Amy EvansAmy Evans is presidentof Colibri Insurance Services, a boutique health insurance agencythat simplifies benefits for employers so they can cost-effectivelyattract and retain quality employees.

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

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Seventeen years ago, I was with a marketing company that wasdoing guerrilla marketing using online message boards and chatrooms, when that was what social media looked like. I helpeddevelop that company and, in the process, had to sell the product.When I flew to Atlanta to pitch Coca-Cola and they bought it, Ithought, "Huh, maybe sales is actually something I'm good at."

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When I was looking for a new path, I was approached by arecruiter for Aflac. It was a good fit for me at the time, so Ientered the benefits world and spent 10 years with them learningabout benefits, honing my sales skills and learning that managing ateam of people wasn't my strong suit.

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I worked closely with brokers the entire time I was there andknew that was the direction I wanted to go. I knew what it lookedfrom interacting with them at open enrollment meetings and I wantedto learn the technical aspects of the business, so I took a jobwith a small national full-service brokerage. I spent two and ahalf years with them, learning the ins and outs, and started my ownagency four years ago.

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PW: What prompted you to start your ownagency?

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I have a very entrepreneurial spirit and have started a handfulof business in my life. My arc, even if I wasn't completely awareof it at the time, was always to eventually start my own agency.What appealed to me about it was going back to being full-servicefor my clients.

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Also, I saw a lot of groups here in Southern California thatwere profitable but underserved because they didn't meet therevenue-generating number that larger agencies needed to see totake them on as clients. I knew these 40-, 50-, 75-employee groupscould be profitable for me as a solo broker and that many largeragencies weren't giving them the attention they deserved. I wasable to take the skills I learned at a larger agency and bring thatto those groups. And that's my bread and butter. There's a lot ofopportunity.

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PW: Within the small-group area, are there any nichesyou've found?

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While I can serve any group that needs what I do, I havedeveloped a niche that I could not have seen coming. I work with anumber of staffing companies that do long-term contracts. These arehighly technically skilled, degreed people who are hired forspecific long-term projects or by public entities.

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Staffing agencies have some unique challenges when it comes tobenefits, because they're essentially leasing their employees totheir clients, and in some cases, the clients want to have a sayabout the benefits offered. There's also higher turnover, and thesecompanies tend to be applicable large-employers under the ACA, sothey have reporting requirements. And the majority of the employeesare off-site, so they need online enrollment.

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Amy Evans
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PW: What are some of the highlights and challenges ofworking in California?

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I've never worked anywhere else, so I am the frog in the pot ofboiling water. I have no idea how messed up my situation might be,because it's the only place I've been. However, I know for surethat a lot of the forward-thinking strategies I hear discussed inother places are not applicable in California.

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We have a really crazy market; our group dividing line is 100lives. I talk to a lot of other brokers around the country, and wedon't have the same flexibility because we're swimming in a pool ofHMOs and Kaiser's managed care that other people aren't dealingwith. We also have very restrictive issues with our stop-losscoverage that doesn't make self-funding a great option for smallgroups. So we really have to play within the bounds of what thesmall-group market offers. There are a lot of carriers, and we'vegot some interesting regional carriers popping up, including Oscar,Sharp and Western Health.

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I think the perception is that some of these more creativefunding options are more beneficial to the employer, and if there'sone thing you can say about California, it's an employee-friendlystate.

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PW: What are the biggest trends and innovations you'rewatching?

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I'm starting to explore level funding. I had some experiencewith that when I worked for the larger firm, so it's a conversationthat I'm comfortable having. I'm still trying to get my head aroundwhen in the process to have it, because it really feels like it's aconversation that needs to happen months before renewal. It takessome real education for the employer to understand how it works andhow it's going to affect and benefit them.

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PW: How did you become interested in health care reform?Any predictions?

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I got involved a few years ago through my local chapter of theLos Angeles Association of Health Underwriters and CAHU. I went toD.C and Sacramento and lobbied on their behalf so that I couldbetter understand how the ACA would affect our business. It keepsevolving, and each new administration takes their own spin on it,but if I were to take a big swing, I'd say we're headed for anational socialized health care system. I say that knowing thatcould spell the end of my business.

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We had that conversation very seriously in California a fewyears ago with SB-562, which would have created a single,government-run system in the state and eliminated insurancecarriers and agents. You can imagine that wasn't super popularamong my crowd. I really don't think it's possible to put a systemlike that in place at the state level. It's failed in severaldifferent states—Vermont, California, Colorado—because thelogistics of doing it on a state level don't make any sense. Youdrive doctors out of the state, you drive people who want the careinto the state.

