published Friday, March 14th, 2014

Chattanooga-based business benefits association, BOBA, seeks to go national

John Ballinger, chief operating officer of Business Owners Benefit Association, Patty Harris, executive director of Community Benefits Advisors, and Gary Miller, chief executive officer of Business Owners Benefit Association, from left, pose for a portrait at the Business Owners Benefit Association office. The Business Owners Benefit Association holds contracts with service providers allowing small businesses who are associate members services at a discounted rate from the service providers.
John Ballinger, chief operating officer of Business Owners Benefit Association, Patty Harris, executive director of Community Benefits Advisors, and Gary Miller, chief executive officer of Business Owners Benefit Association, from left, pose for a portrait at the Business Owners Benefit Association office. The Business Owners Benefit Association holds contracts with service providers allowing small businesses who are associate members services at a discounted rate from the service providers.
Photo by Erin O. Smith.

Health Insurance Enrollment Event

BOBA will be hosting a health insurance enrollment event Thursday, March 20, from 4-7 pm at the Fairfield Inn & Suites located at 2345 Shallowford Village Drive. According to a BOBA press release, this event is not for the insurance available on the Affordable Care Act exchanges, but will "provide participants opportunities to choose from broader benefit health insurance plans with many healthcare providers and affordable premiums."

BOBA asks that those who attend bring a form of ID and the date of birth of prospective enrollees. For more information, contact Patti Harris, executive director of the Community Benefits Advisors, the non-profit division of BOBA at 423-505-6646.

A Chattanooga-based nonprofit is working to build a national network to offer discounted services such as payroll or credit card processing to small businesses and charities across the country.

The Business Owners Benefits Association is a new 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization that seeks to provide small businesses, as well as private schools, churches, civic groups and other nonprofits, the same cost savings enjoyed by large corporations and buying groups. The model is similar to how the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) offers benefits to the "over 50 crowd," said Gary Miller, BOBA's chief executive officer.

BOBA allows members to access discounted business services through pre-negotiated contracts with service provider companies, which "eliminates the need" for their members to have multiple contracts for products and services needed to operate a company, Miller said.

"These products and services help them to lower control and fix costs that they normally wouldn't be able to by themselves as a single business owner," said John Ballinger, BOBA's chief operating officer. "But when you pull millions of business owners together, and you're negotiating on their behalf, then you get that Walmart, where you're buying for a whole lot, and the more that you buy, the lower that you can get it."

Given the intent to appeal to a national market, all of the association's service providers are required to have a national footprint, and must be able to provide services in all 48 states, Miller said.

Ballinger, whose background is in insurance, has used the model with about 600 clients across the region since 2008, but the initial idea for the business model came to him earlier.

"I started in 2006, actually, flying around the country talking to business owners about what stunk about being a business owner; what they couldn't control, or fix, and as I travelled, those industries that we started negotiating with, all of those came to the top," Ballinger said.

But the association didn't truly take shape until Miller, with a background in business development and purchasing consortium group growth, met Ballinger about a year ago and their "mutual skills meshed together well," Miller said.

The organization was founded last fall.

BOBA initiated a "soft roll-out" of their model in January, which "exceeded expectations" when they helped a good-sized area church save 30 percent annually -- $56,000 in real dollars -- on credit card processing and improved employee insurance benefits, Miller said.

BOBA currently offers its members discounted business services in four categories -- payroll and human resources services, credit card processing, energy savings audits and all forms of insurance -- with more to come in the future as the association grows.

For associate members to join, there is an initial, one-time cost of $995 -- $895 for non-profits -- and an annual renewal fee of $195. The initial membership fee will be fully refunded if the member doesn't see their operating costs drop in the first year by more than the fee, Miller said. To qualify for the refund, the member needs to complete the full evaluation survey within 30 days of sign-up.

New members get a complete business analysis with a BOBA executive director, who brings the evaluation back within a week and shows members where they're doing well with cost, and where they could do better.

"[The executive director] sees the associate member's company as a whole, and can really provide value to that associate member, so that they can have their cost savings and time savings that they can reinvest back into their company, and expand, add employees or reduce their debt," Miller said.

BOBA has executive directors in Chattanooga, Knoxville and Nashville, and the association's growth strategy includes the development of a corporate call center in the Scenic City, providing executive directors to assist new members across the U.S.

Although most of the services are provided through one company each in order to provide the biggest discounts, insurance services are available through BOBA for "well over 100" insurers, including "all your major players," Miller said.

BOBA provides a complete menu of insurance coverage for members, including life, health, property, casualty and workers comp.

Ballinger said that he has kept up with the Affordable Care Act since it passed, and knew that as BOBA grew, the organization would want to provide their members with quality, affordable health insurance outside of the exchanges.

"We, as an organization, will not sell on-exchange policies," Ballinger said. "All of ours are off-exchange, and we use multiple providers, because insurance is zip code rated, and you can have the same family in Hixson and Ooltewah, and there will be a $200 a month difference for that family. So, it's finding which health carrier wants which family profile in which area, and then matching those folks together."

BOBA has software developed, similar to Priceline, that lets members pick the lowest cost options depending on the location of the business or nonprofit group, Ballinger added.

Contact staff writer Alex Harris at aharris@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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