A Conversation With… Ed Buffett
To mark its 15th year of publishing, Benefits and Pensions Monitor is featuring a series of conversations with people who have made a significant contribution to the industry.
Thirteen years ago, a heart attack changed Ed Buffettʼs life. As president of Buffett Taylor & Associates, he had been running a successful benefits consulting company. Since then, the president and CEO of Buffett & Company Worksite Wellness Ltd. has been delivering a message about the need for wellness programs in the workplace.
The following is an edited version of the conversation between Buffett and Benefits and Pensions Monitor Executive Editor Joe Hornyak.
BPM: How would you describe the group benefits sector when you started your company in 1981?
Ed Buffett: In 1981, most Canadian employers had some form of a benefit program, but not everyone had a consultant. A lot of people dealt directly with the insurance carriers. At that point in time, there were many more insurance companies and, in some respects, that served the clients better than what has ultimately happened as companies have consolidated and there are fewer and fewer players.
BPM: What prompted plan sponsors to decide they needed consultants to look after their best interests?
EB: Back in those days, there were so many players that to really have an appreciation of how these insurers differentiated themselves required a comprehensive knowledge of the industry. The sponsors realized they should be talking to somebody who really knew the strengths and weaknesses of the various underwriters.
There were also issues of plan design. Certainly in the 1970s and the 1980s, there was a realization that there were more ways than one to skin a cat. Itʼs fair to say that, for the most part, consultants were the ones who were bringing these solutions to the attention of the plan sponsor.
BPM: Until the early 1990s, you were more of a traditional consulting firm. Then, you added a new focus to the company, wellness. What prompted the switch?
EB: By 1993, Iʼd been doing the same thing basically since 1981. I began to think that there was something we were missing.
Then, I had the misfortune – or in retrospect, the good fortune – of having a heart attack. Given what I had gone through, I looked at many of my peers and realized there were an awful lot of people out there like me – people who knew better, but were smoking, living sedentary lifestyles, not eating healthy meals, and didnʼt have a lot of skill when it came to managing stress.
I was fortunate that I had a very close relationship with my cardiologist. I had served as chair of the local hospital board and he was president of the medical staff. We had spent a lot of time talking about health and one of the things he impressed upon me was that we donʼt do a very good job in this country in the area of prevention.
That kept resonating with me. I recognized that one of the greatest opportunities we have to influence the way people approach their health is through the workplace. Where do we spend most of our waking hours? Most of us spend more time at work than we do with our families.
I started doing Web searches, looking for information related to preventative health, in particular, at the workplace. I found that, notwithstanding many of the challenges that our neighbours to the south face in the area of healthcare, the one area where they appeared to be significantly ahead of us was in the area of workplace wellness and health promotion.
In some respects, thatʼs understandable. Their healthcare system is one where the employer pays a much greater share of the cost. I also learned about the Wellness Councils of America – the passion of one man, Bill Kizer. Through his years of business experience, he understood that there was a tremendous role to be played in the area of prevention. He became an advocate of the importance of utilizing the worksite as a place to disseminate information and to create supportive environments to help people make healthy changes in their lives.
BPM: What was the next step?
EB: In 1995, I brought together a group of 25 to 30 major employers from the greater Toronto area to meet with Bill Kizer and others who were heavily involved in the Wellness Councils of America. We spent two days talking about the U.S. model and whether or not it might be appropriate in Canada, given the differences in the healthcare systems.
We also took steps to establish a Wellness Councils of Canada.
In those days, we were doing a lot of, for a lack of a better word, missionary work trying to impress on people that there was a strong business case for investing in the health of their employees. I think, intuitively, people knew we were right, but they couldnʼt get through this notion that health was really none of the employerʼs business.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -