FROM HR MANAGER TO PEO OWNER: Celeste Johnson and The Applied Companies
Celeste Johnson leads Reno, Nevada-based The Applied Companies (TAC). A regional PEO that also boasts a robust recruiting services division, TAC is dedicated to serving northern Nevada as its premier workforce solution. Johnson’s team is committed to high touch service and providing clients the custom tools they need to grow and thrive.
Today, she’s the owner and CEO of the company, but her career path in the HR world began as a summer job while still in college.
While an undergraduate student at the University of Nevada Reno, Johnson took an opportunity to work at a hotel casino in an HR role. She admits that as a student she did not have specific or set career plans in mind, so this seemed like a good opportunity to try something new.
The fast-paced, 24/7 nature of the casino industry made for a fun and exciting work environment. The unique nature of the casino industry encompasses some highly skilled positions like those in gaming finance, and some low-skilled ones like dishwashers. The broad group of people and employees created a lot of HR issues, which made the job interesting and engaging.
“I’m a farm girl from Iowa,” she says. “So working in HR in a casino was a really eye opening experience. I cut my teeth in frontline HR.”
Around this time, Reno businessman Jim Annis opened a staffing company called The Applied Companies. Two years later, in 2004, Annis added PEO services to his company’s portfolio; notwithstanding the fact that he did not have an HR manager on staff.
“After Jim had a few clients, he decided he probably needed an HR person, so he hired me to start doing handbooks for clients and helping with HR questions,” she says.
As is the case for many people when they learn about PEOs, Johnson had no idea what the business was about. No one in Reno did. Plus, she learned of the position by word-of-mouth so she didn’t even have much time to research PEOs or the industry before her interview. It all worked out, though. The PEO industry is dynamic and interesting enough that Johnson has stayed with TAC since 2004, culminating in her purchase of the company in 2018.
Johnson and her husband purchased the company, with two small minority partners, from Annis as he was preparing to retire and leave the business. They relied on a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan for the bulk of the financing.
“We put our two homes on collateral, borrowed against our 401(k) and used our savings and took the leap,” Johnson recalls.
She says they did explore partnering with a private equity firm for the purchase, but ultimately her vision and plans for TAC meant she needed to have full control over the business and the decision-making process.
“The nice thing about an SBA loan, even though the process is nauseatingly painful, is that once it’s done, and so long as you make your payments, they leave you alone. Our team has full ownership,” Johnson explains.
Five years later, the company is strong and thriving. Even though Johnson did not start the company, she describes herself has having a lot of the energy and qualities of an entrepreneur. She likes to focus on vision and goals; creating big ideas, and letting others execute the details.
This sprit fueled a desire to continuously learn and grow. Before she even had the idea to purchase TAC, Johnson knew she wanted to expand beyond just her HR foundation.
“Jim was very supportive in letting me learn anything I wanted to,” she says. “I’d ask questions about the budget and financials to get out of my HR box. When I bought the company, I had been promoted to COO.”
This same desire to learn led her to return to school for her MBA at age 40 while also a mother to three kids.
“My husband took the kids out to eat a lot just so I could study,” she laughs. “Those were two really hard years.”
Earning an MBA was an important professional milestone that helped prepare her for leading the company when the opportunity arose.
Apart from offering a robust recruiting division, Johnson says that her company’s biggest differentiator is its commitment to high touch service that is nimble and customizable to client needs. Her team forms good relationships with clients and often visits their offices.
TAC operates on a hybrid model, but many employees come into the office most of the week. The team is also preparing to move into a new office space in the heart of Midtown Reno, an historic neighborhood that has been revitalized with shops and restaurants. Plus, fourth floor office space with large windows overlooking the mountains is pretty good for employee morale.
Employee morale is important to Johnson; she works hard to create and maintain an office culture that supports her employees. COVID’s workplace shockwaves are still being felt, she says, causing employee burnout to rise at alarming rates. She’s cognizant of this and tries to keep her employees engaged, motivated, and supported.
She also points out that many younger employees were not in the workplace during the 2008 recession and unemployment crisis. These employees have never experienced a workplace crisis, and so she spends a lot of time helping them through the ups and downs of the workplace. Communication is always important which is one reason Johnson compiles a weekly internal employee newsletter. It’s a way to reinforce the company’s benefits package, and tout employee wins, and overcome losses.
Part of TAC’s commitment to supporting employees goes beyond their workplace roles.
“Our benefits package includes 40 hours of time off for volunteer work as well as fitness and wellness programs. We spend a lot of time promoting physical and mental health,” Johnson explains.
She even encourages her team to get up and take a walk at lunch instead of staying at their desks.
Of course, supporting employees also means empowering them to grow and succeed in their roles. To that end, everyone at TAC has his or her own path to success document. The blueprint was reinvigorated a bit post-COVID and includes individual and company-wide goals, career path initiatives, an updated job description, and a total compensation report. Each individual can also view his or her manager’s document which fosters transparency and helps drives culture, Johnson says.
The total compensation report is important, she notes, because in today’s highly competitive job market people are lured away by base pay.
“Not everyone understands that just because you’re making $5,000 more in base pay the grass is not always greener on the other side,” she says.
CONTRIBUTING TO THE INDUSTRY
Johnson’s path to PEO owner coincided with her path to getting involved in the industry and NAPEO. Before she took on leadership roles with TAC she was not very involved in association activities. She recalls struggling to break through the close-knit network. When she purchased the company, she decided that she needed to deepen association ties and form relationships with peers.
“I had to just start showing up, not just to the annual conference, but to other events, too,” Johnson recalls.
She recalls first joining and Annual Conference & Marketplace planning committee. Now, she serves on NAPEO’s Board of Directors, chairs the state government affairs committee, and works with our PEO Ambassadors group and Women in NAPEO (WIN).
“Once you get involved with NAPEO, it’s really easy to get very involved,” she jokes.
All of this involvement has paid off. She’s developed a network of friends and peers who are battling the same challenges she is. Everyone brings different backgrounds and expertise, so being able to rely on a trusted network is important. Now when a tricky issue comes up she can shoot off a text or email and get help and advice, she says.
She’s excited about the future for PEOs, especially now that more people are joining the industry. A few years ago, she notes, it was hard to identify a future generation of PEO leaders. Now, young and new people are taking on leadership roles and getting involved within the association.
In the meantime, though, she’s focused on making TAC the premier workforce solution northern Nevada. There’s still a lot of PEO education left to do, but awareness and understanding of PEOs is much better than it was when she joined the industry.
“It took me a while to find my way, but it’s been an exciting journey,” she says.