Cara Kirsch is vice president at SilverStone Group, afull-service resource management organization offering customizedservices to meet business and private clients’ specific needs.

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Paul Wilson: How did you get yourstart in the benefits industry?

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I’ve been in benefits for 20 years. I started on the employerside in an employee benefits department. I moved to consulting,where I wrote employee benefits communication. I then started to dogeneral health and welfare consulting before moving toUnitedHealthcare, where I did account management and sales for nineyears. I was recruited by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska in2011 to run their sales strategy. I’m from Nebraska, but was livingin the Bay Area, so I decided to come back. After a couple ofyears, I was really burnt out and wanted to do something different.The day after I left, I got a call from SilverStone Group. It wasthe perfect place for me. It's been amazing.

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PW: How has the industry changed sinceyou came on board?

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I think the business environment has become too focused onchasing shiny objects: “Oh my god, let's trythis. How about that?” One thing I’ve learned is you’ve got to stayfocused on a couple of things and do them really well.

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Related: 10 tips for staying relevant in a changingindustry

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PW: How have you seen health carereform change brokers’ mindsets?

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We’re seeing a lot of acquisitions, and I’m not surprised. To me, ina large group market, especially self-funded, you have to havesolid data, strategy and infrastructure to support clients. Thosestrategies typically cost a lot. Some bigger brokerages have beenvery aggressive here in Nebraska when it comes to acquisitions.We’ve done a little, but 99 percent of our growth is organic. We’veseen smaller brokers who have a few large group cases say, “We’vegot to get out.”

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PW: Based on this trend, will there bea place for smaller brokers in the years ahead?

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There will always be a role for smaller firms with smallerclients, especially if it continues to be as transactional as itcurrently is for the 2 to 50 market. In the short-term, there'sprobably not going to be a mass exodus, but long-term, if I’m thosesmall employers and I plan to grow, I’m not aligning myself withsomeone who can't help me as I grow.

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PW: What is your impression of thecarriers right now? What's next?

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I think we’re going to continue to see them diversify andshrink. There is going to be consolidation. I don't mean they’llshrink as far as revenue, but they’re getting smarter about whatmarkets make money and what the industry needs.

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One carrier is currently really good about buying technologystartups and companies that are trying to understand how peopleaccess and utilize health care. I see that continuing toevolve.

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Some of the big carriers are very open to innovation—they’rewilling to try new things and they have plenty of money.

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PW: What is the biggest challengebrokers face?

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One things that's amazing to me in the consultant world is themediocre level of service employers become comfortable with.They’ll have a long relationship with a consultant who's not thatgreat, but they won't change. I’ve been in situations where theyreally want to pick us, but they’re like, “Well, nothing's reallybroken.” I always think, it's a top three spend item. Why wouldn'tyou try something different? Luckily, I’ve been able to convincemany of them to do that, but some who really need us just don'tpick us.

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PW: In many ways, it's harder to be abroker than ever before. How do you stay motivated?

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Whether or not employers can see through the mediocre servicethey’re getting from brokers, the system is still broken. It's onme to make sure I’m constantly sharing knowledge about how we canpush the system to change.

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PW: Any examples?

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I implemented my first reference-based client in January; it wasreally interesting. I met with them last year as a prospect andthey were getting a high double-digit increase. They had 300+employees and were faced with not even having a plan anymore. Theoption their broker offered was a no go, so I said, give me achance to put a second set of eyes on the renewal and see what wecan do. We won because I put a reference-based strategy in front ofthem. They were fully insured, and I moved them to self-funded.They only had one plan before, so we gave employees a choice, witha really robust communication strategy. We only had a short amountof time to implement it, but it did what we needed it to do. Theircosts are less than their full premiums were last year.

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PW: The P&C/risk management sideis aligning with benefits more often these days. Where do you seethis trend heading?

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In the past, risk for companies has been very siloed. They’dlook at their workers’ comp list, retirement and wealth planningvery differently than benefits. But it all works together. Peoplewho aren't able to save for their retirement often are stressed andunhealthy. If they don't have an appropriate savings account foremergencies, they’re more stressed out and more likely to have anaccident and become a comp claim. So we try to talk to employersabout their risk holistically.

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PW: What do you wish you’d know whenyou were younger?

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I wish I’d started as a broker 15 years ago. Omaha is kind of asmall town, despite being a big city—everyone knows everybody. Ihave worked really hard during the past three years to be visibleacross the state in terms of speaking and marketing and strategy,but if I’d been doing that since I was 30… It takes time. Mydaughter is 19. I would love for her to get interested in thisprofession.

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PW: How can the industry start doing abetter job of attracting young talent?

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I think spending more time with younger people as they’regetting ready to finish college, specifically those with businessor finance degrees. Help them understand the opportunity that'sahead of them. Some insurance companies do a good job of recruitingthose kids to come on board as sales reps, but I think young peoplesometimes scare consulting firms, because there's a risk they won'tstay. But if you want have bench strength, you have to commit tothem.

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PW: Talk a little about the experienceof being a woman in this industry.

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I grew up in a man's world. To me, not having any femalecounterparts is not a big deal, because that's how my whole lifehas been.

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It's interesting, because I don't see myself as different, butI’m often treated differently. So I have to remind malecounterparts that I don't need to be treated differently.

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PW: You’d like to think that wouldn'teven be an issue anymore.

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It still happens all the time. My perspective is if you make acontribution, you’ll be treated equally. For me to make acontribution in the same way is not easy. I’m a single mom withthree kids; my male counterparts are all married with stay-at-homewives. I think women are often very private about their battlesbecause they don't want to be seen as incapable. I used to thinkthat didn't exist, but I’ve experienced it in my career. It's areal thing.

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PW: How do you address the challengeof work/life balance?

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My perspective on this is very different than it was in 2010.You have to realize you can't have it all. When my career firststarted to take off, my kids were really little and I was a singlemom and it was OK. But kids need their parents, and you can'toutsource that job.

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Now, my perspective is you can't let anyone else define ordecide what it means for you. You can't apologize for the work/lifebalance that you need, because the things in your life that aremost important are going to change. My kids will grow up and leave,and I’ll only be 47 when I’m an empty nester. I’ll have 20 years tokick it into overdrive, but for the next three years, my son'splaying high school football and I’m not missing anything.

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PW: Finish this sentence: The key tosuccess in this industry going forward is…

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Be open. Be open to ideas. Be open to crazy suggestions. Be opento changing the status quo. Be open to challenging the norm.

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Paul Wilson

Paul Wilson is the editor-in-chief of BenefitsPRO Magazine and BenefitsPRO.com. He has covered the insurance industry for more than a decade, including stints at Retirement Advisor Magazine and ProducersWeb.