By Leslie Hughes, California Business Journal
What’s in a name?
A lot, it turns out.
In fact, a name has so much meaning to it that can alter one’s destiny, or in this case, the future of a company.
Though “altering destiny” may seem a bit strong, Big Fish Payroll did change its direction in a big way when it changed its name to Big Fish Employer Services earlier this year.
As Justin Dignam, Founder & CEO of Big Fish puts it: “We took a lean to the left earlier this year when we changed the name of the company. That subtle change was done to reflect a new avenue we are pursuing, which our clients have been clamoring for.”
What exactly is that direction?
One that no longer provides clients with just payroll processing services, but helps to manage their employees as well.
And Big Fish Employer Services is able to do this at a fraction of the cost.
“We provide a fractional HR person for one-quarter or one-fifth of what it costs to hire your own HR talent,” Dignam says. “Many smaller companies don’t have a full-time HR person, so we come in with our HR talent and assess the weak spots, their risk items, and work with them on a plan to build a strong HR environment for their company.”
What once started as a strictly payroll company has now expanded to include much more.
“We don’t spend a lot of time talking about payroll now. It’s there and we do a great job with it,” Dignam says.
Now, with the addition of HR services, Big Fish President Jeff Hill says that “in a business owner’s world, a lot of functions such as payroll, benefits, time, HR — they’re not functions that are black or white. A lot of times there can be some gray area components and it gets murky, it gets tough.”
And, that’s where Big Fish comes in.
“One of the nice feel-good functions for us is to be the people you can count on. You don’t need to find the answers — we will help you find the answers.”
Clients love that they can “trust” Big Fish to help them — and the feeling is mutual.
As Hill says, “it is nice to be someone trusted in their corner.”
Over it’s more than 15 years in existence, Big Fish has seen some incredible growth. It started back in January of 2004 in Dignam’s four-bedroom Anaheim Hills home. He had spent over 17 years with ADP and realized it was not where he wanted to retire. Thus, he set his sights on creating his own empire. From that decision came the birth of Big Fish in his home.
“When my wife decided she wanted the fourth bedroom back, we moved to offices in Orange,” he says with a laugh.
And shortly thereafter, Hill entered the picture. “Jeff showed up in my world as a business degree college intern in October 2005 . . . as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed senior looking for an internship opportunity. And here we are.”
Between his start at the company in 2005 and today, Hill has worked his way up to President of Big Fish and has also managed to get his law degree in the meantime. He spent four years at night school at Whittier and passed the bar in 2013.
Dignam and Hill are clearly superior at what they do and have picked an industry that works exceedingly well for them.
For Dignam, he chose this route with Big Fish because he knew the industry. But, he liked it for a few other reasons, too.
“First of all, there was no risk that five or 10 years into this project and the need for payroll services would be mitigated or eliminated. We didn’t create this wave. We are just riding it.”
And they are riding it in ways that bigger companies cannot.
“We are able to deliver things that our large publicly-held competitors cannot,” Dignam says. “We deliver fantastic technology with a boutique-level of experience. No matter how hard the big guys try, they can’t do what we do.”
So, what are some of those things that the bigger players can’t do? First of all, answer the phone quickly. “One of the items that resonates most appreciatively with our clients is that we answer the phone before the end of the second ring,” Dignam boasts. “We challenge respective clients to test that and they are very pleased.”
Additionally, Big Fish makes it a priority to train its employees “on a set of values. One of them is empathy,” Dignam says. “The person calling us is reaching out for help and we have to be very sensitive and very appropriately reactive to their level of urgency. We may not think it’s world peace, but they do.”
But the bottom line will always be that customer service is of the utmost importance to Big Fish.
Says Hill, “We’ve seen technology go through leaps and bounds and change how our day looks like and what we are able to do for our clients. The one thing that has to stay constant is the high level of customer support. Most of our clients are not chasing technology, they are chasing the service, and they need the technology to follow the service.” Thus, it is Big Fish’s job to “control the service — we will always keep up and stay ahead on the technology piece, but we are in total control of the service model,” Hill says.
“My favorite part of working at Big Fish is that Justin and I are, for better or worse, in sync with each other,” Hill says. “It’s a bizarre marriage of sorts because he can start talking and I could already be delivering an answer before he’s even put a period at the end of the sentence.”
It also helps that they come to the table with two very different sets of focuses that balance each other — and also that their environment is very team-focused.
“Everyone wears multiple hats,” Hill says. “Everyone helps where help is needed. We actively prevent anybody from staying in a silo of a function or a silo of knowledge. Sharing is caring in terms of the overall goal of having a successful team.”
For Dignam, the “idea of being communal in our activities,” is huge. “Working within groups and within teams, we build in talent where we need it. We have people who contribute to the success and that is very fun to watch and materialize and see it come to fruition.”
Big Fish has had double-digit growth every year — and Dignam doesn’t see that stopping anytime soon. “I see the percentage growth accelerating over the next few years as we further our deployment of our HR Managed Services as well,” he says.
Says Dignam: “My story is the guy in his early 40s who left a long-standing solid job and took a chance, and after years of work and struggle and surrounding myself with really talented people, we’ve got a great business here. We’ve touched thousands of clients and we are very proud of what we have built.”
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