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I think we're headed toward a national system, but it's going totake a long time. In my opinion, it would likely be the Medicareplatform and they'd keep lowering the age of eligibility and allowthe system to absorb the new people. I also think a lot of energyis going to get sucked up talking about it again as we head towardthe 2020 election.

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PW: Is that your biggest worry these days?

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My biggest concern, truthfully, has nothing to do with any ofthat. It has to do with the carriers continuing to lower ourcommission rates. And when one carrier does it, all of them do it.The next move in California would likely be from 5 percent to 4percent, which would mean a 20 percent reduction in my revenue. I'mrunning an agency with a certain expectation of revenue, and if thecarriers lower that commission point again, that's going to be aserious consideration for me.

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Plus, the only thing that exists in California is an agentlicense, so as much as we call ourselves brokers, because in ourhearts we work on behalf of our clients, the truth is that we'relicensed as agents and we work on behalf of the carriers. We don'thave the ability to charge fees for consultations or the strategiesand services we provide if it's directly related to the transactingof insurance. Other states have brokers developing more creativebusiness models where they're going to the carriers and scrappingthe commission altogether and saying, "We're just going to chargeour clients a fee." There's some room for that here, but not in thesmall-group market.

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PW: How receptive are clients and prospects to new ideasand strategies?

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I'd say most are on the reluctant side of the spectrum. Itsounds scary and it's hard to overcome their initial concern about"what happens if we have a big claim?" I think having conversationsover multiple years is effective, because they get used to it, seethat it's still around and not just a flash in the pan. They getused to the language, and I can show them some examples ofsuccesses that other clients have had and build a tolerancelevel.

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Typically, the more stable the market, the less receptiveclients are to alternative strategies. If we were coming throughwith 20 percent and 30 percent increases like we were a few yearsago, I think they'd be more interested. But right now, they're lessmotivated because it's an evil you know. You've budgeted for it,you know how it works and you know what to expect.

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PW: What appeals to you about the industry? How can itappeal to a diverse group of brokers?

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What continues to appeal to me about it as a woman is thatcommissions are gender-neutral. I love the fact that if I work hardand do what I say I'm going to do for my clients, I don't have aglass ceiling. I don't have to go to someone and ask for apromotion or work twice as hard as the other guy to prove myself. Isee a lot of women having success in sales because of that. You canwork around having children, you have flexibility when it comes tochild care, you can hit your sales goals by working hard and nothave to rely on someone else's opinion of you in order to make yourincome.

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I also believe as the leadership of businesses changes and thereare more female and minority business owners, there's a desire foreveryone to serve other people who look and talk and act like them.Certainly in Los Angeles, I'm in a giant market where we havebusinesses of all shapes and sizes and communities. It's awonderful, diverse place where there are a lot of opportunities tofind your tribe and work with them.

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PW: What are your favorite things about yourjob?

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I enjoy taking care of my clients and giving them the highestlevel of service. I get to take something complex and simplify itfor employers and employees. I still thrive on open enrollmentmeetings; I love getting in front of people and helping themunderstand how this all works. I tell them, "I can't promise it'llbe the same next year, but let's work with what we've got in frontof us and make the best of it."

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Health insurance can feel transactional when you're goingthrough enrollment, but it's very personal and impactful whenthere's a health issue. I've experienced that when policyholdershave called me and told me their child had been diagnosed withcancer or their husband had been in a terrible accident and theyneeded to know how to file a claim. I've cried on the phone withpeople and delivered checks to them and I understand the impactthis has. I hope they never need it, but I understand what happenswhen they do. That's very rewarding.

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And I'm an entrepreneur first and foremost, so I really enjoyrunning my own business.

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PW: Where do you look for inspiration?

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I like to get on the treadmill and sprint like a five-year-old.Like the "Friends" episode with Phoebe running in Central Park.Just listen to some good hip hop and sprint.

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My partner and I run a taco and ice cream blog here in LA. He'san entrepreneur as well, so when we get burned out after sittingall day, we go out to find the best street tacos in LA. The streetfood scene here is incredible!

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We like adventures and travel. We're usually doing somethingadventurous that involves food.

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

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Adaptability. It's a crazy business and will continue to change,so adaptability is your best resource.

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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.