Recovery Agents

A Burlington native and Ethan Allen’s great-great-great-great-great-grandson help New England employers have the insurance they need at competitive prices

by Janet Essman Franz

Northern Benefits' Allen Nassif and Jon GuyetteWhen their employer, Kaiser Permanente, closed its Vermont offices, Allen Nassif (right) and Jon Guyette saw a chance to put their experience to work in a new company of their own — Northern Benefits, on Cherry Street in Burlington.

Allen Nassif and Jon Guyette first encountered one another at the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge in South Burlington. Nassif was director of sales and marketing for Community Health Plan (CHP), with a home in Williamstown, Mass., and offices in Bennington and Williston; Guyette was working the front desk at the hotel, which was managed by his mother. 

During Nassif’s frequent stays, he and Guyette became friends, so it made sense when, in 1991, he recruited Guyette to the CHP sales team. “I needed a salesperson,” says Nassif, “he was personable, and I said, ‘Hey, how about coming to work for me?”

They worked for CHP through its shift to Kaiser Pemanente in 1997 to Kaiser Permanente’s eventual departure from the Vermont market in 1999, leaving the Vermont staff to find new jobs.

“We were both interviewing at other places,” says Nassif, “and then we said, ‘Why don’t we do this ourselves?’ We had a lot of people we had taken care of as clients, and we wanted to make sure they were taken care of correctly.” he says. “There was an opportunity in the marketplace for someone who is interested in taking care of Vermonters with a Vermont solution.”

Nassif and Guyette enjoyed working together and knew they had the right skills and relationships to run an employee benefits company on their own. They developed a business plan and chose a name — Northern Benefits — that is geographically broad because they planned to eventually reach beyond Vermont. Their first clients were people with whom they had relationships at CHP and Kaiser.

They launched Northern Benefits with one employee, Carolyn Smith, who had worked with them at CHP and Kaiser. “Carolyn took a gamble to come with us, to work for a business that wasn’t a business yet,” Nassif says. Smith remains part of the Northern Benefits management team. 

Nassif, 55, grew up around health care in North Adams, Mass., where his father owned a pharmacy and was president of the Massachusetts state board of pharmacists. His family has old ties to Vermont.

“Ethan Allen was my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather,” he says. “That is where my name, Allen, came from.” Although he has no close relatives in Vermont, his distant cousins live in Weston, Randolph, and the Burlington area.

Nassif followed his father into a career as a pharmacist. He attended the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and worked in the family pharmacy for 15 years, eventually becoming a partner. While there, he formed another company, Pain Management, which marketed high-tech electronic medical equipment. He eventually sold Pain Management to a publicly traded company and continued managing it for a couple of years. 

“I still owned the pharmacy but wasn’t working in it,” says Nassif. He took a hiatus to spend time with his then-wife and their children. He joined CHP in 1991, and just under a year later, recruited Guyette. 

Heather Smith and Carolyn SmithNorthern Benefits employs 12 people in Vermont and three in Maine, all of whom worked previously for insurance carriers. Carolyn Smith (left) is senior employee benefits specialist and Heather Smith is an administrator.

Guyette, 37, is a Burlington native and graduate of Burlington High School. His father was a Burlington police officer. He went to work at the Howard Johnson’s following graduation from Champlain College with a degree in business. 

In 2002, he married Courtney Mead, the granddaughter of the late Dudley Davis, renowned Burlington banker and business leader. "He gave us a lot of guidance in running a business," says Nassif. "He was our mentor."

Northern Benefits negotiates coverage from providers and tailors packages for medical, dental, vision, life and long-term care, along with retirement programs and wellness education resources. The company serves about 2,500 clients in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Clients range from small offices with one employee to companies with 500 employees in multiple sites. These include banks, automobile dealerships, Realtors, manufacturers, retail stores and transportation companies.

Growth was swift: Revenue doubled annually for the first three years and has continued to grow 20 to 30 percent each year since. The Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce last year named Northern Benefits Small Business of the Year, recognizing the company’s commitment to the community and its solid growth in sales.

Today, Northern Benefits maintains Vermont offices in Burlington, Brattleboro, Barre, and Ludlow; and Maine offices in Gorham and Kennebunk. The business plan takes them into Massachusetts and eastern New York in the next 12 to 18 months, and they are on track, says Nassif. 

The company employs 12 people in Vermont and three in Maine, all of whom worked previously for insurance carriers. “We don’t think of them as employees, but as coworkers,” says Nassif. “Everyone here is dedicated and, hard-working, and understands the value of good service.”  

In addition to running Northern Benefits, Nassif and Guyette invest in Burlington real estate. They own and manage more than 50 commercial and residential properties in the city.

In 1997, Nassif married and settled in Colchester. His wife, Karen Richardson-Nassif, is an associate dean at the UVM College of Medicine.

Through the years, Guyette and Nassif have developed numerous relationships that helped their business expand.

“They seem to know everyone and they are very involved in the community,” says Rob Foley, an owner of Robert Foley Real Estate. “They are out there, bringing business colleagues to dinner, golf or parties.” Foley is a Northern Benefits client and owns property with Guyette and Nassif.

The partners stress the importance of this kind of service. “We run our business on cell phones. When people here go on vacation, they take their laptops and cell phones and make sure our clients are taken care of,” says Nassif. 

Outreach includes creating newsletters, payroll stuffers and Web sites that help employees understand their health care options. In July, Northern Benefits rolled out a wellness program that provides employers with tools such as workshops, walking challenges, and an online library to help workers achieve better health. 

The busiest times for Northern Benefits are fall and early winter, when companies are putting insurance benefits packages together for the first of the year. “We work really hard from September to February,” says Nassif. “It takes a lot to meet with people, find out what their goals are, determine what they need, put it in place, and then follow up to make sure it goes smoothly. 

Balancing clients’ insurance needs with increasing costs for health care is challenging. “We help make sure they are competitive and they are taxed correctly,” says Guyette. “We try to focus on small to mid-sized companies that want to save money on their benefits. We save the majority of our clients 15 to 20 percent.”

Nassif says his biggest challenge has been dealing with health care reform — “or lack thereof,” he adds, dryly. “It’s been an ever-changing entity, trying to structure businesses to maintain the level of coverage they want for their employees and stay competitive. Doing business in Vermont is not easy. We try to get people through it.”

It is rewarding, and sometimes heart-wrenching, to help people with their health issues, he continues. “We see a lot of people who aren’t healthy, and you try to solve their problems. That’s one thing you learn in this business — if you don’t have your health you have nothing.

Helping people comes easily to Nassif and Guyette. Both are involved in community service, from volunteering at charitable fundraisers to serving on civic organizations. As a company, Northern Benefits supports food shelves, homeless shelters, and youth centers, and staff are encouraged to participate in community projects, even during work hours. For 10 years, Nassif has served on the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce health care policy committee, and last year he served on the Catamount Health work group. Guyette volunteers for the MVP Health Care board of directors. 

Both men enjoy golf, skiing, and traveling with their spouses. Nassif is a former ski racer who skis frequently at Okemo Mountain Resort. Guyette spends winter days with his daughters at Cochran’s Ski Area.

Family time is important, not just for the partners but for all who work at Northern Benefits. “We are all about family. Our people take as many vacation days as they need. Everyone has a laptop and is able to work from home and work around their families’ schedules.“ •