Sometimes the path one takes isn’t the one that leads to the future. For Chris Feneli, the path he took into an engineering career took a sharp turn — right into an insurance career.
A surprising outcome for Feneli, senior director at NFP in New York City. But it’s one that Feneli says is the best fit for his personality. Perhaps more surprising was his own revelation about engineering. “I got an engineering degree and decided I wanted nothing to do with being an engineer for the rest of my life.”
Not that he hadn’t had opportunity — Feneli says he was provided a number of summer internships, and he was intrigued by the idea of creating solutions and efficiencies. Yet it was during one of those internships that he realized the job wasn’t a great fit. He envisioned days in the field interacting with people and examining issues and seeing how things were built.
Instead, he says that for every day in the field, “it felt like there was a week back in the office behind a computer screen, working through numbers and programs and design and analysis. With my personality, I needed more of that personal interaction. It opened my eyes.”
So in 2005, he followed friends and family into the insurance business. He says his story is fairly typical of those who are in the business. “Very few people plan to be here.”
He started working for a large company in their wholesale division, which he says helped his career get off the ground. “Starting on the wholesale side was a great way to learn the business,” says Feneli. “It was a big company with a robust training program, and it allowed me to jump in and get my feet wet.”
In that position, Feneli would call on clients regularly. In one case, the connection turned into another career-changing moment. “One of the firms I called on was young guys who had a growing, successful (insurance consulting) business, and we hit it off. I liked the idea of partnering with them, but seeing the more well-rounded picture of what our clients are facing versus just having a small sampling of products that I was responsible for talking about.”
So in 2008, Feneli moved to consulting. It’s been a good move — today, Feneli is a senior director, overseeing account teams in the state of New York that are responsible for $50 million in revenue. It’s a place the 34-year-old didn’t expect to be, particularly given his earlier career aspirations and shift in direction. “I’ve always thought I was fairly intelligent and able to identify opportunities and take advantage of them,” but Feneli says even so, he’s surprised at how far he’s come in such a short time.
He speaks of that accomplishment with awe — when he has time. “I work for one of the five largest consulting firms in the country when it comes to employee benefits. Being in charge of all of our account teams in the state of New York is certainly something that, when there’s a little time to reflect, I think in a fairly short period of time, I’m in a position where I have quite a bit of authority and responsibility. That’s not something I take lightly, and it’s something I hope is a reflection of the hard work, energy and passion I put into the business.”
Not that his industrial engineering degree isn’t being used. Feneli says the things he learned while studying engineering can be applied to insurance. “There’s a huge financial component. Engineering has quite a bit of math and science foundation, and that’s been beneficial in how we look at things and analyze them, and how we help clients with budgeting and forecasting and understanding their economic challenges.”
Another benefit — engineering focuses on finding efficiencies. Whether it’s helping a client be more efficient or a team be more efficient, Feneli says he is always trying to identify those areas that can be improved and capitalized on. “We’re not taking away from what we’re doing, but we’re capitalizing on the repetition in our business or the similarities between teams between personnel between clients, and finding ways to become more efficient as an organization.”
A new wave of challenges
Part of finding efficiency includes finding ways to navigate the ever-changing regulatory environment. When Feneli started in the business, health care reform hadn’t been part of the landscape. Yet the regulatory compliance was becoming a focus. Today, he says regulation has moved to the forefront of every client interaction. ”A good chunk of my team’s time is spent now making sure clients are educated and have the right solutions when it comes to their requirements from a filing perspective” a much different atmosphere than it was five or six years ago, he says.
That regulation, he says, is a rather large challenge for agents, particularly during this election cycle with the emphasis on health care. Yet Feneli says the job will always have this type of challenge. “There’s always going to be the need to adapt and be open to change,” he adds.
In fact, he says that the very thing that caused market upheaval — the national health care law — has helped agents create real value for their clients. “Clients were scared and wanted answers. They were willing to disrupt long partnerships and relationships if they felt like [other] people were fully educated on and proactive with providing solutions to them.”
Feneli also sees challenges within the office itself. Three out of four employees in his office, he says, are millennials. “It’s not just adapting when it comes to the regulations in our business, but I think being able to attract the right people, keep them engaged in our business, show them opportunity” is another challenge, he says.
It’s actually an opportunity, he says. “We’re ripe for a new generation to come in and stir things up a bit, and we’re starting to see some of that.”
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