Employers know a good worker when they see one, and Tim Olson has been one heck of a worker from day one. Offered all 11 jobs he applied for straight out of Indiana University, Olson had his pick of career direction. He chose to work in the retirement sector for Gardner & White. Having gained sales experience throughout college selling books door to door — and paid for his education in the process — Olson knew commission-based work was the way to go.

“I just knew that I wanted to get into sales, because I figured if I worked harder than the next person I could have more success,” says Olson, EBA’s 2015 Employee Benefit Adviser of the Year. “The single thing I learned during the early years was put your customers first, and if you solve the problems for your customers, that’s how you have success in life.”

Now managing partner of The Olson Group in Omaha, Neb., Olson is most certainly successful. His firm has grown from a handful of employees to 20 in 12 years, and has more than 100 qualified retirement plan clients with half a billion dollars in assets under management. Since 2013 alone, the company has grown by 55%.

Chosen from dozens of applicants in a month-long online nomination process, Olson stands out as EBA’s Employee Benefit Adviser of the Year for his holistic approach to employee benefits, genuine character and trendsetting business practices.

Those characteristics are reflected in his roots in the retirement business. With Gardner & White for 22 years, Olson first honed his skills as a retirement adviser to clients primarily in the hospital and nursing home space, where his territory included Nebraska and Kansas.

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Passionate about providing hands-on advice and guidance for retirement plan members, part of the reason Olson decided to part ways with Gardner & White was he felt the distribution system was becoming less and less personal. Customer service reps who assisted him with employee meetings out in the field were replaced with call centers. “I just didn’t believe in that model,” Olson says.

As a testament to his skill and dedication, when Olson set off on his own in 2003, he took 95% of his clients with him. Currently, 14% of clients have been with Olson for 30 years or more, 65% for 20 years or more and 90% for 10 or more years.

Today, three financial advisers at the Olson Group, in addition to Olson, meet with clients on a near daily basis. The Olson Group covers not only retirement, but also health insurance and overall employee benefit consulting. The company’s block of business, totaling more than $3.7 million in revenue, is split nearly evenly between major medical/dental/vision, retirement and ancillary/voluntary benefits.

Being an employee benefit firm with a deep history in the retirement field is a differentiator for the company. Just some of the firm’s retirement offerings include annual pension reviews, a three-part independent scorecard analysis of plans and a cloud-based “fiduciary briefcase” that includes all key plan documents.

“We feel [employing salaried investment advisers] brings us to another level, because your normal employee benefits consulting firm is not going to have a single [retirement] adviser,” Olson says. “They’re going to rely on Fidelity or Principal or one of their carrier reps to come out and do meetings. … We think we have a great service model that will stand the test of time.”

The relationship between Dennis Dinslage, VP of fiscal and support services at Franciscan Care Services Inc., in West Point, Neb., and Olson certainly has. Dinslage has been Olson’s client for 30 years. Initially offering employees 403(b) plans, with Olson’s direction Dinslage added a matching 403(b) plan in the early ’90s and has since added 457(b) and 457(f) plans to serve his 265 employees.

Olson and his team “do a good job documenting for us all of our minutes and notes. They have it on the cloud where they have access to it and we have access to it. It’s gone quite well,” says Dinslage.

Around 90% to 95% of Franciscan Care Services’ employees participate in the retirement plan. “We’ve reviewed fees and entertained a couple of times looking at other competitors and Tim has been very competitive, so we’ve never had a reason to leave,” Dinslage adds. “He gives us great attention. He’s pretty vivacious. Tim just has a lot of personality and it comes across quite well with our employees and the staff here.”

A seamless blend

With a decade-plus of retirement practice under his belt, Olson started incorporating the health insurance side into his business in the mid-to-late ’80s.

As Gardner & White was a TPA at the time, he did a lot of self-funded business. At the same time, Nebraska Blue Cross was building its PPO network, and section 125 plans were still relatively new.

“We were doing their retirement plans for them already and so it was very easy to talk about the health insurance and all the challenges that people have with their medical, dental, vision. All the ancillary benefits as well, they fell into place,” says Olson.

