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Meet 4 leaders that are transforming the insurance industry

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Nominations for the National Underwriter Industry Elite Awards grow stronger each year. They are a who’s who of the best and brightest in the categories of market innovation, industry awareness, community outreach and best rising star. Our winners and honorable mentions this year stand out for their leadership, drive and brilliance that only the Industry Elites can offer. It was an especially difficult selection process, as each and every entry stood with great merit. But alas, only one can be chosen. With that, we present to you the 2015 National Underwriter Industry Elite Awards. 

View last year’s winners: The 2014 NUL Industry Elite Awards


Cheryl Robertson

President, The Corporation for Social Security Claiming Strategies

Returning to the workforce after taking 10 years off to focus on raising the first four of her five children, former labor and employment attorney Cheryl Robertson earned her insurance and securities licenses to become a financial services professional and partner at Commonwealth Financial, a MassMutual general agency located in Boston.

Immersing herself in that realm and working almost exclusively with current and prospective retirees, she quickly realized that the vast majority of those with whom she met lacked the proper information, advice and resources for one of the most critical issues regarding their financial future: when and how to claim their Social Security retirement benefits.

Once Cheryl learned nearly 10,000 baby boomers were retiring each and every day — all of whom could benefit greatly by working with advisors that possessed Social Security retirement benefits expertise — she embarked on the course to create that which was to become the Corporation for Social Security Claiming Strategies (CSSCS).

Cheryl’s company is an outgrowth of the cottage marketing industry that has sprung up in recent years thanks to the new filing strategies made available as part of the Senior Citizens Freedom to Work Act, passed into law in 2001. In 2015, CSSCS engineered itself to provide financial professionals with the expertise needed to help the boomer generation plot the course to a better retirement.

The only comprehensive retirement training organization in the financial services industry focused exclusively on educating professionals on the nuances of Social Security retirement planning, the organization creates and provides a training course on Social Security retirement benefits and claiming strategies and provides advisors with the opportunity to sit for a comprehensive exam that, if completed successfully, will provide them with the Certified in Social Security Claiming Strategies designation. 

“Her course teaches advisors to help their clients avoid the devastating consequences of making poor decisions about, quite possibly, their greatest retirement asset: Social Security,” said Andrew Wood, Director of Marketing at the Social Security Optimization Network. 


Caplan played a leading role in creating Jefferson National’s Monument Advisor, the first flat-fee, no-load Investment-Only Variable Annuity (IOVA) — unique for its low cost, the largest selection of funds, and proprietary portfolio management and trading technology. Designed for sophisticated investing and holistic wealth management, the IOVA supports new approaches to asset location, legacy planning, volatility management and retirement income — helping advisors create more tax-alpha and helping their clients build more wealth.

Image credit: Shawn G. Henry Photography


Jerald L. Tillman

Owner and founder, National African American Insurance Association

Jerald L. Tillman is Founder of the National African American Insurance Association (NAAIA). In an effort to give back to the industry and increase the numbers of minorities within it, he created NAAIA in 1997. Professional development is also a high-priority goal of this association, which has expanded to 14 chapters throughout the United States. NAAIA has collaborated with many industry associations and corporations over its 18-year history on providing forums for recruiting talent, professional development and networking opportunities.

Through the NAAIA, Tillman was driven to educate others — especially youth — on the many career opportunities there are within the insurance industry. The NAAIA JL Tillman Scholarship Fund was created to promote higher educational opportunities for students interested in careers in insurance.

Tillman also set out to build and sustain strong careers by being a support group for African American professionals and business owners in the insurance business who go on to become visible role models and success models in the communities in which they live. Tillman continues to build NAAIA chapters in multiples cities (currently in 13 cities) throughout the United States to focus on education and careers, and also to organize annual local community service projects.

But of all his accomplishments, he is most proud of this effort to give back to the industry. Tillman noted it was not just him but a unified “team” of people made up of all races, creeds and religions that came together over the last 20 years for this unique cause.

“Jerald is a visionary,” said Margaret N. Redd, NAAIA national executive director. “His recognition of the need, the possibilities and the intrinsic value of NAAIA in the early years of his career led to the formation of this country’s largest organization dedicated to expanding business and career growth for African American insurance professionals. He is a committed professional, humble in spirit and fearless in his efforts to drive meaningful change — in and out of the industry.”


Pokorski has made more than 600 presentations to audiences worldwide on the topic of possible health issues and their related expenses that individuals need to consider in retirement. He is an expert on longevity and works to raise the awareness of issues surrounding health costs in retirement and ensuring these conversations take place when advisors meet with their clients. 

Image credit: Jonathan Robert Willis Photography


Paul Blanco

Managing Director, Barnum Financial Group

Paul Blanco, LUTCF, is the managing director of the Barnum Financial Group, a Connecticut-based office of MetLife and a member of the MetLife Premier Client Group. Barnum has been named the insurer’s Firm of the Year seven times, with Paul guiding it from a 10-person organization in the early 1990s to one with more than 500 employees today, with offices in six states.

