How a voluntary employee benefit plan could help your company contain costs

Voluntary benefit plans help employers round out their employee benefit offerings amid cutbacks in company-paid core health care, allowing employers to provide employees with additional benefits without bearing the weight of increasing cost pressures. These optional benefits can serve as value-added tools to help attract and retain top talent. Employees often pay 100 percent of the premium on these voluntary benefits through payroll deduction or directly to the insurance company by check or credit card.

“A lot of these benefits can be offered to family and friends as well,” says David Jeranko, a partner with Millennium Corporate Solutions. “It’s up to the employee; it’s their money. It’s not costing the employer anything.”

Smart Business spoke with Jeranko about how these programs can benefit businesses.

How can companies determine if adding a voluntary benefit program is the right choice for them?

They have to look at the true cost of running a company. Adding a voluntary benefit program can help offset those costs for them.

More and more companies are looking to ways to cut costs in the health insurance portion of their overhead. It is an extremely costly expense. Often, what these companies are doing is passing those costs on to their employees.

As an example, our voluntary benefit program will help reduce that cost to employees because of its unique premium rebate system. So if employers decide to lower their cost of mandatory benefits by passing some of that cost on to their employees, the employees can then offset those costs by participating in our auto and home insurance programs, which are included in our voluntary benefit program.

What should companies look for in a voluntary benefit program?

Most agencies offer the standard voluntary benefits, like long-term care, cancer care, dental, vision and those types of policies. But what is unique about our voluntary benefit program is we also offer personal auto, renters’, homeowners’ and motorcycle insurance. Then, we shop with more than 20 different companies to find the best coverage and rates for the client. Clients save nearly $500 per household, on average, for those policies.

After that, our unique premium rebate system takes over. Five percent of the premium is refunded back to the employee. The same program is offered to the employee’s family and friends.

What is the benefit of having several policies within the same voluntary benefit package?

The benefit is working with an agency that has a relationship with more than 20 different companies. The agency can shop your coverage all at one time, so you don’t have to call 20 different companies and get 20 different quotes. And after we find the best rate and coverage for you, we rebate you 5 percent of the annual premium — for new business and renewals.

A company (employee) can use that money to offset the cost of buying their other voluntary benefits or the extra cost of buying mandatory, group health benefits. Often, employees are forced to pay these costs out of their own pocket, especially for coverage for family members. For voluntary or even mandatory benefits, the employee often pays a percentage; the employer doesn’t pay 100 percent of the cost. That’s money out of your pocket. You can use the rebate money to offset that.

How can an interested employer convince its employees that a voluntary benefit program is a good idea?

We set up a website for each specific employer explaining the program. It can be a link we add to their Web page, or it can be a Web page all by itself. It informs them about all the benefits that are offered, with both written information and short videos to educate them. Employees can visit the site at their leisure to learn about how the program works and benefits them. We call it the Advantage Plus Online (APO) program.

Employees using the site can enter their specific information for their automobile or homeowners’ policy. That will send the information to our personalized department, which will shop it with more than 20 different companies and come up with the best option for that client.

As an added bonus, we also offer the employees the opportunity to shop with more than 300 top name retailers, like Wal-Mart, Best Buy, iTunes, The Home Depot, using special coupons they wouldn’t otherwise get from these companies, as well as discount savings.

How can APO integrate into a company’s existing plan?

This is something they have never had before, so it would be in addition to what they are already offering. It can be incorporated with the other programs they already offer.

Alternatively, the APO program can be incorporated separately if the employer decides to stay with its current programs. Or, if the employer allows Millennium to handle its entire suite of programs, we can incorporate everything into one easy-to-use website.

They can see long-term care, cancer care, dental, vision and extra health insurance, all on one link as a full employee benefit package.

It is much easier for an employee to go to one site and see his or her entire employee benefit package, and be able to take advantage of all the additional benefits, as well.

