October 9, 2020

Meet the Nava Team: Ralph Spagnuola

The Nava Team

Each week, Nava will introduce you to a different member of our team who'll share their thoughts on Nava, the industry, and the mission ahead. Read on to learn more about what brought Ralph to Nava:

Tell us a bit about yourself:

I've had a 20+ year career in the benefits space, which started at Oxford Health Plans in New York. During my six years at Oxford, I learned the ins and outs of insurance plans for small- and large-group plans and ended up managing a 500-person block of brokers, selling $20M in new business, and renewed $200M in large-group business. After Oxford was acquired by UnitedHealthcare, I had my first "aha" career moment: I could help the clients who were actually paying the premium, versus working for a company that was collecting the premium itself.

So, in 2005, I purchased a partner's book of business and spent the next decade building a well-established brokerage firm in New York. I came up with innovative strategies to control benefits spend while maintaining robust employee benefit plans; I was focused on making sure it never felt like an "either/or" for my clients. After developing an interest in marrying benefits technology with employee benefits plans, I partnered with a human capital management (HCM) company to do just that. That experience helped me understand the early days of how technology could link together and improve the way employers managed their HR responsibilities. After learning more about the emerging tools, I went back to the brokerage space and joined one of the largest firms in the NYC metropolitan area, running their sales department and serving on their executive leadership team.

Which brings us to today: I recently joined as a Partner in Nava's Benefits Consulting practice, where I help small-to-midsized companies navigate the growing complexity of the healthcare industry.

Outside of work, I spend time with my family and am a big-time sports enthusiast — I coach my son's baseball team, play a lot of sports, and admittedly watch too much sports.

Why healthcare? And why Nava?

When I started my career, I thought I would use healthcare as a stepping stone into another career after a year or so. But, as I dug into the industry, I realized how rewarding the work was. Healthcare in this country is broken; to be able to be part of the solution — to help companies offer robust benefits at a good price — made me feel like I was offering a valuable service.

I followed this feeling to Nava and its mission of delivering high-quality, affordable healthcare to all Americans. To have an opportunity to improve and change the marketplace is compelling, and to do this while building a company from the ground-up is a unique opportunity to say the least.

At Nava, we're looking at the industry differently. "Technology" has been a benefits buzzword, but often turns off HR leaders who fear that they're losing the human element needed in making benefits decisions. Nava is not a pure technology company; we recognize the need for advisors and cross-functional experts who can understand each clients' unique scenario and goals. So, we use technology as one of the many tools that can help an employer meet its goals. This nuance is important since it reflects a foundational pillar of being customer-centric. When I first met with Nava co-founders Brandon and Donald, I grilled them on their commitment to being a service-led company; and I'm happy to share that it's the main focus, across client success, operations, and even marketing.

Along with being service-oriented, Nava is making investments in lead generation. In the benefits consulting world, the hardest part of our day is getting a message out to our audience. Nava is investing heavily in helping benefits consultants connect with the employers who need our help, and at scale.

What do you find so interesting about the benefits brokerage space specifically?

As a benefits consultant, you're constantly faced with challenges — each day, each client, and each renewal is different. While there are similarities among them, each scenario forces you to come up with fresh and creative strategies to help employers through a very consequential challenge.

What's one aspect of employer benefits that you are most excited to reinvent?

Hands-down, it has to be accountability for the broker. We should be able to set performance goals with our clients and then be held to them throughout the year. But, it's hard to do that when employers themselves don't know what "good", let alone "great", means in this industry. I tell everyone that I'm the best at what I do — and I believe it. But how can I communicate that to employers when there's no objective set of standards or metrics to evaluate us on?

Before working at Nava, what was the most unusual or interesting job you’ve ever had?

One summer, I was a bartender on a beach at the Jersey shore. I'll keep this Q&A family-friendly, but you can imagine the stories you get down at the Shore during some lively Saturday nights...

What do you hope to accomplish with Nava over the next year? The next five years?

The benefits brokerage industry has been stuck in the same hamster wheel for years. I want Nava to create a new brokerage model that vastly improves outcomes for employers and their employees, and one that will change the market. Five years from now, I hope we're large enough that we can capitalize on our early success and serve as an industry leader that forces all other brokerages to level-up their offerings.

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