TriNet CEO Burton Goldfield made it his mission to help companies grow and innovate 

When Burton Goldfield was named CEO of TriNet Group Inc. in 2008, the HR outsourcing company was already successful in helping small businesses in Silicon Valley grow. But he had a much grander vision in mind.

“What was so exciting to me was that they were having this fundamental, positive impact by allowing small businesses to focus on their dreams,” Goldfield says. “Reed Hastings started Netflix with TriNet, Netgear started with TriNet. LivingSocial, Rally Software and others as well.”

He wanted to take that same concept that primarily served technology-based companies in Silicon Valley and expand it to cover a much larger segment of the small business market.

“My vision was that we could have an impact on the 55 million workers that go to work every day in the United States at companies under 500 employees,” Goldfield says.

“Why that is so important to me is the fact that most patents in America today are generated by small businesses; most of the cures for serious diseases are being researched and generated by small businesses; and most of the innovation on the social side — whether it is clean tech or other constructs from a software standpoint — is from small companies.”

So Goldfield developed a strategy to take TriNet from a regional company to a top national player in cloud-based HR outsourcing.

Growing pains

Gaining market share quickly often means acquisition, which presents challenges in bringing the separate entities together. One of the biggest acquisitions for TriNet was the $98 million purchase of Bradenton, Florida-based Gevity in 2009.

“It was a public company and we were a private company. This was the little guy swallowing the big guy, and we took it private. It gave us the East Coast presence to start to lay the foundation of being a truly national organization,” Goldfield says.

Goldfield made it clear to Gevity employees that the intent wasn’t to raid the company and bring people to TriNet’s California headquarters, but to operate the business from multiple locations to allow access to the best people and ideas.

“Honestly, they didn’t believe me when I stood up in front of them that first day in July 2009. I had to earn their trust,” Goldfield says.

In addition to convincing employees that they weren’t going to lose their jobs, he was tasked with unifying the culture and aligning everyone behind his vision.

At the time, TriNet was servicing fewer than 100,000 people.

“There are 55 million people who could use our solution, so let’s grow together a company that could really impact the quality of life of every human being on the planet by helping these small companies cure cancer and clean the waters,” Goldfield says.

Gevity had lost its way, falling short of analysts’ expectations and losing trust of clients in the process.

“They announced some new product lines that didn’t exist, that never came to fruition. So people lost confidence in the existing product line,” Goldfield says.

The company went through three downsizings in the year before being purchased by TriNet. To turn things around, Goldfield’s plan was to do what worked for TriNet.

“I set out a clear direction that we were going to build a company to impact small businesses in America using the products that they (Gevity) had that were strong and the models that had been proven to work out for TriNet in the past,” Goldfield says. “We put every client on our platform, which was technologically more advanced than theirs because they didn’t have the money to invest.”

Another problem was that communication from the prior CEO was limited to nonexistent, he says. So Goldfield made it a point to be very visible, including talking to his team in weekly, unscripted podcasts.

Communication is an important part of the role of a CEO and vital to a company’s success, he says.

“It’s not just around an earnings report, but every week. Not just around a big event — a big win or a big acquisition — but when you have challenges, too. When a product doesn’t come out on time . . . because everybody has challenges,” Goldfield says.

Still, earning employees’ trust only comes over time with proven results, he says.

“There is no other way,” Goldfield says. “As the year went on and we didn’t close the location, as we started to bring functions to Bradenton, when we moved our entire data center there, they started to believe me.”

Complementary additions

Fast growth through acquisitions doesn’t work if you’re not buying the right companies that complement your business.

Goldfield wanted to move quickly toward his goal of providing HR support for more of the 55 million U.S. workers at small businesses. Other TriNet acquisitions were LMC, AccordHR, SOI, ExpenseCloud and Ambrose.

In assessing potential acquisitions, Goldfield looked for companies with products that addressed different industries. Once onboard, he ensured the products continued to be able to service the specific needs of those industries rather than become one solution for all.

“We functionally integrate the organizations, but the products stay very separate in their service levels and the way they’re delivered to the market. It is a constant challenge to make sure that products never get homogenized,” Goldfield says.

