Nearly two years ago we featured the launch of WAHVE (Work At Home Vintage Employees), a domestic remote staffing company for agents and brokers that employs skilled insurance industry retirees in the United States. Since then, this innovative solution for workplace optimization has had tremendous success, with retirees across the country working for about 36 different agencies remotely. We followed up with Sharon Emek, Ph.D. and CEO/President of WAHVE, to talk about how both retirees and agencies are benefitting from this win-win platform.
Annie George (AG): When we spoke in June of 2010, WAHVE was just kicking off. We discussed the fact that many retirees were looking for an opportunity to work, whether part-time or full-time, but wanted to do so from the comfort of their own homes and their desire for a more balanced lifestyle. They either needed to supplement their income because of a faltering economy that resulted in diminished retirement funds, or they wanted/needed to remain active professionally. At the same time, you also spoke about a brain drain in our industry and how agencies were looking for skilled and experienced employees to provide back-office processing support, customer service, and other key functions. WAHVE was – and is – the perfect solution for these two segments. Tell me about the ride WAHVE has been on since its launch.
Sharon Emek (SE): “Today we have more than 50 people working across the country for about 36 different insurance agencies, with some firms having hired more than one wahve. Agencies have been so satisfied with the performance of their wahves that they’ve asked to employ more than one individual.
“Demand is growing as more agency owners are understanding the model. We’re also seeing more and more wahves signing up. We have about 800 individuals who have gone through the process to become a wahve. Many of our wahves are working anywhere from 20 hours a week to full time. They are doing customer service with IP phones and SKYPE, and some are doing the back-office processing work.
“Additionally, the placement of our wahves has gone beyond the Property/Casualty industry. It now runs the gamut – from placing wahves with retail brokers and wholesalers to providing individuals to do life insurance quoting and assist with employee benefits and quoting. We are also starting to work with insurance carriers.”
Sharon explained that not only has the program gained traction for agencies to get the experienced workers they need but also these same firms are beginning to understand that they are truly helping individuals who want to retire. “I have been speaking to agents around the country about retiring your people, the WAHVE way,” said Sharon. “Some people are afraid to retire although they are ready. They wonder, ‘what if I retire and I have nothing, no income after a certain period of time’. They can now register with WAHVE and find opportunities to retire in order to get the quality and the balance they’re looking for while also receiving income by working at home. Agencies are beginning to tell their people about the WAHVE opportunity.”
AG: Are agencies all over the country looking to WAHVE to meet their needs, or is there a concentration of agencies in a specific region using WAHVE?
SE: “We have a great deal of clients on the East Coast as we have been endorsed by the Independent Insurance Agents of New York, but we are now being contacted by more agencies on the West Coast due to our endorsement by the Insurance Brokers and Agents of the West, the Big I of California. But we have agencies using our services throughout the country.”
In addition, the Independent Insurance Agents of Dallas (IIAD) Staffing Services division teamed up with WAHVE in May 2011 to provide domestic outsourcing services to supply back-office support to insurance agencies across the state of Texas.
Wahves are also located throughout the country. Sharon and her team’s goal is to always match an individual’s skills and his/her knowledge of a specific market, especially when it comes to personal lines, to what the agencies need.
AG: Do you think with market rates firming up agencies will be increasingly looking for wahves who have the experience and knowledge to help with changing conditions, renewals, etc?
SE: “I think there will be some impact, but the main issue is that regardless of whether the market is hard or soft, agencies need employees who can get the work done and know how to get it done well.
“When looking at today’s agency and in speaking to various groups around the country, I talk about the need for agents to rewrite their job descriptions. They need to look at what they can outsource. They can’t keep on affording the number of high-paid individuals they have. These knowledgeable individuals with high-paid salaries are doing work that can easily be outsourced today at a lower rate to someone who has the skills. Agencies need to reconfigure their job positions and determine how to in-source what is critical to the operation and how to outsource what is more back-office focused than relationship-focused.
“When the market is hardening, WAHVE is a way that you can be more profitable, as you’re lowering expenses while gaining more in premiums. In a soft market, you need to streamline expenditures in order to just survive and WAHVE gives you that opportunity.”
AG: Why is there such a gap in insurance knowledge today?
SE: “There are a few reasons. Young people for many years were attracted to the financial market, which was more lucrative than our industry. Insurance wasn’t a big draw for them.
“Our industry is now so top heavy with baby boomers (as are other industries), with zero growth in our young population. We’re an aging population, which is a big issue here. Even with bringing young people on board in an agency, it takes years of training. Over the last 20 years, carriers stopped recruiting, training, and placing individuals with agencies. The type of training needed doesn’t exist any more. Agencies are so busy getting what they need to get done they don’t have time to mentor. Taking a young person that is inexperienced and getting them the institutional knowledge needed is simply not happening.
