IT’S ABOUT CONNECTIONS
Family-owned Connecticut-based agency rebrands and expands with a benefits focus
By Len Strazewski
Remember the good old days when agents and brokers who specialized in employee benefits had simple and direct tasks?
Collect the employee censuses from your clients. Send it with an application to your favorite major medical insurers. Compare quotes and recommend one of the lower-priced companies that offer decent claims service.
But, today, running the employee benefits service of a comprehensive insurance and financial management agency is a lot more complicated, demanding a wide variety of skills and services to support contemporary employee benefits: claims analysis, wellness, Medicare management, and legal and tax services. Add in property/casualty insurance to round out the business.
“Mitigating client costs is our goal and we start by analyzing claims. Once we know where the costs are coming from
there’s a lot more that we can do.”
Senior Vice President
“It’s mostly about connections,” says Ty Bongiovanni, senior vice present of the Nesso Group in Milldale, Connecticut, a family-owned and managed insurance agency that has been evolving rapidly into a sophisticated employee benefits specialist. Founded in 1986 as Bongiovanni Insurance and Financial by Ty’s father Terry, who is still active in the agency, the firm specialized in life and health insurance. Ty joined the firm in 2005.
“Nesso” is Italian for “connections,” Ty says, and that’s what the firm offers its clients—a series of connections developed over the past 30 years. The agency recently completed a series of mergers and a renaming that expanded the firm, which now offers property/casualty insurance, wealth management, accounting, tax preparation as well as employee benefits.
Benefits and Medicare services account for about 25% of revenues, tax and accounting services and wealth management each are about 30% and property/casualty insurance is about 15%. The firm has about 75 team members.
The glue that holds this diversity of service together is a “teams” approach, Ty says. The firm is organized into eight teams with overlapping membership and the team members are the firm’s highest priority, he says, reflecting the family-oriented approach to management.
The teams allow the Nesso Groupto cross-sell its client base with property/casualty insurance, employee benefits and other financial services, but Ty notes that the agency’s intention is not just to make sales, but to provide a broad spectrum of services that meets the needs of their clients and provide a better-connected experience for those clients.
Trey Bongiovanni, Ty’s brother and a senior vice president, heads up the employee benefits services. Trey says the agency specializes in small to medium-sized employers with 20 to 200 employees and provides a level of service usually reserved for bigger organizations.
“We tend to be more proactive than other agencies with this size of employer,” Trey says. “Mitigating client costs is our goal and we start by analyzing claims. Once we know where the costs are coming from there’s a lot more that we can do.”
Nesso Group can direct even the smallest level of its employers into a level of self-funding if they are willing to commit to the discipline required to monitor claims and change their behaviors to manage costs. Many health insurers now offer smaller employers level-funded plans that give agencies and their clients access to claims data they can use to build a more cost-effective strategy, he says.
The agency works with ConnectiCare, Anthem, UHC, Harvard Pilgrim and Aetna among other major medical insurers in Connecticut. The agency also works with employee benefits captive insurers, Trey says, notably Roundstone Insurance in Lakewood, Ohio.
“We appreciate when carriers truly invest in our clients and not only serve them well but progressively help us strategize for the future,” he says.
The agency looks for a series of positive resources in their health insurers, including innovative wellness programs and initiatives, creative plan structures that can help clients alleviate cost, telemedicine programs (which have become very popular since the COVID-19 pandemic), educational tools to show employees the easiest ways to shop for services, and transparent and ongoing communication about the various stakeholders collectively to mitigate claims.
“We are always trying to figure out the next step and improve our clients’ situation,” Trey says. ‘We are always seeking a more connected experience.”
The agency also provides a full range of ancillary and voluntary benefits and specializes in employee engagement, providing employee education and benefits enrollment resources.
“No two companies are the same and therefore, we believe, no two wellness
programs should be either. It must be the right fit for it to be effective.”