“And ultimately, we now have three different products, and I’m proud to say that last year all exceeded their numbers. So it wasn’t that one covered for the other two. The acquisitions have been very successful and a very effective way to capture market share as well as new technology and new products.”

Customer advisory boards help provide feedback to make sure that the various offerings stay distinct and continue to be the best in their industries.

“It’s very different than having options of good, better and best. This isn’t about having a mattress and $100, $200 and $500 versions. This is about having the best in the industry for each industry we serve,” Goldfield says.

For example, the Ambrose product is geared toward hedge funds and private equity firms, with very personalized service.

“It is technology enabled, but not technology centric. It’s not the product software guys in Silicon Valley would appreciate, but it’s very popular and Ambrose is No. 1 in the industry with hedge fund and private equity firms,” Goldfield says.

“If you turn to Passport, my most technology-enabled product, it is very strong in Silicon Valley and in New York among startup companies, and highly recommended by venture capitalists, startup firms and incubators.”

Goldfield says he continually looks for other organizations TriNet could acquire.

“The opportunity to bring on other companies, other technology and other people in a reasonable fashion where they can help us on our mission is something we’re always looking toward,” he says.

Take risks

CEOs cannot be risk averse, Goldfield says. Losing 90 percent of his personal wealth in the dot-com bust hasn’t changed his approach to running TriNet.

Any big problem takes lots of people, time and money to solve, Goldfield says.

“By nature of the time constraint, the funding necessary and the amount of people necessary to solve big problems, if you’re risk averse you come up with a null set.

“You can’t do it. If you want to solve small problems, you can constrain the time frame, the funding and the amount of people. And you can be highly risk averse and still do very well,” Goldfield says.

He also keeps focused on long-term objectives.

“I always look at the long term. My goal has always been to build an enduring company. It’s not what I’m going to do this year at TriNet, it’s what I’m going to do in 2015, 2016 and 2017 that worries me every day. There are things that you can’t control, and they don’t bother me.

“I try to focus on the things I control,” he says.

A step toward achieving his long-term goals was taken with TriNet’s initial public stock offering in March.

“I talk to my team on a regular basis about being around over 150 years; TriNet truly being an enduring company,” Goldfield says. “If you think in terms of many years it changes the way you think and act. It changes how you train people, because you’re truly training people for the next generation of the company.”

Going public will provide the opportunity for TriNet to continue for 100 years and create the company legacy Goldfield envisions.

“When I part with the company, it’s about being able to sit there and watch and root for TriNet as it impacts human life. We have companies today that are going after staph infection and MRSA. It’s more about the entity doing good over a long period of time, not my tenure with the company,” Goldfield says.

 

 

Takeaways

  • Communicate regularly with employees.
  • Be willing to take risks.
  • Allow acquired companies freedom to function properly.

The Goldfield File

Name: Burton Goldfield
Title: President and CEO
Company: TriNet

Born: Philadelphia

Education: Bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering from Syracuse University and a master’s degree in business administration from Villanova University

What was your first job and what lesson did you learn from it? My first job was doing puppet shows at kids’ birthday parties, taking pictures of the kids, going back home, developing and printing those pictures in my dark room, and then laminating those pictures on cardboard and going back the next day and selling the pictures back to the people that I did the puppet show on Saturday with. It taught me that you have to love what you do. My brother and I would be together a lot of hours, so I also learned you spend a lot of time with your colleagues.

Who has been the biggest influence in your life? From a business standpoint, the founders of Rational Software, Paul Levy and Mike Devlin. They had a big vision for how they could change the world, and they built an absolutely wonderful company. There are many CEOs, CFOs, senior board members and chairmen of boards that came out of that original company.

What is your definition of business success? My broadest definition of business success is building an organization that can have a meaningful impact. Right now, it’s when I can look at TriNet and believe in my heart — not what you believe or analysts believe — that we are having that meaningful impact on the quality of every person’s life in the world. One of my sub-goals is to convince a lot of people who believe that you don’t have to commit yourself to a company for long periods of time that you can be far more successful, far more engaged and ultimately far more impactful by devoting five, 10, 15, 20 years to the same company. I look at people cross-eyed when they tell me they were with a company for a year or 18 months and turned around the entire strategy. I’m always skeptical about people who have been at three jobs in five years and tell me they crushed each one of them. I just don’t believe it.