DAVID JERANKO is a partner with Millennium Corporate Solutions. Reach him at (949) 679-7130 or [email protected]

Letting go

Jim Caplinger realized he
couldn’t continue to do
everything himself and expect to grow LifeCare
Medical Services Inc., the
emergency medical service
provider of which he is the
owner, president and CEO. So
Caplinger took the difficult step
of beginning to delegate more
responsibility to his employees.

“When I first started, it was
very hard,” Caplinger says.
“There were times that I could
hear things going on in our
communications center, and I
just had to stay seated and shut
my door sometimes.”

It may have been difficult,
but by delegating, Caplinger
empowered his 230 employees
to handle the day-to-day decisions, giving him time to
address the big picture.

Smart Business spoke with
Caplinger about how to get your
employees thinking like owners
and how to create an environment in which everyone doesn’t
just bow down to the boss.

Q. What are the keys to
growing a business?

No. 1 is hiring excellent people. I look for, are they goal-setters or goal-achievers? Have
they peaked, or are they ready
to grow themselves?

Then I try to teach them to
think like an owner. Then, once
you teach them to think like an
owner, you’ve got a bunch of
little owners around you.

I’ve been lucky enough to
find people who wanted to
grow with us, wanted to see
their growth. They are just as
passionate as I am about
growing the company. That’s
great because I know if there
are problems, they’ll take care of it because they’re thinking
like owners.

Q. How do you find
employees who will think
like owners?

Ask them, if they owned this
business, where would they
grow it? If it’s a marketing person, what kind of business do
they want to go out and get?

Then also, teach them to
watch the numbers. Every
company has numbers to
watch; do you watch these
numbers as close as I do and
keep your fingers on the pulse?
That’s the challenge of hiring
excellent people.

Jon L. Shebel

Costs were skyrocketing at Associated Industries Insurance Services Inc. after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and revenue dipped from $240 million before the attacks to $60 million in the years after as the company laid off workers and restructured its business model. Jon L. Shebel, president and CEO of the third-party administrator specializing in workers’ compensation insurance, says he learned the hard way not to rely on a narrow avenue of business, and the company’s resulting diversification into other forms of insurance forged it into a stronger unit. Now, AIIS has 160 employees and is growing again, with 2006 revenue of about $70 million. Smart Business spoke with Shebel about how he keeps employees motivated and sharp, even when the going gets tough.

Give employees the authority to match their responsibility. Set the example, be upfront, and always trust in your people. It’s basically a Marine Corps leadership style.

Give the people you give responsibility to the authority to carry out their missions. Have a team effort at all times. Get everybody to buy in and trust the leaders. We have created leaders at every level in the company.

Too often in the corporate world, people are given all kinds of responsibility but no authority to make decisions. Our people have tremendous decision-making authority.

That way, you have everybody on the same track. It also helps you develop leaders — no one person can effectively run a company, there’s just too much going on. You have people at every level actually running their operations instead of sitting back waiting on orders.

You put out your goals and objectives on where you’re going to go. If you’ve got good people and you’ve given them the authority to go with the responsibility, they will move the company forward. Our company’s success is based on what our people have done.

Show employees they can operate without fear. Our people get credit for everything good that happens in the company. We give accolades to our people when they do something good. But when things go bad, I take full blame no matter who did it, because I give them the authority to do everything they do.

I don’t want to ever discourage them. Things are going to go bad and when they do and something negative happens, it’s my fault. When good things happen, it’s due to them. We keep that in focus all the time. People in management quickly take the blame for anything bad.

Employees appreciate that; it emboldens them to operate without fear. Go out there and get it done, don’t ever be afraid to try something that, based on your knowledge and experience, is a good thing to do for the company. They’re constantly making decisions, and they don’t back off — we call that operating without fear.

It’s a strategy that comes from the Marine Corps. You take a young corporal and tell him to clear that street. He has to go down that street, operate without fear and get that street clear at all costs.

There’s no doubt that he’s going to get to the end of it, and it’s going to be clear. He has to get it done, and he has to operate without fear of failure.

You’re not going to succeed at first at everything you do. You may have to come at it three or four times. And that’s OK. We’d love everything to be perfect and every decision to the right one and everything to be accomplished the first time, but that’s not the real world, and that doesn’t happen.

