knew I liked insurance sales, but I still needed more support and education in the field.”
After looking for a “career shop,” Philipson landed at State Mutual Life Insurance, later called Allmerica.
“I found it odd there were only three other women in our office,” she says. “It was obvious to me this profession had not yet caught on for women, like careers in real estate and the law.”
Despite this, Philipson says she doesn't have any “war stories” when it comes to being one of the few women in the industry or in her office. She credits that to the company she chose.
It was during this time Philipson became involved with Women Life Underwriters Confederation, which later became Women in Insurance and Financial Services (WIFS). Within a couple of months, Philipson was a member of the board.
“I got involved, not only with WIFS, but NALU, which later became NAIFA and NAHU,” she says. “Once I got involved, assumed a board position, and took on responsibility, it became even more imperative to stay in the business. I found the personal encouragement, mentoring, retreats and conferences the most essential.”
Philipson went out on her own after a few years, realizing her “broker mentality” made her keen to shop for the best products and services, rather than pushing company-only products.
“It's never been about my story,” she says. “I’m more curious about others. How can I help them solve a problem? Being an insurance agent has truly fit the bill.”
Philipson finds her success is increasingly tied to the joy she experiences in her career, despite the challenges ahead.
“I have measured my success over the years by my enthusiasm, interest, and love of what I do, along with a good income,” she says. “I think some of the new challenges will be keeping up with all of the new products, services, technology, and tax law changes as they affect our products and services.”
When she speaks to young women getting their start in the industry, Philipson is sure to tell them success takes time.
“You’ll get knocked down, but get back up,” she says. “If I could give my younger self a piece of advice, I would say, ‘Focus, specialize, and hire an assistant to do the behind-the-scenes work. Be more of a specialist and less of a generalist, and get involved in your community and professional organizations.’”
As for retirement and her plans after she closes up shop, well, Philipson isn't ready for that conversation quite yet.
“That question spooks me,” she says. “The friends of mine who continue to work are the ones who look and act the youngest. I think it's the best medicine. I have no lofty goals—I will continue to work and do what's best for my clients.”