In the high-stakes business of employee benefits, companies need to know their benefits package won’t sink the ship. That means not only do the benefits offered need to protect the all-important staffer, but it also needs to be affordable for the business. Stepping in to help South Carolina’s finest companies is Clarke & Company Benefits LLC. Originally started as a one-man show by Norman Clarke from the living room of his home, Clarke & Company has grown to provide benefits to over 165 clients across the state.
“I officially opened for business in January of ’98, and started beating the phones,” says Clarke. “I started out with no clients, a computer, fax machine, and four walls.”
Clarke & Co. has expanded every year since its inception. Clarke says the company tries to set its internal growth rate in the double digits every year.
“We have gotten a lot bigger, so it’s harder to maintain that type of growth (percentage wise). There were some years we grew (over) 40 percent,” says Clarke. “In 2009, it was a difficult year. Our groups shed a lot of employees (nearly 10 percent) and our revenues are based on membership.”
Although economic times were tough, Clarke says the company still grew in 2009, however it was in the low single digits.
“I feel that was an accomplishment in a tough environment,” he says. “Our profits didn’t grow, but we made some investments that we really needed to do in order to continue to grow our business.”
In its first year, Clarke & Co. grossed $13,000, according to Clarke. His first client was a used car dealer, which continues to be a client of the company. Clarke says that it took the company about four years for it to become profitable. He moved into a traditional office with another insurance salesman and hired his first staffer. Clarke knew he needed an account manager to provide the quality of customer service that is a trademark of the company today. The company now employs eight full-time team members, including Clarke, four sales representatives and three account managers. Clarke says the key to the company’s success is its staff.
“Everyone here has been involved in the insurance industry most of their career. Two or our staff members have over 15 years combined experience with a major health insurance company,” says Clarke. “This experience gives us a better understanding of the underwriting process that all of our clients must undergo.”
Prior to joining the agency, one Clarke & Co. staff member was a representative with a pharmacy benefit manager.
“This experience gives Clarke & Co. a unique insight into self-funded plans, in that drug costs constitute between 15 percent and 25 percent of a company’s health claim’s dollars,” says Clarke. “Also, each staff member is a licensed insurance agent in the state of South Carolina.”
Today, with offices in Greenville and Columbia, the company grosses between $1 and $2 million in sales and that number continues to rise. Clarke says that the company plans to return to double-digit growth this year.
“We have a great agency and a great team here, but we still don’t feel we are where we really want to be,” Clarke says. “We are getting better everyday. I think if you get to that point where you think you are successful, you lose the edge to continue moving on. We aren’t standing on our laurels; we have a lot to accomplish in 2010.”
Offering superior services
Clarke & Co. represents a diverse group of clients ranging from law firms and physician offices to manufacturing companies and county governments. The company provides both group and individual benefit packages. Its group coverage includes health, dental, vision, life, and disability to employers with two or more full-time employees.
“Our goal is to develop and implement group plans that meet the needs of employers and employees alike. In order to do this, we take into account contribution levels, plan design variables, participation requirements, class issues, cafeteria plan availability, and premium costs,” says Clarke. “We are the intermediary between the employer and the carrier.”
Clarke says today’s benefits company is much different than 20 years ago, where a company’s main responsibility was quoting the benefits package cost. Now, a company must bring a value to the client, not just an insurance package.
“We supply, to some clients, the backbone of their HR. We have a lot of Web tools, providing communication materials, and we do a lot of advising. We talk with management about the best way to manage their plans, taxation and its costs. Anybody who goes in to sell a client and doesn’t know the client’s tax structure and how it’s incorporated can’t do their job because we have to place the benefit package to where it is most-advantageous to the owner and the employee,” says Clarke. “Now, quoting is important and getting them the best plans at the best rates (which are about value, not necessarily the cheapest) are key, but the value you bring over and above selling the policy is most important”
Clarke & Co. also offers individual plans, including health, life, dental, long-term care, and disability. Clarke says these plans are an affordable and viable solution whether a client is on their own or have a family.
“Individual plans are an important part of a lot of people’s lives and we give the same amount of attention and care to our individual plan clients as we do our groups,” says Clarke. “While we help companies try to control costs and offer the product with the best value, we provide that same service to individuals.”
Clarke says that whether it’s a group or individual plan, the only way to be successful with a benefits package, long term, is to bend the cost curve.
“In a company, it’s about managing your employee population (the same as) you manage any other expense item,” says Clarke. “If we don’t make our employees healthier, our costs are going to increase faster than what the trend is. If we can try to get our hands around helping employees lead a healthier lifestyle, we can actually begin to bend that cost curve so that prices don’t go sky high.”