You don’t want your workers saying, ‘Gee, I don’t want to try that because I’m going to get in trouble, or people will blame me.’ That really stifles your people if they feel that way. Ours don’t; they’re very bold, and they try things. They don’t do stupid things, but they do things that don’t work sometimes.

That’s OK; we’ll figure another way to get it done. We’ve never failed at a goal, and that’s because they’re not afraid to keep trying different things.

Be a shining example to employees. A CEO has to operate with total integrity. There’s no gray area when it comes to integrity, there’s

only black and white.

Your personal actions have to always hold the respect of your people. They have to believe you; you have to always be honest with them.

We’ve been through some tough times in our company, and I’ve just told them, ‘Here’s what’s going on, here’s the challenge, now let’s move forward.’

CEOs need to maintain focus and reality. You want to focus on your business. Never lose your focus and think you can do all these other things. Never lose your focus in terms of backing off a little bit and deciding you’re going to take a weekend off, because there are no weekends for CEOs.

Don’t lose sight of the reality of what you can do. Everybody wants to do more, but the reality is you can only do what you can do.

Get the message out. Everything is communicated through the chain of command. I never go to an employee in the company and tell him, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’

It goes through the management committee down to the vice presidents, and down to the managers. Then they get their people together very quickly.

We get out of a meeting, and a policy decision is communicated immediately, within hours. We have excellent communication; you won’t find people in our organization who didn’t get the word or don’t know what’s going on. We run the company like a Marine Corps battalion. I haven’t found a better way of running it.

It goes both ways in the chain of command. Managers are communicating to the people below them, and those people are communicating to the managers. We encourage discussion. We ask our people to speak up without fear and to make decisions without fear.

If it works out, fine; if it doesn’t work out, it’s something we tried and we can immediately change direction. Nothing drags on; we can make decisions and change our direction in minutes.

HOW TO REACH: Associated Industries Insurance Services Inc., (800) 866-8600 or www.aiisvc.com

Clear vision

 Tony Argiz graduated from college in 1975, but he has never stopped learning. It has taken the managing partner of Morrison, Brown Argiz & Farra LLP plenty of patience and cooperation to bring the firm to 2006 revenue of $37 million.

“I can’t say I had all those attributes when I started, but you learn by mistakes and try to develop yourself and learn on a day-to-day basis,” Argiz said.

Smart Business spoke with Argiz about how he makes decisions and how to find employees who fit your business.

How do you make decisions?
We’ve been through so many stages. When we first started we were 12 people. Back then, you could make decisions a lot quicker than you can today when you have close to 190 people to deal with.

As the firm has grown, you really just need to adjust to trends and re-engineer yourself at all times to determine what’s out there. Nowadays, you’ve really got to be an employer of choice if you want to have the assets you need to grow and expand the firm.

When you were smaller, your decisions could be made a lot quicker, but you’ve still got to be able to make them quick. You can’t make a lot of decisions that affect everyone without developing the consensus, because people will lose respect for you because they’re not being counted on.

What skills does a CEO need to be successful?
Vision. You’ve got to constantly have a vision, you’ve got to excite people and work toward a goal that’s reachable. We’ve always said we want to be a $20 million firm, then we said we wanted to be a $30 million firm.

Now that we’ve reached that, we say we want to be a $50 million firm. And when we get to $50 million, we’ll have a bigger goal then. But you’ve got to have a vision and excite the people around you so they can feel the accomplishment and also know what your goals are.

Communication is important, you’ve got to communicate with the people, whether it’s through your HR department, whether it’s yourself, or through computer services.

Always keep the people in touch. A lot of the Generation X people, they want to be part of the decisions and they want communications. You also need to have patience. In an organization where there are 200 people, there’s always going to be problems.

You want to listen to everyone, not make a quick decision that affects lots of people. You’ve got to be able to multitask, because there are so many things you’re juggling at one time. You’ve got to be able to work on 10 to 15 things at one time.