Olson excels at discussing the big picture with clients, says Roxy Kolev, HR director at The Olson Group. He and his team “care more about what the employees of the organization know and how they select and utilize their benefits ... more than any other broker I’ve ever seen,” says Kolev, who used to work on the employer side herself.

A client of Olson’s for 18 years, Rhonda Flanigan, chief people officer at Vetter Health Services in Elkhorn, Neb., says Olson and his team do a great job for the company’s 3,600 employees.

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“Customer service has made him so good at what he does. He understands what the client’s needs are — it’s not just about selling,” says Flanigan. “To him, it’s about that relationship with his clients and helping them find the right benefits for the team members that they have.”

Vetter Health Services has 30 facilities located throughout several states. For years, Olson would visit each one of them himself to do one-on-one meetings with team members, Flanigan says. Now, he has assistants to help, but maintains the personal connection as well. “For years, he was the one that did it and he still does do visits,” says Flanigan. “He’s very passionate about making sure that people have money put away for retirement.”

Flanigan sees Olson’s deep experience on both the retirement and health sides of benefits as an asset.  

“I think he can understand where people are with regard to their finances and really help them understand not only the retirement side, but why it is important to have good insurance,” she says. “A lot of our team members, they don’t make a lot of money. We have a lot of single moms and things like that. So for him to be able to go in and say, ‘I see what you’re making. I know how important it is to be able to feed your family and clothe your family, but it’s also really important to preserve what you do have’ … he does get that.”

Olson is adept at explaining the ins and outs of a high deductible health plan and how contributing enough to a 401(k) to take advantage of an employer match is important for financial stability, Flanigan adds.

Other advisers can learn from Olson, Flanigan says. “His knowledge. He’s always learning. He doesn’t sit still. He’s constantly learning. He understands that things change all the time and his goal is to be our one-stop shop with any questions he might have. He does a great job with that,” she says.

People person

Olson meets with executive teams all the time, but takes particular care when it comes to open enrollment or other scheduled meetings with clients’ general employee population. “While we focus on educating employees, our ultimate goal is to teach them how to use the programs more effectively,” he says.

The employees of Franciscan Care Services “enjoy every time he comes out,” says Terri Ridder, HR director. “If there’s times when he can’t come along with the group of representatives that come out here I think our employees are disappointed. They kind of ask for him.”

Olson’s popularity comes from a respect for his level of knowledge, and also his longevity in working with an employee base where many have been with Franciscan for several decades.

“Our longest employed individual has been here 50 years. So a lot of our employees have established relationships with Tim that go back 30 years,” adds Dinslage. 

Suzi Sciscoe, senior account manager at The Olson Group, has been with the company around 13 years, since Olson left Gardner & White to set off on his own. “Working for the Olsons has been a joy,” says Sciscoe, referring to Tim and his wife, Adrienne, who does operations (payroll, commissions, accounting, etc.) for the firm. “They’re a lot of fun to work for. They’re good people. They’re fair people.”

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It’s a family business for the Olsons, whose son Alex also joined the company just over a year ago in a marketing, social media and business promotions capacity.

“What’s so fun is, A, we’re a family business and, B, we get along great,” says Olson. “I’m more over on the producing side and the travel side and those two are more on the operations side.”

The sense of togetherness for Olson doesn’t stop at family. He and the firm contribute to at least 20 charities a year, donating around $30,000 to $50,000 in the process. Many are health care-related, whether raising money for a new MRI machine, to recruit a physician to a rural area, nursing scholarships or to send a member of the Nursing Home Association to lobby in Washington, D.C.

Olson is also passionate about golf, and collects autographs from big-name golfers for charities to raffle off and raise money, says Sciscoe.

“He gives back a lot and it sets a good example for us here in the office that it’s good to be thankful and to always give back,” she says.

Happy, self-confident and full of personality, people are often drawn to Olson when he walks into a room, adds Sciscoe. Olson is also known for greeting each and every employee every time he is in the office. “It’s just his way of getting in front of every employee, even if it’s for three seconds,” Sciscoe says. “Still, that means something to every employee.”