“Also millennials, have a different understanding/concept of work. Their objectives are very different than those of boomers. There is a mismatch between the boomers who are managing the agency and the ability to communicate with millennials. Millennials, for example, may be looking for a significant raise after just one year on the job, but insurance is a complex industry to learn, as it involves understanding risk and exposure and protecting clients in addition to protecting the agency itself. This requires a great deal of training. You can’t hire someone and have them up and running within six months.”
AG: Do many of the wahves work full-time?
SE: “About 60% to 70% of wahves are working full time. There are a number of reasons for this: They realize they still need the income but can have better work-life balance working from home. Or they moved to warmer climate or to be near their grandchildren and could not find an insurance job where they are now living. Or, they themselves had to leave work because of their own issues and working at home is more of a conducive environment than the stress of an office and dealing with traffic, for example. As a wahve, they have a better quality of life. Also, many still need to support themselves and work full time, and this gives them the opportunity to do so.”
Some wahves may start out working only 25 hours a week and, as Sharon explained, the agencies hiring them are so satisfied with the work being performed that the wahves are given more responsibilities and more hours. “You have individuals who can do the work so fast and well that the agencies are giving wahves more work,” said Sharon.
WAHVE’s success is also the fact that the contracted retirees have a deep knowledge of technology, including agency management systems. “The whole point of WAHVE is to be able to work remotely and immediately without the need for systems training,” said Sharon. “If an agency hires someone and then needs to spend three months training him or her on an agency management system or how to use scanned files or DocStar or Word Document Management, then the purpose of WAHVE is not being served. We need to have people who are extremely technologically capable, know the systems well and how to work in a paperless environment. We test them on their technology ability and knowledge…if they fail our exam, they are disqualified.”
AG: How does WAHVE work in terms of setting up individuals to work remotely?
SE: “The wahves are independent contractors. We make sure they already have state-of-art computer systems with a high-speed Internet connection set up at home. We provide them with a second monitor. But everything is owned by the individual wahve so there is no overhead for the agency. The agency only pays an hourly rate for the work performed, which is billed by us. We then pay the wahve.”
The average cost for a wahve is between $25-$27 per hour, which is very reasonable for the amount of experience and knowledge they provide to agencies. There are wahves who work on specific projects for a period of time as well as those who fill in for agency employees. “We have firms that hire wahves as fillers – whether it’s for employees who are sick for an extended period, on a vacation, or on maternity leave,” said Sharon. “This way when someone is out, they aren’t burdening the others in the office. When you have a wahve, you have someone to always help you.”
What makes WAHVE so unique, in addition to the qualification process of potential candidates and their insurance experience and expertise, is that agencies get to choose the wahves with whom they want to work. “With most outsourcing companies, you don’t know to whom you’re assigned,” explained Sharon. “With us, an agency interviews the candidates we provide, and selects who they want. This makes a big difference, as we want the wahves to feel they are part of the agency team, the culture, and how they operate. By so doing, everyone feels happy about the arrangement.”
AG: From a marketing standpoint, you and your colleagues have been attending conventions, tradeshows, etc., with some interesting and fun promotional angles.
SE: “We have a theme called BOOMERS MEAN BUSINESS that includes us showing up in Harley gear. The average age of a Harley biker is the same as someone in the insurance space. Bill Hunt [who is a partner in WAHVE] and I have been going to different exhibits, vendor conferences, and larger state conferences with a Harley at our booth to match the banner. Now we’re doing WAHVES ARE SHOW STOPPERS.
“We attend the conferences to meet potential wahves who are in their mid-50s and early 60s and fit our demographics. We’re also meeting with the agents, so it’s a perfect setting for us to show what we’re all about and how we can help those who want to retire and the insurance distribution system.”
For more information about WAHVE, visit: http://www.wahve.com. Or, you can contact Sharon at: 646.807.4372, or via e-mail at email@example.com.
ABOUT SHARON EMEK
Dr. Sharon Emek is the CEO of WAHVE and has been a partner at CBS Coverage Group, Inc., a regional full service insurance agency with multiple locations. In 1998, Sharon founded Metro Partners, Inc., a managed agency organization, where she managed 38 agencies on an outsource basis using service center and Internet technology to create the Virtual Insurance Agency model of the future. Prior to forming Metro Partners, she was President of The Emek Group, an insurance agency she formed in 1988, which grew to be one of the largest women owned insurance agencies in the country. Sharon is a prolific public speaker on insurance and business issues. Sharon has appeared on CNN, CNBC, CBS, and Lifetime TV and is often quoted in numerous insurance and news periodicals including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, National Underwriter, Business Insurance, and others.