If the benefits insurance brokerage industry is not extinct or even mightily damaged this year, we can, in part, thank Bob Klonk—fundraiser, mover and shaker, and YouTube star.
As co-chair of The Council’s political action committee, CouncilPAC, Klonk has quick-studied, explained, broadcast, arm-twisted and generally asserted himself all over the health reform policy on behalf of the industry.
“I’m a pretty passionate guy,” he explains. “I’ve got a little bit of intensity, and I’m not afraid to ask for money.”
Indeed, says a colleague, “He’ll go right up to people and say he needs five hundred bucks. Or a thousand.”
His paying job has two titles: director of benefits and executive vice president of organization at The Oswald Companies in Cleveland. But Klonk spent much of 2009 raising money in support of members of Congress who vote in ways helpful to the industry. He also made four trips to Washington, D.C., from his home state of Ohio to talk to lawmakers and, perhaps more significantly, to answer their questions. With his help, CouncilPAC raised a record-breaking $700,000 last year.
In the spring of 2009, at The Council’s Employee Benefits Leadership Forum at the Broadmoor, anxiety over healthcare reform sent ice water chills through the blood of many of the assembled. What would the changes mean? How would the industry respond? And what were the changes, after all?
“The issue was a moving target,” Klonk says. “News and rumors changed every week during the course of the summer, but there was nothing of substance. There was lots of misinformation about things that might happen.”
By September, Klonk had convened a summit of 400 clients and experts, including Ohio’s members of Congress; Joel Wood, The Council’s senior vice president for government affairs; representatives of the state health insurance plan; local hospital officials; and others. After a gratifying half-day of brainstorming, Klonk hit upon the idea of creating a series of weekly YouTube videos that would chronicle the news on healthcare legislation.
It’s good that Klonk didn’t settle for mere update emails, for it would be a shame to harness his energy in print. He’s that much fun to watch. The Bob Klonk “show” has jokes, wishes, facts, explanations and editorializing. From bullet points propped up before him in big print, Klonk extemporizes into a handheld camera in his office, operated by a staffer. High tech it ain’t.
“He could have chosen to just read something,” says Ed Waters, CFO of Merit Brass, a Cleveland client. “But like Obama, when he’s speaking, you can’t look away.”
“Bob is not just a figurehead,” Waters continues. “He understands what he’s talking about.”
The Council was looking for precisely those communication skills when it appointed Klonk to CouncilPAC three years ago. And reappointed him. Twice.
“We love Bob around here,” says Webb Milward, The Council’s director of political affairs. “He’s really smart. He’s very motivated. He has a total understanding of what we do. He is just a really invaluable asset.” And—this is not unimportant—“he’s just a blast, personally and professionally.”
Milward feels that what makes Klonk different is his “aggressive” enthusiasm. “He’s always pushing me to raise more money and fight harder,” Milward says. “Today, he’ll come up with some new idea, and I’ll have to go chase it down and see it through. But everybody loves him.”
In the past year, Klonk has made four trips to Washington to educate lawmakers about the insurance industry, how it works and what it wants.
“In its purest form, insurance is a transfer of risk,” Klonk says. He’s a bit frustrated about trying to explain that, “in order to waive pre-existing conditions, you have to have everybody in the pool,” including the young and healthy.
Klonk resisted the rush for reform, believing that Democrats wanted to get something—anything—passed before the next election. Klonk feels that true reform should be done incrementally, over several years. He thinks Congress should tear up the thousands of pages of current legislation and start over, working in a bipartisan way that drives results and not political rhetoric. Short of that, he considers the new reform legislation “unsustainable,” a sweeping government takeover that, Klonk says, “will become one more entitlement program that will bring this country closer to financial ruin.”
Didn’t we tell you he doesn’t mince words?
Still, Klonk has listened to and learned from his senators and congressmen. He says he has more respect for the job that lawmakers do, regardless of party. “They have a tough job,” Klonk says. “I hear them struggle to understand aspects of healthcare reform and make it right.”
Because Klonk can simplify concepts with the best of them, Assurex Global president and CEO Jim Hackbarth named him to his own board three years ago. “Because he’s really a dynamic guy,” Hackbarth says, “and has a great grasp of the industry issues.”
But what makes him unique, says Hackbarth, is that “even though people think this business is boring, Bob can break things down and explain them in a way that people will listen, and you know he knows what he’s talking about.”
This is especially crucial, he notes, “when one third of the membership of Assurex Global are not native speakers of English.”
Hackbarth considers Klonk’s “dynamic sense of humor” to be his best weapon. “It attracts people to him,” he says. “People will listen to him, and, of course, Bob is very charismatic and charming.” But it’s not all show. “When you get past that, he can go extremely deep within a topic, especially on the health and benefits side.”
Klonk is known among his colleagues for his passion about insurance, but few know its deeply personal origin. The second of five children of a banker and a homemaker, Klonk was only 10 years old when his father died suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 35.
“I remember that every month or two, our insurance agent would come to the house for coffee and conversation. He ended up selling my father three $5,000 life insurance policies. For a family of five with a non-working mom, that wasn’t enough. It always sort of bugged me in the back of my head. Maybe I could do it differently.”
