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Offering employee benefits has always been about attracting and keeping quality employees — without breaking your budget. It’s also important to help employees live a healthy life.


So, you want your health insurance plan to be affordable for both you and your employees. And it should include health and wellness features.


When shopping for a health plan, compare monthly payment amounts and consider how much you will contribute. Is it affordable to you? Is it affordable to your employees? Your plan should be attractive enough so employees enroll. You may have to meet a minimum enrollment quota before you can offer the plan.


Besides the premium, how much will employees pay when they receive health care? Is there a deductible? How much is the copay or coinsurance? Network plans help to keep out-of-pocket costs lower. If the plan has a network, are most local doctors in it?


Consumer-directed plans are gaining popularity because of their lower premiums. But, their higher deductibles can be scary to employees. You can offer a fund to help employees pay that deductible. There are several fund options available, with tax benefits — for you and for your employees — depending on the type of fund. Be sure to show employees all the cost-saving opportunities that consumer-directed plans provide. Employee education is key to successfully implementing this type of plan.

Health and wellness

Many health insurance plans now offer 100% coverage for preventive care, like regular checkups, immunizations and certain cancer screenings. You can also find health plans that have built-in wellness programs and features at no extra cost.


Wellness programs can be simple, like discounts to fitness centers. Or they can be complex like giving incentive rewards for taking a health assessment, or allowing high-risk employees to work with a health coach or disease management nurse.  There’s a wealth of options available, so keep your eyes open when reading plan descriptions as you shop.



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Neighborhood_Vendors_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.


Stories of small, seemingly outmatched underdogs beating larger rivals date back centuries. Malcolm Gladwell's current book, appropriately titled David and Goliath, is the latest exploration of this perennial theme. The conflict continues to play out every day on Main Streets across America, where local businesses try to prevail against bigger or nationally known brand names. Although these outsized competitors may be better financed or give deep discounts to customers, many local merchants can leverage their position in the neighborhood to gain a decided edge.


Be involved

Local businesses can gather key information about their customers by dealing with them regularly, seeing them in the neighborhood, and interacting with them in their personal and professional lives—and then use that knowledge to target those customers effectively. "A national brand would have to do a lot more legwork to really find that sort of data to give it a personal touch," says Christopher Tompkins, CEO of The GO! Agency, a Seminole, Florida-based full-service marketing company.


Event marketing can cement relationships between local vendors and the community, Tompkins says. For example, a sporting goods store could sponsor a school competition, sell equipment and apparel to the athletes, and also make a donation to a charity selected by the athletes and their families. In addition to school events, choosing an activity where the whole community participates also favors local merchants over bigger names.


"If you're a huge company, you'd have to figure out what these events were and hope that the information is correct because you could be putting $10,000 into a race that gets 100 people," Tompkins explains. "Whereas if you're in that neighborhood, you know that one of the most popular races is the one on Thanksgiving morning that gets 1,000 to 2,000 people. So you get the inside scoop. By getting involved in what your audience is involved with, it's almost like a simpatico relationship."


Social media channels are good for establishing credibility, driving traffic, and brand building, but often don't result in closing the sale on their own. Tompkins believes in using a mix of traditional and online advertising methods to reach customers, such as billboards, flyers, direct mail, and email campaigns. Local businesses also need to optimize their website for mobile devices, since their primary customers will often be within driving or walking distance. "All these work together to build a buzz about your business that can take you to the next level," Tompkins says.


Do what you're good at

Local businesses should play to their strengths and provide something that their bigger rivals don't or don't do as well, such as customer service.



"As soon as you start to compete on price, you have no emotional loyalty. [The customer then says,] 'Give me a number and I'll determine whether I'm loyal,'" says Shep Hyken, a St. Louis, Missouri-based customer service expert. "What you try to do is connect on another level—on the value you deliver. That value can be in the relationship you have or the service that you give." Hyken gives the following example:


There was a small family-owned hardware store that had been in a Boston strip mall for over 30 years, when a Home Depot and a Lowe's both opened up nearby—yet the owner says that he has never been more successful, even though he stays open fewer hours than the megastores. "The owner said that if he tried to do what they do, he'd lose," Hyken explains. "He does what he's best at—creating value for the customer in the form of service by asking the customer what they need a part for, and then making other suggestions for the project that the customer might not have thought about. There's a big difference between that and just taking the order, [like the big box stores do]."