The Olson Group has management meetings every Monday morning, which showcase Olson’s mentoring abilities.

“In those meetings when we’re going over accounts Tim always takes that opportunity to turn those meetings into a teaching, a learning opportunity,” Sciscoe says. “When he hires people, he’s a firm believer in taking those people on the road with him so they can see firsthand how he runs things, how he talks to people.”

What’s next

A member of the National Association of Health Underwriters and several local broker councils, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska, Olson is active on the regional level. He’s done a number of speaking engagements, many focused on compliance.

“We’re really focused on getting our customers DOL-audit ready,” Olson says. “We say the DOL audit storm is coming. Whether it’s HIPAA, COBRA, FMLA, ERISA, SPD — all of these requirements. There are so many compliance issues affecting our employers that we feel … even if we don’t work with their benefits, getting groups compliance-audit ready is so important with all the legislation that’s going on.”

An important goal of The Olson Group’s Monday meetings is to brainstorm the best ways to educate their employer clients so that ultimately all employees prosper, Olson says. “Our mission statement is to inform, educate and empower employees to make the best in benefit decisions for themselves and their families,” he says.

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To do that, The Olson Group has invested heavily in technology and other resources. A partner company of Hodges-Mace, The Olson Group has exclusive proprietary licensing with Chrome Compass, a health care reform platform tool which calculates all key ACA provisions for strategic modeling, planning and designing for employers to stay ahead of the ever-changing health care reform curve. The tool updates each Friday with any changes in guidance that occur.

“It’s brought a lot of business in,” says Olson. “In fact, that is one of the reasons why we’ve grown so much in two or three years is because we can bring that level of sophistication to our customers.”

Right now, Olson is focused on solutions for applicable large employers to populate the required 1095-C forms, with Cadillac tax compliance on the horizon. “If the law doesn’t change, what are we going to do?” That question on the Cadillac tax is integral to client meetings these days, Olson says.

As the ACA was coming into steam, about three years ago, Olson and his wife realized they needed to make a big decision. “It’s time to either say, ‘The heck with it,’ or really make an investment and really grow the company,” he recalls. “We’re making the investment so the next generation will be able to take the company and build it from there.”

Olson had a vision in mind for where he wanted the company to go, and actively sought the right people to build it. “I recruited three key positions for what I consider to be people with ownership potential,” he says. “I wanted to get somebody that is that solid, is that forward-thinking and can bring the company to not only this level, but our next level after that.”

The next level includes a continued focus on ACA compliance, but also improved data analytics — “how we can really dig into modifiable behaviors and go after those dollars to really bend the health care cost curve,” Olson says.

It’s a tough job, thanks to the sheer amount of data a plan produces. But Olson envisions being able to bring the right, relevant data pieces to clients’ executive teams and drilling down to the actionable items. For example, making an impact on modifiable behaviors such as ensuring people follow through with diabetic preventative services, routine physicals and correct medicine dosage.

“We actually have a med management program where any employee taking three or more meds per day is reached out to by clinical pharmacists. These clinical pharmacists work with the employees’ pharmacists and their doctors and talk to them [about] how they can take their meds and get healthier and be more efficient with their medications,” with the goal of helping employees make smarter choices about their health, Olson says. Employees are incentivized by co-pays reduced by 50% for brand drugs and no co-pay for generic prescriptions. 

Two of Olson’s recent recruits in particular have strong backgrounds at the carrier level with digging into plan data to build usable strategies and communication techniques.

“Back in the early ’80s when I started, it was all about, ‘Hey, I’ll go to the market and get you the lowest bid.’ Those days are so long gone,” Olson says. “If that’s all your business model offers, you are going out of business. That’s all there is to it.”

Working at The Olson Group means having a growth mindset, and Kolev wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I have enjoyed it a lot. I’ve worked for smaller organizations before and this is totally different,” she says. “They really get it and they’re really committed to the people.”

Kolev admires how much the Olsons have embraced health care reform and not settled for the status quo.

“They could have retired easily,” she says, “but they did decide to embrace health care reform, to take it one step further, to be the consultant and really learn and be in-depth managers of health care reform versus just being the status quo broker.”

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