What do you look for in your employees?
When we hire, what we really look for is attitude, attitude, attitude. We have these tests. They look at facets of the individual’s leadership to find out if they are followers or leaders.

They look at whether the individual has multitasked or not. They look at whether the person is an extrovert or an introvert.

It’s important to attract other leaders. It should be your hiring process to try to go after the best talent, because in a professional service business, that’s going to be the secret to a successful firm. And then you create an effective team around those people.

It’s not ‘I,’ but it’s the firm. You can’t have success in a large organization without creating an effective team. Lastly, the vision — focus on the big picture and keep painting it for the professionals so they constantly see it.

How do you deal with the dangers of growth?
While you’re growing, you need to look at your key financial ratios and make sure you’re doing it efficiently. If that whole process slows down, it can really hurt you. Then, knowing what your break-even point is and knowing what your production needs to be in order to meet that break-even is important. Obviously, that’s on the financial end.

But, none of that can happen unless your employees are satisfied and happy.

What is the biggest mistake a CEO can make?
Not listening to people and making decisions from a tunnel. Not having the input on every decision you make and not building consensus. You can get away with tunnel vision once in awhile, but you can’t do it on a long-term basis.

You have to reinvent yourself at all times, because the way you managed back in the ’90s is not the way you manage today. Reinvent yourself, but you’ve got to listen and you’ve got to build consensus and make your decision on what’s best for the firm, but after everyone is heard, or at least the key people.

HOW TO REACH: Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Farra LLP, (305) 373-5500 or www.mbafcpa.com

John P. Bauer

 John P. Bauer probably couldn’t have a better background for doing international business. He was born in Germany and spent time in France in his youth, married a woman from South America and speaks French and German fluently. Bauer has worked in the international food market for 50 years and has been president and CEO of Basic Food International since 1975. Being a true global citizen gives him a natural advantage when working with customers in other countries, but he says any businessperson willing to make the effort can learn the subtle differences between dealing with American customers and dealing with customers from other nations. Smart Business spoke with Bauer about how to expand to new markets overseas.

Become a citizen of the world.
I am fortunate because I was brought up in Germany and France, and we came to U.S. in 1941. So I am an international by birth and education.

Being able to speak the languages and having been in international business for 50 years provides me with an incredible background of adaptation and knowledge and being able to communicate with different people in a different country.

We were always in the international business and now, of course, it’s the flavor of the day. Everybody wants to expand their business, and the way to expand is to go into the world and create new markets in other areas besides the U.S. and Canada. It takes training and education and study.

You cannot just export Americana; you have to give the people what they’re looking for and give it to them a little bit better than what they had. A lot of people think because we have a product here that is popular that it should be popular in other countries, but that isn’t necessarily so. Everybody has different tastes and different ideas. You’ve got to make a combination of what’s best here with what they want there.

Learn other cultures to understand what people want.
One has to study, one has to travel to these countries, one has to mix with the communities in those countries. It requires study like everything else.

If you want to become a doctor, you have to study medicine. If you want to sell overseas, you have to study it and become familiar. You have to get the experience and get the knowledge.

It requires study, and one has to learn the languages to communicate with them. Although English is getting to be accepted as an international language, one still has to try to gain more experience and knowledge on the way other people live and what they like, and learn their language. So they have to acquire that knowledge and stay in that country for a while and gain that knowledge

Delegation develops better employees.
You delegate responsibility for the morale of your employees. It provides a challenge to the people you’re working with, because they feel they are being trusted.

You don’t want to just have people who are not thinking or taking responsibility. You develop initiative, as well. It gives your employees the opportunity to be more creative, and you don’t have to do everything yourself.

Hire people for the long run.
Always look for stability. Does the guy only want to have another stepping stone, or is he willing to grow with us?

Stability is very important, background is important. Does he have a nice family? What about his character. Does he have integrity? I look for loyalty, interest and ambition. Does he want to develop himself and, at the same time, develop the business? Does he feel that this is a position he wants to have permanently and grow, or is it only something he wants to fill temporarily?

We provide continuity and we have continuity with our employees as well.

