Alliance Benefit Group CEO Brad Arends, left, and ABG President Steven Pulley have been working together since the company’s infancy and say they are amazed and humbled by the growth spurts the company has experienced. Alliance Benefit Group was named Co-Large Business of the Year by the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce. — Tim Engstrom/Albert Lea Tribune

Archived Story

Smart growth

Published 9:59am Monday, November 26, 2012

Laws, trends, recessions, booms. In business, the marketplace for any field is rarely static and unchanged. Some companies wait to see how the market will change, then safety act.

Not Alliance Benefit Group, an administrator of retirement plans, health care plans and payroll services. It embraces change.

“We take a pioneer’s attitude, rather than a settler’s attitude,” said Alliance Benefit Group CEO Brad Arends.

Look at workplace wellness programs. Healthy workers are productive workers, said ABG President Steven Pulley, and caring about the well-being of workers has attracted talent to AGB.

“Ideally, we want to be the place people want to come and work in Albert Lea,” Arends added, “and we don’t want them to leave.”

The company’s growth, its pioneer spirit and being a leader in Albert Lea for employee wellness are reasons the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce named ABG the Co-Large Business of the Year, an honor it shares with Innovance Inc.

The surprise for Arends and Pulley, they said, was not sharing the honor. After all, it can be difficult to pick from among the many good companies in Albert Lea. It was being classified as “large.”

“To think of how small we once were,” Arends said. “We used to have Christmas parties around a dining room table. Now we rent out Wedgewood Cove.”

ABG started in 1984 as an offshoot of financial investment firm Independent Service Co., when partners Al Arends and Paul Overgaard went separate ways. By 1990, ABG had about 20 employees.

By the end of the 1990s, the company found itself with 65 workers, mainly administering 401k programs for companies. In the 2000s, the number of clients doubled. Retirement services was growing and administration of health care programs expanded.

What helped ABG, Arends and Pulley said, was as technology changed and the needs of companies changed, ABG would wade into the waters early, so it could provide what companies sought from a benefits provider before the competition.

Most of the managers at AGB started at an entry level job, and as the company has expanded, more opportunities for promotions presented themselves.

“It’s a place to move up,” Pulley said.

One trait of upper management, Arends said, is to embrace change. They even find ways to work smarter in their historic downtown building, such as reducing the number of filing cabinets by converting paper files to computer files or turning the storage basement into a “lower level” with offices.

He said the result of the continual push for innovation has been growth.

There are 105 employees at the Albert Lea headquarters at 201 E. Clark St. There are five in an office in Kansas City, Mo., eight in Minneapolis and one in Des Moines.

The company has clients in 48 states. Local clients include Minnesota Corrugated Box, Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea, Mrs. Gerry’s Kitchen Inc., Dave Syverson Auto Center, Innovance Inc. and Albert Lea Area Schools. Some Minnesota clients are Red Wing Shoes, the travel division of Delta Airlines, Flint Hills Resources and several nonprofit hospitals.

Alliance Benefit Group provides one or more of its services to 2,000 companies.

Arends said he is comfortable with the ABG being in Albert Lea as it expands. He said he likes Albert Lea’s business community, with no single dominant corporation or institution. Instead, there are about 75 to 115 primary employers, and the community values each of them.

“That’s a real robust attribute of Albert Lea,” he said.

ABG is active in the community in many forms, Pulley said. Their employees are on the company clock when they are bell ringing for the Salvation Army. Yes, they get paid to ring the bells. The company is active in Relay for Life, American Red Cross, Kiwanis and United Way. Company officials serve on committees for the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce, too.

When the Chamber of Commerce formed a worksite wellness committee, it went to ABG to be an example for the community. ABG promotes exercising and better nutrition. It hosts a biometric screening each year. It has a tobacco-free campus.

There are meetings to continue to come up with fun ways for employees to remain active, such as running in the Fountain Lake Five together or having a softball team.

The company also encourages continued education, Arends said, and sends its people to seminars and certification training for learning more about the services the company offers.

All these measures have become part of the corporate culture. A company that administers health plans also has healthy workers.

“We are concerned about the lives of our employees outside of work,” Arends said.

So what’s around the corner in the field of employee benefits?

Arends said more consolidations are coming in the realm of retirement plans, and consumers are wanting more transparency, something ABG has always done.

On the health care side, the biggest change stems from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — the new health care law roundly debated leading up to the recent presidential election.

Pulley said the company looks at the new legislation as an opportunity. As the specifics of the law begin entering people’s lives, there will be questions.

“We want to be the first with answers,” Pulley said.

Arends said ABG has the advantage of not being owned by an insurance company or a bank. It allows the company to provide objective, straightforward answers for clients.

“We can use the platform that is best for the clients,” Pulley said.