ST. PETERSBURG — For years, two seasoned executives and veteran CEOs of significant companies here tossed around an idea that could reinvent how many professional people work.
What if more people worked for themselves but had fewer hassles and more benefits of full-time jobs? What if companies could "hire" more people for specific jobs without all the baggage of adding full-time workers and, perhaps, firing them later?
Now these two execs are swapping their idea for reality. As these co-founders try to remain cool and analytical while explaining their new business in an interview, their excitement spills out.
"We're changing the way work works," beams Erik Vonk, 56, who recently ran the Bradenton outsourcing firm Gevity HR Inc.
"We think this is pretty doggone revolutionary," confesses a normally understated A.D. Frazier, 65. He ran St. Petersburg's Danka Office Imaging before selling it last year to Konica Minolta Business Solutions.
CEO Vonk and chief operating officer Frazier have launched their new venture called Back Of The House, or BOTH, from a third floor office in McNulty Station in downtown St. Petersburg. BOTH is aimed at the nation's 30-million-plus independent contractors or contract workers, from information technology experts and project engineers to emergency room doctors and nurses, and even freelancers and artists.
The daily trick for such unaffiliated workers is the disruptions they face when finishing one job and awaiting the next. Unlike full-time employees with complete (if waning) benefits packages at traditional companies, independent workers can struggle to maintain retirement plans and continuous access to office services and support, not to mention steady and affordable health care coverage.
Vonk talks big picture. Frazier focuses on execution. They (with third co-founder Joey Reiman in Atlanta) have assembled a range of services that provides contract workers with a one-stop shop of administrative office and online workstation support; bookkeeping, billing and collections; 401(k) retirement coverage; online banking services; tax prep assistance and more.
It's all made available on each client's secure Web page, Vonk and Frazier explain. The service includes toll-free or online access to a personal adviser — "not a call center," Frazier says — but a person in McNulty Station assigned to help a specific client.
That's a key component. Independent contractors work alone, Frazier says, and providing a dedicated adviser — someone to get things done — is crucial.
The entire concept is based on the BOTH client becoming, literally, a business of one. Each worker becomes an LLC, a limited liability company, that enables them to run a full range of support services continuously, without the frustrating lapses common for independent workers. Even Vonk and Frazier have become LLCs.
Frazier says one of the biggest reasons contract workers fail is because they spend too little time getting new business and doing what they are good at, and too much time inefficiently shuffling paper work, billing customers (and trying to get paid) and recording their expenses.
BOTH will do that for the client, Frazier says, and will act as bill collector — sensitively or boldly, depending on each client's wishes.
Billing and collections, says Frazier, "bedevils independent contractors the most."
The whole package is provided for a flat fee each month of $399. Other businesses that offer individual pieces of BOTH services tend to charge percentages of clients' revenue that can vary. But BOTH appears to be the first to bring it all under one umbrella. And at $399, Vonk and Frazier note, you know what you're getting and paying each month.
The fee seems modest, if BOTH delivers all that it promises. Vonk and Frazier obviously believe they will attract healthy numbers of customers. Frazier foresees each personal adviser on staff handling up to 70 clients as the business grows.
The final piece of the puzzle, the two explain, is health care. BOTH shops each worker to find the best individual health plan available for a price he or she is willing to pay. (The price of health coverage is not included in the $399 fee.) The executives say this is a better deal for workers than establishing their own group plan for clients. And the individual plan keeps on-again, off-again workers from ending up on the expensive but temporary COBRA insurance coverage.
BOTH is not for everyone who happens to work alone. Workers need to have marketable skills and a track record of getting jobs and completing them.
Vonk and Frazier feed off each other's enthusiasm. They'd be good in a buddy movie.
Vonk, who is Dutch, has had a long career in the staffing business and pondering ways to make work more palatable for employers and employees. His book, Don't Get a Job, Get a Life!, was published in 2001. It endorsed the concept of "FlexLife" for workers who would string together a self-managed, full-time career of short-term job assignments. FlexLife is supposed to offer the benefits of permanency with few of the drawbacks of being tied to one employer year after year.
That sounds a lot like what BOTH is rolling out.
Before working at Danka, Frazier helped run the Invesco investment firm in Atlanta and served as CEO of the Chicago Stock Exchange. In 1996, he was chief officer operating of Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Put another way, entrepreneurs Vonk and Frazier are not two young turks looking to rush Back Of The House to a bigger stage and then flip it in a public offering. They want to take it slow and get it right.
Vonk first approached Frazier about the BOTH idea in 1992 but agreed then that employee law and technology were not ready.
But Vonk's already thinking way ahead, contemplating the potential consequences of more and more "LLC" workers, self-employed and free to go where the work is and where their skills can be best rewarded.
The idea, in fact, goes way beyond contract workers. It's a free marketer's dream come true.
What if all workers eventually were self-employed and sustained by an infrastructure like Back Of The House? What if companies did not need huge and expensive internal bureaucracies handling human resources and payroll and pension management and health-care services?
What if all that friction of people looking for work and businesses reluctant to hire them could be minimized? What if the pain of firing and laying off people happened a lot less?
"It's possible this idea could reduce a lot of workplace friction and even help bring down the unemployment rate," suggests Vonk.
Reinventing how people work? Stirring the employment pot from St. Petersburg? Could be just the re-engineering this tired economy needs.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.