Sara Julius and Mike Hill founded Edify North in 2009, and the company has been on a growth curve ever since. Photo by Johnny Quirin
It used to be the annual discussion employee benefits consultants had with their clients was mainly about how to “slice and dice” the health insurance cost wherever possible, and that usually included shifting more of the expense to the employee.
After the Great Recession began to wind down a couple of years ago, however, many employers began having a hard time attracting and retaining good employees.
“And what we see is a renewed effort to have employee benefits play a significant role in attraction and retention of employees,” said Mike Hill, a principal at Edify North benefits consulting agency in Holland.
Sara Julius, who founded Edify North with Hill in 2009, said their viewpoint is that the economy is definitely improving: “We have a number of clients who have been hiring a lot.”
But, she added, “We’re hearing from multiple employers that they just can’t fill” their job openings. “I’m thinking of one employer in particular here in Holland that has had over 30 open positions all year, and they just can’t fill them.”
Hill said the cost of health care insurance is still the big topic of discussion with clients, but many of those clients now also say they want to be the “employer of choice” and are willing to make an effort to distinguish themselves by offering better employee benefits.
“The consensus seems to be that a lot of the manufacturing employees left the area when the economy took a turn for the worse,” said Julius.
Julius speculated from 25 percent to 30 percent of Edify North clients are manufacturing companies. The firm has about 45 clients currently, primarily in West Michigan. Julius said most of them range in size from 100 to 300 employees.
Edify North is itself one of those West Michigan companies on a healthy growth curve. The firm’s revenues have increased by up to 40 percent in some of the last four years, and the staff has increased from just Hill and Julius to five — or seven, when the two current openings are filled.
Hill, 36, is a native of Holland who graduated from Hope College in 2000. He got to know Julius, 35, through her husband, who sails with Hill at the Macatawa Bay Yacht Club, and Hill helped her get a job at the employee benefits agency where he worked in Grand Rapids.
Both Hill and Julius were at that other agency when Hill learned from a friend about a benefits firm in Fort Lauderdale called Edify that was looking to open a branch office in the Midwest.
Hill said he had grown tired of his work. “I felt that my job was basically to try to convince employers and employees that they should feel good about paying more and getting less. And that wasn’t a lot of fun.”
Hill and Julius offered to start the new office for Edify in Holland. They got the job and launched Edify North, but several months later, the Fort Lauderdale agency was bought out by Wells Fargo. The new office in Holland wasn’t part of the deal, and the original owners in Florida were willing to largely “walk away from their investment” here, according to Julius. So, with financial help from some silent partners, Hill and Julius hung on to the agency and have made a go of it.
They apparently are having more fun now, if their titles are any clue. Hill is the Ambassador of Acronyms, and Julius is Chief Enforcer of New Year’s Resolutions.
The team at Edify North advises clients “on which direction to go, and then facilitates the process from start to finish. That includes negotiating the rates/fees, completing the paperwork, designing the (employee) communication materials, conducting the meetings and submitting the enrollment materials,” said Hill.
Julius said Edify North works with all aspects of employee benefits except 401(k)s. Its insurance expertise includes medical, dental, vision, disability and life, but “primarily the focus is on medical insurance because that is the most expensive component of the benefit package.”
One Edify North client is Uniform Color Co. in Holland, which has 240 employees. Its award-winning benefits program was developed with help from Edify North, which took over a health and wellness program that had only 20 percent participation and brought it up to more than 90 percent.
The Uniform Color Co. program includes biometric screenings and in-depth health evaluations providing the backbone for a comprehensive educational campaign targeted to the specific health risks of employees.
Edify North’s plan helped 10 pre-diabetic employees reduce their risk factors for diabetes and shed their at-risk designation, according to a spokesperson for Edify North. He said other companies do screenings and provide the health report and end it there; Edify North creates an actionable plan with attainable goals and works with employees to reach them, using tools such as exercise and eating plans, quarterly meetings with nurses, newsletters, competitions, etc.
Edify North also helps clients track program goals with a mobile app connected to a scale in the clients’ office; the data is used to help incentivize the programs. Edify North created the app in collaboration with Holland-based Collective Idea.
Julius said the Affordable Care Act has added to the rules and regulations so that employers need professional help wading through them.
“It could be a full-time job for an employer to try to navigate that and understand health care reform on their own,” she said.
There will be one noticeable change at Edify North next year: the name. The option Hill and Julius had to keep the name for three years after acquiring the business will expire next summer. No name has been announced yet, but given their penchant for fun, there might be a reference to sailing on Lake Macatawa.