There are four words that sum up the tremendous growth experienced by San Mateo, Calif. brokerage Sequoia Benefits and Insurance Services in 2012: "Coming through for people." To Greg Golub, CEO and founder, it is that simple, and it all comes back to impeccable customer service. In a year when other firms struggled to remain solvent, Sequoia brought in 135 new clients and 50 new 401(k) plans, developed an innovative smartphone application and overhauled its online customer service portal.

Golub can add one more achievement to that impressive performance this year: being selected as EBA's Employee Benefit Adviser of the Year.

After a month-long nomination period that asked applicants to describe innovative efforts, achievements and growth in the last year, Golub emerged from the EBA editors' selection process as the clear winner. Although honored by the individual accolade, he is quick to credit his 55 employees for Sequoia's successes. "We just have an awesome, smart committed team that cares and wants to come through for people," he says. Because they love to work as a team, Golub says, Sequoia's structure of five to eight employees working on each client's account allows them to tackle complex cases and focus on the client experience. "We like to 'wow' clients," he adds. "Do that for 11 years and you continue to have success."

Meghna Solorio has worked with Golub for six and a half of those 11 years, the first three as his assistant. "His passion is very contagious," says Solorio, now a client service team leader. "He's very, very passionate about delivering what the clients need from us and that sets the tone for the culture here at Sequoia. Over the years in working with Greg I've seen him truly be the entrepreneur that he loves being. He goes 160 miles an hour, but it's been good to see how he thinks outside the box."

Sequoia's Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay area clientele - "the best and brightest," says Golub - range in size from 20 to 4,000 lives, and are 95% referral based. They include Pearl.com, a Web service that gives subscribers access to professional advice, and B+N Industries, Inc., a designer and product manufacturer for retail, architectural and consumer industries.

"They grow rapidly and they move from one company to the next, and it's a pretty small community, so we get a lot of great referrals," he says.

It's no wonder clients are happy to refer Sequoia to others. According to Golub, his financial analysis team brings clients an average of a 5.2% reduction in health care premium costs each year. The eight-person full-time financial analysis team earns bonuses based on how much money clients are able to save. Additionally, Sequoia is licensed in 47 states to ensure its national clients get the best possible deal.

On the retirement side, in the five years since Golub established a 401(k) practice with Luciano Costantini, director of retirement services, the business has grown from zero to more than 200 clients. "It's really an interesting dynamic here. Everybody just tries to help each other out," says Costantini. "That's the culture that Greg's built here.

"We're driven. Greg is really big on having goals and making them pretty high and lofty - where at some points you're thinking, 'Wow, I'm not sure how I'm going to make those goals.' And it's not just sales goals. It's service goals. He's a big believer that if you set your goal really high you'll figure out a way to get there. ... Our clients are the ones who ultimately benefit from it."

 

Customer service

Now 40, Golub first knew he would enter the insurance business as a high school student in Menlo Park, Calif. After his father took him to lunch with people in several different industries, it was the insurance broker he met whose career resonated with him the most.

"I heard his story and his values, and the more he could help people out the better he did for himself and his family," said Golub, who has three daughters with his wife, Kelly: Sophia, 10, C.C., 8, and Vivian, 5.

Golub put his foot in the door with a college internship selling optometrist policies in Utah, then joined Northwestern Mutual right after college. After five years as a top agent with Northwestern, he decided he really liked the employee benefits part of the business, and joined a small firm in Menlo Park. Two and a half years later, he founded Sequoia in May 2001.

Despite Sequoia's tremendous growth, Golub admits he's passed up a lot of opportunities for even greater expansion due to his rigorous commitment to the highest standards of customer service. Even more important than new business to Golub and Sequoia is client retention. The company had a 97% retention rate for 2012, and the entire team is bonused on it, says Golub. "We probably could have grown faster if we weren't as focused on the clients," he says. "But that's what makes me happy. People that come through for people in the end are happy. That's something we always try to keep in the forefront."

