Nate Randall has a lot of love-hate relationships.

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In early 2016, the mild-mannered human resource guru launchedUrsa Major, a Silicon Valley-based consultancy that advises healthcare technology startups and employers looking to “reimagine” theirapproach to benefits offerings within existing regulatory andproduct frameworks.

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Randall has no interest in getting his brokerage license. Infact, he says, the motivation behind his own startup “doesn’t havetoo much to do with money.”

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“At this point in my career, I want to be able to influence thebenefits industry in ways that provide more value toeveryone—employers, workers and their families,” he said.

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Randall’s philosophy may sound a bit too good to be true –until, that is, you see his resume.

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In addition to working as a retirement and group healthconsultant and analyst for companies like Milliman, Northern Trustand Washington Mutual, he was hired as a benefits manager bySafeway in 2009. In 2011, Tesla Motors tapped Randall as its seniormanager of global benefits.

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He left Tesla last year. The company went public in 2010, andits stock appreciated roughly 900 percent during Randall’s tenure,which in part explains his flexible and philosophical approach torunning Ursa Major.

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Along with personal financial freedom, Randall says, he leftTesla with two other things: a vision of how workplace benefitscould be designed to address employers’ cost concerns and workers’benefits needs; and a healthy dose of reality when it comes to theregulatory and market barriers subjecting today’s benefits marketto, as Randall calls it, antiquated “19th centurythinking.”

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“Every aspect of Tesla’s culture is designed to generateinnovation, motivate forward thinkers, and question the statusquo,” says Randall, who was one of 900 total employees when hejoined the automaker; today, Tesla employs more than 14,000workers.

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That ethos eventually filtered down to the company’s humanresource department, he explained.

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“The engineers at the company were asked to reimagine the mostbasic, established concepts,” Randall said. “It didn’t make senseto roll out a benefits package that looked the same to all of theseworkers that were pushing to innovate on their end.”

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Keeping up with that culture was a challenge -- and ultimatelyinstructive to the company’s human resources specialist.

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“Engineers are logical people,” said Randall. “They would cometo us with benefit questions and ask about options that were reallysensible — in one case, an employee wanted benefit dollars to buy abike. That’s a really creative idea that has upsides for employers’overall wellness initiatives.”

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Randall’s biggest frustration, though, was that such logical,sensible thinking was impossible to apply to even the mostinnovative benefits design.

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“As creative as you want to be, regulations limit you,” he said.“Much of the thinking in the benefits world is really, reallyold.”

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As a compromise, Tesla freed up as much money as possible,allowing employees to spend the benefits dollars however they sawfit, within regulatory parameters and constraints designed by thecompany’s HR team.

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“We wanted to offer benefits our employees wanted, so we set outto understand every option available, and determine how much oftheir benefit dollars we could free up,” Randall said. “But therehad to be guardrails, of course — employees need core protections.Every company will have a different set of guardrails and differenttolerance for how aggressively they want to innovate their benefitsprogram.”

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He said that his biggest takeaways from Tesla was that companycultures are different and there is no one perfect approach toinnovation for all companies.

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That said, Randall added, every company’s benefits programshould be a reflection of its core culture.

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Nate RandallTechnology benefiting smalleremployers

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At no time did Randall describe himself as a “technologist” or a“disruptor,” which is refreshing for a Silicon Valley insider whois often -- rightfully -- called both.

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Like other industry insiders, he bemoans the health caremarket’s relative resistance to technological forces, evenquestioning whether it can even accurately be described as a“market.”

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“It’s not a truly open market, where a consumer can walk in, seethe options, see the pricing, and make decisions based ontransparency,” he said.

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“Choice” is instead defined by a relatively small number ofmajor medical group providers, with Randall suggested has stifledinnovation and left consumers to choose from among a narrow set ofcomplicated options. Technology, he said, will be the key toopening and transforming today’s benefits market.

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According to Randall, the technology gap is already closing --and quickly, especially in terms of innovation with benefitsadministration systems.

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That trend benefits smaller and midsized employers, as so-called“mega” plans remain wedded to incumbent administration systemsthat, in Randall’s estimation, are sluggish compared with the slicknew platforms being rolled out today.

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“It’s a bottom-up change,” he explained. “Small tech providersare rolling out really smart options that make employee integrationsimple, and they are doing it with small groups. That’s great forthose employers: they can offer their employees a benefitsexperience superior to what you find at a giant like Apple.”

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More options welcomed in theworkplace

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In his experience at Tesla and in other companies, where choicewas built into the offerings with either non-medical and othervoluntary benefits or private exchanges, Randall said mostemployees welcomed the changes.

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“When employers add flexibility, people tend to love it,” hesaid. “That doesn’t mean some won’t be overwhelmed, but as ageneral rule people embrace choice. I never had anyone at Tesla saythey were angry at us for adding more options to our plan.”

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While Randall hopes his vision of extensive consumer choice ofhealth care and benefits will someday come to be, the realist inhim knows the transformation to a fully open market will be a slowone.

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In the meantime, employers and employees need a genuine,non-conflicted independent voice that can put emerging benefitoptions into context. To that end, Randall sees a world wherebenefits brokers assume more of a consultative role, and less ofsales role.

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“In my opinion, broker-consultants that exist today should bedoing that anyway.”

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Nick Thornton

Nick Thornton is a financial writer covering retirement and health care issues for BenefitsPRO and ALM Media. He greatly enjoys learning from the vast minds in the legal, academic, advisory and money management communities when covering the retirement space. He's also written on international marketing trends, financial institution risk management, defense and energy issues, the restaurant industry in New York City, surfing, cigars, rum, travel, and fishing. When not writing, he's pushing into some land or water.