Colleen BlumColleen Blum is vicepresident at Combs & Company, a fast-paced, innovativeinsurance brokerage that works to take the confusion out ofinsurance and evolve to meet the changing needs of employees andclients.

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Paul Wilson: How did you get your start in the benefitsindustry?

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I got a cosmetology license when I was still in high school andstarted doing hair when I was 16 years old. I thought that was whatI was going to do for the rest of my life, but I started to think Ididn't want to be standing behind a chair when I'm 60 years old.It's fun when you're younger, but it changes when you think aboutgetting older and having kids.

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Between appointments, I would send out resumes. They only had afew lines, since I didn't have any corporate experience and that'swhat I was interested in. I sent out 200 to 300 resumes.Eventually, an insurance brokerage out on Long Island emailed meand set up an interview for an account executive position where Iwould be handling renewals and answering people's questions. It waskind of like being thrown to the wolves and I just had to figure itout on my own. I didn't know the first thing about the industry,given where I was coming from.

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Related: Taking flight: The next generation of brokerentrepreneurs

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Growing up, my dad was a police officer, so we always had thebest benefits without thinking about them or having to understandthem. I had to learn this whole new language. I Googled everythingand listened in to other people talking at the office.

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When people came into the salon, within a few minutes they weretelling you everything going on in their life; it's a very personalconnection. It's the same thing on the benefits side; we work witha lot of small businesses, mom-and-pop shops, so you're talking tothem about their new grandchild or their wins and losses throughouttheir year. It's personal. Maybe an employee can't get pregnant.Where can the benefits help and when can they not? At the end ofthe day, it's just dealing with people. That's why I love it.

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PW: How did you move to your currentposition?

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At a certain point, I realized I loved what I was doing butneeded a change. I went to Google again. I knew I wanted to staylocal and small. I typed in "successful women in insurance" andSusan L. Combs came up. Her story popped out atme. She seemed down to earth, she was in New York City and sheseemed like a bad-ass.

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I was 23 at the time and didn't know what I was doing, so Iemailed her and said, "I'm looking for a mentor or somebody to talkto. Just looking for any advice or insight you could share." Ididn't think she would respond.

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Lo and behold, I got an email back asking if I'd like to meet.We met for lunch and she asked if I was interested in coming to thecity and seeing how it went. Five years later, I'm the vicepresident, so I think that leap of faith has paid off well.

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Colleen Blum

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PW: What's it like being a younger female broker in thisindustry?

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Luckily, I work with Susan, who is an amazing mentor. I'velearned a lot from the way she goes about her business and conductsherself in the industry. Yes, we're females in a male-dominatedindustry, but you have to own who you are. Don't change or try tobe something you're not. I think things are changing and everyonehas a voice now. It's very empowering. If we can gather the womenin this industry and light fires and support each other, we canchange the industry.

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A lot of our clients are women, too. There are a ton of womenwho are entrepreneurs who are just killing it. They often tell usthey feel so much more comfortable sitting down and talking tous.

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PW: Can you talk a bit about your clients and the nicheyou've found?

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Many of my clients are in the smaller group space or individualstrying to launch as entrepreneurs. Some are tech companies, someare bakeries, and we have a lot of companies who are coming overfrom the Netherlands. It's interesting, because it's not a specificindustry, but it's a lot of entrepreneurs. They might start withone employee at the beginning of the year and have 20 or more byDecember.

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One area where we shine is helping individuals and groupsunderstand that transition. "You want to break off from yourcorporate job and start a business? Give us a call when your COBRAexpires and we'll talk about your individual plan and then help youas you start to hire employees." It's fun because we can becreative about how we design those packages.

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PW: What was it like to transition to ACAconsulting?

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Here in New York, the vast majority of carriers don't paybrokers to work with individuals. So whether they are actresses,models or entrepreneurs, we have clients who are in a phase wherethey're transitioning into a more corporate job or maybe they'regoing out on their own or trying to hit it big on Broadway; we hadto think of a way to help them but get compensated at the sametime. Charging consulting fees is a great solution because we cantake the time to truly help them figure out what plans theyneed.

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In the first few years, people were just going onto the New YorkSHOP exchange and choosing based on the carrier's name and theprice. They often found out the hard way that it wasn't the bestsolution for them. We are able to walk them through the pros andcons of each option on the individual market and charge aconsulting fee. This has been a game-changer for not only us, butour clients.

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PW: That's a perfect example of how advisors will alwaysfind a way to help clients, no matter what.

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Yes, I agree completely. There will always be a place foradvisors because we're the ones who help people understand anddigest what's going on. No matter what happens politically or withthe future of insurance and health care, there's always going to bea need for education. The ACA was this big scary thing and yetwe've found a way to make it work. Whatever changes down the line,we're going to find a way to bring value to clients and helpeducate them about the changes.

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PW: What's your favorite thing about yourjob?

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The people. Seeing them have that "aha" moment where theyfinally understand the benefits because of something we'veexplained. Insurance isn't something people are excited to talkabout. So I love getting to know people on a different level andthen being able to tie the insurance conversation into theirspecific business or lifestyle. We experience all different typesof personalities each day. Who will they be in 10 years? It'sinteresting being a broker in New York because your client todaymight make it big tomorrow and you helped them out. That's reallyexciting. Celebrity or not, everyone's going through the sameissues.

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PW: Where do you look for inspiration?

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I love to listen to motivational podcasts. We walk everywherehere, including to our appointments, so I pop in my headphones onthe way to the next meeting to get reignited. Some of my favoritesare Gary Vee, Oprah, Ed Mylett and Tony Robbins. Sometimes, youjust need a kick in the butt to get you going and help you stopfeeling sorry for yourself.

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PW: What advice do you have for young people in thisindustry? And how can the industry continue to attract newblood?

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My sisters are entering the corporate world and I tell them,"You need to be your own advocate." You have to teach yourself andpush yourself to the next level. Hopefully people have family andfriends who will offer support. My grandfather was in insurance,and when he used to talk business at the dinner table, my eyeswould roll back in my head. I had no interest in it. Then I fellinto the industry and had to teach myself, and that made me excitedbecause it impacts people's lives. I was going to help peoplethrough their exciting and difficult times. I think that's reallyan attractive thing about this industry.

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We do a lot of social media marketing to appeal to the youngergeneration, because that's who's going to be opening new businessesand needing our help. They want to change the world, so we need toget on board and change it with them. Change their perception aboutwhat insurance means. Learn their interests and then tie that intowhat we do.

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

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Never stop teaching yourself (or Google everything).

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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.