A Sequoia client for about two years, Andy Kurtzig, CEO of Pearl.com, says unlike his experience with previous brokers where he felt he always had to initiate questions and hope he'd asked the right ones, once Kurtzig switched to Sequoia, "Greg just took over and drove the whole thing and helped us find the right providers and the whole benefits package," he says.

Most of Pearl.com's 150 employees take the company's benefits, and Kurtzig credits Golub with bringing their costs down while simultaneously improving the quality of their benefits. And when it comes to customer service, Kurtzig can't think of any example where a plan member ran into an issue and needed Sequoia's help - because Sequoia works hard to keep such a situation from arising in the first place. "The thing is, they're so proactive from the very beginning that we don't have a lot of issues," says Kurtzig. "Unlike a typical broker where something would happen and you'd have to call and ask about it and dig two or three levels deeper and hope to get a solution, they've already thought about it in advance."

 

Technology

Kurtzig is also impressed with Golub's technological abilities. "We're an internet company, so they're really well tailored to helping our tech-savvy employees," he says.

Pearl.com already takes advantage of Sequoia's Web portal, MyBenefits, and 24-hour help line. Kurtzig expects employees will begin using Sequoia's new smartphone app following this fall's open enrollment.

Designed by Golub, who managed the project with outside vendor PhoneGap, the smartphone app, also called MyBenefits, provides clients with anything they'd need to access their health information on the go. According to Golub, it includes a mobile ID card, plan design information that allows them to see if they are being charged the right amount or if a provider is in their network, and health record tracking that stores immunization records and other health notes. It also has an international assistance program.

"With mobile phones we thought employees would really want the ability to do that," says Golub. "There is nothing else on the market that pulls all that together."

Golub spent a year and half and "a ton of money" building it out so the program integrates seamlessly with the agency's internal management system and Web portal. "It was a huge investment," says Golub, "but it's worked out fantastically for our clients and for us and it streamlines efficiency internally as well."

Although carriers are starting to come out with their own mobile applications, Golub points to the advantage the MyBenefits app has due to its ability to integrate information from multiple carriers, including dental and vision.

 

Retirement

When it comes to full-on integration of all a client's employee benefit needs, the picture would not be complete without retirement services, says Golub. "I've always felt that it's a requirement for employee benefits and benefits providers because clients need somebody to do their medical benefits as well as the 401(k)," he says. "It should be a combined conversation. Costs are going up on the medical side, how does that affect the matching program?"

His father a money manager, Golub grew up knowing the investment market, but he waited to add a retirement practice to Sequoia until he knew he had the right person to run it: Costantini. About to hire his sixth staffer, Costantini appreciates the latitude Golub gives him in building the practice. It's especially important now with fee disclosure regulations in effect. In the retirement industry for two decades, Costantini saw how easy it was for vendors and brokers to hide compensation in retirement plans. "When I started here I wanted to be sure that we had a nice honest approach so that if we're ever audited the programs we put in place will stand on their own," he says.

Still, the past year has included a lot of extra compliance work, sending client notices, reviewing records, communicating the new rule to them and answering questions. "People who aren't staffed for that can't do a good job. So Greg was great in letting me continue to hire people so we can continue to service clients while taking care of everything like the fee disclosure requirements that we had to do," says Costantini.

It's enabled Sequoia's retirement staff to maintain compliance while also having time to gain a tremendous amount of new business. Costantini credits the strong client relationships Golub built on the health care side in the years before Costantini joined Sequoia for providing a solid base of business opportunity to gain those clients' retirement business as well.

"We're a different type of benefit, but the relationship people are the same," says Costantini. "A lot of it was, 'Well, if Sequoia does such a good job on benefits I'm sure they'll do as good a job on 401(k).' So Greg was able to add another line of business ... because we're really good at servicing clients from the start."

A Sequoia client from the beginning, Maureen Tolley, vice president, B+N Industries, Inc., does not use the company as her retirement services provider - but that hasn't stopped Sequoia's retirement team from servicing B+N employees. "Upon several occasions, Luciano has made presentations on 401(k) investments and the market despite the fact Sequoia is not our 401(k) administrator," says Tolley. "How many companies would spend time doing so, if they didn't have your business? None I can recall."

