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Got You Covered

Vanta Group’s Sara Haupt and Tim Bakker on Leading the Group Benefits and Retirement Services Divisions

Vanta Group’s Sara Haupt and Tim Bakker . Photo by EPIC Photography Inc.

Business in Calgary Magazine would like to extend its sincere condolences to the family of Sara Haupt (featured on our February cover), who passed away on January 15, 2022. Our thoughts are with Sara’s family, friends and her Vanta Group team.

As a mid-sized, independent broker in the group benefits, pensions, insurance and risk man-agement industry, Vanta Group is a comparatively rare breed. Leveraging decades-honed ex-pertise with a sophisticated business infrastructure, Vanta’s model fosters the personal touch of a small broker, while simultaneously providing the advantages – actuarial support, analytics, technology and reporting – of a larger house.

The unique approach derives the best from both ends of the insurance industry spectrum, all for their clients’ benefit. It’s one Vanta’s four founding partners – Rich Groom, Noah Jones, Ross Langford and John Huot – have successfully forged since opening their brokerage in 2016.

“The model allows our people to utilize our infrastructure while letting them to do what they do best,” explains Langford, “which is connect with people down in their local communities to give good advice. We manage the business administration, whether it’s accounting, IT, HR, deal-ing with the premises, actuarial support, technology. It’s a completely fresh approach in an old industry.”

A strong team environment devoid of strict hierarchies has been key to the firm’s growth, which today has 30 employees split evenly between offices in Calgary and Edmonton. About half of the business is on the insurance side, while the other half is on employee benefits and retirement. This latter portion of the business is headed by partners Sara Haupt (group bene-fits) and Tim Bakker (group retirement services).

“It’s a good family environment here,” says Haupt, who has been at Vanta since inception. “The team members all want to make sure they’re contributing and feeling fulfilled. We all have simi-lar objectives. And ultimately, our job is to listen to the objectives of our clients, the needs of their employees, and what their budgets allow to do our planning. It’s a really great dynamic in that it’s a team pulling on the same rope for the same objective. It’s really worked out well.”

Haupt started in the benefit space at age 22. She detoured into the individual life insurance business for several years, before being drawn back into benefits. “I started in this area about 15 years ago and have been working my way through and navigating the challenges of bene-fits,” she reflects. “It’s something that keeps you on your toes as it relates to risk management. And I like that. I like the challenge.”

The first female partner at Vanta, she leads the entire group benefits operation including hiring, mentoring, training and supervising the team. Bakker is laudatory: “We wouldn’t be anywhere close to where we are without Sara’s energy, professionalism and expertise.”

Vanta’s group benefits clients come from a diverse industry range, including retail, construction and professional organizations. Typically headquartered in Alberta, they range from as small as five employees to as large as 8,000.

“We look at many different ways of funding programs,” Haupt explains. “From fully insured to flexible models like administrative services only or refund accounting. For program offerings we have a plan based on one class all the way to a full cafeteria-style, flexible benefit program to offer employees choice to meet their needs.”

“There’s a shift in the industry right now,” Langford adds, “from traditional plans – life insur-ance, disability, health and dental – to flexible accounts for spending and retirement savings. We’re seeing a significant shift in the demands of a younger, millennial workforce.”

Managing through the pandemic over the last two years has also posed significant challenges. “In March, April and May of 2020, when COVID hit and the lockdowns started to happen it was suspension of services,” Haupt recalls. “So we saw artificial savings, a complete dip in the cost of the plan sponsor. And then we anticipated a surge of claims in the summer months but that didn’t quite happen. Employees were still apprehensive. The surge took a bit more time to ac-tually hit. That was more in the latter part of 2020 and then into 2021.”

For 2021, Haupt and her team had to manage client expectations to ensure an environment of stability in terms of the financial components of the benefit program. “And how do we ensure that going forward the program continues to meet the needs, not knowing where COVID was going to leave us?” she says. “Much of 2021 was understanding this new environment we’re in and pivoting and navigating to ensure the programs are sustainable going forward.”

Langford notes that in Alberta there is no integrated drug management plan, like in Ontario and B.C., which has forced Vanta’s team to be very active in how it manages high cost claims. “It’s a need in the Alberta market in particular,” he notes, “and we’ve positioned ourselves to solve that for our clients.”

“We also looked at innovative solutions to meet the new needs of employees in terms of our virtual platforms,” Haupt continues. “Virtual counselling, telemedicine – knowing that our cli-ents and plan sponsors wanted to ensure employees felt heard. That they had resources availa-ble to them. The virtual platforms are really the angle we’re looking at to support employees going forward.”