But Blanco serves more than his clients and his business. A prominent philanthropist in his community, his ultimate dream is for 100 percent of his employees to give back to the community in some way. Barnum employees volunteer in support of “Bikes for Kids,” running events that donate hundreds of new bikes and helmets annually to underprivileged children in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Through the “Backpacks for Kids” program, another passion of Blanco and his employees, more than 75 disadvantaged children are provided with school supplies and clothing each year. Blanco and his team have volunteered with KaBoom! to sponsor and construct four playgrounds in Connecticut. He also established an annual “What the American Dream Means to Me” essay contest, which offers talented children the opportunity to earn college scholarships.

Blanco was named Philanthropist of the Year in 2007 by the Fairfield County Remodelers and Home Building Association; his firm was awarded “Best Place to Work in Connecticut” by the Hartford Business Journal in 2006, 2009, 2010 and 2011, and by Fairfield County Business Journal in 2012. Barnum Financial Group also won “Best Place to Work in Rhode Island” by Providence Business News in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. Blanco himself has received the Greater Valley Chamber of Commerce Business Growth of the Year award, the Westchester County Chabad Lubavitch Corporate Leadership Award and the Valley United Way Community Impact Award.

Blanco’s passion for sports and youth in the community inspired him to support a local football camp, little league team, adult softball team, Junior Achievement and the “Make a Difference Day” campaign, the nation’s largest day of volunteerism.

As if that wasn’t enough, in 2006, Blanco and his wife Mindee started Foundation for Life, Inc., a 501(c)(3) organization established as a vehicle through which Barnum volunteers can provide financial support to charities throughout their communities. Since its inception, Foundation for Life has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support many local charities.

“Paul’s original goal for the Foundation — to improve the lives of people in communities we serve — has been kept very much alive by his enthusiasm and ongoing commitment to that ideal,” said Joseph D. LoPresti, president of Foundation for Life. “His dedication to the work of the Foundation is demonstrated continually, and he inspires others in the organization to give their best efforts, too.”  

HONORABLE MENTION: Joseph S. Little, Sr., managing partner, Bala Financial Group

Little has been founding member of the Baltimore Life Underwriters Association’s charitable foundation and the Phoenixville Community Education Foundation, where he helped raise more than $1.5 million over six years for those in need.

Image credit: Natalie Brasington Photography


Jonathan Tallman

Financial Advisor/CEO, The Tallman Group, LLC

Tallman, a 27-year-old industry professional from Florida, excelled from a young age. He graduated high school a semester early and received his associate degree from Northwest Florida State College simultaneously. Upon graduation, Jonathan attended Flagler College, where he began his career in financial services with an internship with Northwestern Mutual.

At age 20, Jonathan graduated with a bachelor’s degree. After graduation he was given the opportunity to work with Northwestern Mutual in the company’s Fort Walton Beach office. In 2011, he left Northwestern Mutual to start The Tallman Group, LLC a financial services company that focuses on finding the best financial solutions for client needs, specializing in life insurance, disability insurance, long-term care insurance, and investing for retirement and the educational needs of children.

Tallman says he looked at 2008 as an opportunity. He thought other advisors and insurance agents were probably not following up like they should and that client/advisor relationships had much room for improvement. Knowing that referrals were the best way to get business, he figured if he became involved in the community at the chamber of commerce, the rotary club, volunteering at church, mentoring at the local high school that his business would grow.

“I really look at it as I am just here to help people out,” Tallman said. “I believe that the income will come, but the first thing I want to do is help people.”

He is involved in many organizations including a board member of the Niceville-Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce and the Niceville-Valparaiso Rotary Club. Tallman has also made it a priority to stay involved at his alma mater, where he serves on the college foundation’s alumni committee. He also currently serves as the chairman of the School Advisory Council for the Collegiate High School in his community.

Tallman has coached youth basketball at Niceville United Methodist Church, where he served as an administrative board member. In 2010, he was invited to join the 96th Air Base Wing and became a Security Forces Honorary Commander. He also serves on the board of Friends of Children Everywhere, an American non-profit that supports a Guatemalan orphanage, one that Tallman travels and serves at two to three times each year. In 2013, he was appointed by the Okaloosa County Commissioners to the RESTORE Act Committee. He has also been named a “Hot 100” by Insurance Business America and a “40 under 40” by Emerald Coast and 850 magazine. And just this year he received his Certificate in Financial Planning from Florida State University.

“Jonathan is active in all aspects of the community: chamber board, church board, local government and a County Committee for the BP oil spill funds, and is the brightest, youngest leader I have ever known,” said Christopher E. Schwantz, associate agent at Employee Benefit Solutions.


As an advocate for holistic planning, Smith is regularly sourced in industry and national media and speaks at many industry events, including Top of the Table and Ed Slott’s Elite IRA Advisor Group workshops. Recognized in January as an Emerging Leader and Legend at Forum 400, Smith will be featured on public television in 2015 for moving the industry towards providing fully holistic services for the benefit of all clients.

Image credit: Holly Gardner Photography