—Nikki Bongiovanni Grillo
Wellness Services Manager
“During the worst of the pandemic, we used a lot of Zoom and video presentations, but late-ly we have also gone back to in-person meetings to provide a better employee education experience,” Trey says. “But we continue to use a lot of technology. Improving our clients’ knowledge base is important, and we do everything we can to prepare our clients’ employees to make the best benefits choices,” he adds.
Wellness services is the agency’s specialty, Ty says, and it is a service area managed by another family member, Nikki Bongiovanni Grillo, Ty and Trey’s older sister. Nikki is a former member of the US. National Gymnastics Team and an expert in personal training and nutrition. She is also a certified corporate wellness consultant and a licensed life and health insurance broker.
Nikki joined the agency full-time in 2017 and built a service that works with all levels of the client base, taking what she calls, “a holistic approach,” that can “not only improve the wellness culture of the workplace, but also improve their employees’ lives,” she says.
Wellness takes time and planning, Nikki says. “My advice to a new client looking to get started in wellness is to get a clear perspective of their company’s demographic as well as an understanding of the employees’ wellness needs and wants. It all starts with getting to know your team so that we can develop a wellness program that will entice participation as well as move the wellness needle in a direction that will positively impact the company.”
Nikki says the agency has not experienced much push back from clients when it introduces wellness programs.
“The reaction is usually one of excitement as this is typically not an avenue they have explored and allows them to take a proactive approach,” she says. “The only concern that does come up is that of execution. Most clients do not have anyone in house that has the time or capacity to take on a role such as wellness coordinator.
“We are able to alleviate that concern as we bring the coordinator to them. We do everything from survey the teams, conduct employee interviews to capture a true understanding of the culture, design customized plans, and provide implementation and support along the way. No two companies are the same and therefore, we believe, no two wellness programs should be either. It must be the right fit for it to be effective.”
Nikki says the agency has an opportunity to directly affect both the employer’s and the employee’s cost of healthcare.
“We believe that wellness intersects with all the things that we do, and it could be a great service to provide and not just for those that are benefits clients.”
Senior Vice President
“Healthier teams lead to lower claims and, in the end, produce better yearly renewal options. But there are other areas of impact a productive wellness program can affect. For instance, we have seen employee retention increase in those companies with a wellness culture,” she says.
Nikki says retention can increase more than 20% when wellness programs take root, and the programs can also support recruiting that can very well edge out the competition.
“And we certainly cannot forget to shout out the value of happy employees,” she says. “It is proven that an effective workplace wellness program can quite literally improve lives both inside and outside of work. Happier workers are more productive, use less sick time, and will even help promote their company. Employees who have wellness support at work tend to manage stress better, worry less about work when at home, and can have an improvement in quality of life.
“At the end of the day, we want to create happy people and happy work environments. The savings come with the territory. The expected ROI for a well-executed program is usually 2:1 or 3:1. These savings typically start to show up in years two and three,” she says.
Nesso Group has connected a lot of services beyond employee benefits. The latest addition is Nesso Wealth, the name for its securities and advisory business. Securities are marketed through Cetera Advisor Networks LLC, a member of FINRA/SIPC. Advisory services are offered through CWM, LLC, an SEC-registered investment advisor. Nesso Group, Nesso Wealth, Nesso Insurance, Nesso Medicare Benefits, Nesso Accounting and Tax, and Nesso Benefits are separate but affiliated companies under common ownership.
And there may be more to come, Ty says. Wellness remains a top priority but “we intend to build out the wellness piece of what we do to be much more than the programs do today. We believe that wellness intersects with all the things that we do, and it could be a great service to provide and not just for those that are benefits clients.”
Also, by the end of this year, the agency plans to create and fund a nonprofit organization called the Vanni Foundation, which would provide programs and services that support Nesso Group services for employers or individuals who cannot otherwise receive them, including financial literacy programs, tax return preparation and other financial services.
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.