The PEO, Finally Re-Invented as HRO

Brining the shine back to the PEO industry.

by Jay Whitehead

For 20 years, PEOs have been more sizzle than steak. Over-charged customers, faulty IT, scams, and catastrophic failures have overshadowed the successes. Finally, one company has broken through to the Holy Grail. But which one?

I have seen the future of the PEO, and its name is enterprise-level HRO for small business. It is a future I have predicted before. But until now, the reality was one brick shy of a load. Providers have lacked sufficient scale and adequate risk-management. They have lacked a mature management team and transparency in their IT systems and finances. And most importantly, they have lacked a broad, satisfied, and sustainably-priced client base.

For the first time, I see one company with 8,000 happy customers and 140,000 satisfied serviced employees. It has customers in more than 40 industries and in 50 states, paying more than $1,600 per employee per year, a price that is reasonably in line with value received. I see strong scale economies, with capacity for two or three times more customers. I see open financials and technology. I see an experienced management team befitting of an industry leader. I see both coemployment and non-coemployment choices for clients. I see a sales leader focused on ramping up to 15 percent net annual growth from new sales and cutting the cost of customer acquisition from its current $1,250 per employee to much lower numbers. I see the future. It has finally come. Hallelujah.

Certainly, because one company has done it, others will surely follow. Now more small business customers can be on a level HR playing field with the Fortune 500.

This news is quite convenient for us. Imagine, this clear winner emerged just in time for HRO Todays special feature on the segment (see the center gatefold).

The PEO, an acronym for professional employer organization, has been around since the late 1980s. The niche has always held bucket-loads of promise. It serves a great unmet needfor HR services and affordable benefits for small business. It spawned a high-flyer stock or two and some spectacular train wrecks. The business attracted some scoundrels. Some of those bad guys ended up in jail. Our center gatefold timeline of the PEO industry tells the tale of some horrors, near-disasters, and even flashes of brilliancea story of evolution in action. It is not unlike the history of 19th century British banking. After all, it took British banks nearly a century to figure out how to make a profit.

I have been waiting for this moment for a long time.

After a decade of publishing technology magazines such as PC, CRN, and UPSIDE, in 1993, I started a company called Payroll Options, as a division of public staffing company Uniforce. It converted 1099ers of Sun Microsystems, Wells Fargo Nikko Securities, and Silicon Graphics, among others, to W-2 employees, and leased them back. We cut employment tax and other risks for big company clients. Although I did not know it at the time, Payroll Options was a PEO. Then I started another one, ABE, now a big winner for Californias Nelson Personnel.

In 1995, as VP of Sales for TriNet, a PEO, I perfected that companys focus on venture-capital backed technology clients. In 1997, as CEO of EmployeeService.com, I invented a new employee service model for small and mid-sized business, the ASO (Administrative Service Outsourcing) or non-coemployment HRO services. I raised $20 million in venture capital and landed 150 dot-com clients. At peak, EmployeeService profitably served 20,000 employees. When the dot-com bomb burst in late 2000, so did the company. But my vision of HRO for small- and mid-sized businesswith both coemployment and non-coemployment options still burns strong.

HRO Today magazines mission is an extension of that visionto bring the promise of outsourced HR services to all business and government, big, midsized, and small.

It makes sense that it has taken a few years longer to grow a clear winner in the small-business HRO space than it did for several heavyweights to emerge in the large-market HRO space. To be sure, acquiring one 30,000-employee client requires much less selling, management effort, and expense than selling 2,000 clients of 15-employees each.

Proof of the wonderful promise of small-business HRO is the fact that you have read this entire column just to discover the winning companys name. Now here comes the payoff. Just go to your browser and type in GevityHR.com.

Posted June 10, 2004 in Engaged Workforce

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