There’s a lot of talk among preceding generations about how millennials — now the largest employed population in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau — are impacting the workplace. But employers don’t often hear from the youngest working generation themselves. EBA’s 2016 Rising Stars in Advising — 10 industry standouts age 24-34 — are incorporating that valuable firsthand perspective into their role as benefit advisers, and changing the scope of the profession in the process.
“Often we see companies looking to try and understand how to attract and retain millennials. Being part of that generation, young advisers like myself understand this intrinsically,” says Michael Grindem, president of Great Lakes Insurance Advisors in Detroit.
Adds Sarah Martin, 33, vice president, Lockton Companies in Kansas City, Mo., “The workforce is younger now, so who better to help an employer with their benefits strategy than a young adviser? We all know we are going to read a text that says, ‘Watch for your new pharmacy ID card in the mail this week,’ before we read that long company-wide email.”
Indeed, as technology is now pervasive in benefits, Martin, Grindem and their fellow winners — chosen by EBA’s editors from dozens of online nominations in December — all understand that for today’s employee benefit environment, incorporating cutting-edge IT is the expectation, not just a value-add. ”Sending out a folder with a bunch of paper and an occasional email is no longer a way to run a benefits communication plan,” says Grindem, 33. “The younger advisers are able to help companies understand this and put into place plans that meet the needs of today’s employees.”
Speaking from experience after finding “a ton of success” in hiring millennials at his firm, Assured Neace Lukens in North Charleston, S.C., Jon Taylor, 34, senior vice president, says “a young, sharp and confident adviser with proper training and understanding of technology can be a major threat to a complacent, seasoned adviser.”
Historically, the industry has “relied heavily” on relationships, and although those are still important, young advisers are “finding new ways to make an impact on our clients,” says Anja Harmon, senior vice president, employee benefits at HUB International Midwest East in Grand Rapids, Mich. Streamlining the client experience through technology is a big part of that process, adds Harmon, 30.
“The value of a new perspective cannot be overstated,” says Scott Brown, 34, managing director, healthcare at Accenture in Chicago. “Every new generation brings new ideas to solving challenges and innovative approaches to deliver value to their clients. This could include introducing new employee engagement methods, network management designs, or private benefit exchange solutions.”
Because of young advisers, the way the average healthcare consumer interacts with their benefits is changing, says Annie Durkin, director of sales & business development at benefitsContinuum, Inc., in New York City. “Accessing care with ease and being able to interpret benefits information has become increasingly important as individuals are assuming more costs and responsibilities associated with their coverage,” says Durkin, 24. “The next generation of benefit advisers has already begun to welcome and incorporate new technology into the benefits landscape like never before.”
Also see: “It’s not the book, it’s the business.”
An adviser who’s been in the field for 20, 30 years has “spent many years in an industry without a ton of change” and made high commissions for less work, says Taylor. “In today’s environment, young producers that come in only know this chaotic, aggressively changing environment we find ourselves in today. I feel this gives them an edge over the seasoned competition.”
QuoteIn today’s environment, young producers that come in only know this chaotic, aggressively changing environment we find ourselves in today. I feel this gives them an edge over the seasoned competition.
Overall, it’s “a less gloomy feel for the opportunity ahead,” adds Mark Minner, 25, managing director at FirstPerson in Indianapolis. “There’s no doubt that with change comes uncertainty, but it also presents an abundance of opportunity.”
Capitalizing on that opportunity for advisers who are relatively new to the field means understanding that some prospective clients may be “reluctant to take counsel from you,” says Matt McGuirk, benefits adviser with The LBL Group, Santa Ana, Calif. In response, “knowledge and understanding of the industry is our greatest asset, and preparation is key,” adds McGuirk, 30.
Vince Maromonte, senior vice president, employee benefits manager, at The HDH Group, Inc., a HUB International Company in Pittsburgh, agrees that perception of credibility can be a challenge. “Most of our clients’ decision makers are of a different generation,” says Maromonte, 28.
Like anyone in the first years of their career, young advisers can “face doubt in the form of inexperience,” says Minner. “It may take an extra conversation to build the credibility that an experienced industry veteran would have.”
However, he adds, “for the employers that really understand where workforce dynamics are headed, this is less of an issue because they crave a unique energy and perspective to tackle these challenges.”
But not all employers are easily open to a new perspective. “I think the biggest challenge we face as young advisers is asking businesses to change the status quo,” says Bill Pragalz, principal partner and consultant at 360 Benefits LLC in Chicago.
“The benefits industry is increasing in complexities and costs, yet many businesses today still manage their benefits inefficiently. Because of that, I get excited about the opportunity to help. But as a young adviser, I also get frustrated when I see businesses out there accepting mediocrity (status quo),” says Pragalz, 34. “I think this happens because it’s easy and because they fear change, or because they are just comfortable with their current broker relationship.”
It’s natural that with change comes fear, says Grindem, and a young adviser can be seen as a risk. But “In reality the opposite is true,” he says. “To build a business for the future, you always need to be looking forward. The needs of benefits program 10, 15, 20 years down the road are best understood by those of us is position to be there at that time.”
It’s easy to get absorbed in language of “doom and gloom,” but those who understand the business and know what they bring to it will continue to succeed, says Taylor. “As an adviser, you should constantly ask yourself, what value do you bring? If you don’t have a good answer, you better go back to the drawing board and define what that is.”