Instill a feeling of family in the workplace.
The workers want to feel they are part of the family; they want to feel part of the organization. To build good spirits, we collaborate more, we have meetings often and take many out for lunch. We have a yearly get-together with their families.

You want to let them know they have a friend in the boss as well as an employer. Building the interest and morale, making them feel you are interested in them, they return and show more interest in their work and in the business. Instill confidence in them. It builds bonds and loyalty and makes them feel it’s more than a job.

Realize the status quo isn’t good enough anymore.
Our business is in a complete state of flux. New markets are being built. Old markets are disappearing. Positions are changing, and we have to change with them.

The experience I have from 40 or 50 years ago is not as valuable as the experience I gain today in my everyday business occupation. One has to adapt to all the different changes.

Globalization also presents new circumstances and new opportunities. Our markets are expanding, because the standards of living of many countries are going up.

This is creating new opportunities. At the same time, you can create new products. You have to innovate and adjust those products to the different tastes of different groups you are now doing business with. For us, it means more variety in the meat line or the chicken line. New types of products, new packaging, all of that creates new opportunities.

HOW TO REACH: Basic Food International, (954) 467-1700 or www.basicfood.com

Making an impression

 Roland Garcia has been through some tough times with Original Impressions LLC, the business he founded in 1982. He sold his business to a Connecticut company in 1999 and, three years later, that company went bankrupt. Garcia’s longtime suppliers and customers needed reassurance.

“It affected us because everybody heard our company was going bankrupt,” he says. “It was a major stumbling block for us, but we survived it and came back stronger.”

Garcia and a partner bought back the business and fought to re-establish credit. During that process, Original Impressions, an offset and digital print provider, grew from 150 employees to 180, and the company posted 2005 revenue of $21 million.

Smart Business spoke with company president Garcia about building a reputation and finding employees who will make that reputation shine.

How do you develop a good company reputation?
It’s called customer service. In my mind, service is like a dial on a radio or the volume on a TV. Any company, it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, can determine the level of service they want to provide. That is within the reach of any individual at any company.

We do whatever it takes. We try to fit ourselves around the customer rather than the other way around.

How do you communicate that message to employees?
They see us here. We’re not out playing golf, we’re not out fishing, and we’re not out doing other things we shouldn’t be doing. People see us bringing work into the company; they see us involved in organizations and the community.

Our participation in the business is very visual. We are committed, and we make sure the employees see it. We really don’t have to make sure, it’s pretty obvious. You’re not out of touch, and people are not numbers.

What do you look for in your employees?
There are people who have a problem providing a service or being asked to do things. Most of our customer service reps are people we have trained.

In Miami, in the South Florida area, there’s a lack of skilled people just about in every position, whether it’s pressman or cutter or estimator or production manager or customer service representative.

You have got to select your people who fit the mold, identify them, then train them in that position; otherwise, you’re SOL. People who start here working in the office, they show they want additional responsibility. They show that they are friendly and willing to come through.

That’s the first feature I look for. Are you willing to come through? Does it bother you to get up if we can’t find our delivery person here, to get in your car and go deliver the job? If that bothers you, you’re not cut out for customer service.

You may be cut out for something else, you may work in accounting or another department, but customer service is not for you. We look for people who are service-oriented.

How do you retain quality employees?
Some large corporations constantly increase the person’s salary to a point that when rough times come, they have individuals who are way out of the ballpark salary-wise, and when rough times come, they are the first to go.

Regardless of how many years of service, regardless of how good they are, regardless of anything, companies try to get rid of overhead. We make sure that doesn’t happen by making salary increases in range with what’s being paid competitively. It could happen that in some positions, a salary won’t be touched for a year.

But if the rate goes up, we react to it accordingly. That way, we don’t have individuals who should be making $45,000 making $81,000 or $72,000. I see that in many corporations in the corporate world.

Rough times come in, stock goes down, and the first thing they do is get rid of overhead. I don’t think that’s fair, and people here know it.

We have never missed a payroll. Even when we went through Hurricane Andrew and other catastrophes, we have always paid our employees.

