EBA’s Adviser of the Year: A decorated soldier delivering client service, communication

While a decorated veteran with a degree in general engineering could have joined the 1990s dot-com gold rush to work in an online startup, David Sokol instead relied on his West Point leadership training to pursue a post-military career.

After serving as an Army captain in Kuwait and Iraq during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star, Sokol translated his talents in leadership, teamwork and empathy into a brokerage career.

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Marvin Shaouni hired by Kate Williams, owner of Lady of the House, to photograph a variety of food and cocktail shots.

After he bought Wilshire Benefits Group in 2014, Sokol boosted the Troy, Michigan-based brokerage’s gross revenue to more than $3.7 million in 2017 from $1.05 million in 2013. His forecast for 2018 is gross revenue of more than $4.2 million — among the many reasons Sokol was selected as Adviser of the Year by Employee Benefit Adviser.

Sokol is planning to expand his team to 39 advisers and support staff from 23 in the southern Michigan firm’s six offices. When asked what qualities he is looking for in new advisers and staffers, he acknowledges that a business and tech background are important. Still, he is looking for something extra.

“In our industry, one of the characteristics I try to find is someone who has a servant’s heart,” he says. “You have to be good at technology, be great at numbers and you have to have intellect and the ability to understand and communicate all this detail.”

Service is paramount to Sokol. The 51-year-old married father of three boys served as an artillery officer with the 101st Airborne Division, where he served in Desert Storm. After four years of active duty in the Army, he left, serving in the Army Reserves until 1999.

“At the end of the day, we’re a service business and you’ve got to care about the people on the other end of the line. They are the people who are in front of you and during a meeting, you want to deliver on this stuff,” says the Michigan native. “That’s really what we talk about having a servant’s heart — being compassionate and caring.”

Sokol joins four other winners in this year’s Adviser of the Year Awards. Gregg Fine, of Gallagher, was named Retirement Plan Adviser of the Year, Howard Labow, of National Enrollment Services, was named Voluntary Benefits Adviser of the Year, Ali Payne, of Gallagher, was named Wellness Adviser of the Year and Bret Brummitt of A.G. Insurance Agencies was named Technology Adviser of the Year.

An adviser’s dossier

“I am very good with numbers and I have an engineering mind, but I’ve always gravitated more toward the human equation in relationships and people,” Sokol says. “The biggest part of that HR benefit outsourcing module was providing comprehensive benefits to clients, and I thought of all the components that went into the professional employer organization industry — workers comp, payroll, 401(k) — the most emotional, most difficult and comprehensive part was benefits.”

He adds: “That’s where you can add value and differentiate yourself. It’s not all about price — it’s service, it’s communication, it’s having an understanding for what your clients’ budgets can and will allow them to achieve.”

After leaving active duty in 1992, Sokol entered the business world. His career in benefits began with Vincam Human Resources, a professional employer organization, which was bought by ADP in 1998 to create TotalSource. At that new company he rose to regional vice president of Human Resources and Client Services for ADP TotalSource and stayed there until 2005. He later served as the large group market practice leader for Humana in Michigan for large groups and select national accounts from 2005 to 2010.

He recalls working at ADP with an estimated 35 HR professionals and 17,000 employees as clients. “It was a great backdrop for being a broker because the primary benefit to the PEO world back then and maybe largely today is providing comprehensive benefits for the employers and employees.”

Sokol joined Northwestern Mutual as a wealth management adviser and employee benefit specialist and that led to him joining Wilshire Benefits Group in August 2010. He bought out his partners in 2014 and ramped up its revenue. Expected revenue will be more than $4 million in 2018, he forecasts.

Wilshire Benefits Group has roughly 260 group clients that are covered by 23 employees in six offices in southern Michigan. Most of the brokerage’s clients are based in Michigan but a few clients have employees nationwide.

“I’ve been in Detroit for 20 years pounding the pavement so I know quite a few people, but we really like that closely-held, midmarket business,” Sokol says. “I think we’ve got a lot of talent on our team to grow in that space.”

According to Christine Rapley, the administrative services manager for Wilshire Benefits Group who nominated Sokol for Adviser of the Year, he is an inspirational leader. “Through his vision as the sole owner, Dave has grown the business 200% from its beginnings,” she says.

Rapley adds that Sokol serves on the advisory board for United HealthCare, one of the brokerage’s largest benefit vendor partners, and under his leadership, Wilshire Benefits Group enjoys Premier and Platinum status with many of its benefit carriers, including BlueCross/BlueShield, the largest carrier partner in Michigan, according to Rapley.

“With his background in human resource management and payroll technology platforms, Dave has transformed our agency into a full-service benefits consulting platform for our clients, to provide holistic, best-in-class benefit solutions to our clientele,” she adds.

Sokol’s vision for Wilshire Benefits has inspired each of his staff members to join the Wilshire Benefits Team. He always reiterates that he works with us, and we don’t work for him, says Rapley.

“His greatest asset is always being open to new ideas and new technology. He constantly encourages the staff to continually seek out education, new ideas and technologies for our clients, and continually improve our knowledge so that we can better serve our clients,” she adds.

An evolution in benefits

For a 20-plus year veteran, Sokol has seen many changes in the employee benefits space. He notes that the broker’s role has evolved rapidly beyond being an expert in delivering insurance recommendations, which involves proficiency in the latest compliance and technology trends. “As a broker, you’re seeing this job’s just a lot harder today than it was 10 or 15 years ago. You have to do a lot more to retain clients today then you had to do in the past.”

Another example of change is Sokol and how his team consults with clients year round, not just in the fall during the traditional open enrollment season.

“We have built-in processes now that are based on client size. We use Gen 4 technology to drive our service model, and we have predetermined steps that begin as far as six months prior in order to actually walk employees through the renewal process,” he says.

That said, in the off season, it’s a year-round service model. “We talk to our clients throughout the year, not just as we’re approaching renewal or when we’re going through open enrollment,” he says. “We generally try to develop a service plan each year.”

Know all the options

As expected, technology plays a greater role than ever in Sokol’s practice. “Like many brokers, we have clients who hold on to manual, paper processes and booklets and forms. I learned after eight years of working for ADP that as a broker I don’t want to be a technology company. I don’t want to be a third-party administrator, but I have to know all the options available to my clients and be well-versed enough to guide them to the right platform that works for them.”

This will require more space and more brokers. Wilshire Benefits Group is completing another office expansion to give the brokerage room for nearly 40 advisers and support staff.

Despite all this change and the demands of employers and the increase in regulation, Sokol still loves his job.

“I get up every morning whatever time it is. Usually, it’s dark and my feet hit the floor and I can’t wait to get into the office,” he says, citing employee benefits ever-changing nature.

“I’m a lifelong learner. I get fired up by learning new things, and this industry doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the amount of new things you have to learn every day to be competitive.”

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