“Published in the Winter 2017 FAPEO Update Newsletter”
FAPEO director Kerim Fidel is senior vice president and general counsel with Oasis Outsourcing in West Palm Beach. He relates how his education and career path have uniquely suited him to oversee all legal and compliance matters at Oasis.
“Prior to entering the workforce, I studied philosophy, especially ethics, and that has stayed with me in everything I’ve done since,” Kerim says. “After graduate school I spent some time at Northwestern University. There I worked on artificial intelligence applications for business and education, and garnered my first publications. After that I went to law school.”
Kerim earned a bachelor’s degree with honors from Shimer College, a small institution in the Chicago area that focuses on a Great Books curriculum and uses the Socratic method to educate students to think critically. Like most Shimer graduates, Kerim went on to graduate school, earning a Master of Arts degree from DePaul University in Chicago. He went on to earn his law degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign before embarking on a career path that eventually led him to the PEO industry.
“I graduated from law school at a time when the job market for young lawyers was pretty poor,” Kerim says, “and especially being an unconventional candidate, it was hard to find work. I freelanced for a while. Then one day I saw an ad for an in-house position with a PEO (now defunct) headquartered outside of the Chicago area. I had no idea what a PEO was, but they were willing to consider candidates with no prior experience, which is unusual for corporate law departments, and Mike Wozniak, the general counsel, not only gave me a chance but became a true mentor to me. I stayed there five years before joining my next PEO, SOI (Strategic Outsourcing, Inc.), as general counsel.”
Kerim’s tenure with SOI lasted 13 years, during which time the company grew from a regional player to a national one with private equity backing. When the time came to move on, Kerim says that the prospect of working with an industry-leading company was “obviously attractive.”
He joined Oasis about four and a half years ago.
“Oasis was already a major force in the industry,” Kerim recalls, “but the most compelling reason I chose that opportunity was that I had known Mark Perlberg, Oasis’s CEO, for years; I really wanted to work with him and learn from him. He and his team were kind enough to make room for me at Oasis, for which I’m grateful.”
Kerim’s appreciation extends to many others within the PEO industry as well.
“I’m very appreciative of the people I’ve gotten to know,” he says. “The industry is full of extremely bright people from whom I learn every day.”
He also enjoys the creative aspects of working within the PEO model.
“From the perspective of a lawyer who sees the practice of law as a creative way to navigate the chaos of business, the PEO industry has in a sense been a blank slate,” Kerim says. “There have been opportunities to make new law and to figure out how things should, or could, work, which is exciting to me and somewhat rare in more established milieus.”
From Kerim’s vantage point, opportunities abound for PEOs to continue to grow and to find new ways to serve smaller businesses.
“Clearly there’s a lot of runway; the PEO industry’s penetration of the available market is relatively small no matter how you measure it, and there may be other markets yet to tap,” he opines. “The basic premise of the industry, putting smaller businesses on a par with larger ones particularly with respect to human capital, remains an interesting one. It has taken quite a while to happen, but I think PEOs have tried to move away from a savings- or arbitrage-driven value proposition, and that change is necessary for sustained growth. But as an industry we have yet to find that magic message that will get more businesses to see us as a compelling solution. If we can do that, the sky is the limit.”
Kerim’s expertise as a lawyer helps him to see opportunities as well as potential pitfalls for PEOs in the future.
“I also believe that there is an opportunity to carve out a unique legal space for PEOs. If the only way a business can access something is through a PEO, then the industry has an inherent advantage. But that is hard to achieve,” he warns. “If anything, the current risk is that PEOs may be left out of new legal developments. For example, if association health plans (AHPs) are permitted to do some of the things that have been proposed, they may have advantages over PEO health plans unless we keep pace legislatively.”
He goes on to explain, “The PEO industry is an example of how reality can outstrip the law, as well as popular perception. PEOs challenge traditional notions of employment, but there is a clear demand for our service, clear utility, clear market efficiency. You can either approach that by trying to force the square peg into the round hole, or by trying to make the case that maybe the hole should be square, which to me is more interesting. In practice you end up doing some of both, and that tension can be intellectually rewarding.”
With his background in philosophy, ethics and the study of artificial intelligence, Kerim likes to think deeply about the ways PEOs provide services, both now and in the future. He sees certain threats to the industry if it fails to continue to evolve, and returning to the Socratic method, he has questions for the PEO industry to consider.
“Twenty or more years ago when the industry was relatively new, co-employment was the radical idea, potentially ‘disruptive’ in the current lingo,” he offers. “There are now competing models that do many of the same things as PEOs; maybe they even do some things better, or do other things in addition. At the same time, both technology and the nature of work are changing. We like to talk about how PEOs challenged traditional notions of employment, but now the workplace challenges the traditional assumptions of the maturing PEO industry. In the cross-border, artificial intelligence-driven, gig/shared economy workplace to come, is co-employment still the answer?”
As a director on the FAPEO Board of Directors, Kerim says he finds support and leadership from the association as the industry navigates legislative challenges and opportunities.
“FAPEO is an example of home rule done right,” he declares. “We have Mike Miller to thank for much of that—his advocacy and advice are the rock upon which the FAPEO house was built—but also Robert Skrob (ably assisted by Suzanne Hurst) for his organizational leadership, David Daniel for his legislative acumen and of course the members and sponsors with their dedication and various talents. Under Pat Cleary’s leadership, the NAPEO board and staff have also been very supportive.”
Kerim also appreciates the collegial atmosphere that FAPEO enjoys.
“Among the things I like about FAPEO is that we can generally reach consensus,” he says. “I’ve always appreciated FAPEO’s ability to consider a sensitive issue and rally around a point of view or decide a course of action courteously and nimbly.”
Kerim, his wife of 20 years Christa, and their 15-year-old son Asher enjoy travel to naturally beautiful places such as Alaska. Kerim also devotes time to a musical hobby.
“I play several instruments and many types of music,” he says. “Most recently I’ve been playing drums with Fedora, a rock band that plays around South Florida.”
Oasis supports several charities throughout the country, on both local and national bases. One of its major initiatives recently was to participate in “Steptember” in support of cerebral palsy research.