Hyken says that every employee at a local business should conduct themselves as if they were the owner. For example, he spoke with an 18-year-old waiter at a pizza parlor, who was mistaken for the actual owner by a group of customers because of the attentiveness he displayed in his work—resulting in loyal patrons. "Everybody needs to take pride and make the good decisions necessary for either their internal or external customers as if they owned the place," Hyken explains.


Nurture your employees

Local business owners can usually develop personal relationships easier and faster than workers at megastores. "Every customer should know your name and you should call them by their name," says Tom Egelhoff, a Bozeman, Montana-based author of How To Market, Advertise & Promote Your Business Or Service In A Small Town. "Calling them by name reinforces that local feeling."


While it is crucial for owners to focus their attention on customers, nurturing employees can motivate them to say good things about your business, even when they're not working, to anyone they meet in the community. Egelhoff also says that employees should get their own business cards to hand out to customers so that the owner knows who provided good service when the sale was made—and then reward employees. When Egelhoff was a personnel manager for a retailer, "I would try to publicly recognize each employee for something at least once every six months. I would encourage the other employees and customers to let me know the good things they did."

Egelhoff encourages local businesses to have a grand re-opening once a year for the benefit of new people who just moved to the community, even if the business has been long established. Local businesses can also become the go-to source in their neighborhood if they take time to bond with their customers on a one-on-one level and put their priorities first. Colossal chain stores, such as Circuit City, are no longer around because "they didn't adapt to the customer. They tried to make the customer adapt to them," Egelhoff says. "People buy on emotion, not on logic. I don't know the guy or the manager at the big box store, whereas if I walk into a small business, the owner is probably the guy behind the counter."


That's a winning strategy every small business owner can build on.


Mythbuster-thumb.jpgThink a business retirement plan is not affordable or will take too much of your time?  Think you don’t need a business retirement plan to attract and retain employees, or that you can put off planning your own retirement?  Get the facts about small business retirement plans and dispel these and other common myths.


Click here to learn more about Small Business Retirement Plan Myths.

Spouses_in_Biz_body.jpgBy Erin O’Donnell.

When Karen Fichthorn tells people she works with her husband, nearly everyone says the same thing: “I could never work with my spouse.”

That surprises Fichthorn, who has owned Fichthorn Brand Development with her husband Rick for 30 years.

“It seems natural for us, but we were married only a few months when started,” Fichthorn says. “The best part is that I get to spend more time with him.

Karen and Rick Fichthorn met when they both worked for an advertising agency (Rick redesigned the Crush soda logo that’s still in use today). A few months after they married, they started their firm, which creates product packaging, ads, and brand identity materials. The company has offices in Sanibel, Florida, and New York City.

Being in business together for nearly as long as they’ve been married works for the couple, Karen says, because they are fully committed to both. The keys to their success have been division of labor, professionalism, and protecting their personal time.

Define your roles and responsibilities

Tom and Gina Scarda, presenters of the workshop How to Work with Your Spouse and Live to Tell About It, say they meet many husband-wife teams who don’t know how to make the leap from life partners to business partners. The Scardas bought a smoothie franchise in 2000, expanded to three stores, and then sold the business in 2005. Now they advise other franchise buyers, most of whom are married couples.

“I think a lot of times the couple doesn’t have clearly defined roles going into business, and they don’t play off each other’s strengths,” Gina Scarda says.

The Scardas were both retired from law enforcement in New York City when they opened their first store. Tom says he thought it was an asset that both of them were outgoing. But when the spotlight shone more brightly on his wife, he says, he had to deal with some jealousy issues.

“I felt like Mr. Gina Scarda. She would get the interview, and I would get angry,” he says. “But then I decided to embrace it and let her run with it. Who cares who gets the attention as long as it’s good for the business.”