A Cleveland native, Klonk graduated from Padua High and studied criminal justice at Cleveland State. When his mother needed money to help raise his four sisters, Klonk left college to work as a real estate agent. Though he could sell igloos to Floridians, he found that the financial rewards in real estate were too unpredictable.
Remembering his father’s poor life insurance, he returned to Cleveland State as an insurance major but soon had to leave school again to work. “I didn’t have any money and never graduated,” he says. “But I had a wealth of street knowledge.”
In 1980, at the age of 25, he passed his insurance test, got his license and started his career with MetLife, sitting across dining tables from clients, drinking coffee and selling life insurance. Two years later he joined Cleveland’s Thomas J. Unik Co., where he transitioned into employee benefits.
The Oswald Companies—an employee-owned company, 270 owners strong—recruited Klonk in 1995. CEO and chairman Marc Byrnes, then head of benefits, “hired me to help with his plan to build the employee benefits division, and we did that together,” Klonk says.
During Klonk’s tenure the department has grown from four employees to 65. “I’m proud of the people I’ve hired and the success that they’ve had,” he says. In hiring, he says, he looks for people “who want to be the best. They don’t have to be the best, but they have to want it.”
Pat Perry, president of Cleveland’s Employee Resource Council, agrees that Klonk knows how to hire. “I like the investment they have made in service individuals,” he says. “The traditional service agency is top-heavy in salespeople with some in service. Oswald designed the business to have an equal, wonderful balance between sales and service.”
Perry likes the way Klonk “really maximizes benefit choices,” holds quarterly strategy sessions with clients, and has hotlines that clients can call for instant help. “They just continue to do things for their clients,” Perry says. “You could see it as a service organization, not a sales organization.”
Client Ed Waters agrees. “I can go to Bob with real questions,” Waters says. “He’s thinking during the phone call. And a week later he’s still at it. He’s truly interested in satisfying clients. There’s a reason we’ve been with him a long time. It’s not price; it’s product.”
“Bob would be a great politician,” Hackbarth says. “He can handle the issues, communicate and get people to follow him. I know, because of him, Oswald has been able to land some pretty sizable international accounts. As a firm, they’ve done very well.”
Klonk says the firm grew organically five or six percent last year. He calls Oswald “a wonderful place to be part of, with a great group of people. My job is to sweep the floors and oversee the people who do all the work. Being employee-owned means everybody acts like an owner, and they have a tremendous passion for their work.”
Klonk specializes in the financial and technical aspects of benefits plan design, and after nearly 30 years he has seen results from preventive programs such as weight loss and smoking cessation.
“We track the effectiveness of health assessment, prevention and education services,” he says, “and they have reduced both costs and the risks of the population.”
When it comes to prevention incentives—exercise, nutrition, stress reduction—impatience won’t do. “You’ve got to understand the risk and the readiness for change in your population,” he says. “People will change when they want to, not when you want them to.”
He is a crusader for good mental health as both life-enhancing and economical. “Antidepressants are the fastest growing class of drugs right now,” he says. “Employers underestimate how important it is that people have access to counseling and that there’s a tremendous cost to depression. There is absenteeism, but there is also “presenteeism,” when employees show up but are not really there. Presenteeism costs employers millions and millions of dollars.”
This kind of insight is what makes Pat Perry say, “I’ve met hundreds of insurance professionals, and there is not a close second to Bob Klonk. He is the smartest and easily the most well rounded risk management and insurance professional I know.”
Which perhaps inspires fear in others.
“People who know him absolutely love and respect him,” Perry says. “Others keep him at arm’s length. The insurance industry is so cutthroat and so competitive, and he’s the team who won the world championship, and now he’s had decades of being the number one guy in the region.
“Nobody can’t like Bob, but some are jealous. And even his fiercest competitor will respect what Bob has done. His competition actually learns from Bob. But he’s a humble guy, and he’d never say that.”
In spite of his YouTube stardom and his widely acknowledged charisma, Klonk is not about to leave his hometown for a greater metropolis. Klonk says he’s “too stupid to leave Cleveland.” He won’t abandon the town until the Browns win the Super Bowl, Klonk says, “which will be never.” But he gives the town glitter.
“He’s kind of disarming in his brilliance,” Hackbarth says, “being that people think you’ve got to be from the East Coast to be swift.”
Perry agrees that the self-effacing Klonk deserves “recognition that he never seeks.” For example, “Bob has done so much for the industry that, if there were an insurance hall of fame, Bob would be the first inductee.”
Cleveland already boasts official halls of fame for rock and roll, softball, sports in general and the polka. Why not insurance? We know just the right fundraiser.
The Good Life: Bob Klonk
Home: Strongsville, Ohio
Family: “Happily divorced with two wonderful children: a son, J. R., 13, and a precious daughter, Gianna Marie, 10. They are my reason for living.”
Ride: 2009 Jaguar XKR convertible, black with an oyster leather interior “because Gianna Marie wanted a convertible with a back seat,” and a Yukon Denali “for coaching baseball.”
Fandom: “I’m not a Browns fan. They’re embarrassing.”
Sports: Golf and weightlifting
Do Gooding: Board of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. “That one I care about a lot because my youngest sister is afflicted.”
Fun: “I quit my social life. Everything is just work and kids.”