- The Washington Times - Monday, December 13, 1999

Baltimore's RewardsPlus.com (www.rewardsplus.com) has found a unique niche in the lucrative employee benefits industry. The firm, whose founders all have backgrounds within the insurance industry, has created an Internet-based gateway between the work force and a benefits package.
"Banks and insurance companies have never been quick to adapt to new technology," said Ken Barksdale, president and chief executive officer of RewardsPlus.com. "We have a real opportunity right now to take dominant market share, because no one is doing exactly what we are doing, much less with the breadth and efficiency of how we are doing it."
A RewardsPlus.com survey of 98 benefits professionals found that more than a third of companies with 1,000 or more part-time employees are increasing their efforts to retain this pool of revolving personnel in a tight labor market.
One way to keep an employee around is enhancing his insurance programs or financial options which are sometimes too expensive for a small company to even offer.
RewardsPlus.com picks up where traditional benefit plans end by pooling the voluntary insurance buying power of employees across the country to provide group rate savings of up to 25 percent over independently purchased services.
The company allows the small-business employer to offer workers services such as life insurance, auto insurance, pet insurance, mortgages and even legal assistance.
RewardsPlus.com presents a benefits package to an employer who can then offer it to the employee. Applicants sign up via a Web site within a password-protected environment designed specifically for that company.
The seed of the idea started with Mr. Barksdale in 1994, but it did not take root until 1997 when the Internet buzz really began to evolve.
The founders created a call center and Web site, but as early as January 1998, only about 2 percent of employees went to the site. Today, about 25 percent of employees or 300,000 from companies located throughout the United States are accessing accounts via the Web.
RewardsPlus.com is not a broker, but a middleman with a proprietary Internet technology platform. Their interface allows employees to review, sign up for, and arrange for automatic deductions from a variety of top insurance providers such as AIG Life Companies, Cigna, Zurich insurance, Fireman's Fund Direct and Kemper Funds.
"The key components of what we offer include the payroll deduction, which is attractive to the employee as they are able to afford additional insurance when the cost is spread out over a series of checks," said Jamie Spriggs, chief information officer of RewardsPlus.com.
Mr. Spriggs believes another obvious benefit to his service is the ability to cleanly and efficiently communicate with employees over the Internet without phone calls and mailings.
The technology also allows RewardsPlus.com to connect to any of a company's existing systems to allow access to employee records and providing, when desired, a local area network presentation unique to that company.
"Early on we recognized that we had to do business with a lot of different systems, and would therefore need to be able interface with those systems," Mr. Spriggs said. "In our development, what we did was look for the lowest common denominator of all systems and built a turnkey interface that, regardless of the format, layout or language of the system, we can communicate with it on our end."
Mr. Spriggs believes RewardsPlus.com's growth is all but assured. The company expects to reach 700,000 people within the next few months and more than 1.2 million within the next year.
A new partnership with the Ceridian Corp., a paycheck processing firm, will also open RewardsPlus.com benefits to more than 10 million employees.
"It is largely knowing who the customer is and being able to harness the data," Mr. Barksdale said. "The Internet is the port of contact, not the human resources department. This means lower costs to the employer, ease of access to their account for the employee, and, when the employee leaves, it allows the policy to be portable."
Have an interesting site? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at the Business Browser, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail (joseph@twtmail.com).

Site of the Week

Site address: www.rewardsplus.com
Recommended user group: Small-company employers looking to offer their tech-savvy employees more reason to stay with their firm.
What's to like: The basic RewardsPlus.com Web site contains an on-line brochure for services available. On this site, visitors will find a listing of insurance and financial benefits providers as well as information on how the program can be offered from an employer to an employee.
One thing this site does not offer is an example of how a benefits package works, and that comes with a good reason. Each employee-benefit package is tailored for a specific company, including its costs.
A company-benefits site easily features sufficient information to make a purchase decision.
For example, for those considering auto insurance as offered by Fireman's Fund, the site first provides a detailed product overview and company profile. For ADT Security Services there was a product overview, company profile, text and illustrated example of a standard ADT Security System and an article on home security tips.
Many of the companies also offer the option of contacting a customer service representative on line. Clicking through to this option, visitors are greeted with a "cyber-busy signal" asking them to wait while they are being connected and are provided an average wait time estimate (in this instance, one minute).
Once connected, visitors will find themselves in a personal, live, real-time chat environment where they can ask questions and receive immediate answers regarding the considered benefit.
What's not to like: If your employer is not a subscriber to the RewardsPlus program, neither are you.

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