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Making it in Big Sky: Avitus Group

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Former MSU football player and coach, Michael Rider of the Avitus Group now helps companies in Bozeman and Big Sky find solutions to their most pressing needs. PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL RIDER

Q & A with Michael Rider

The Avitus Group’s name was inspired by the story of the Roman soldier Eparchius Avitus, whose innovative strategies, combined with his ability to build long-lasting relationships, led to the defeat of the seemingly unstoppable Attila the Hun—saving the Empire.

Michael Rider, Business Development Specialist, brings a warrior’s mentality to helping small Montana businesses simplify their operations, streamline their processes, and achieve their goals.

A Billings native, Rider attended Montana State University, graduating in 2011 after playing safety for the Bobcats football team. He returned to coach at his alma mater for four seasons before pursuing his current career path.

Rider developed a passion for the Big Sky area as a child visiting his parent’s second home in the Hidden Village in the ‘90s. Explore Big Sky caught up with Rider to find out more about his passion for helping businesses in the Gallatin Valley, more details about the services provided by his firm, and his advice for owners looking to generate more revenue.

Explore Big Sky: How does your background in athletics inform your approach towards the business world?

Michael Rider: Personally, it was helpful in terms of organization and time management skills. Student-athletes don’t get enough credit from a time management standpoint. They’ve got a lot on their plates day-in and day-out. There is a lot required of you. And resilience—that’s a big piece too. There are things that don’t go your way as a student and especially as an athlete, and you have to be resilient and have a capacity to bounce back from setbacks in the business world as well.

The value of relationships, maybe more than anything else, was apparent in my college career as well. I made a lot of rich connections that are still important to me. … So when I go out and meet with business owners I feel more confident in establishing relationships, establishing trust, and convincing people, quite honestly, that you’re actually going to do what you say you’re going to do. That’s a key principle I learned from athletics: you have to be reliable and follow through.

EBS: How does the Avitus Group differentiate itself from other Professional Employer Organizations (PEOs)?

M.R.: We are different from normal PEOs. It’s mostly in our interaction with our clients. We’re a highly relational company. Not only nationwide—we have clients in all 50 states—but we’re a Montana company. We were founded in Billings and there is just something distinct about the Montana way of doing business. I think we set ourselves apart with our high-touch, white-glove approach. From a quality of service standpoint, we’re going to be a cut above what most PEOs offer.

EBS: Can you give me an example of how you partnered with a small business and helped them improve their operations?

M.R.: In Big Sky, Buck’s T4 has been a longtime client. Blue Ribbon Builders, too. We help service the Yellowstone Club, which is a much larger entity, but the bulk of our clientele comes from small businesses across the Gallatin Valley. As the region continues to grow, there are so many owners in need of assistance—owners who need to get back to working on their businesses and not working in their businesses. We are able to help them not get bogged down with the non-productive, administrative obligations and focus on things that generate revenue and make them money. We help owners focus on why they got into business in the first place by taking care of all the back-office details.

EBS: What is the best business advice that you’ve received over the years?

M.R.: Relationships first. People want to do business with people they trust, people they like, so trust is everything.

EBS: What is the biggest obstacle that you face running a business in a Montana ski town?

M.R.: It’s not unique to Big Sky, but small to medium-size business owners tend to get sidetracked from the most important aspects of their roles. These owners start their, say, construction company or brewery with the intention of building beautiful homes or brewing beer and being involved with customers. But they get pulled  away from the core mission and vision, because every owner also has to deal with things like making sure HR is buttoned up, handle payroll taxes, pay their employees on time, navigate [workers’ compensation] and safety, figure out their IT services or how they need to market or re-brand. They’re focusing on all of those things instead of looking at what direction they’re headed business-wise and planning for the future to generate a stronger revenue stream.

EBS: Can you go into more specific examples of how your company has helped a company or companies succeed when they were faltering?

M.R.: I think a hot button issue for employers is HR. Montana is a very employee-friendly state. Our bread-and-butter, our most popular service is what we call our co-employer relationship. We handle their payroll, their HR, their benefits and benefits administration, giving them access to a more corporate-style package, and we handle worker’s [compensation] certifications and trainings—so it’s really our services in one that will keep employers safe and focused on growth.

The most important part of that co-employer relationship is the HR side of things. One example in the Gallatin Valley was a religious discrimination case over whether an employee could wear a beard. This employee filed a wrongful termination and a religious discrimination lawsuit against the employer. What small to medium-size business owner is equipped to handle a lawsuit of that magnitude? That’s where we come in with years and years of HR experience and knowledge about how to handle this matter proactively. We know how to go to bat for our employers and keep them insulated from risk. We have lawyers on staff who know how to handle these things and get them out of a sticky situation that could have sunk the ship pretty quickly.

EBS: Makes sense to me.

M.R.: Of course, that’s a drastic example. Just giving companies our platform, access to our payroll service, will save owners five hours every two weeks that they can spend on more pressing items. That’s kind of like a small papercut that over time can be discouraging and difficult for owners.

Giving employers access to corporate-style benefits is impactful as well by giving companies employee-retention tools like 401ks or dental, vision and health insurance. When they partner with the Avitus Group, they’re able to offer those to employees when otherwise they wouldn’t be able to. We just want to help however we can.

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