The five finalists for the BenefitsPRO Broker of the Year come from different geographic areas and different types of practices, but their success stories share some common elements.

These brokers embrace change at a time when the industry is rapidly evolving. They recognize and value the roles of their coworkers and acknowledge a healthy company culture has helped them get to where they are. And these successful advisors often specialize, finding the niche where they can best serve their clients.

Other common factors, like building relationships, have always been a key to success in insurance sales. The agents in this year's list continue to recognize those time-honored skills, but they also see changes in the workforce inexorably lead to changes in how insurance is sold.

Susan L. Combs

Insurance is a service industry

When Susan L. Combs started her own brokerage firm at the age of 26, she didn't try to do it all. “I was smart enough to know what I didn't know,” she says. “I surrounded myself with the right people and the right mentors.”

Like many brokers, Combs' path to her career was not a straight line: She started out as an engineering student, then worked in the hospitality industry as a banquet manager, before finally discovering an aptitude for sales in the workers' comp field.

“No one really knew how to sell that, so I learned about it,” she says. “Then, when I would talk to clients about workers' comp, they would ask about other insurance. Eventually the light bulb went on.”

Combs says her background in hospitality gave her some unique insights on selling insurance products. “I've always remembered that insurance is a service industry; I think a lot of times, people forget that. Coming from a hospitality background, I knew how to treat people.” As a broker who works with mostly small businesses, Combs often helps company owners who do their own HR. She says these small companies are part of an underserved market that is eager to work with brokers, if the brokers can meet their needs.

“They really want to do right by their employees,” she says, adding that this requires a broker to do a lot of explaining and providing the clients what Combs calls “Insurance 101.”

“Spending a lot of time educating our clients has been greatly beneficial,” she says.

Combs sees her company as serving a niche market — her clients, which tend to be small, are also often creative-type businesses. She says a startup brokerage like hers is a natural fit for a specialized market. “In New York City, there's enough business to go around for everybody; I just think you can do better if you can develop a niche market,” she says. “Most people like to work with like minds. My previous life was in hospitality and entertainment, so we can talk that language.”

Finding like minds is also important when it comes to building a staff, Combs says. Like the creative people they serve, her staff has a nontraditional approach to things like vacation policy. “We say, 'if you want to take time off, take time off,'” she notes. “I have always made a commitment to the mothers in my office: If you want to be there to take the kids to school or pick them up, no problem. Because if you make a work environment mommy-friendly, it's going to be millennial-friendly,” she says.

“If you want to work from home, work from home. I don't care, as long as the work gets done. In this day and age, if you have a computer and a phone, you can do the work,” she says. The result, she adds, is a staff that's fiercely loyal. Combs says meeting her staff halfway is good for business — and it's what a lot of younger workers expect.

“If you're not doing this — and a lot of insurance firms are not that way — you're missing the boat,” she says. “I think you'll be missing out on a lot of good, flexible talent.” 

Felipe Barganier

Insurance and the public sector

Felipe Barganier has a history with public service. His mother is a teacher, and his father worked as an attorney for the IRS for many years. “A lot of individuals in my family were in public service in some form,” he says. “They weren't making a lot of money, but they did have job security. So I understood how valuable good benefits are.”

Barganier has put that background to use as a broker who deals with a lot of public-sector employers. In 2003, he founded GAB International, an Atlanta-based brokerage that specializes in public-sector employees, but also works with a number of private sector companies. GAB serves approximately 125 clients and was recognized with the Georgia Minority Business Insurance Industry of the Year award in 2016. Barganier was also recognized with top sales awards in areas such as public sector and direct sales from Colonial Life in 2004, 2005, 2013 and 2015.

Barganier believes figuring out exactly where he could best use his talents was an important step toward success. “In my opinion, you have to start off with a niche,” he says. “The opportunities are so vast, if you don't have a niche, you just become like every other broker. On the other hand, if you learn a certain segment of the business, then you become an expert—and you start to get referrals.”

However, as Barganier points out, finding a niche is not the same as getting into a rut. He notes that the days of brokers only meeting with companies at renewal time are long gone. “You can't do that in this day and age,” he says. “There's just too much information out there. You have to have the personal touch. We make sure we're taking care of not only employers, but employees.”

Like the other finalists this year, Barganier underscores the importance of seeing employers as collaborators in finding benefit solutions. “We try to become a partner with our clients, whether it's the HR department or the city manager. We want employers and employees to see us as somebody who's here to help them.”

At a time when consumers are overloaded with information and the industry is changing rapidly, Barganier says a balance needs to be found between innovation and personal interaction. “We have to make sure we're leveraging technology; but one thing [technology] can't give is the personal touch,” he says. He adds that providing ongoing education about new resources is an important focus of his group. This includes monthly newsletters and an HR specialist on staff.

“The reason we've been able to solidify our client base is because we're always going to them with new things that can help them retain employees,” Barganier says. “It's those little value-added things that can make a world of difference. To the employee, it's clear the employer is looking out for their interest.”

Lisa Boucher

Telling it like it is

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