Christine Carstens clearly loves a challenge. Not only does she compete in triathlons - she completed her first last year and is training for two more this year - her first day as director of employee benefits at Hughes Network Systems LLC was on the first day of open enrollment.

"I was very nervous, but it was not as crazy busy as it could have been," says Carstens, who had spent her career at Hughes up to that point on the recruiting side of the business. On her first day in the benefits department, she spent most of her time attending presentations with the company's benefits broker and answering calls and emails to the benefits hotline and inbox.

Carstens' dedication and work ethic, coupled with her efforts to raise employee participation in and awareness of Hughes Network's retirement plan and wellness programs, have earned her EBN's 2012 Benefits Professional of the Year. In 2011, Carstens implemented of a new open enrollment system, launched a special retirement communication series and oversaw the company's best year since 2005 for wellness screens.

There are parallels between Carstens' job as director of employee benefits at Hughes and her passion for sport. When competing in her first triathlon - a strenuous event that incorporates swimming, biking and running - last year, she doubted herself, wondering if she'd trained hard enough, if she was ready.

"It was a great feeling of accomplishment that I did it," she says, remembering that the huge adrenalin rush she felt when she saw the finish line was unlike anything she'd ever experienced.

Similarly, "even though I was nervous about moving into the benefits side of human resources, I told myself 'I know I can do this,' and I didn't hesitate to ask questions, do research and get information from as many people as I could."

Her triathlon training has also helped her gain a better appreciation for her company's wellness benefits. "When I don't eat the best dinner, I don't train as well, so I definitely see a correlation there," she says. Whether it's running a triathlon or navigating the twists and turns of benefits, "when you set your mind to something and you tell yourself you can do it, I truly believe you're able to accomplish that goal," says Carstens.

It was during her senior year in college at the University of Iowa that Carstens interned in an HR department, giving her a taste of life in the world of benefits. "That's when I realized I really liked this industry and this part of the business," she says.

Upon graduating with a degree in psychology and communications, she worked at a staffing agency for a couple of years, recruiting IT workers. She then joined Hughes - a leading provider of satellite broadband services with approximately 1,400 employees in the U.S. - in 2000 as a recruiter. She worked her way up to staffing manager and, in 2009, her manager presented her with the opportunity to direct and lead the employee benefits team. "I was a little hesitant - it was right after health care reform - but then decided I would really like to try it," Carstens says.

Undaunted by the fact she would be starting her new job on the first day of open enrollment, she embraced the chaos and volume of work that often accompanies open enrollment season, having complete faith in the team behind her.

Since moving to the position three years ago, Carstens has worked closely with Hughes' onsite registered nurse - who splits her time among all three of Hughes' Maryland facilities - to expand the services offered by the Hughes wellness clinic.

Recognizing that the average tenure of Hughes' employees had increased - it's now close to 13 years - Carstens lobbied for additional biometric tests to be added to the clinic's suite of services with the idea that any chronic conditions caught early will help control claims costs down the road.

As a result of her efforts, every employee is now eligible for an annual wellness screening that includes a body mass index calculation, blood pressure reading, a comprehensive metabolic panel and complete blood count that measures cholesterol and blood glucose. The biometric results are sent to each employee's primary care physician to avoid duplicate testing and so that follow-up appointments can be scheduled if necessary.

"We were very excited to be able to add the comprehensive metabolic panel and the complete blood count," says Carstens. "The employee gets a full page of their results, with the ranges, so they know what that number means to them, and they get follow-up information, too."

In 2011, 534 employees - almost 40% of the workforce - took advantage of the free screening, making it the company's most successful year for wellness screens and health assessments since 2005.

This year, Carstens oversaw a change in Hughes' wellness incentives, tying them directly to reductions in medical plan premiums. The incentive change, coupled with an improved communication campaign initiated by Carstens and her team, led to 508 employees completing the health risk assessment in the first quarter alone.

Other wellness initiatives guided by Carstens include blood drives, annual health fairs, weight loss challenges and employee assistance program sessions. Under her leadership, Hughes was designated as a 2011 Fit-Friendly Company by the American Heart Association. She oversees Hughes' annual wellness challenge, participates in monthly wellness committee meetings and hosts an annual baby shower for expecting employees.


Money Matters

Carstens has also been instrumental in crafting Hughes' 401(k) plan, which offers a company match on pre- and post-tax contributions that has helped garner a nearly 90% employee participation rate. In addition to plan design, Carstens has made it a personal goal for Hughes employees to be savvy financial stewards, creating a targeted communications campaign.

She brought in the company's 401(k) provider, Fidelity Investments, to present a three-part retirement series for employees aged 55 and older. She plans to do the series again this year and open it up to more employees as well as their spouses.

Recognizing that younger employees and new hires also need encouragement to start saving in the 401(k) plan, Carstens launched a special communication series for anyone who was either not enrolled in the plan or who had been hired within the past two years.

"We wanted to keep an eye on that and encourage those new hires - especially the ones right out of college - that this is something they need to do right off the bat. They may not be used to getting a big, huge paycheck yet, so setting that up immediately means they don't necessarily feel it as a loss," says Carstens.

Thanks to her efforts, plan participants contribute an average of 8%, are diversified in their investment fund selections and take advantage of onsite and online educational seminars.

"With everything we've heard about the economy, we feel it's very important we educate all of our employees about the benefits of participating the most that they can to the 401(k) for their own financial health," says Carstens. "We would love our employees to work here forever, but even if they don't, they need to set up something for their retirement, and we have a really good plan for them to do that."


Systems Overhaul

Last year, Carstens oversaw the implementation of a brand-new open enrollment system. As the company grew and added new plans, she saw a need for a more user-friendly, streamlined system. The new system had to be able to allow employees to go in at any time of year - not just during open enrollment - to make life-event changes, such as adding a spouse or new dependent. This was something the original system couldn't handle.

With eight different medical plans to choose from, Carstens wanted employees to have everything at their fingertips. "It was a conscious decision to load in all of the current data, too, so that employees knew what plan they were already in and what plan they might want to be in next year," says Carstens. "That was more helpful to the employee."

A survey following the open enrollment process showed that more than 90% of employees were "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with the new system.

In the past two years, Carstens has overseen an Internal Revenue Service audit of Hughes' 401(k) plan, three different wellness challenges, annual budgets in excess of $10 million, the communication of health care reform requirements, a change in COBRA vendors and the implementation of a new online benefits enrollment system. She compiled due diligence information requests in preparation for a merger/acquisition and served as a key part of the team that presented best options for a consolidated benefits package for the two companies. For all these reasons and more, Carstens is EBN's 2012 Benefits Professional of the Year.

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