Join us in congratulating Mike Steele on his recent retirement
This month, our team would like to turn the spotlight on our very own founder, Mike Steele. Congratulations, Mike, on your retirement after 21 years with Steele. Mike was excited to join us for an interview to reflect on his career and legacy of the company. Let’s get this interview started!
Welcome to the spotlight, Mike. In your own words, can you tell me what Steele does?
That’s a great question! That’s the elevator speech that people still ask me. We are an employee benefits communication company, specializing in technology. We provide the platform and resources to help employees have the best understanding of benefits they’ve ever had.
How did you found Steele Benefits?
After 7 years as a teacher and coach, I went to work in insurance. I worked on the carrier side for 15 years. After 15 years, I was ready for a new challenge. Fortunately, Conseco (now CNO Financial) was interested in starting a Field Marketing Organization (FMO) to support K-12 education customers in Indiana. Conseco supported Steele with startup funding, and I opened Steele with about $30,000 in annual revenue and a loan of around $150,000. Our first office was in the basement of my home in Pittsboro, IN.
What were some of the early challenges the business faced?
When we started the company, we had a great network of CFO’s and Business Managers that were willing to hire us. We had a two year non-competition agreement with my former employer, so that was something we needed to be careful with. But the biggest challenge, by far, was that our new partner (Conseco) went from A-rated to having major financial problems. Potential customers were willing to hire us as people, but we were effectively representing a bankrupt company.
Wow! How did you deal with that?
We made the decision that we had to diversify. Although we founded the company planning to only represent Conseco, we expanded that portfolio to include other providers. Going through that early turmoil might have cost us some wins in the beginning, but without question it made us stronger long-term.
Steele has grown by almost 20% annually over a time period of 21 years. To what do you credit that success?
There were three things really. First, right solution, right place, right time. The market we went after had one major provider and there was a need for a second option. Second, our philosophy of family values really helped us in business. And third, we ran our business like a sports team. We valued hard work, team work, and integrity, and we built a team that those traits resonated with. We always did what was best for the employee (at our customers) 100% of the time, and that paid off for us.
What is the biggest misconception people have about Steele Benefits?
Well, I think initially when you think of insurance, you think our goal is to sell insurance. And that would be a misconception because our goal is to really provide knowledge, expertise, and education to (the customer’s) employees. Our real goal is to facilitate employer and employee relationships in a positive way to make benefits a great experience for workers.
What was the biggest change the company has gone through from the start to what it is today?
The biggest change from inception to today, hands down, was the transformation from just providing insurance to becoming more of an all-purpose employee benefits communication company with a leave behind benefit administration system. Because that’s really the service that we provide. The insurance I wouldn’t say is secondary, but it’s all a part of the big picture and it brings it all together.
What do you think is the biggest challenge Steele Benefits faces in the future?
That’s a good question, competition probably. I think when we started, it was like we were thinking ahead of the box. What used to be 5, 10, 15 competitors, now there’s probably 10,000. It is not only important to maintain our existing client base, but we also must continue to grow as well too. More competition means more expertise, so our competitors become better and sharper too. We need to be really good and at the top of our game, and we have to continue to transform and do things better and better all the time. That Includes not just the solutions we have, but the employees that we have. We will need to continue to add new people that can help take us to that next level. Challenges are going to be continuing to grow, maintain the Steele culture and make sure we are ready for any competitors that our out there and making sure we remain at the top of the list.
What is your biggest accomplishment in your 21 years with Steele?
We provide a lot of protection for a lot of people and families from the insurance aspect of it. We also provide a lot of expertise that they wouldn’t have gotten without us. The other scenario, if you just think about our existing employees, that becomes a big responsibility (for the organization). It’s not just the success of Steele and does it effect Mike and Beth, it effects a lot of people and a lot of families. So, we need to continue to maintain that so our employees can continue to provide for their families.
Looking back at your career, knowing what you know now, is there anything that you would do differently?
I don’t know…. probably not. I will say I have learned a lot! I know that in dealing with some of our employees today when I’m talking with them, I don’t look at myself as a know all, see all person but I also know during time and evolution of just being in the business, and experienced it for such a long time, including raising kids and coaching…you learn a lot on how to handle different situations. Whether they be business wise or personnel wise, and I think those are things I have grown into. But to answer your question, no I don’t think so. I can’t think of one thing in particular.
Here’s an analogy between team sports and working together in harmony; this story I would tell my team years ago would. I may not be, in fact I will clarify that, I’m not the best coach in the world. There’s no doubt there’s going to be some things that I do or decisions I make that may not be the best. In fact, they may be wrong. But what I can tell you, if that every player on our team is thinking the same way and working together, we can be a very good and successful team. So, I don’t want them looking at me to lead them to victory, it’s really not about me. And it’s no different at Steele Benefits. It’s really not about me. It’s more about are we working in sync, that’s really what’s important. And the challenge that we have now is that it’s not just one or two people. We have 30 people, different departments, they intermingle, they must communicate, and they must work together. So now the challenge is, we are a bigger team now. You have to make sure that everyone is doing their thing, for us to reach our maximum potential. Everybody has different strengths and making sure we have the right people in the right place is really important.
Why is now the right time to retire?
My wife Beth and myself are in good health. The business is in great shape. Beth and I want to do some things that certainly we couldn’t do if I was still working. I’m looking forward to seeing the United States for the first time.
What are your plans for retirement?
I guess really maintain health, exercise. Beth and I have never really traveled the United States. So, with the RV, we plan to travel across out west with other couples to experience the country. I also look forward to continuing to meet new people.