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Diversified mix

Family-operated brokerage offers benefits services to direct clients & supports wholesale and general agency areas as well

ByLen Strazewski

A few pieces of the puzzle won't always reveal the big picture, but at Bollinger, Inc., in Short Hills, New Jersey, employee benefits is a big and growing portion of the business of the nation's 17th largest insurance brokerage.

And the firm's diverse package of benefits services that include retail and wholesale benefits sales and administration as well as underwriting management are critical components of the 21st century mosaic of risk management and business consulting services, says Chip Graber, managing director of employee benefits services.

"Our overall objective is to become a leader in the employee benefits arena, and to bring together the various components of employee benefits in such ways as to not only help our retail clients but also support our work in the wholesale and general agency areas of benefits sales and management," he explains.

Graber, who was named managing director of the benefits division this past December, says Bollinger not only has improved its value proposition for its retail clients, but also has expanded the roles played by its wholesale and benefit programs operations.

Synergistically, each of the areas of service contributes to the firm's capabilities and helps differentiate the firm from the larger brokerage giants and the smaller independent agencies.

"We position ourselves to be large enough to provide the broad range of services that employers require and yet small enough to pay attention and provide the personal service that larger firms cannot," he says. "Surprisingly, after all of our growth, Bollinger is still a family-operated business with all of the relationships and trust that usually implies."

Founded in 1933 in Newark, New Jersey, Bollinger has about 500 employees about 30% of whom work in the benefits divisions. However, benefits account for about 40% of total revenues, reflecting the high productivity of the division, Graber says. Last year, Business Insurance magazine rated the company as the nation's seventh most productive insurance brokerage, reporting more than $1 billion in total premium volume.

The firm has more than 77,000 customers, including individuals and businesses that range in size from two to several thousand employees served by nine branch offices.

Bollinger has grown rapidly in recent years through acquisitions of small agencies that have valuable business and expertise, but lack the size and diversification of services required by larger customers, Graber says. The company acquired 10 agencies in the past two years, strategically assembling a wide range of experience and backgrounds "that would bring together different perspectives" on an increasingly complex business, he says.

David Benoit, vice president of client services in the retail employee benefits practice, says corporate and institutional clients are seeking much more than traditional brokerage placement of group medical coverage. They are driving the need for more sophisticated resources and services.

Bollinger provides all of the employee benefits basics, including group medical insurance, long- and short-term disability, life, dental and vision care insurance, but focuses on the strategy that includes but is not limited to insurance. Leading health plans in the region include Horizon Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Aetna, United Healthcare, AmeriHealth and Cigna.

"But clients are looking to get more and broader value for their money—and value that aligns specifically with their business strategy," he explains. "Clients are worried about costs, of course, but they are also concerned about managing their business in a time of great change."

Benoit says clients have concerns and questions about their legal responsibilities under state and federal regulation and their obligations under health care reform.

"They are very well-informed about the new laws but have questions about how to deal with the issues that have been created regarding accountable care organizations, insurance exchanges and patient-centered medical homes. It is our duty to explain these concepts and the potential impact on their organizations," he says.

For clients with 50 or more employees, Bollinger also assists with analyzing multiple funding arrangements that include full or partial self-funding, a strategy that allows employers to better track the impact of claims on total costs and influence cost trends with health and administrative interventions.

Bollinger benefit consultants meet with clients regularly, conducting executive briefings every three to six months to identify challenges and opportunities and important trends. Each meeting builds on five to six "to-dos" to provide action-oriented guidance, Benoit says.

The Bollinger team also provides guidance and support for a wide range of value-added services, including wellness programs provided by insurance carriers or independent vendors and administrative services provided by third-party administrators aligned with Bollinger.

The retail division has about 50 employees, including 10 producers, 10 account managers and 10 customer service representatives, in addition to three team leaders.

Bollinger also enhanced its consulting services earlier this year when it acquired Absolute Resources Solutions, a benefits firm that specialized in custom benefits solutions for public and private companies. Marketing as BollingerHR, the human resources consulting segment of the employee benefits division provides plan design and compliance consulting, payroll and human resource department outsourcing.

In 2010, Bollinger acquired John J. Slattery, Inc., in Wall, New Jersey, an employee benefits wholesaler whose business complemented Bollinger's existing general agency operation. Senior Vice President Desmond X. Slattery manages the combined general agency operations that specialize in supporting small independent agents and brokers with group benefit plans and individual health insurance programs.

Slattery says the wholesale benefits programs are also synergistic, supporting small to medium-sized independent agents and brokers who require access to a wider range of benefit plans and services, but also Bollinger retail benefits producers who may need special programs and services as part of a comprehensive client strategy.

About 70% of the wholesale division's revenues are derived from about 1,600 brokers in New Jersey, New York and parts of Pennsylvania and Connecticut that generally represent small employers with two to 50 employees, Slattery says. The GA operation has about 35 employees.

The wholesale area, that markets as the "SlatteryGA," provides a portal that allows online access to a broad range of tools and resources for brokers, including Horizon and AmeriHealth small business programs, the HealthConnect rating system, and a client management system.

The final piece of the Bollinger employee benefits puzzle is the benefits programs area, adds Kevin Sullivan, vice president and senior underwriter.

Bollinger underwrites four products for Monumental/Transamerica Insurance Co.: college student medical insurance; college and K-12 student accident insurance and school athletic programs; prescription drug card programs; and group dental insurance.

The college medical program typically provides coverage up to a $100,000 limit and is required by colleges and universities for students who are not covered by parents' group health plans or other individual coverage. Bollinger medical programs have been implemented by more than 180 colleges and universities. The student accident program is marketed to school districts and local boards of education primarily for student athletes and participants in inter-school athletic programs.

The Benefit Program area also markets prescription drug card and group dental insurance programs for government and nonprofit employers.

Sullivan says the programs provide product marketing opportunities for Bollinger producers and support for the benefit brokers and consultants served by the Bollinger wholesale sales division and have been a long-standing revenue generator with very stable markets.

However, the medical programs may undergo a dramatic change with health care reform legislation that could change the plan designs as well as the division's ability to promote to its traditional markets.

Sullivan notes that the college medical program will soon become subject to the minimum loss ratio requirement under health reform and gradual increases in group medical limits. By the end of the year, colleges will be required to provide student medical coverage with limits of up to $500,000 and by 2014, the coverage will be unlimited, the same standard applied to group medical insurance.

The result, he says, could be extreme sticker shock for the students and the educational institutions that mandate the coverage. Premiums could jump from an average of $100 per year to as high as $1,500 as the federal requirements mandate more complicated and richer product designs.

Graber says all of the employee benefits puzzle pieces contribute to Bollinger's ability to differentiate itself in an increasingly competitive marketplace and build diverse relationships in the employee benefits industry.

Among the three areas, Bollinger services employers, brokers and insurers, he notes. "Not only are we providing value to a wide range of employers through our various relationships, we are assisting some of our insurance carrier partners with managing their administration, marketing and underwriting."

The diversified mix also provides for powerful internal cross-selling, he says. Employee benefits and property/casualty insurance producers usually meet with clients as a team and address their risks in a consolidated and strategic manner, bringing to the relationship solutions that cut across product and services lines.

The author

Len Strazewski is a Chicago-based writer, editor and educator specializing in marketing, management and technology topics. In addition to contributing to Rough Notes, he has written on insurance for Business Insurance, Risk & Insurance, the Chicago Tribune and Human Resource Executive, among other publications.


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