Our Roots

John Cogan goes by lots of names. “Some aren’t suitable for print,” John chuckles. “But a client gave me a name I like best. He referred to me as the ‘Chief Benefits Guru.’”
John liked the title so much he’s got it on his Vantage Benefits Group business card. “It’s better than ‘founder,’ or ‘owner’ or ‘president,’” John says.
So how does one get to be a Chief Benefits Guru?
“I think it goes back to the passion I put into my work,” John said. “Being a good listener, having a sense of humor, being able to place myself in the other person’s shoes,” John said. “Also, I’m told I have excellent analytical skills and can generally find a way to mediate between insurance company and employer and find a place where both are comfortable. I work hard to treat everyone right.”
John says he gets excited whenever he can help clients “lift the fog” about group benefits – have them understand a very expensive and complex area a little better.
“I love to help employers get the right and proper results with their benefits programs. I love to help each employee to understand something that can be both complicated and frustrating,” he said.
“I make recommendations and act as a translator with my clients, which allows them to make good decisions, because they have faith in me that I’ll do the right thing for them, so they can concentrate on more important things, like their business.”
“People count on me to keep my word, and the insurance companies to keep theirs,” he said. “I feel a moral compassion to make sure that promises made are promises delivered.”
“I know I am not smart enough to do most of their jobs, but group benefits is an area where I think I am pretty good. I am proud of the reputation I have created over the last 30 years.”
Becoming a “Chief Benefits Guru” didn’t happen overnight.
It was honed through years of working through the Group Benefits “School of Hard Knocks” on both sides of the fence – first as a law school student, later as a partner at several large employee benefits consulting firms; as the General Manager for the Rochester, NY area’s largest physician network; as a director of worldwide benefits at Goulds Pumps, an international manufacturing and supplier of residential and industrial water systems; and as a manager of corporate benefits at Rochester Telephone/Frontier Corp.
During those 30 years in the business, John became an opinion-leader in labor management issues, respected consultant for hospitals, physician networks, organized labor and non-profit agencies, and recognized expert on every known acronym in the insurance industry.
He says he also saw “a lot of charlatans, competitors who don’t seem to have the client’s best interest at heart, whose primary concern has everything to do with the commissions that they will be delivering, who have no idea how to set multi-year goals. It breaks my heart to see smart business owners get duped.”
So John started his own company, where he can advance the principals of “benefits guru-ship” he so passionately believes in.
“Vantage Benefits Group is a virtual company of 8 professionals who have every desire to stay small and personal, providing employee and executive benefits for employers in the Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo areas. Our typical client has from 30 to 300 employees,” John said.
John says he believes this arrangement is best suited to building trust and confidence between the client and the broker, values that are so critical to breaking down obstacles to success and eliminating the client’s fear of the unknown – all the while guiding them to employee health and business wealth.
It seems to be working.
“I recently met with a physician group who was in the area’s most expensive benefits plan, thinking expensive meant the best,” John said. “It took me 15 minutes to illustrate how I could reduce their premiums by 60% and give them a health savings account that would pay all their medical bills.”
“They concluded this was absolutely the best plan they could have entered into,” he said. “Funny thing is, that’s what I had been suggesting for the past several years!”
There are happy endings, even in health care.
After listening to an HR director talk about a local high school’s commitment to its employees, John recommended adding a long-term disability policy to the school’s employee benefits package.
“Everybody does this,” John admitted. “What made this special was that I was able to convince the school to ‘gross up’ the benefit for employees. I went on to personally explain to their 150 employees that each of them would be receiving a $3 per month tax bill at the end of the year.”
“Takeaways of any kind are never popular,” John said. “But the trade-off, should an employee become disabled, is that their disability benefits would be tax-free.”
Six months after the program was put in place, a teacher was injured in an accident. A few months later, he addressed the faculty.
“He went out of his way to explain the power of making his disability benefits tax free, and that he wouldn’t have to move out of his home,” John said. “It made no impact on the commissions I received, but it meant everything to me.”
“It’s a terrific feeling to be able to listen to an employer’s concerns, to see the hope and fear, frustrations and expectations in their eyes. I can’t help them put balance sheets together or conduct inventory in their warehouses or run a heavy-duty machine in their shops. But I can help them manage an expense that is generally equal to one-third of their payroll,” John said.
“Doing the right thing always feels good.”
John says he sees the insurance industry moving toward higher deductible plans: “It will not help me as an expert. But it will be easier for most employers and employees to understand their medical options and obligations.”
Still there is a lot of confusion out there.
“Unionized workers, in particular are in peril,” John said. “Many haven’t adjusted to the financial realities of healthcare today. Businesses have folded under the crushing costs of healthcare. Without some changes, it can and will happen to unions too.”
“Why not try a high deductible plan? Why not look toward wellness and other common sense strategies to improve their financial condition? These questions must be addressed by union leadership, because staying the course is just not sustainable.”
What would John like to see changed?
“I would kindly ask government officials to stay out of healthcare,” John said. “I have managed the group benefits of hospitals, physician groups, large employers who self-insure, and over $80 million each year in health care purchases. Leave the consulting to people who understand and will do the right thing. ”
Even with all its shortcomings, John says the group benefits business does have its, well, benefits.
“I love the camaraderie, the feeling I’m making a difference. I have worked hard to get to a position of ‘trusted advisor.’ That makes me work even harder. Because of my clients’ faith in me, they can concentrate on their businesses. When they speak with me they know they’ll receive the best advice I can give them.”
Spoken like a true guru.