Karen Fichthorn says she and her husband progressed naturally from their former jobs into a successful division of labor in their firm. Rick remained in creative services while Karen handled “everything else,” she says, including marketing research, copywriting, and some client services.

The same was true for Steven and Nathalie Laitmon, owners of The Calendar Group, a household and corporate staffing service in New York City and Connecticut. Steven Laitmon says they started the company in 2002 because they realized they had complementary skills. The Laitmons mapped out their roles so that neither spouse was supervising the other. Nathalie interacts directly with clients and potential job candidates. Steven handles the company’s operations.

“I know where she’s strong and responsible, and she takes over,” Laitmon says. “We’re not in direct conflict with each other.

It’s important to put a great team in place and let them do what they’re great at, whether your team is your wife or someone else.”

Test the waters

If you’re not sure you could work with your spouse, try a trial partnership. When financial advisors Mark and Sara Woodward were dating, they thought it might make sense to merge their practices. Before they committed to each other in business, Mark says they tried some joint marketing and worked a few clients’ cases together.

It was a good fit. In 2008 the Woodwards launched Blue Ocean Partners in Vienna, Virginia. Today, Sara manages the firm’s client services internally while Mark works directly with clients. They added another partner last year, and while Sara isn’t legally a partner, Mark says they still make big decisions together.

“My partner knows that all the decisions I make have to meet with Sarah’s approval,” Mark says. “Often he finds himself trying to convince her before he comes to me.”

Communicate through conflict

Perhaps even more than other married couples, married business owners need clear, open, and intentional communication. Tom Scarda says his wife never realized he was jealous of the attention she received until he worked up the nerve to tell her.



Nancy Lynn Jarvis and her husband, Craig, struggled in the early years of their real estate business because of different working styles and overlapping duties, she says. They would talk over each other at client presentations. Craig wanted to computerize Nancy Lynn’s files because he preferred to work that way.

“We tried, but we did not work out that well as a team,” Nancy Lynn says. Finally, the couple set firmer boundaries. Nancy Lynn says her husband’s suggestions did improve her workflow, but she wanted to make the changes herself.

The couple retired from real estate in 2008, and Nancy Lynn began writing mystery novels. The Jarvises formed Good Read Mysteries to publish her books. Their division of labor and expressed boundaries have smoothed out their work relationship, she says.

“Now he’s my initial editor. I’m really eager to get his impression,” Nancy Lynn says. “I trust him completely.”

Separate home and office

Karen Fichthorn says most people have a different persona at work than at home, and that’s an important distinction for couples. “You don’t treat each other as strangers, but you have to be more professional,” she says. “You can’t have this overlap between work and home.”

Married entrepreneurs seem to struggle more with bringing work home, however.

The Woodwards limit work-related conversations to 30 minutes each evening when they get home. Mark says it was Sara who drew that line, and he agreed. “At a certain time, work needs to be at work and home needs to be at home,” he says. They also keep a standing date night, and Mark says there are certain evenings he promises not to schedule work activities.

Steven Laitmon says he and his wife know they should set firmer boundaries. But they still have to remind each other not to let business take over their time at home, especially with three young children.

“The challenge of being business owners and parents is when to turn it off,” Steven says. “We are excited, passionate, and entrepreneurial. We feed off each other, and it’s easy to get each other excited about business development objectives. But we need to be able to say this is family time, no more.”

Fichthorn says it’s also vital for joint business owners to develop their own personal pursuits in order to keep the marriage from becoming just a business partnership. She also advises couples to have separate commutes so that each partner can have some time alone to reflect on the business and decompress after a long day.

Weekends should be kept for personal activities, not a continuation of work. “Saturday and Sunday have to actually be the weekend,” Fichthorn says. “You need that break, otherwise your brain keeps going in that one work track.”

Even with all the strains that working together may impose, sharing those experiences with your spouse can actually strengthen a marriage, Fichthorn says. “Usually when a spouse comes home grumpy or exhausted or happy, you don’t know why,” she says. “If you are working together, it’s a little easier because you’re both going through the same things.”

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