Valerie Stremsterfer ValerieStremsterfer, Intrepid.

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Valerie Stremsterfer is president of Intrepid, an employeebenefits consulting firm that fully integrates benefits knowledgewith a comprehensive understanding of legislation, taxes andsubsidies.

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Paul Wilson: How did you get started in the benefitsindustry?

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I started in Albuquerque back in 1996. I have a finance degreeand was working for a financial company running Morningstar reportsall day. I was incredibly bored. I went for a hike with my dad oneday and told him I was miserable, and he recommended that I talk toa friend of his who owned a TPA. I set an appointment, went to aninterview and ended up getting hired as a marketing assistant.

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At the time, I had no idea what a TPA did or what I would evenbe marketing. When they said I'd be working with self-funded plansand cafeteria plans, I thought a cafeteria plan was a lunch programfor the employees. It took me quite a while to truly grasp what wedid there, but I ended up really loving it. Within a few months, Iwas traveling and conducting employee meetings in front of hundredsof people. I was absolutely terrified, but I was no longerbored.

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I ended up working there for three years, and then I moved toDenver in 1999. I switched to the broker side and I've run the sameagency for 20 years. I was able to buy the agency five years ago,and then just recently, I came together with 16 other independentagencies and we formed a large national insurance agency.

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PW: What prompted you to move over to the broker side ofthe business?

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When I was in a U-Haul moving all my belongings to Denver, I gota phone call from a gentleman who was running a brokerage firm fora national financial company. He said he had received my name froman MGU partner that he worked with who said I did a great job, wasmoving to Denver and didn't have any employment. He told me theyreally wanted to grow the benefits side of this financial house andthey needed help. I said, “OK” and he hired me on the spot over abreakfast burrito.

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PW: How has your journey so far helped shape yourmindset as a broker?

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When I moved to the broker side I was truly on my own and I hadto figure out how I was to grow this agency and who I was going topartner with. I was really struggling on my own, but I quickly cameto realize the importance of collaboration with other brokers.

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I love compliance and I've become the go-to person for otheragencies around the country. In return, many of them have sharedtheir best practices with me. When health care reform passed, I hada little panic attack, as most brokers did. So I flew out to Dallasto meet with my friend Jackie and to see how her operation was run.When everyone started looking at technology solutions and I neededguidance, I relied on my friend Liz in Atlanta.

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Throughout the years, I've never had to do anything on my own.I've always had this great group of broker friends and agencyowners who I can collaborate with. We all have different strengthsand I would say that has been the single most important thing to meas I've grown my agency.

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PW: How did compliance become a passion? I can't say alot of people tell me that.

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I love detail. I love doing research. And this is the perfectindustry for me because of all the shifting legislation and changesthat take place. Anytime there's something new, I love to dive inand not only research it, but figure out how we can use change toenhance our services.

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When I started in 1996, HIPAA was brand new. The TPA I workedfor had a whole unit that was studying HIPAA and what needed to bechanged and I loved it. I wanted every article they had on HIPAAand wanted to read about it and teach everyone else. So I think itreally started there. Then I had a client who went through a DOLaudit. I realized I never again want to sit through a DOL auditwith a client who doesn't have the solutions they need, so Icreated a compliance checklist that every one of our clients nowuses so they're 100 percent compliant in every area.

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PW: As a female advisor, how have you seen the industrychange in the last 20 years?

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When I first started on the broker side, I was 27 or 28. I wouldgo out on appointment with one of my teammates, an older male, andclients would look at him and ask him a question. He would look tome to answer it. When they asked their next question, they wouldagain look at him, he would look at me and I would answer it. Theywould direct all of their questions to him as the “expert” or“leader” even though I was the one who was answering.

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I think that has changed. I've watch my young, femaleconsultants and producers go out and I think they are morerespected. I don't think what I dealt with back then existsanymore, at least with most of the industry and most employers.

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PW: What challenges or opportunities are youexperiencing?

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I think one of the big opportunities right now is the amazingthings we can do with cost containment. I'd also say that it's notsomething we're necessarily leading with right now because we do areally great job at it, but employers are hearing the same messagefrom a lot of different people. I recently spoke with someone Ifollow on social media and who is often talking about a lot ofinnovative strategies. I asked him, “How many groups do you havewho are using reference-based pricing?” And he said, “one.” He hadjust written a big article about it and I was thinking, “I have alot more than he does!” I had to laugh.

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I've recently been focused on growing our team and focusing onour culture. With a lot of the consolidation happening withagencies now, I have a lot of people calling me and asking for ajob, saying, “We were just bought and our culture is changing.” Somaintaining our company culture is really important. Our team trulyis different. Carrier reps can see it, our vendor partners can seeit and our clients can see it. For 2019, I'm focusing on how tomaintain a collaborative company culture, especially after we justwent through this consolidation.

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PW: What are your favorite parts of your job? What getsyou of bed every morning?

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I do love compliance but that's not what gets me out of bed. Myfavorite part is watching my team as they learn, grow their careersand enjoy what they do. This is an industry that isn't alwaysenjoyable and I love when I see that they're having a goodtime.

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Every Thursday morning, I start our weekly team meeting byreading emails that I have received personally from clients orvendor partners giving kudos to our team members. A week has nevergone by when I didn't have emails to read. It's a time to celebrateeach other, but you can also see how much they enjoy their jobs.You wouldn't get that kind of feedback if they didn't trulycare.

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PW: Any thoughts or predictions on what will happen withsingle-payer?

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I think it's a true possibility, for sure. Some brokers say it'snever going to happen but I think it could. Here in Colorado, it'salready been on our ballot and it's not going to go away. Our newgovernor's number-one priority is a single-payer system. It'sactually one of the reasons I was interested in merging with someother entities. Being able to branch out into other areas andlocations is a smart thing to consider. I wanted to maintain myindependence, but I also wanted to make sure I was protected.

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PW: If it does happen, how do you see your brokerageworking?

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I think it's hard to know. I've read so many differentperspectives on what could happen and what could change that Idon't think there's any way to predict what we'll have to do. Whenmy employees ask me about it, I say, “You know, there really is noway to predict this one.” With the ACA, you could kind of look atit and say “Here's what we're going to need to do.” But with this,I think it will take a while. Even if something is passed, it couldtake 10 years.

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PW: Does surviving all the changes over the past fewdecades give you confidence that there's still a place forbrokers?

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Absolutely. I think there's always opportunity; sometimes youmay have to shift your practices.

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PW: Finish this sentence: The key to success in thisindustry going forward is…

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Being empathetic. Seeing from the perspective of others andtruly understanding how you can help.

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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.