Lure of the field
Having worked on the carrier side for a decade, Grindem had a better understanding of the business than most fresh advisers when he joined Great Lakes in 2014. The experience exposed him to many advisers who were “ill prepared” for the sea change brought on by the Affordable Care Act. “I knew that because of this chaos, there was a need for a modern agency ready and able to build benefit programs for the post-ACA world and beyond,” he says. “Simply put, being my clients’ trusted resource was the motivation to become an adviser.”
Durkin also got her start on the carrier side and craved a deeper relationship with customers. “Working as a group sales representative, I always felt inclined to go beyond the initial point of sale in order to learn more about a client’s individual needs,” she says. “Working this way allowed me to see firsthand the frustrations employers were experiencing with their current benefit brokers. At the same time, the emergence of new technology in benefit administration platforms was threatening the traditional adviser role and I did not want to see that happen. I believe that something as personal and particular as a company’s employee benefits program is sure to suffer without a certain level of hands-on support.”
Being a part of the solution drew McGuirk to the profession as well. “The work that benefits advisers do touches the lives of thousands of people in a positive way and I wanted to be a part of that,” he says. “Employee benefits typically has one of the biggest impacts on a company’s bottom line, greatly impacts the financial security of the employees and their families, and as a benefits adviser we get to be an integral part of the decision-making process to ensure that the employer and employees are very well taken care of. I love the job.”
The immediate impact and relevance of the job excites Pragalz. “Our job is extremely relevant and important. Our industry is always in the news, whether it’s about legislation, healthcare technology, or news about carriers and hospitals,” he says.
And it is always innovating. “I really enjoy learning about new and viable services and ideas that can help my clients,” Pragalz adds. “There are many great companies out there developing new technologies to help our industry become more efficient and provide a better benefit experience for employees.”
Being able to take such solutions to clients while diving into their company culture, demographics and plan designs is a favorite part of the job for Taylor. Large clients want custom plan specific to their businesses and he is more than happy to deliver. “I really like when I’ve built a strategic relationship with a client and they share their growth and business strategies with me outside of benefits, almost as I’ve become a trusted adviser of their business,” he says.
He draws from that attitude when mentoring new producers and account managers into the business as well. “It’s nice to look back over my 12 years with the company across four different offices and take pride in the folks who have become successful from the time I invested in them,” Taylor says.
There are many elements that go into becoming an effective adviser at any age, the Rising Stars agree. McGuirk is driven by LBL’s core values of credibility, honesty and integrity. “If you don’t have these attributes, people will see right through you and you won’t last long in this business,” he says.
QuoteIt’s not just about millennials in the workforce. It’s not just about tenured folks. It’s about using the strengths of all parties to build an even more powerful organization.
Minner applies lessons learned from advisers across the generations to round out his experience. “I may be a millennial, but I drink ginger ale and wear sweater vests — light-hearted way of saying I enjoy connecting with and working across all generations,” he says. “It’s not just about millennials in the workforce. It’s not just about tenured folks. It’s about using the strengths of all parties to build an even more powerful organization.”
A strong desire to learn is paramount, says Martin. “I didn’t know anything about pharmacy when I got into it, but I was willing to jump in and learn. Since then it’s been an intense, insanely fast-paced learning process to keep up with the pharmacy industry,” she says. “To be an effective adviser, you have to keep up with the new problems your clients are facing and all the new solutions available in the marketplace. There is no standing still.”
In fact, it’s about looking forward, says Grindem. “I have had too many conversations about how the ACA has ‘ruined everything’ and how they yearned for ‘how things used to be,’” he recalls. “Longing for yesteryear is not what employers need. ACA is here and even if the environment changes due to a new political climate, many of the ACA elements will continue to stay in place. Understanding what things will look like five, 10, 20 years down the road is the only way to ensure success.”
QuoteI never assume that I know what’s best for a client until I’ve had a chance to absorb and understand their benefit needs and objectives.
Adds Durkin, “I never assume that I know what’s best for a client until I’ve had a chance to absorb and understand their benefit needs and objectives. I believe a successful partnership involves an ongoing dialogue where the lines of communication are constantly open. Because when it comes to benefits, I am my client’s lifeline.
“At the same time, I always have confidence in myself and the value I can bring to each partnership. I’m enthusiastic about the work I do and the personal, hands-on approach I take has been very beneficial to employers looking for a fresh perspective with new, innovative ideas.”
Advice for others
As for other young advisers just entering the field, Pragalz encourages them to embrace the “incredible position” they are in “to be able to positively impact businesses and help them overcome their benefit challenges and achieve their goals. Never stop pursuing greatness, for yourself and the clients you serve.”
Such a willingness to work hard is the No. 1 attribute that will lead to success, the Rising Stars say. “Prepare for new opportunities before they are even available,” says Maromonte. “The reason I have been so successful is because I was always ready to take advantage of any opportunity, and upper management recognized that. I did not take anything for granted and never showed a sense of entitlement.”
Grindem puts it another way: “Run hard,” he says. “This business can be tough, but it can also be so rewarding. Especially with the chaos that exists in today’s market, keep running hard because the cream will always rise to the top.”
And don’t expect to punch out at 5 p.m., says Taylor. “This is not a nine-to-five job,” he says. “If you’re not working, you’re reading, thinking and networking.”
There is no such thing as an overnight success in this field, McGuirk adds. “I’ve heard it takes about 10 years to look like an overnight success,” he says. “Patience and hard work are key.”
“About 10 years ago, I was able to still say this business is the best kept secret,” says Taylor. “I now say that someone let the cat out of the bag.”
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