Karen O'Brien likes her job as a senior client administrator at Medical Risk Managers Inc., a big player in the medical stop-loss insurance business. Beyond the pay, the camaraderie with co-workers and perks, O'Brien feels appreciated.
"I came from a job in the school system. When they wanted to show appreciation, they gave you a pencil," O'Brien said. "Here, we get catered lunches once a month for birthdays and the women receive flowers on their birthdays. Our Christmas party is off the chart — we close the office at 11 a.m. and go to a local restaurant. There's an open bar, a fantastic lunch that sometimes even extends into dinner. There's a raffle for the employees, all paid for by the company."
More important than the extras, employees believe that their opinions matter — and the company's dramatic success is a testament to that.
"Our chairman, Mike McLean, is a great listener," O'Brien said. "His door is open most of the time. He likes people to come to him with ideas and he never takes credit. He's very proud of us."
That kind of appreciation is one of the reasons why MRM is the No. 1 company in the small-employer category in the Courant/FOX CT Top Workplaces awards for 2013.
MRM underwrites group stop-loss medical insurance policies for companies that self-insure and advises insurance companies about stop-loss claim adjudication, network evaluation, accounting support and strategy.
It's a lucrative niche that MRM, with 53 employees, has leveraged with outstanding data, analytics, market knowledge and customer service.
Stop-loss works like reinsurance, in which a carrier such as Aetna or WellPoint makes it possible for employers that self-insure — meaning the employer rather than the insurer takes on the risk — to limit that risk in the event of an extraordinary medical event.
Michael McLean, the chairman and CEO, expects MRM employees to give "insanely superior" service to clients.
"We don't tolerate the backlogs that are viewed as normal in many insurance companies at year-end," said McLean, who previously owned the company before selling it in 2007 to Symetra Financial Corp., based in Bellevue, Wash.
"In a world where people are used to clicking 'purchase' at Amazon and then having their product shipped out 2 ½ hours later, there is no reason that we can't similarly, at least ultimately, deliver 24/7, 365 service to our clients."
And because the service is so highly specialized, the key is a team that's well-rewarded, financially and otherwise.
Operating out of an unassuming former firehouse in South Windsor, employees may wear shorts and flip flops to work (unless there are clients in the building). Not one, but two kitchens are decorated in a homey country style and stocked with snacks and beverages, all paid for by the company. Every Wednesday, many of them gather for their morning fuel provided by members of the breakfast club in which co-workers take turns bringing in bagels, quiche, fruit, yogurt and more.
In an era of companies cutting back on benefits, MRM contributes 15 percent of employees' salary to their 401(k)s, pays 85 percent of the health insurance tab (80 percent for dependents), offers $1,800 in a flexible medical spending account and $250 toward a health-related expense, such as a gym membership or Weight Watchers program. Vacations range from three to six weeks.
Numerous perks include a girls' night out celebration attended by 30 employees and paid for by the company, birthdays off, flex time and company bonuses.
"How fortunate am I to have this job?" said Karen Clark, the office manager and assistant to the chairman. "It's almost embarrassing to talk about all the benefits we have here. I could never imagine working anywhere else."
Not that the employees don't work hard. Most new insurance policies are effective Jan. 1, leading to a busy season in the late fall and early winter. Lots of employees work very long hours then.
"We pay overtime to normally exempt salaried employees, even those who make six figures," McLean said. "The overtime rate varies by department, but starts at 1.75 times their hourly equivalent rate and varies up to over two times their normal rate."
The company has had a complicated string of owners and part-owners in its 25-year history, including ING, Safeco and Manulife Financial Corp. McLean joined the company at its start in 1988 and bought it for $500,000 in 2003 from Safeco, which kept some operations and most of the employees. He built it back up and sold it to Symetra four years later — for $32 million.
One reason for the sale: McLean feared that a Democratic president, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, would nationalize health care, wiping out the business. As it turned out, Obamacare has led to even more self-insurance by employers, a boon for MRM.