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April 2006
Offering a Diversified Benefits Group
By Heather Head

When Carroll Gennings was working her way through college, using the proceeds of fashion modeling gigs to help pay her way, she little knew that she would one day grow into a model in many other ways as well.

Model Businesswoman

Clients rave about Group Insurance Solutions, the company Gennings founded in 1997. They love her products, her expertise, and the fact that she is always available to them to guide them through all the many facets of the insurance process. And they love that she returns their calls. Says Gennings, “One of my biggest pet peeves is when people don’t return my phone calls. So I make sure I do, and I make sure I get it done.” That means that even vacation isn’t really vacation for Gennings, who is always checking e-mail, voice mail, and solving client problems on their schedule, not hers.

But she doesn’t mind, because she loves her work. “I tell my daughter all the time to do whatever you love doing,” she says. “Because if you love doing it, it doesn’t seem like work.” Because of that, her clients know that they can call her any time and she and her staff will be genuinely happy to help them.

Gennings helps clients with a wide range of insurance products, including health, life, dental, disability, vision, and voluntary products. Whatever their specific needs, Gennings will shop the market and find the best solution, assisting from beginning to end with identification of needs, shopping and choosing a carrier, presenting benefits to employees, handling paperwork and legal requirements, troubleshooting and interacting with the carrier, and solving problems and answering questions.

By shopping dozens of carriers, Gennings takes much of the hassle and guesswork out of the process for new and existing clients. Once bids are received for a company, Group Insurance Solutions consolidates all the information into a single spreadsheet comparing everything from cost to deductibles to benefit coverage. She goes over the spreadsheet with the client and together they select the best carrier for the company’s needs.

Says one client, “She is an expert in getting the best offers for insurance coverage, and even handles issues beyond the renewal stage as far as billing, questions, and employee requests.”

And that is one thing that sets Gennings apart from many brokers – her work doesn’t stop at the sale. She can assist companies in presenting and explaining benefits and how best to use them to employees, buffer the relationship with the carrier, and address concerns and questions as they arise.

Model Citizen

But as committed as Gennings is to her work, there is something else that holds her interest – and her heart. Gennings is on the board of a local charity called A Better World which provides support and opportunities for inner city children through a special after school program on West Morehead.

Gennings says the first time she went to visit A Better World, she was struck by the stark contrast between how these children live and most of the rest of Charlotte. “It’s a very impoverished area. Their norm is to look out their door and see a drug deal – a norm that most kids in Charlotte don’t see. I feel it is our obligation to help these children see that there is hope, and a real chance at a better future given the right guidance and tools in life. And that is what A Better World gives them.”

One story Gennings will never forget was how she heard the mother of one of the students telling the director, Ken Gilliard, of the holes in the roof of their rented home, and how the landlord would not come out and help her fix it. Rain was coming in and getting on the children’s beds, and she felt hopeless. A few minutes later the woman’s child was dropped off by bus and he came running into the center, grinning and proud, showing off his report card – all A’s and B’s. He had gone from making C’s and D’s to being on the honor roll.

Remembers Gennings: “I thought, this kid lives with things we can’t even imagine. And then he comes here and he’s happy, smiling, and proud of what he was able to accomplish with the help from A Better World. That’s all he cared about at that moment; that made a real difference in his life. That’s what touched us.”

Among the benefits A Better World offers are homework assistance, tutoring, mentoring, computer access and a hot meal each day. Gennings shows her commitment to the work in part by assisting with their annual fundraiser, a Celebrity Invitational golf tournament. She brings in celebrities like John Fox, Kris Jenkins, Steve Smith, Wesley Walls, Steve Beuerlein, Billy Packer, and many others. Team sponsors get to play with a celebrity, and A Better World wins all the proceeds.

In addition to her heartfelt commitment to A Better World, Gennings demonstrates her model citizenship in another way as well – by treating her own employees fairly and generously. For instance, she lets everyone know that their family comes first and that if there is an event they need to attend, or if their child is sick, that they are encouraged to take care of that. “We all pitch in to help each other and provide flexibility as needed, to make sure our families and our clients are taken care of,” Gennings says confidently.

Model Parent

True to what she says, although work and charity are of great importance to Gennings, neither takes top billing on her priority list: “My motto around here is your family comes first. It always has come first for me.”

In 1990, when her first child was born, Gennings was working for Blue Cross Blue Shield, and her schedule necessitated daycare for her new daughter. “I didn’t like that,” she remembers. “But my husband started his own business shortly thereafter and was able to work from home, so we took her out of nursery and had someone come to the house and take care of her there.”

