Compensation is a tricky subject, especially when it comes to your key players. If you’re wondering how to keep your top people committed, Kevin Monaghan, founder of Intuitive Compensation Group, is an expert in making it happen. He joins us to share what he really thinks about “golden handcuffs”, how he gets creative with benefits, equity and profit sharing, and different ways to make sure your people get the kind of compensation that will keep them around for good.
Brandon Laws: Hey, welcome to the HR for Small Business podcast. I am your host Brandon Laws. This podcast is a weekly podcast aimed at delivering content that’s going to help your development as an HR professional or a small business leader.
Really this podcast is meant to help you transform your workplace, create a great work environment and a great culture. Really appreciate the community that we build here and as such, we have a survey that we always have open about the podcast and we are really trying to collect feedback about the podcast and it really helped shape the future and the content that we deliver and we do a drawing on that monthly.
I wanted to mention and congratulate that Nina from Florida won a book of her choice. Anyway, just really appreciate Nina for her feedback and all the other people that have given us feedback over the last month.
So today’s episode, I interview Kevin Monaghan of Intuitive Compensation Group and he walks through the six pillars of compensation packages that you could offer a key employee, key executive. He really breaks it all down and there’s a lot of ideas that I had either really never heard of or ones that I just never would have thought of. So I think there’s a lot of good information here that you can go and apply to your business.
A lot of this is somewhat complicated and this is by no means customized advice for you. So there’s your disclaimer, I just wanted to make sure that you understand that this is general and educational information and it’s not specific to you. So definitely look to a certified compensation person or a certified financial person to help you with this since it is so complicated.
Anyway, you’re going to love what he has to say. Reach out to me as always. I’m on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, all those places. So you’re welcome to connect with me there and reach out if you have any questions. Enjoy the episode.
Brandon: Hey, Kevin. It’s so great to have you on the podcast. Welcome to the show.
Kevin Monaghan: Hey. Thank you for having me, Brandon.
Brandon: OK. We’re going to talk some compensation. But I have to ask you first because this is so vital to this conversation – haha, not really. But I heard you did some work on the shows The Office and Parks and Rec as a writer. Those are two of my favorite shows. I want to know what your experience was on those shows and what role did you kind of play in doing some of that work.
Kevin: Yes. So as a failed comedian, compensation – it helps being in compensation to break the humor with or to break any tension with some humor. But I had originally started with my father’s firm in compensation and when I was young, I said, “I’m not ready for this yet. I need to be a little bit older. I want to go have some fun.”
So I went out to Los Angeles and wound up wanting to be on the television show The Office. I cold called them, the production office, for about eight months before I finally got a chance and just so turned out we had – Dwight’s Speech episode was the first role I day-played on, and Dwight was actually sick that day. So we actually didn’t shoot anything and I just got to hang out with the staff and we clicked and they had an opening open up.
So I was able to get on as an entry level “go get coffee” and so forth. So for the first year, I did anything anybody needed that came up. So I was just a runner and I had a lot of fun. I did it with enthusiasm and then wound up the next week being the writer – one of the writer’s assistants or the writer’s PA where we got to – I mean it was a great job. I woke up, stocked the food. We got in. You’re just making jokes all day long and it was really fun. I enjoyed the time.
Brandon: I’m impressed. Congratulations on that work.
Kevin: It was very hard to become a writer. So I gave it three years, moved over to Parks and Recreation. It was just as fun there but then came back into the working world.
Brandon: Well, I guess we can move on to our topic of the day and talk about business. So compensation, it’s one of those things that we’ve had a huge demand at Xenium. A lot of our clients are asking about it, building philosophies for their entire organization. Key employees is something we never really touched on and that’s really where your expertise lies.
Is compensation sort of a one-size-fits-all for all employees at every level? Meaning the lowest level employee all the way to key executives. What do you usually tell people?
Kevin: No solution is ever the same.
Kevin: And especially when you get into the key employees. There are certain programs that we see companies implementing. The 401(k). Do you have health insurance? Do you have group benefits? Things of that nature. But then there are key employees that stick out where they’re really important to the firm or the organization and you want to do something special for them. There are rules around what you can do for them. But to answer your question, sometimes the best compensation is based on the motivation of the individual employee that you’re trying to work with to keep them engaged at your company and to kind of get a program that rewards him. But at the same time, access a golden handcuff, keeping him tied to the firm.
So, because every person is different, we’re really keying in on what the motivation is for the employee so that we can design something that fits into what their goals are. Because if you’re going to come into work every day and you’re going to give your time to somebody else’s business, so you’re a key employee in this case, then you want to make the most of it. If you’re performing well, you almost want to be treated like a business owner where you get your compensation that’s aligned with what your goals and vision are in life.
So we help business owners and key employees work through that in trying to get something that is a good fit and a win-win for both of them.
Brandon: Do you find that when owners are coming to you and trying to come up with something creative, or you’re working with key employees on comp models, do you find that it’s like they were already been hired awhile ago, and maybe it’s just time to do something – maybe the role has increased? Or is it usually that they’ve been hired on as a key employee and now we’ve got to create this amazing comp and incentive plan to keep them there and keep them motivated? Is it kind of a combination of both or one of the other usually?
Kevin: What we typically see is, we’re running into a lot of firms that have brought somebody on board and they’ve made a big difference. So this person who has risen through the ranks is now managing. It’s allowing the business owner to either focus on growth or remove himself from the day to day operations, whether that is because he’s vacationing or working on another business or whatever he’s doing with his free time.
But this person has now become very important to the revenue production, to the sales process – everything is running smoothly when this person is there. All of a sudden, there’s a realization that – on both sides of the key business owner that says, “Boy, if I lost this person or something happened to them and they left –” or maybe, in this day and age with the Tim Ferrises of the world and Gary Vaynerchuks of the world, everybody is saying start your own firm and it’s easier than ever to do so.
The business owner becomes aware that this person could go and do something else and they’re valuable. And at the same time, the key employee is sitting there going, “You know, I’m doing a lot of the work here. If I was doing this for myself, I would be a lot more profitable than doing it for somebody else.”
That is a very common scenario – you get that growing employee, who tends to be, on average, with the firm for three to five years. So now they have the routine down. They have the relationships down. They’ve explored, crafted their skillset within your firm and now it becomes a – hey, I’m actually – let’s take a litigation attorney for example. Whoa, I just closed $700,000 of revenue. They don’t remember the first three years when they didn’t make anything and then they got a salary.
So all of a sudden, their eyes open up And that’s an example we see a lot where somebody who is results-oriented starts making money and they can – they go, “Wow, I’m getting paid 120. I might get a bonus of 50,000 or 100,000. But it’s nothing compared to the 700,000 that I would have brought in if it was just me running my own firm.”
So that’s where we see a lot of the obvious conflict if you will between the relationships. We get people who have been in for a skillset. So they’ve been doing it for eight, nine years. It would take two or three people to replace what they’re able to do now. They’re not going to be entrepreneurial but you just want to do something nice – we call it a stay bonus. You just – you reward them for staying with the firm and if they leave the firm, they don’t get anything. You get to invest or take back what you were committing to them.
So there are different ways to look at employees, and employees are different and their motivations are all over the board. You mentioned one which is if you’re recruited to be the key employee. We see that a little bit less because a lot of times you don’t want to commit to big compensation packages until they’re proven.
Brandon: Yeah, that makes sense.
Kevin: But you do see it in the big, important space. So I was saying before the show we had – Jim Harbaugh was a good national example for what we do. That was an example where they recruited him away from the San Francisco 49ers and they wound up using a program referred to as “Split Dollar,” which was something that rewarded him for staying and for his tenure, for the time that he works or stays on as coach with the Wolverines. And if he leaves, there’s punishment for him to leave and the university gets to recoup a lot of what they were going to give him.
Brandon: So it sounds like – we know every key employee, they’re created differently. Their motivations are different. What are some of those main areas that you’ve seen and obviously given advice on and built? What are those kind of main areas and incentives that you see most often?
Kevin: Well, a business owner has – usually when we meet with them, they have standard choices that they all know of and talk about and hear about out there. So the first one is just paying their employees well. Paying their employees well is OK but as a business owner, you are increasing your expenses every year. It’s expected almost every year from the employees and you can go up but it’s hard to go down.
So your business cycles can come in to create havoc in that scenario. But at the same time, somebody out there pays to keep its key people, somebody out there at another firm or a competitor, will be willing to throw more money at your key employee to solve one of their problems quickly and efficiently.
It may not even be for a fundamentally sound reason. So we’ve seen people leave on a quick two-month – oh, I’m getting a little bit bored and somebody comes in and offers $20,000 or $40,000 more a year to go to a firm that was far less stable, that just needed help, and threw a little bit more money at them and they bit.
So we don’t see that option keeping people. But that is one of the options – getting paid nice. An employee will always say yes to getting paid more.
Brandon: Of course.
Kevin: The next thing we see is equity and this is the one where – take a business attorney out to lunch and ask them “Is giving away equity a good idea?” Equity is one of those things where business owners feel like it’s a good thing and that it will commit them. What happens is you’ve – you give them a piece of equity and it doesn’t cost you much today. It doesn’t feel like it costs you much today. But where it becomes expensive is down the road, if something happens and life takes a different turn for the employee and they leave, it’s trying to figure out what to do with that equity.
So we’ve seen firms where somebody has gotten 40 percent equity. Their name was rebranded on the firm’s logo.
Brandon: Wow, yeah.
Kevin: And all of a sudden, they still left. Can you imagine training somebody for five, six, seven years? They’ve built their brand under your dime, under your marketing plan, under your resources, and all of a sudden now they spin off and they own 100 percent of their company and they still own 40 percent of your company.
Brandon: I could not imagine that.
Kevin: Yeah. So that’s the downside to it. We say one marriage is good enough. But when you have equity, it’s almost like bringing on a second marriage and it’s not as fun to unwind either one of them, I guess. So equity has its drawbacks because typically on the employee side, after two years, they’re going to realize that having a minority stake in equity doesn’t really give you access to the books. It doesn’t give you access to decisions and it doesn’t give you access to making the call on distributions.
So it really – while it’s exciting at first, it fades pretty quickly in the mind of the employee and it doesn’t do a great job of keeping people there. All day long we get people who come forth and say, “You know, I’ve had equity before and it wasn’t great and I own 10 percent of two or three companies.” I still have it but I can’t sell it and it doesn’t mean anything.
So that’s another thing we see. We also have benefits out there. We always say benefits are really good for the overall employee base if you will. So a lot of them are, “Do we have group life insurance? Do we have health insurance? Do we have 401(k) options that we’re matching everybody and profit-sharing everybody?” People who can contribute more may benefit a little bit more. People who don’t contribute don’t. So it’s a pretty fair system in place.
Kevin: But people either have them or not. The next category we see is profit sharing. This one is a little bit more elaborate. It feels good for the business owner because in theory, when profits are there, you would attribute to then paying out more to the employees. So in theory, your motivations are aligned. What we found in practice though is they still don’t have any control over the distributions. But now as a business owner, you may be judged on what you’re doing and how it’s affecting their profit.
So we’ve seen business owners that give profit- sharing plans and then show up in their new F150 Raptor or BMW and all of a sudden, the key employee is going, “Wait, you bought that on the business. That’s affecting my payout.”
But on a bigger scope, as a business owner, you may have to make tough decisions about expansion, about investments, about something, that may affect your ability to say profit-sharing and it may not – it may not be seen that way in the eyes of the employee. I had a profit-sharing plan in place in my prior role and they were going through an expansion and while I was killing it, they were spending it on the expansion and it never played through for me.
So it was a perfect example of I became disgruntled with them. Obviously I’m no longer there. It didn’t have anything – it was exciting for them but it didn’t have anything to do with me or the formula that was put in place for me.
We don’t see revenue sharing too much anymore. It is out there. It has been a long time since we’ve had a down market. But there is nothing less exciting than putting a revenue share in place and then not having any profits and you still owe money on the revenue.
Kevin: So I would say that those ones tend to get washed out at the next downturn, even if they are out there. It has been a while and then what we’re really seeing now is phantom equity. Sometimes that works in motivating employees for a sale. Sometimes it works in motivating employees just as a – I call it – like they have stocks. So they would get a percentage of the profits every year. But really it’s just a profit-sharing plan that they’re calling “phantom stock” and they’re working their spreadsheets.
The positive to the phantom stock is it doesn’t cost a business owner anything unless he’s building for a sale and then everybody gets rewarded for helping the business owner increase the value of the business and everything else. The downside is if I’m a buyer of a $100 million company and the key employee had a 10 percent profit sharing or a phantom stock program on there, I just paid my key employee $10 million. How motivated is he going to be to come to work every day?
Brandon: Yeah. Probably not very motivated after getting the payout, right?
Kevin: Right. So it’s – while in theory it would really help, it becomes a tool that hurts a buyer and people are waking up to that aspect of it. So where we come in and really the sixth pillar of compensation models where we come in is the programs like 162 Leverage Bonus, executive bonus, restricted bonus, SERP plans.