Again, for Golub, it comes back to the simple premise of coming through for people. "We do it as a really integrated approach because that's what the clients want," he says. "They don't want to have to deal with different vendors and different meetings."

The "wildly successful" progress of Sequoia's fledgling 401(k) practice, says Costantini, led to the decision to add risk management into the fold about two and a half years ago. Incorporating property and casualty was a strategic move designed to expand the breadth of Sequoia's product offerings in the wake of health care reform. "Getting into that business is for the strategy of diversification," affirms Golub. "We also think clients just want one provider, and we're adding a bunch of services to meet those needs."

 

Business integration

Golub prides himself on his ability to stay in front of the trends in employee benefits, and along with a focus on technology and using health and wellness programs to drive down claims costs, he sees the full integration of a client's benefit and insurance service needs as the way of the future. The One Sequoia Solution focuses on combining health benefits, retirement services and risk management needs to reduce costs and improve employee experience, says Golub.

"If you said, 'What are you putting tons of focus on going forward?' It's that, and that we believe it is going to very much differentiate us," he adds. "And that's what clients want. They want one provider to reduce their costs across the board for benefits, 401(k), risk management. And they want HR support on top of that."

As far as health care reform and the potential for clients to take their business to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act's state exchanges when they go live in 2014, Golub isn't concerned. He references PPACA's MLR provision that requires 80% to 85% of premiums be spent on medical care as an example of how Sequoia is already bringing clients substantial savings by focusing on reducing that 85% with health and wellness programs, outstanding employee education, and smart plan designs. More than 50% of Sequoia's 250-plus clients have alternative funding plans that include self-funding, HRAs and HSAs.

"He is a visionary in the industry and continues to provide resources which help better educate his customers on the direction of health care, HSA plans, HR and financial topics," says B+N's Tolley. "Our offering of an HSA plan was easier for employees to comprehend because of their presentations which speak in a language non-industry companies can understanding."

"We're constantly working on how to help our clients reduce that 85%, as well as the intangible costs of communication, administration and implementation," adds Golub. "We see it becoming even more important because if we can make big impacts on that 85%, even if exchanges don't pay commissions or they pay tiny commissions, employers are going to want us driving down 85% of the costs."

Pearl.com's Kurtzig appreciates how Golub has helped his company navigate health reform. "He's very proactive. He doesn't avoid the topic," says Kurtzig. "He's telling us what's happening, how it's going to affect us and what's the right move for us to make - and he often puts our needs ahead of his own."

Of the nearly two dozen clients who provided supporting statements for Golub's Adviser of the Year application (see sidebar for a sample of their comments), along with the traditional directors of HR, many were in upper-level C-suite positions such as CEO or CFOs.

"That's a key strategy for us, to build relationships," says Golub, who learned early on from his father that the way to gain access to any CEO is to ask to hear their story.

As the longest tenured employee at Sequoia, Mark Mangiola has had more than a decade to consider the company culture Golub has built. "Better than anybody I've ever met, Greg has the ability to put himself in [clients'] shoes so that literally they feel that his concern is their concern," says Mangiola, consultant team leader.

"He's the real deal," Mangiola adds. "The word 'rigor' is really important. It's not a fake persona he's putting on. This is how he lives his life. You either have that or you don't and he has it. So that's why he's our leader, that's why we all follow him, and I think that's why we've had success."


Sequoia's Client Service Commandments

1. Keep All Promises

2. Be Responsive

3. Personal Responsibility

4. Be an Advocate for Our Clients

5. Build Real Relationships

6. Plan Ahead & Be Proactive

7. Design, Implement & Maintain Systems

8. Be Accurate

9. Innovate

10. Be Knowledgeable

11. Educate: Be of Extraordinary Value to Others

 

 

What it's like to work with Sequoia

"After three years of huge premium increases and no new ideas from our old insurance broker, we signed up with Sequoia for our open enrollment. They were able to immediately understand our issues and challenges and brought an aggressive approach to our carrier negotiations - and a wealth of new ideas to the table. The results were actually our first cost reductions in years, added flexibility and choices for our employees, and a real sense that we would have a dedicated partner helping with our benefit needs for years to come."

