Mary Smith joins elite group of benefits experts

Mary Smith sees a common thread running through most of the major events of her professional life: she's always made progress by doing things the "hard" way.

Director of the benefits department in Human Resources, Smith recently became one of approximately 5,000 people worldwide to earn the the designation of Certified Employee Benefits Specialist (CEBS). The rigorous series of 10 examinations required to receive the CEBS designation is given through the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

Timing is everything

Smith began working on the CEBS coursework in September 1992, the very same month that Human Resources began sponsoring an extensive series of informational campus meetings for employees on the EmoryCare health insurance program, which took effect in January 1993. "Why I thought I needed to start taking these classes at the same that Emory- Care was starting, I will never know," Smith recalled. "And I finished the CEBS classes just as we started open enrollment for our new life insurance programs."

Achieving the CEBS designation, Smith said, requires passing 10 exams that are based on graduate and senior undergraduate level work in employee benefits. The courses that precede the exams are coordinated through the Risk Management Program at Georgia State University and taught by practicing professionals in the benefits field. Smith said she took about half of her coursework through the Georgia State offerings and did the other half through self-study. The courses cover the entire array of benefits plans, including health, life and disability insurance, retirement programs and educational benefits such as tuition reimbursement and courtesy scholarships.

"The whole point of the classes," Smith explained, "is that just because you work in a benefits department for one particular organization, you still have to have a much more global concept of all the types of plans that are out there. It's easy for benefits professionals to get focused just on what their employer offers. But if you don't have any exposure to all the other things that are out there in the marketplace and how they operate, you're missing the chance to see how something you're doing in your organization could be done differently."

In addition to the CEBS coursework, Smith also has gained a more global perspective by giving presentations at national conferences for benefits professionals. Last February Smith and Director of Employee Services Pat Douglass presented "Hands-On 403 (b) Administration" at a San Francisco conference, to which they have been asked back as presenters this March. In October, Smith and Douglass traveled to a Chicago conference to present "Fun and Games with 403 (b) Education," in which they discussed their plans to promote greater participation in Emory's retirement program. They've been asked back to that conference for next October.

Finishing college the hard way

Long before she came to Emory, Smith decided to take a step back and see how she could organize her own life differently. When the youngest of her two children was 10 months old, Smith decided she wanted to change jobs. She was working in human resources for a family-owned wholesale distributor of liquor and wine that employed about 150 people.

"What I found out was that even though I had all these great years of experience and skills, I didn't have a college degree," said Smith, who spent most of her childhood in Long Island, N.Y., before moving to Georgia with her family after high school. She had attended college for a couple of years, but then got married and started working full-time. Then, when she reached her early 30s and wanted to advance her career, she found that the lack of a degree was a major stumbling block.

"So I went back to college with two little kids and kept working full-time," Smith said. "I went to class at night and graduated from Mercer University (Atlanta) in December 1987."

When Smith began looking for a job, she knew that employee benefits was her passion, because it satisfied her desire to be in a business environment as well as her need to have a career in which she could help people. Smith was hired at Emory in March 1987 as an entry level benefits specialist and worked her way up through the ranks to the position of benefits director.

One of the Human Resources projects of which Smith is proudest is the creation of a Short-Term Disability Insurance program. The program provides income for staff who become disabled for the four- to five-month period after their accrued vacation and sick leave are exhausted, but before long-term disability insurance takes effect.

Smith is also proud to have been involved in the major expansion the Emory benefits program has undergone over the last several years, including the introduction of EmoryCare and the addition of numerous investment options to the retirement program. In fact, the excitement of being part of such a dynamic operation is the main thing that's kept Smith at Emory for nearly nine years.

"I've had such incredible opportunities to learn different benefit plans and to do project management," she said. "That's what keeps it interesting. I think a lot of us in benefits stay at Emory because of the continuing opportunities to learn and grow in our own field."

--Dan Treadaway

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