Third-party administrators (TPAs) play an important role in the employer-sponsored benefits industry, helping businesses manage their plans more effectively. As a leader in healthcare benefits administration solutions, DataPath is shining the spotlight on TPA clients who go above and beyond in serving their clients and growing their business.
This month we interviewed Gina Marken, founder of Sound Benefit Administration (SBA) in Poulsbo, Washington. When she launched the company 14 years ago, Gina had a clear and compelling mission – to help employers and participants save time, effort and money by integrating and managing supplemental health benefits programs such as Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs) and Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs).
Over the years, Gina has built SBA into a successful business with a long list of loyal clients who depend on her firm to stay up to date on new technologies and regulations in a rapidly changing industry. She recently added HSA administration to SBA’s menu of services, and just completed a complete makeover of her website to improve its appearance and functionality for clients and prospects. In the following interview, Gina talks about the process of launching her business and what drives her commitment to superior customer service.
How Sound Benefit Administration Got Started
I’m an “old bookkeeper” who did a short stint working for an employee benefit broker. One day I asked my former employer “Why aren’t we doing FSA administration?” He answered, “There’s no money in it.” I asked him three times…same answer. Instead of asking a fourth time, I simply told him I was going to try it. He said, “Ok, we’ll be your first client.”
Our first year, we grossed a grand total of $750 from four FSA clients. Our second year we grossed $20,000. We added COBRA administration in 2007, and HSA administration in 2016. This old bookkeeper somehow managed to create something out of nothing – although I fully admit that without divine guidance I’m not smart enough to have pulled it off alone.
Believe it or not, the inspiration to start my own business came from a pioneering woman pilot – Beryl Markham. She was the first woman pilot in Africa (same time period as the movie “Out Of Africa”), and the first pilot to fly west across the Atlantic against the prevailing winds. This was a far more difficult undertaking than Charles Lindbergh’s flight, which went with the prevailing winds. An adventurous aviatrix who never let anyone tell her it couldn’t be done, Markham’s book, “West With The Night” is a must-read, and inspired me to get my pilot license and start my business.
As an entrepreneur and business owner, people often look to me for advice. However, I try not to give other professionals business advice because I don’t feel I have the credentials to offer it. All I have is a personal story of entrepreneurship. I am, however, passionate about inspiring underprivileged, incarcerated women to start their own businesses. I tell women to keep their eyes open for opportunity, and that opportunity doesn’t look at all like you think it will. I’m living proof. I slipped on some fish slime in an Alaskan cold storage plant so was put in the office to learn bookkeeping skills instead. (I like to say that I fell into bookkeeping.) I tell the women that if I can do it, they can too.
Professional Expectations and the Challenges of Benefits Administration
I don’t think of my business as innovative. Instead, I see us as savvy trend followers with a willingness to jump into something new. We adapt to where the industry is going and seize opportunities as they arise, like adding HSA administration last year. We saw a market need and filled it. Our clients and brokers trust us to follow the rules, run a tight ship, give good customer service, have integrity, and do the right thing.
We call the world SBA operates in the “alphabet soup” world because of all the different acronyms, such as HSA and FSA. It’s a complicated and highly regulated business, and we have to tell clients all the time that they can’t do things the way they want. Many times, even we can’t do things the way we want. For example, we used to have FSA and HRA clients send us contributions (plan assets). This gave us the ability to reimburse participants on the same day from these “plan assets.” Clients and participants loved it. Then I attended an EBIA (Employee Benefit Institute of America) seminar and learned that this practice created an ERISA Trust problem.
It was a tough decision for us to move away from a beloved customer service expectation. But our core trust principle with clients requires following the rules and keeping them out of trouble. We returned all “plan assets” to our clients and began reimbursing participants from employer-held funds to avoid Trust issues. Now we reimburse participants once a week. Older clients miss the rapid reimbursement, and we compete against other TPA’s in our state that hold plan assets in trust and reimburse faster than we do. This bothers me, but I sleep well at night knowing we’re on the right side of the law and are keeping our clients safe even if they don’t fully understand it.
Partnering with DataPath
We consider our software company, DataPath, our partner in business. They provide the technology that allows us to do what we do efficiently so we can focus on customer service. When our business prospers, DataPath prospers proportionately. Early on, we used a different software vendor that didn’t offer all the “alphabet soup” services we needed, especially COBRA. When they doubled our monthly fee without offering any improvements, I felt betrayed and immediately began looking for a new software company. I did my due diligence and picked DataPath because they offered all the services I offered my clients, and they were committed to adding new services as the industry evolved…just like me. SBA has used DataPath’s platform since 2005, and we’ve had no regrets.
From our perspective, Sound Benefit Administration is exactly the kind of client DataPath strives to do business with – savvy management, a mindset of service to their customers, and the willingness to change when the industry or new government regulations demand it. We applaud Gina for having the courage to “fly against the wind” and start her own business, and we look forward to many more years as her partner in success.