Mark Sargent, CFO, California Eastern Laboratories

 

"Selecting Sequoia as our benefits broker and retirement plan adviser was a game-changing move for Crystal Dynamics. The level of expertise and support they have provided our HR team has allowed us to expand our benefits and retirement plan offerings while maintaining cost control. ... Sequoia has impacted each and every part of our business for the positive, and as a result has changed the internal perception of human resources for the better."

Amy Babcock Shat, Humans Resources, Crystal Dynamics

 

"What a joy it is to finally find a benefits and risk services vendor that truly understands the myriad of issues faced by the CFO and the HR leader in a small, agile, high-growth company. Sequoia has responded to every single issue we have raised with sensible advice, rapid execution and superb financial outcomes. They have made me, and my team, look good in front of both our whole employee group and our investors."

Rich Arnold, CFO, Crowd Flower

 

"As a solo HR department for two companies now, they have been my right arm, consistently amazing me with their ability to keep our benefit costs down, their commitment to educate our leadership team with benefit strategies, the employees on their benefit selections and provide me with the BEST service and support possible."

Kara Crochett, director of HR and administrative services, Community Health Center Network

 

 

Solid As A Sequoia

The name Sequoia is a fitting one for Greg Golub's employee benefit brokerage. Not just because it pays homage to the majestic trees found around Sequoia's San Mateo, Calif. headquarters, but also because of the legend behind their massive growth. "We were told that although they're super tall, they need other Sequoia trees to connect their roots and to stay together. I'm not sure if that's 100% true," Golub says with a laugh, "but they like to grow and grow, and they do better as a team, which we thought was really symbolic."

Director of Retirement Services at Sequoia, Luciano Costantini sees Golub's motivation as driven by his ability to help others. "Greg is doing a great job being successful, but I think he really wants to help other people," says Costantini. "He's not most proud of how much money he makes; I think he's most proud of how successful people who work for him are."

It affects the type of people Golub hires, Costantini adds. "It's really an unselfish group here and the personalities are very similar," he says.

Mark Mangiola knew Golub for about a year and a half before joining Sequoia. The consultant team leader has been with the company for almost 11 years. "It's about working really hard and coming through for our clients, but at the same time he knows everybody's partner or spouse and their kids," says Mangiola. "He really wants you to feel like you have a family here, but [knows] you have a family at home that you want to get to and take care of."

When Meghna Solorio first interviewed to be Golub's assistant more than six years ago one factor that led her to believe she'd found the right place to work was Golub's conviction that he surround himself with people he can invite home to dinner. "It definitely gave me an insight into the culture here and who he is," says Solorio, now client service team leader. "He's empathetic and truly cares about the team, his family, clients, the community."

According to client Maureen Tolley, "Greg has an eye for recruiting employee talent into his team who are compassionate about what they do, which is conveyed in ... a genuine concern for their customers," says the vice president of B+N Industries, Inc.

In April, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors presented Golub and Sequoia with The Family Friendly Employer Award. Additionally, over the summer Golub encouraged Sequoia employees to give back to the community by joining him and his family in providing lunch for homeless children and their families. Those who did so were given paid time off for their volunteer work.

Golub's caring attitude toward employees is helpful in the recruiting process, says Solorio, which is vitally important as the company grows. "I've yet to meet someone else who takes such an interest in people's lives and remembers like Greg does," says Solorio. "For a CEO to be able to extend himself and have that kind of interest in the team has been really neat for me to see."

It's all second nature to Golub, who says caring about employees' lives plays into the reason Sequoia exists. "We're here to take care of clients while also taking care of our team members," he says. "Everybody is human so what is important to them is their families. The better we can take care of our team the more we can take care of our clients. If people are stressed out and not doing well in their lives in general than it's hard to do great client service for other people.

"So the more I can invest into them I know the more they can invest into our clients and the big picture is just this wonderful circle of giving."

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