“Published in the Winter 2018 FAPEO Update Newsletter”
Eric Arfons married his high school sweetheart 34 years ago, earned an MBA from the UF Warrington College of Business and built successful PEO businesses with two of his best friends—twice.
In September, Tampa-based CoAdvantage bought Arfons and his business partners’ company, and the now-former president of Remedy Employer Services, LLC, reflects on his years in the PEO industry, which began back in the 1980s when Arfons was in college and a worksite employee with one of the pioneers of the PEO concept, Staff Leasing.
“I worked for my dad’s auto repair and sales shop,” Eric says. “Ironically, I was a worksite employee with Staff Leasing. At the time, I didn’t know what employee leasing was, nor did I really care.”
Arfons completed his first two years of college in Bradenton, Florida, and then moved to Akron, Ohio, to complete a BSBA degree in business and marketing from The University of Akron.
“Auto repair and sales wasn’t my cup of tea, so to speak,” Eric explains. “I didn’t want to stay in my dad’s business. It motivated me to finish college. My wife and I moved to Ohio so I didn’t get dragged back to the shop. I just wanted to get my degree and then go elsewhere in terms of what I wanted to do for a career.”
While living and studying in Ohio, Arfons continued to work in car sales, flying down to Bradenton to visit family and then driving cars up to Ohio to sell. It was during a Thanksgiving visit that Eric spent an hour talking with someone named Bill Mullis. He realized in the moment that this conversation would change his life.
“I was taking extra courses trying to graduate early, and was going back to Bradenton for Thanksgiving,” Eric recalls. “My dad suggested I reach out to Bill Mullis. He was buying all the vehicles for Staff Leasing and from my Dad’s perspective, they had something special going on. I had been interviewing for sales roles in larger corporations in the health and food industries. I didn’t really know what Staff Leasing did as a company; all I knew of it was they did our payroll and health insurance. It sounded boring to me, but practice interviews are valuable, so I went to lunch with Bill Mullis. That hour changed my life. Bill explained what Staff Leasing’s business model was, and I was sold. Halfway through the meeting, I realized I had found a career that could be a lifelong win-win.”
Arfons completed his undergraduate degrees, moved home to Bradenton and began working for Staff Leasing in 1989. In addition to learning the PEO business, he was able to earn an MBA at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business. Staff Leasing gave him a one-year leave of absence and a stipend to complete his education. It was also at Staff Leasing that Arfons would meet Vince DiPalermo and Jim Ramsey. They became good friends and, eventually business partners.
In 1998, Arfons was headhunted away from Staff Leasing to run Sunwest PEO of Florida. Over time, Vince DiPalermo and Jim Ramsey joined him and became officers of Sunwest. Along with another business partner, Rayburn Martin, the three built Sunwest into a well-respected and rapidly growing PEO. This caught the attention of a larger PEO, Progressive Employer Services, which purchased Sunwest’s assets in 2005.
After a hiatus from the PEO industry and pursuing other career options, Arfons says he was drawn back to the PEO concept, even though the timing wasn’t what anyone would call perfect for starting a new business. It was 2008, and Florida was especially hard hit by the Great Recession of 2008-2009.
“NAPEO held its annual conference in Miami in 2008,” Eric recalls, “and walking around the halls of the convention center, I got to thinking about starting a new PEO.”
Arfons reached out to Vince DiPalermo and Jim Ramsey, and the trio formed Remedy Employer Services in 2010. As a new entrant into the industry, Remedy enjoyed a tax advantage that helped the fledgling business get started.
“This was one time where the new entrant was enabled,” Eric explains, “because the unemployment tax rate for a starting company was half of everybody’s earned unemployment rate was. So it gave us an opportunity for probably about a year to be able to compete at a different level than what we would have otherwise.”
Another advantage was the combined experience that Arfons, DiPalermo, and Ramsey brought to the new business.
“The vendor partner relationships I had built over time at Sunwest helped us form profitable relationships with good people for our new PEO,” Eric says. “And each of us had years of experience in different functional areas, so between the three partners, we had all of the working areas covered. Jim did all of our back-office operations, and Vince was the Renaissance man. He handled HR and sales and was exceptional at both.”
Arfons and his partners set about building their PEO on what they called the “old Staff Leasing” business model of relationship focus, personalized customer service and fair and transparent pricing. Eric says that one of the things that drew him back to PEO was the ability to help small companies and their owners achieve a work/life balance.
“When I started with Staff Leasing in 1989, business owners felt like they could never get away from work,” Eric says. “The PEO concept attracted them for several reasons, such as being able to offer better insurance and retirement benefits to attract and retain worksite employees, but to a great degree it had to do with lifestyle. Owners could go on vacation and know that the PEO would handle the administrative functions like payroll while they were gone. We made sure everything was taken care of from an administrative standpoint. We continued to offer those benefits and others when we opened Remedy Employer Services.”
One of the barriers Arfons sees to opening and running a successful PEO is overreaching regulation that could lead to a high hurdle rate in terms of what it costs in licensing and bonding to get a new business up and running. He sees that happening in other states and while as a past Board of Employee Leasing (BELC) member he supports effective regulation, he believes the industry should be watchful.
Arfons credits the people he has met over his years in the PEO industry with his success and satisfaction in his career, including those he met through FAPEO and while serving on the BELC.
“A lot of it has to do with how long I’ve been in the business and who I’ve been fortunate to meet and develop friendships with,” Eric says. “People like John Jones, Torben Madson, Mike Miller, and Tim Tack. It’s all comfortable. We’re just buddies talking, and good ideas come out of it.”
With the purchase of Remedy Employer Services, Arfons is taking a year off to spend more time with his family and to pursue favorite pastimes such as golf and traveling. He and Lisa have three children and twin grandchildren who will turn 4 in January. Happily, for the Arfons, their grandchildren are local and they get to spend a lot of time together. Their youngest daughter is a senior in high school, and their son lives in Chattanooga. Eric says he’s been back and forth four times since the sale. He and Lisa also enjoy taking international trips.
“We took a month-long train trip through Europe,” Eric says. “We visited Amsterdam, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg, France, Belgium, Italy and Greece.”
What’s next for Eric Arfons? While his old partners Vince DiPalermo and Jim Ramsey have roles with CoAdvantage, Arfons will take a year to consider his next step.
“At some point I’ll get too bored and have to have something to do,” Eric says, “so I’ll likely be calling Mike Miller to see if he knows anybody that needs some help.”