How do you keep your business up-to-date with the latest technology?
You read a lot. You subscribe to publications and services that keep you updated. Most importantly, listen to the customer. Listen to what the customers say, find out what they want.

We then invest in technology that makes sense for the customers, not just for the sake of saying, ‘We offer this.’ If we don’t have a use for it, if our clients don’t have a need for that software, program or equipment, then we don’t invest in it.

HOW TO REACH: Original Impressions LLC, www.originalimpressions.com

Branching out

 Michael E. Golden has grown Sun American Bank by purchasing troubled banks, many of which have been ordered by bank regulators to halt growth until their finances are straightened out.

When Golden joined Sun American as president and CEO, it had just purchased a bank. With $45 million in assets and $3 million in capital, it was operating four branches and dripping red ink. Golden’s first move was to shut down one branch; he then eliminated 20 percent of the employees and reduced executive salaries by 25 percent.

Sun American, which recently changed its name from PanAmerican Bank, currently has eight branches and posted $17 million in revenue in 2004. Golden’s goal is to add 10 branches in the next three years, and several acquisitions are already in the works.

Smart Business spoke with Michael Golden about the challenges of acquisitions and the importance of listening to employees.

What are some of the challenges of acquisitions?
Probably one of the world’s greatest CEOs, Jack Welch, said changing culture is probably the most difficult thing you’re ever going to do. He’s absolutely right, because they’re used to doing things one way; they don’t want to change.

Whether it worked or not, it doesn’t make any difference. If they had a successful business, it’s even more difficult. That’s why people at the higher levels never stay or you can’t keep them. They’re not loyal to the new group; you can’t turn them around to your way of doing things.

You see if you can do it. If you can’t, you just bring on new people. The culture gradually changes as you build your organization. People start to follow it.

How do you establish that culture?
The culture is a lot of different things. The work ethic, the intensity — if they see it at the senior level, they are going to follow it, also.

If you get in at 10 a.m., you leave at 4 p.m., your people are going to do it. But if they see you thinking about the business all the time and they know that you’re intense, they take it on also. That’s sometimes the problem with culture when you’re taking someone else over. You’ll find a senior executive who is used to working 9 to 5, and no matter what you do, that’s the way he is. If they’re not going to change, they need to go their own way.

In a fast-growing business, you need people who are truly dedicated and will put in the hours. You can’t have people who are more concerned for their vacation and taking four weeks a year.

How do you attract and retain an effective management staff?
I have a group of five senior executives who help me run the bank. By taking the company public and making them owners, every one of them has stock options so they know there’s a brass ring out there.

That’s what’s good about being public: They can look at what they own every day, they can see the value of their equity going up or down with the price of the stock. They also know that because there’s a brass ring, someday that if [the bank is acquired], they will participate in a golden parachute.

The other thing is those executives have come out of some very large banks, and they’ve never had the opportunity to be heard. Now, people are listening to them because they’re not working for a bank with 500 employees or 500 executives.

They are now very much a part of what goes on every day. There’s a lot more feedback from what they do, they see more direct results, and our workers don’t see a bunch of empty suits walking around and playing politics.

The executives see the rewards of their input immediately, and that’s what’s rewarding to an individual.

How do you make sure employees are heard?
It’s no more than some baseball player who gets lost in a big organization and never gets that chance to play on the first team. If you’re playing for the Yankees or the Miami Heat, you’re so filled at the top rungs, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of superstars sitting down there.

That’s what we do. We’re giving them an opportunity, not always paying them the biggest salary, but they know they have a big monetary return, and more importantly, they are going to be heard. They can put their ideas in, they’re sitting around talking to the chairman and the CEO every day, and they’re treated on an equal level. That has absolutely worked, and I’ve pulled in some people who have turned out to be superstars.

The salaries are not what these people work for. People work for the bonuses at the end of the rainbow because they’re getting an instant reward from their ideas and their hard work. It’s not just going out the window.

HOW TO REACH: Sun American Bank, (305) 421-6800 or www.panamericanbank.com