Since many clients had to downsize during the pandemic and no longer have the personnel to facilitate benefits programs, Vanta’s professionals have stepped in to support handling the ad-ministration tasks. “We’re really looking at how do we support that capacity of the individual’s job and control the volume and administrative burden,” she explains.

“There are significant changes in the benefit landscape right now,” Langford points out. “Costs are skyrocketing. We’re seeing crazy volatility in terms of claiming patterns, expenses, and how carriers are adjusting overall rates. So we built technology to get in front of that. Essentially some Artificial Intelligence (AI) processes.”

For two-and-a-half years now, the Vanta team has used AI to run behind the scenes and obtain claim data from carriers in real time. Its technology allows it to build dashboards, rules and re-porting mechanisms for the client that are actionable.

“As a result of automating and creating efficiencies in our business, we have more time as to support our clients in their HR efforts, and to develop better plans as it relates to the member experience and the benefit program,” Haupt adds.

Vanta’s proprietary AI technology was the impetus for its involvement in Navacord, a large partnership of brokerages across Canada. “Navacord was looking for a technology tool and we happened to have one that suited their needs,” Langford explains. “The network gives us a larger data set from across the country to benchmark all our groups. It allows our local clients to benefit from national data, something our competitors have difficulty offering.”

It’s an advantage Bakker uses in group retirement services as well.

“Group retirement really is the second child in the benefit space,” jokes Bakker, “but it is be-coming a focus of plan administrators and senior leaders within organizations as another area where they can provide cost savings to their members. And the cost savings result in higher re-turns for members, so it’s a win-win scenario.”

Indeed while most companies do provide some type of group benefit, just 40 per cent of pri-vate businesses offer group retirement. “However one of the current trends is the desire by prospective employees for group retirement plans,” Bakker notes. “It’s a common question dur-ing job interviews now. In fact, it’s how we often get a lot of our new startup plans – employees in a company that ask for it because they had it at their previous employer.”

Vanta offers any group retirement product available in Canada, including defined contribution, pension plans, group RRSPs, deferred profit sharing plans, group TFSAs, and even a group RESP (Registered Education Savings Plan).

“My role is to use my almost 25 years of experience in group retirement to find the product type that is most appropriate for the client,” Bakker explains. “To help them build a plan design that is not only attractive for membership to participate, but obviously sustainable from a cor-porate perspective, because there is a direct cost through any type of employer contribution.”

The ex-CFL football player (Bakker played 10 years in the CFL: seven for the Edmonton Eskimos, two for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and one for the B.C. Lions) previously spent 20 years at a major Canadian bank, most of which was in their group retirement business. He knew the Vanta part-ners from industry association and his child happened to be on the same soccer team as Haupt’s.

“When Vanta approached me in 2019 to take over their group retirement business I said yes, and it’s been a fantastic decision,” he smiles. “We’re growing by leaps and bounds. It’s been an exciting three years. And I know that the next decade-plus is going to be a lot of fun.”

He notes that the way Vanta offers group retirement is different from the way financial institu-tions do. “We have access to a variety of offerings and are able to come up with more unique solutions in the marketplace. We have a bit more flexibility in terms of client solutions, pricing and service levels. We can go out and choose from any of the carriers. We’re not beholden to a proprietary solution from a bank or independent financial advisory firm.”

Bakker’s team works closely with Haupt’s team, which allows both to be at the heart of any is-sues that arise. “We’re really efficient in being able to get ahead of any potential issues,” he explains. “And then building education strategies that incorporate everything. Really at the end of the day it’s all about experience – for the sponsor company and the member employees.”

Managing through the pandemic hasn’t been without challenge. “You can imagine employees were in sheer panic when the market went down 40 per cent,” Bakker says. “There was a lot of managing employees not to make rash decisions. And because of some of the government pro-grams, virtually every one of our clients maintained their employer contributions. 2021 was sort of a return to normalcy. Companies that prior to COVID were looking to start a plan have re-engaged in that process.”

“For existing plans the trend is education,” he continues, “not just on the group retirement plan but on financial literacy across the spectrum. Since COVID, employees are really craving more information and advice. So a lot of our strategies are member-focused.”

When it comes to product types, the desire is to offer products that have more parameters around how easily employees can access funds. “We sell a lot of Deferred Profit Sharing Plans (DPSPs) and hybrid plans (a DPSP with a group RRSP which vests in accordance with the DPSP). So an employee has to stay for a certain period of time with the employer before the money legally vests.”

With the resources of a large firm and the personal attention of a small one, Vanta’s Group Benefits and Retirement Services divisions enjoy a rarefied position in the marketplace, one that will serve many Calgary businesses very well. Together, Haupt and Bakker will ensure it is so.