When David Contorno was in the 7th grade, his school system on Long Island combined his middle school with another local high school. For most kids, the restructuring probably passed without much more than a little extra razzing from the older students in the hall. For Contorno, though, it would prove to be a life-changing decision by the local school system. ¶ One day, Contorno passed by the jobs board—which targeted high schoolers—and spotted a card from an agent looking for someone to do telemarketing for a major life insurance company. He pulled down the card, hopped on his bike and rode five miles to the agent's office—only to be told that he wasn't old enough.

“He said he was looking for a 16- or 17-year old,” Contorno recalls. “I said, 'I biked here all this way so the least you could do is give me a shot.' The next thing I knew, I was calling clients and setting up appointments. I did so well, I was able to raise my rates after a time.”

And like that, Contorno was in the life insurance business at the ripe old age of 14—a time in life when most young boys mow lawns or wash cars to earn some money. After a few years, Contorno moved on to a small three-man benefits brokerage in Nassau County, New York, before starting his own brokerage a few years later. Now, even at the relatively young age of 38, Contorno has accrued more than two decades worth of experience as a benefits professional.

The wunderkind story alone would be enough to merit accolades. But Contorno has been named Benefits Selling's 2015 Broker of the Year for his transformational work in today's benefits industry at his current venture, Lake Norman Benefits, where he serves as president and CEO. Based in Mooresville, North Carolina, Lake Norman has grown to a staff of 20 serving more than 400 employer groups and about 20,000 people in a dozen states in less than 10 years. It's a full-service brokerage—offering health, dental, vision, life, disability, voluntary and 401(k) plans.

But make no mistake, Lake Norman isn't an average benefits brokerage. After relocating to North Carolina from New York in 2007, Contorno took a deep look at how consumers use health insurance in the United States and developed several strategies to help mitigate costs. His work has resulted in what may have been deemed nearly impossible in a post-PPACA world: many of his clients' premiums have stabilized or have even declined.

“There are two things we need to do: encourage and incentivize employees to be better consumers of health care,” Contorno says. “That means doing what they do everywhere else. Imagine if you went to a brand new restaurant and you get the menu and there are no prices. You ask the waiter what they are and he tells you that you'll find out when you get the bill. That's the way we shop for health care. We need to make better choices. With a $10 copay, they're paying $10 no matter where they go. How do we get them to purchase from the place that sells for $16 instead of $80? When quality is not a factor, how do we get them to go to the place that's most cost-effective?”

One of Contorno's clients is Gerry Wood Automotive in Salisbury, North Carolina, where Veda Dry serves as human resources manager. She can attest to Contorno's outcomes.

“He's saved us tons of money,” Dry says. “Since he came to us, he's incorporated a lot of his ideas—mainly on the health issue. Our health costs have come down; our premiums went down this year. Who's ever heard of that happening before?”

Turning employers and employees into better consumers of health care isn't easy. Part of the equation involves a move to self-funding. Next, Contorno and his staffers teach and train employees to use technology to reduce costs and utilize health care more efficiently. And, a smaller part of the whole strategy is aided with the addition of a wellness program.

As Contorno sees it, the approach is a departure from the way he came up in the business, where brokers and agents went after clients by winning on the spreadsheet. In fact, Contorno says, he had to take the first 15 years of his career to learn what he was doing wrong. But another of Contorno's strengths that has helped clients sign on is his gift for communication. Dry likened her experience with Contorno to getting an education rather than talking with a salesperson.

“When David comes to meet with us, he's always pushing how we need to take better care of ourselves because that's what's driving up health care,” Dry says. “He also tells us to ask questions. It's about knowledge—he's trying to educate all of us. We need to take advantage of the fact that we have control.”

And while communication skills have certainly helped Contorno, so has an embrace of technology—and getting employees to use technology to help make informed health care decisions. A few examples from his business include a smartphone app that allows employees to check pharmacy prices in the surrounding area so they know where to find the cheapest prices.

Another high-tech tool is a smartphone app that asks if an employee would like to talk to a doctor on the phone as soon as they step into an emergency room. This conversation with a teladoc, Contorno says, has helped reduce the amount of unneeded ER visits. Another technology solution comes in the form of a tracker employers distribute to employees that monitor their steps each day. If employees achieve certain goals, they receive a discount on their deductible.

“We have that once-a-year opportunity to meet employees, but it's really about capitalizing on that opportunity to get them to seek us out when they have medical issues,” Contorno says. “We cannot do the things I'm talking about when someone is diagnosed with cancer or someone has a heart attack. I get some pushback—they say I'm not a doctor. And I tell them they're right, but when you bought a house, I bet you got a real estate agent and you went and verified everything you were being told. But you don't do that with health care. The point is there are doctors that are good and there are doctors that aren't good. There are doctors who have their businessman suit on that day because they have bills to pay. We verify and educate ourselves on big and little decisions, and yet we as a society have turned a blind eye to health care costs.”

Contorno even makes strides to increase engagement with his benefits offerings in a context employees are comfortable with—the company website. Contorno built a portal for Skookum Digital Works—a high-tech firm based in Charlotte—for employees to use during the onboarding process.

“Before we were pushing paper,” says Don Post, Skookum's director of finance. “That's what insurance companies do, but he built a portal. That meant a lot to me—most of the decisions he's making on our behalf make us look good to our staff as employers.”

“I've gone through the whole broker and provider selection for years,” Post adds. “It was always just pushing paper. What David was able to do was educate while he was selling. I didn't feel like I was being sold to but I felt like I was being educated. The ins and outs of insurance and how you can educate the staff about how to save the company money.”

Contorno's work has him thinking of developing new ways to bend the cost curve, with plans to move his staff into a brand-new building later this year specifically designed to increase collaboration and creativity of his employees, whether they've been in the industry for three months or 30 years. Even with a growing business, Contorno is very active in his community and serves in local civic and philanthropic organizations as well as being a husband and father of two.

“I think a lot of times, success is a combination of hard work, opportunity and luck,” Contorno says. “There are opportunities everywhere but as a broker and advisor, I'm more optimistic now for the future of our industry. That's very opposite from many others in the industry. I'm very optimistic.”

Succeeding in today's benefits environment is hard enough. But rethinking an approach to serving clients and subsequently finding clients to buy in took dedication and no small amount of risk. But it's all working and now Contorno's clients are reaping the rewards of their association with Lake Norman Benefits. So much so, in fact, more and more people are noticing. Contorno was named to the Charlotte Business Journal's “40 under 40” list in 2014.

And now, he's Benefits Selling's 2015 Broker of the Year.

“We've had other brokers in the past,” Dry says, “not to say they haven't done their job, but they didn't do the job. David has done the job.”

A personal success

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