IN GOING FROM A SMALL FIRM to large employee benefit consultancy USI Insurance, Samuel B. Slade expects to use the larger firm’s resources to navigate the changing market due to federal health care reform.
A week ago, USI Insurance Services acquired Bluff Head Enterprises Inc., a benefit consulting and brokerage firm. As part of the transaction, Bluff Head President Samuel B. Slade joined USI as president of its employee benefits division.
Slade founded Bluff Head in 1992 after working as a consultant for Johnson & Higgins in Anchorage, Alaska, and Stamford, Conn., for five years. He believes he is the only health and welfare benefits broker or consultant located in Rhode Island to have achieved the Certified Employee Benefits Specialist designation.
PBN: You’ve gone from working at a small, independent firm to one of the nation’s largest insurance and business consulting agencies. What is the first thing you have noticed is different? And the second?
SLADE: It is only really Day 5, so I still have much to learn. But I would say that the first big difference I noticed is the scale of the operation; the number of employees, the number of clients, the number of prospects, the size of the office and the volume of everything is much larger than what we are used to. It is exciting and challenging keeping track of all the new names!
The second biggest difference I have noticed so far would be the back office resources which are obviously far superior to what we previously had available. I am thrilled to see the work that is being done by Mike Turpin and Rob Reers in our corporate employee benefits office. I have already met and spoken with many passionate and talented consultants in our local office as well as in our Woburn, Mass., and Meriden, Conn., offices. I am meeting later this week with our Consulting Group in Glastonbury, Conn., and look forward to meeting many of the other talented professionals that exist at USI all across the country in the coming weeks and months.
So the vast array of resources is probably the most important big difference for us and, more importantly, for our customers.
PBN: How will working with USI’s resources change how you approach your job?
SLADE: One of the big reasons we made the move was Federal health care reform. This is a sea change in our business and really requires far more sophisticated resources and financial models than what we were able to deliver or develop independently.
I believe that working with USI will change how we approach our job dramatically in terms of our ability to meet the challenges of health care reform for our customers. We also hope that it will open some prospect doors that may previously have been closed to us because of our size.
PBN: How has the employee benefits consulting business changed over the last five years? Do you see it changing even more over the next five?
SLADE: I probably shouldn’t admit to this, but I have been doing employee benefit consulting for 27 years now and federal health care reform is by far the biggest change I have ever seen in my career.
I wasn’t in the business when ERISA went into effect back in 1974, but I imagine it is somewhere similar to that on the Richter scale of change for our industry. It has been the predominant topic in our business during the last three or four years and is likely to easily be so during the next four or five years as well.
I think the big changes in the employee benefit consulting business have been, and will continue to be, driven by reform. The biggest change in our business that I have noticed so far is the roll up of smaller consulting and brokerage firms. In that regard I think our acquisition is indicative of the primary change that is occurring. If you are a small independent or represent a large local broker or consultant without national resources, it is going to be very difficult to develop the resources, technology and financial models that will be required to assist clients in evaluating and responding appropriately to reform.
PBN: Your previous company, Bluff Head Enterprises, and USI both specialize in middle-market businesses. Do you see a time when you might want to move into working with small businesses, who it would seem, need lots of help when it comes to employee benefits?
SLADE: The first point I would make, and this is very important, is that both Bluff Head and USI work with clients of all different sizes. We both have many small group clients that we represent today and care deeply about. We hope and expect to continue representing small groups going forward.
We also believe that we have the resources locally and nationally to serve the very largest employers in Rhode Island effectively and competitively.
So while we may be fairly described as targeting the middle market customer, that is by no means our exclusive market. I owned a small business for over 19 years, and I believe that I understand and appreciate the challenges that exist in that environment, including employee benefits.
The problem is that the marketplace for small group is very restrictive and rapidly getting worse. There is too much regulation and not enough competition. Many of the techniques and strategies that we deploy for our middle market and large group clients are not available to the small employer.
I am at a point in my career where I enjoy challenging myself in an environment where innovation and original thought can add value for our clients, where hard work, knowledge and experience make a difference.
So, from a personal perspective, the middle market and larger employers are the clients I hope to be working with the most.
I see my role as an advocate for the smaller employer being more strategic and less of a hands-on tactical nature. I hope to work with other USI offices to coordinate resources and programs to help smaller groups on both a policy level as well as a functional one.
PBN: Is the Rhode Island market for your business different than other New England states? If so, why, and if not, why not?
SLADE: I have clients in many different states, including every New England state as well as Ohio, New York and California.
Here in Rhode Island we have among the highest costs in the nation. Although I think this is starting to change, we have historically also had among the most generous levels of benefits and lowest employee contributions, which means the net cost to the sponsoring employer here in Rhode Island is substantially above national averages.
We currently have very little competition in our group medical marketplace. We have a Health Insurance Commissioner who doesn’t appear to believe in the competitive model as appropriate for the group health business, which suggests that we are likely to continue to see less competition than other states going forward.
Our exchange creation process here in Rhode Island seems to me to tilt the small group market further toward a highly structured environment with significant public expense, less choice for employers and more government direction. I don’t personally see this as creating efficiency gains for Rhode Island employers or taxpayers.
So I guess I would say that we are different than other New England states in that our local health care purchasing environment is fundamentally more challenging for the employers we seek to serve.