CHRISTINA NELSON and PACIFIC HR: CELEBRATING 35 YEARS OF SERVING CLIENTS

BY Chris Chaney

Editor, PEO Insider
NAPEO

April 2024

 

“I wonder what people do who live here?”

Christina Nelson recalls her mother posing that question during family road trips through the Santa Ynez Valley. The highway traverses through small towns with a distinctly different feel than the Monterey Bay community the family lived in.

As it turns out, running a PEO is something people do. In December of 1989, Pacific HR began serving clients; 35 years later it’s still a thriving PEO. Christina Nelson leads this operation and is the driving force behind its success. She’s assembled a talented team and cultivated a family-like culture; employees support each other and clients alike. An avid runner, gardener, and cook, she takes full advantage of the picturesque landscapes and near perfect weather of the Santa Ynez Valley. She’s also managed to find time to immerse herself within NAPEO, serving on multiple committees and the board of directors.

I CAN DO THIS

A series of life events brought Christina Nelson to the small town of Solvang, California in the 1980s. She and her then-husband had looked for houses in the Santa Barbara area, but high prices pushed them to consider other locations. As the young couple settled into their new community, Nelson started to grow restless in her career and knew she needed to make a change before starting a family.

“After working in computer science for a few years, I realized it was not my cup of tea,” she says.

So, what was she to do?

A relative owned a PEO on the East Coast, and after many conversations and a visit to his office, Nelson began to think of the PEO business as an exciting opportunity. The industry was quite different in those years. The offering focused more on workers’ compensation insurance and cost savings than sophisticated HR, compliance, and robust employee benefits.

“I can do this,” she recalls thinking, “so I quit my job and started my own company in the spare bedroom of my house.”

She set about learning as much about the business as she could, even attending one of T. Joe Willey’s conferences. Willey is regarded by many as an industry founder. His books, seminars, and training helped many get their start in the PEO industry. She still has his book on her bookshelf.

Of course, the PEO concept lacked awareness and seemed unfamiliar to most businesses, so attracting clients was the first hurdle. Within her community Nelson knew a good number of contractors whom she first pitched her business idea to.

“They were all very attracted to the concept, many thought it was the best thing for their businesses,” she explains. “Some of them are still with me,” she adds.

Her PEO offered a master workers’ comp. policy with far better rates than businesses—especially contractors—could get on their own. She explains that in the beginning, many contractors never thought about HR services until there was an issue, so focusing on workers’ comp. made it an easy sell.

As the business began to grow, it became obvious that working from her home was no longer a viable option. Running a PEO with two young kids running around the house just didn’t work. It’s a bit ironic since part of the appeal of starting her own business was the flexibility she’d have as the owner.

“I thought it would allow me time to be home with the kids, which is a joke because of how busy you are running a PEO,” she laughs.

PUTTING CLIENTS FIRST

Over the last 35 years, Nelson’s company has grown and evolved quite a bit—night and day as she describes it. Perhaps it’s one reason she’s remained successful through so many different economic and business cycles. She’s assembled a strong team of professionals who she relies on and considers the true force behind her success.

“We’re all based in the same office, and love coming to work. We all want to be here,” she explains.

Pacific HR supports an open-door policy for clients, meaning that any client (or worksite employee) can walk through the door at any time. It might be to discuss a sensitive HR issue or ask questions about a new policy or filing requirement.

Whatever the case may be, Nelson’s team is ready to help. They view clients as true partners whose success directly correlates to the PEO’s success. It’s a win-win relationship, that the team works hard to maintain. This often means staying ahead of new workplace rules and regulations, especially in California. Clients expect Nelson and her team to be the experts and have the answers.

“Regulations are so crazy in California right now; our HR services are what people want.” she explains.

“Many small businesses used to say, ‘we don’t need HR,’ now in California they know they need HR,” she adds.

To meet this need, she’s increased her own internal HR professionals on staff. They work tirelessly with clients to keep the proverbial ducks in a row. Talent and recruiting services are also in demand these days. Clients still need quite a bit of help finding employees. This was a service offering that Nelson’s company used to never deal with, but not now it’s impossible to avoid. She helps clients streamline hiring processes to filter out poor candidates and identify strong ones. It’s part of the broader mission to help clients build a stable, strong workforce.

THE DANISH CAPITAL OF AMERICA

Perhaps if you’re a student of American immigration history this may not surprise you, but Solvang, California is known as the Danish capital of America.

Windmills, thatched roofs, and Danish architecture line the main street—Copenhagen Drive—filled with European-style bakeries, artisan shops, and wine stores. The story goes that Danish settlers were attracted to the region because the landscapes and climate reminded them of Denmark.

Today, Solvang embraces its history and is proud of its heritage. Nelson also notes that Solvang has been named of the most “Christmasy” towns in America. Each town in the valley has its own celebrations and traditions making the holiday season feel special for everyone.

 

Many of these small businesses are clients of Pacific HR. The client base has diversified quite a bit from the early days of the company. Hospitality is a major industry in Solvang and the surrounding communities. This is what made the COVID pandemic so frightening for Nelson.

“Many of my clients thought they were going out of business; it was really scary,” she recalls.

The intense restrictions and prolonged lockdowns in California exacerbated the problem. Nelson and her team raced to learn and absorb as much new information as possible. As things settled down, more businesses began to reach out for assistance and help. It illuminated the value proposition of a PEO and helped Pacific HR emerge stronger from the crisis.

A PEO FOR WINERIES

Many wineries call the Santa Ynez Valley home; the region is well known to wine aficionados and connoisseurs.

“We’re the second largest wine country in California,” Nelson explains, “we’ve brought on many local wineries as clients, that’s really where our focus is right now.”

A complex business, vineyards employ all sorts of professionals from agriculture experts who monitor soil quality and health, to finance and sales teams who facilitate distribution, to hospitality teams who work tasting rooms.

Nelson and her team understand the intricacies of the vineyard business which makes for a fruitful partnership. The average vineyard employs around 25 people, she says, a sweet spot in terms of client size.

As she looks to the future of the business, vineyards are attractive clients and represent a niche market her PEO can specialize in. The future also portends further technological advances, especially AI. The HR technology a PEO can bring to clients makes them more competitive and efficient, but the capabilities of AI make for scary scenarios, she admits. It’s one more area that PEOs will have to become knowledgeable in.

That’s part of what makes running a PEO so challenging. The workforce never stops evolving. Practices, standards, benefits, and technologies quickly become outdated and supplanted by new ones.

“It’s a hard, complex business, but I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Nelson says.

“I’ve met so many incredible people and made incredible friends.”

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