Q&A With Our CEO: Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

John Dulczak sitting in his office

As Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of RetireeFirst, John Dulczak oversees business strategy, growth planning, and overall operations for the company. Under John’s leadership, the organization has grown significantly since its founding and continues to expand its employee base among all functional departments. He co-founded RetireeFirst to design and administer Medicare-based group retiree health benefit plans on behalf of clients, and to help retirees navigate the complex healthcare benefits marketplace.

Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I founded RetireeFirst (formerly Labor First) in 2005 on a laptop in my condo. I had very little to go on at first, as resources and financial support were both limited to what I could dedicate to the effort. However, I’ve never shied away from taking chances to realize my vision of creating a truly innovative platform to help retirees navigate and understand the ever-changing landscape of healthcare benefits. Earlier in my career, I’d worked as a pharmacy sales representative for a major health insurance company, but I knew it wasn’t where I belonged, and I was ready to do something that made more of an impact.

My biggest inspiration was growing up in a household where my father and grandfather were labor union leaders with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. I saw how hard they worked to make an impact, and I took a risk because I knew I had to build on their achievements and do more to help the labor union population they so deeply cared for.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

RetireeFirst is changing the way a population has been looked at and managed in the employee benefit world for, essentially, forever. We’re updating the status quo through our design, implementation, management, and service of group retiree Medicare Advantage, Medicare Supplement, and Medicare Part D plans. Our retiree solutions help plan sponsors generate financial savings, extend the life of the benefits, and add a concierge level of service for both the retirees and client staff.

With our ongoing advocacy and support, RetireeFirst has demonstrated there is a better way forward for Medicare retirees and for the plan sponsors who provide benefits. There is a cost-effective way to offer plan members the highest quality benefits available and to help them understand and use those benefits to their fullest potential.

We’re delivering what every retired citizen in the world needs and wants — someone on their side, working on their behalf.

“RetireeFirst is changing the way a population has been looked at and managed in the employee benefit world for, essentially, forever.”

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

About 12 years ago, I’d been asked to speak at a conference. I thought it was just a session or a workshop, but it turns out, it was more of a keynote discussion. So, because I didn’t realize I had to keep the speech general and industry focused, I’d prepared my presentation with several case studies, data, and other information specific to RetireeFirst’s work. I didn’t get the notice that speakers were supposed to refrain from mentioning their companies during presentations and, by then, it was too late. If I opted not to use what I had, then I had no speech or presentation. I was sweating it, but I made the decision to just roll with it and apologize later. Although the moderator was unhappy with me and my mistake did not go unaddressed by the conference organizers, it ended up being a very happy mistake. When I finished my speech and stepped down, about 10 attendees followed me out of the room to continue the discussion and learn more. We signed them all up as new clients.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

My mentor has been my father. I’m in an industry I wouldn’t be in if he hadn’t been a trustee on a union health and welfare benefit plan and a member of the Teamsters for almost 50 years. Growing up with that background and allowing me to understand and speak knowledgeably in that marketplace, which is a tough sector, was very beneficial. My father also taught me how to be a leader. He has a calm demeanor and is a great listener. Listening is one of the most powerful tools you can have as a leader. It helps you learn, build trust, and encourage loyalty. Without his mentorship, I wouldn’t have been able to design the company in a way that would have been positively received by others in my dad’s role as a decision maker and, more importantly, as a retiree.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is “not so positive”?

Some of the technology-based disruption in the retiree benefit market is potentially negative because many senior citizens are just not there yet. That’s not how they want to be serviced or how they want to communicate. I understand that websites, apps, and various forms of online communication are designed to make life easier, but that’s not always the case with the retiree population.

At RetireeFirst, we view disruption as providing retirees the level of service and support that works for them and not what works best for a company’s bottom line. We’re actually disrupting the way retirees utilize and obtain their benefits in a good way — by providing them with dedicated advocacy, which no one has ever done. We work with them, communicate with them, and assist them until a solution is found.

Four men sitting around an office table talking
Left to Right: Dave Zawrotny, John Dulczak, Gian Ricchezza, and Anthony Frasco

Can you share five of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

I’ve got three:

  • You must be loyal.
  • Don’t forget where you come from.
  • Always treat people the way you’d like to be treated.

This advice has been repeated to me throughout my life and career, and I’ve witnessed others who I admire and respect living and working by these mantras. It’s important to embody them as well, personally and professionally. It all goes back to practicing what you preach.

Companies get so focused on growth that they forget the commitment they made to their very first client or their second client, but it’s so important that we don’t forget how we got to where we are today. I believe that if you are always gracious and appreciative of your clients and the people in your life, then you naturally abide by those principles.

“At RetireeFirst, we view disruption as providing retirees the level of service and support that works for them and not what works best for a company’s bottom line.”

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

We recently rebranded from Labor First to RetireeFirst to create a refreshed brand identity to convey the company’s position as the leading group Retiree Benefit Management solutions and retiree advocacy service provider across all markets it serves. Although the company name is changing, the organization remains exactly the same with respect to management and personnel, solutions and services offered, client and partner base, and retiree healthcare plans.

Because, ultimately, we’re trying to make a bigger impact on retirees’ health and overall wellness. We want to see longer, happier, healthier lives. This means working to close gaps in care. It also involves educating retirees about the best choices and options available to them. When someone retires, healthcare becomes so critical. When we’re working hard our whole lives, as younger and busier people, healthcare isn’t always a top priority. As we age, though, that changes. We, as a society, have a responsibility to do as much as we can for our older generations, to help them make the most out of their current circumstances.

My team and I believe that’s done by building trust. We form relationships with the retirees we serve, advocating for and working with them to ensure they receive their benefits and can use them without confusion or hesitation. When they need us, we’re there to resolve issues, present solutions, and offer any support they require. Our retirees have come to trust us, which is an honor. Because they have faith in us, that puts the RetireeFirst team in a unique position to influence them to make healthier decisions, whether that’s encouraging them to utilize nutrition and exercise programs or encouraging them to keep and attend their regular medical appointments. Their wellbeing is of utmost importance to us.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I’m a big fan of Dale Carnegie, a writer and lecturer who developed self-improvement courses in interpersonal skills, public speaking, salesmanship and corporate training. I also like Les Brown who is a renowned motivational speaker. He’s impressive and his messages resonate with me because of the adversity he faced. He decided he wanted to be different and successful, and he committed himself to making it on his own, knowing he’d face challenges and hardships every step of the way.

In my experience, success has nothing to do with your background or where you went to school. You can make your own path, as long as you refuse to not stop along the way. I’ve had a lot of people try to distract me over the years, but quitting was never an option. Winners are people who tough out failures and learn from getting kicked while they’re down and regardless of how many times they get knocked down, they get up and keep pushing forward. The only way you lose is if you quit.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Nothing is more painful than regrets.” — Abhimanyu

I’ve always believed that the pain of indecision or regret is deeper than any pain one might experience when they take a risk and fail. How do you know that a goal is unattainable if you don’t try to meet it? I’d rather try, as scary as it may be at times, and know for sure.

*This article was first published in Authority Magazine on March 30, 2023*

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