Making a strong approach
Joining Clarke & Co. begins with meeting a prospective client and establishing their needs, the company can then design plans to specifically meet an individual client’s requirements. The company works with an average of five medical carriers, which are all top-tier companies. On the ancillary side, which includes plans for vision, life and dental, Clarke & Co. works with 10 to 12 providers.
Clarke says that not only must Clarke & Co. offer quality services, but the service after the sale is the most-important key to maintaining its 98 percent client retention rate.
“Our dedicated account managers are all licensed insurance agents, so their knowledge doesn’t just include servicing clients. They are well versed in the corporate strategies that we are providing,” says Clarke. “Account management staff can serve as an extension of a company’s human resource department and they are available to clients in our office or at their worksite for service calls and employee meetings.”
Clarke & Co. provides its clients with many value added services at no cost, other than required Dept. of Insurance charges for certain services. These services include Cobra compliance software to aid in administering the federal law, a benefit menu’s to aid in employee communication, and employee benefit statements that show the value of the benefits a company is providing employees.
An example of service is the company’s Lunch and Learn program. This program is where Clarke & Co. representatives bring in a company (or go onsite) and provide lunch while addressing a specific topic of concern to employees. Starting this year, Clarke & Co. is implementing six different health & wellness topics for its Lunch and Learn onsite program.
“We will probably start mid-summer,” says Clarke. “It’s something we are very excited about.”
Technology is also a focus for Clarke & Co. The company prides itself on having various Web sites for both employee and employer to help them most-effectively address the needs of both. The company will also place a kiosk onsite of a company if employees don’t have immediate access to a computer or the Internet.
Clarke says if it was one item he had to say helped Clarke & Co. stand out from its competition, he would say “value.”
“Everyday, we bring value to our clients so at the end of the year they can look back and see what part of their premium went to pay us, and they can feel they got value for that,” says Clarke. “It’s a combination of that and bringing our clients more options to help their business. We want their businesses to succeed. If their business wins, we all win.”
Hoping for a ‘healthy’ future
Moving into the future, Clarke & Co. hopes to add another full-time employee during the summer. Clarke says the company is looking to focus more on the wellness side of healthcare and working with clients to implement new wellness programs (which would help to add value and lower costs).
“In the next five years, the challenge is what happens in Washington (with healthcare legislation) and how we adapt to that. It’s going to be about how we structure our business to continue to prosper and grow under a new environment,” says Clarke. “We have to work hard and develop new clients. We give clients more attention than a big firm, but provide the same services.”
For example, you’ll never have a machine answering the phone at Clarke & Co., according to Clarke. He says that a lot of people call because they have a problem with their benefits or services they have been provided, possibly a doctor’s bill that seems way too high. The last thing they want is to get frustrated with a phone system, he says.
“They want to talk to somebody that is going to calm them down and tell them we are going to work to help fix the situation, which we will,” he says. “Everyone in the office has access to the information to answer questions for clients.”
Clarke says he promotes an open air of communication between his team members because it makes for a better working environment for the employee and more productive for the company.
“We want ideas from everybody. My door is never closed. We have a lot of communication because if we don’t give and take, we won’t succeed,’ says Clarke. “It is important to all of us to not only grow the business, but grow it in the right way.”
Washington is trying to change how healthcare is provided to Americans. Whether or not any plans coming from the Capital will benefit employers and employees is up for debate. But no matter the outcome, Clarke & Co. says it’s prepared to advise clients on their options.
“No matter what happens in Washington, our clients are going to have to change and we are going to have to change. First off, costs are going to be costs and claims are going to be claims,” says Clarke. “Nobody is going to take your group and insure you for less then what your claims are. They couldn’t make any money under any type of legislation. What I think is going to happen is employers are going to have to manage their plans even more effectively, because any time the federal government gets involved there is going to be more rules.”
Clarke says he’s fine with that, because Clarke & Co. excels in navigating those rough government waters.
“We are going to be focused on navigating whatever system comes out. Navigating not only efficiently, but bringing the most resources to help companies find their way,” he says. “In 2009, new Cobra laws came out with the stimulus bill. We actually picked up a few clients because we held four seminars on the changes and a lot our competition didn’t.”
Clarke & Co. also sends out legislative briefs to address new and changing laws. The No. 1 challenge companies will face in 2010 concerning healthcare benefits will be cost, according to Clarke. He says it’s back to employers asking themselves, “Am I getting the best deal for what I am providing for my employees?”
“It’s not about being the cheapest, it’s about a company getting the most value, getting the best plan for the best price,” he says. “We need to provide companies with different options for different employees. Everyone doesn’t fit in the same box. Giving people what they need is a more effective way of providing benefits.”