From that point, she and her husband took turns being available for their children, and making sure they always made it to their important events. “I think my children think all parents work for themselves,” laughs Gennings. “They wonder why someone’s parents aren’t at an event and you have to explain to them that they’d like to be there but they can’t because they work for someone else. We have just been very blessed to own our own business and be our own boss.”

Although her children are now 15 and 12 respectively, Gennings hasn’t changed her policy of putting them first. Sometimes, this plays out in surprising and fun ways – like the small part as “extras” she and her daughter played together in the movie Shallow Hal filmed here in Charlotte. At one point in the movie, Hal’s best friend is meeting Hal’s new girlfriend (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) for the first time. Just before he realizes which woman Hal is pointing to, the scene shows a woman, man and child walk directly in front of Gwyneth. Gennings and her daughter are that woman and child. “Every time the networks showed a clip of that movie to advertise it, they used that particular scene and my children got a real kick out of that.”

Modeling the Future

Having been a part-time model in college and participating as an extra in a few movies, Gennings says she never imagined that she would one day be an insurance broker – and love it. She always knew that she wanted to be in marketing or sales and spent several years in retail sales developing those skills, but she imagined herself eventually in New York City as a fashion marketer or something similarly glamorous.

After graduating from the University of Arkansas with a BA in marketing in 1988 and then moving to Charlotte with her husband that same year, she was delighted when Blue Cross offered her an inside sales and service position. The job was a good fit, and Gennings quickly moved up in the company.

But in 1996, the company went through a transition period, and Gennings began to evaluate her future. She loved working at Blue Cross, and speaks well of the company still. But she also loved her relationships with customers, and wanted to continue seeing that their needs were met but also wanted to increase the level of service she could provide.

Larry Goodgame, a friend and fellow insurance broker, encouraged her to consider following his path. His ethical and honest approach to this business inspired her to strike out on her own.

So that year, Goodgame partnered with her and gave her a space to call her office, while helping her navigate her new role as an independent broker. The company grew that year by more than 100 percent, and continued to do so for another two years. Since then, she estimates that it has grown approximately 20 percent each year, almost exclusively through referrals.

In 1998, she was also made an exclusive marketing broker for the Medical Mutual Insurance Company to market the North Carolina Medical Society health plans to area medical practices. With this arrangement, she handles all of the quoting and enrollment for area practices that want these exclusive health plans. This Association plan has helped hundreds of medical practices keep their healthcare costs under control.

Challenges Posed

But that doesn’t mean the business has been without its challenges, and one of the largest challenges has been the rampantly escalating cost of healthcare and health insurance. Remembers Gennings: “When I started in this business in 1988, we had a health insurance rate for an employee in the $30 range, and a family was right at $55. Now some people feel fortunate if they have a rate of $250 for an employee and $750 for a family.”

The rising cost causes many employers to cut back on their benefits, and others drop the insurance altogether – though obviously Gennings never recommends that route. To buffer the pain, says Gennings, “You’ve got to be creative, you have to come up with unique ways to cut that cost, so that the employees are happy and the employers are happy. This creativity is what we bring to the client.”

“We help our clients add Health Reimbursement Accounts or Health Savings Accounts to certain health plans to help lower their overall costs, along with a few other creative options.” Gennings says her work is now more hands-on than ever before, because she views it as her job to help buffer the impact of these rising costs both for employees and employers.

One way she does this is to visit client sites during the enrollment period and discuss the changes with the employees. So instead of simply telling the employees, “Here you go, your deductible has just doubled,” she begins by showing them how much costs have risen, why they have risen, and how much of the cost her client is bearing.

“It’s a softer sell,” she explains. “My job is to make my clients look good to their employees, and help educate the employees at the same time.”

Despite the challenges, and perhaps because of how Gennings handles them, her clients rave. Says Kathy Kiser of Watson Electric Company, “She not only is involved at renewal time with quotes and answers, she is here for us all during the year to help with questions and problems.” Adds Jane Byrum of Carolina Ear Nose and Throat, “This is a company that truly goes the extra mile to satisfy their customers.”

Poised for Growth

Gennings knows that the insurance industry is always changing and evolving with rising costs a big factor, and she is poised and ready to enjoy the ride for many years to come – more growth, more service to the community, and of course plenty more activities with her family. Her business goal is yearly growth of 20 to 25 percent over the next five years, and the addition of more staff as needed.

As for her other commitments, she’d like to see the fundraising for A Better World continue to grow as well – she expects to increase this year’s funds from the Celebrity Invitational Golf tournament to $50,000 over last year’s $40,000. And she would like to continue her annual “Adopt A Child” program at Christmastime, so all children can enjoy the holidays.

“We’re all here for a purpose,” she says, “And I think this is my calling.” It would be hard to imagine anyone answering the call better.

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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