I sit down with four of them at some pretty plush surroundings at the top of the Mandarin Hotel in Las Vegas, near the southern end of the Strip. It’s quiet by Vegas standards, probably because it’s still light outside and this is a place built for night.
At any rate, you’d never know to look at them that this is little more than the masterminds behind an insurgent group, ready to overthrow the status quo, whether it’s at a trade association annual meeting or in the conference rooms on the front lines of the business.
I start with a round of drinks and a single question: What are you doing?
It started with the National Association of Health Underwriters’ Young Agent Committee — one of a dozen or so leadership committees charged with various tasks within the larger organization.
It started with Rebecca Purdy, a former broker who’s now Humana’s small group commercial sales rep for Nevada. A former NAHU president approached Purdy about taking over the committee in a bid to jump-start its sagging — if not stagnant — membership.
“The need for [the] Vanguard Council stems back to a place where people who have their whole careers in front of them (or a good portion left anyway) and are looking for something to plug into,” Purdy says. “Something they want to be a part of.”
She immediately enlisted Chad Schneider, broker market director, broker sales at Aflac. And they both agreed they wanted more than just the same old committee in the same old organization.
“Basically we wanted to really revamp and reinvent the entire Young Agent Committee,” Schneider explains. “And get rid of the stigma that ‘it’s gotta be under 40, it’s gotta be first five years in the industry and’ … really, for lack of a better term, making insurance sexy.”
Purdy drew inspiration from her own backyard: Las Vegas.
“There’s a big need to do things differently than they’re being done,” Purdy insists. “There’s an opportunity to change the whole scope of the industry. What’s it gonna take to separate today’s broker from tomorrow’s broker? And it didn’t look the same. It wasn’t the guy with the business suit and the briefcase going into a meeting with a PowerPoint presentation. It needed to be more dynamic. It needed to be more ‘now.’ And what is ‘now?’ In my opinion, Vegas is a great example of what is ‘now.’ It’s current. It’s trendy. Maybe that’s a little hard for people in other parts of the country to see.”
The pair soon turned to BenefitVault’s Scott Mardis, who’s long lamented what he sees as a largely stagnant broker base sitting still in the face of unprecedented change in the industry.
“It’s not a knock on brokers,” Mardis quickly points out, “but they’re doing things the same way they’ve done them 10, 15, 20 years ago: spreadsheeting carriers, throwing down broker record letters and grasping onto group coverage because it’s the way they’ve always done things.
“So we went about trying to put together a council of thought leaders that brought into play new voluntary ancillary solutions, health solutions and new payment solutions,” Mardis adds. “We tried to create a community [where] we could bring those best practices in to play and be able to show not only what people are doing in the industry that’s innovative but show that next generation of broker what they’re gonna need to accomplish in order to succeed in this industry. And that’s a lot of what the Vanguard Council represents to me.”
For Sean Loving, vice president of customer engagement at Careington International, it went beyond serving young or rookie broker needs and extended to consumer outreach, as well.
“A lot of things are moving to the individual market and the big population of uninsured people is the younger generation,” Loving says. “And just think they need someone to relate to. And I think we can be that connectivity to get that uninsured population reduced so they have somebody who understands them and understands what’s going on.”
That being said, the group wanted the Vanguard Council to represent more than just young agents — in both reality and perception — and that was a driving force behind the rebrand. It was important for the group to both embrace a new way of doing business, while offering a more inclusive environment.
“I don’t want to lose some of the amazingness of some of these members who will retire in the next couple of years. This is not about age. It’s not about how long you’ve been in the business. We want to capture all the greatness and be an incubator for innovation. All the great ideas,” Schneider explains.
“It’s a forum, right? This is not a place to complain about PPACA. There’s plenty of forums for that. It’s not a forum for ‘the sky is falling’ or ‘membership is doing this’ or ‘this local chapter is doing that.’ If you aren’t thinking about positive, forward-thinking, game-changing, innovative ideas, we’re gonna boot you from the group.”
“It’s solutions,” Purdy emphasizes.
“We’re gonna run past you,” Mardis adds. “We’re solutions providers now.”
Solutions, not support groups
It’s that lack of patience with both traditional ways of doing business and nihilistic attitudes about the market that drives this group forward. And their ambition certainly doesn’t end at their own doorstop. They’ve transformed their committee in less than a year. And they make no bones about wanting that transformation to spread like a virus throughout all of NAHU.
And the rest of the benefits business is next. And make no mistake, that ambition is driven by simple survival instinct, stirred up by a business in turmoil, which — in their words — “is gonna make this simple group broker and this industry disappear.”
So, as always, it seems as if half the problem is still awareness.
“Some people still think it will all shake out and it will be just fine,” Purdy says, shaking her head. “Some people really haven’t really understood the gravity of what has happened.”
And while uncertainty from the both the federal and state levels haven’t helped matters over the last few years, this is a group of people who are adamant brokers haven’t been proactive enough.
“We’ve witnessed three years of ‘wait and see,’” Mardis complains, agitated now. “If you listened to a lot of brokers three years ago, they simply said to all of their groups once PPACA passed, ‘Everybody, don’t move. [It] will never survive the Supreme Court.’ And so they simply told the groups not make any changes. They waited for the Supreme Court ruling to come out, it was approved, said it could be a tax, and they ‘All right, but nobody move because Obama will never get reelected.’ And so they made sure that there were no new changes. They didn’t implement voluntary, they didn’t do ancillary lines or anything else. They didn’t even change the group policy. Obama gets reelected and they say ‘Wait, don’t move because it’s actually not gonna work. I’ll tell you what, we’re gonna renew you [Dec. 1] and kick this can down the road for another year in hopes this can do it.” And now there’s a threat out there that says that federally-based exchange subsidies aren’t legal and, believe me, there are enough brokers out there who will go out to their accounts right now and say ‘Nobody move because the subsidies could disappear.’ And the problem is they’re simply worried about losing their group commissions.
“But the fact is nothing has changed,” he concludes. “It’s been law for more than three years and there are brokers out there right now driving significant revenue by doing things differently.”
A broker degree?
Another thing that has changed is the increased expectation of education and training. As Purdy points out, the days of the accidental broker are numbered.