These are tax laws in the IRS code and they can use any asset class really that you wish. So you can do it through the markets. You can do it through investing in businesses or real estate or other forms. However, we make the argument that you do not want your compensation plan to have risk. There is nothing worse than putting a compensation plan for a key employee in place and then having it lose value.
They turn to you and say, “Well, you were going to pay me this and now it’s only worth this.” So what am I – you picked the model. So we use plans that typically use a specific vehicle and specific forms of that vehicle and it falls under the category of “cash value insurance”. So I used the example before to illustrate how and why like Jim Harbaugh at the University of Michigan used it.
But the reason you would use specific types of it is because it has got guaranteed cash values in it. For a lot of people, you want the protection aspects into it. So if you’ve got a key employee and you put a key plan in place and he’s going to be there, then if something happens to him and he has a death or disability, then the insurance component kicks in and can really help that key employee as well.
So there’s some protection levels for the key employee and the business owner as well. So for example, when the University of Michigan was recruiting Jim Harbaugh, they said, “You know, we want to make you the highest paid coach in college football.” But it’s not fun for a business owner to commit to paying somebody a lot of money. So what they said was, “We’re going to do this. We are going to pay you $5 million in cash and then what we’re going to do is we’re going to put $4 million into a cash value insurance policy for you.”
That bought $75 million worth of death benefits. So if something happened to him, his family was paid out as if he was the coach for the next 10 years or so. But what they really did was they said, “As long as you stay here, we will continue to pay the premiums on this insurance policy and if you stay with us – and you can structure these things a lot of different ways. But if you stay with us for 10 years, we will then give you this insurance policy and you can use the cash value inside of it as you please.”
Brandon: So it sounds like a deferred comp model through insurance vehicle.
Kevin: Correct. You would use the insurance for, again, the guarantees around the money being there. But then there’s some interesting components too and here’s where it gets interesting for a business owner. You can structure these things where you say, “You know what, Jim Harbaugh, over your tenure, if you win one bowl game, we will move this into your name earlier. If you win two top five bowl games, we will not only move this into your name. When you do so, there will be some tax consequences for Jim Harbaugh. But we will bonus you the money to pay the taxes on it.”
So your employee has two carrots in front of him, which is, boy, I can get this money released to me and tax-free. Well, not tax-free, but they’re paying – the university is picking up the tab. But the university has the confidence to say, “You know what? If you perform and you win those bowl games, we know that that equals X amount of revenue. We would have the money to pay for it.”
So you’ve got almost two carrots in front of him that can be pretty significant. In the meantime, the way that they structured it was if Jim Harbaugh, who has now been there – I want to say four, five years. If he walks away now, the university could recoup the cash value of the premium.
So if the cash value is now $10 million and he left, the university could recoup that. How many small business owners out there would pay their employees more if they knew there was a way to recoup some if they left?
Brandon: I would think all of them would want to do something like that.
Kevin: Right. And that’s where kind of the value of exploring these options is in there – you can create a win-win where you’re aligning – in this case, it was Jim Harbaugh’s retirement. But we get – I have $250,000 worth of student debt. A lot of millennials will stay with the company for five, ten years, if they know that their student debt is going to be paid off afterwards or they will have enough cash value to do so.
If they don’t perform, the owner knows that he gets some back. So it – you can really align these things with whatever the goal is and that’s why when we – you asked at the beginning of the show, “Is there a cookie-cutter approach to these?” everybody’s goals are different.
Brandon: Yeah, they certainly are. I was really wondering about the life cycle of a business, where a business may be at and how they use each of these tools, to really build a structure for their key employee or employees.
What do you usually see for like say a startup or a small business versus a larger firm? Maybe a couple of hundred employees.
Kevin: Sure. So for a small startup firm, where we get a lot of calls or inquiries is I started a business with two friends and it was – we each owned a third and we went into it. Well, eight months later, one person is responsible for all the success and they – it could have been luck. Who knows? But it’s – one person is more responsible than the other and all of a sudden, you have fighting. That one person goes, “Well, if I was doing this on my own, I would own 100 percent, not a third of it.”
So we’re able to get in there and start having these conversations and putting – sometimes we’re treating partners like key employees. So yes, the K-1 distributions have to be equal. But we can position something that the company owns that if you continue to perform above your level of equity, we can use it as a bonus structure. But in the meantime, it has benefits for all of the partners and you have the flexibility to kind – to see if he continues to perform and then you can use it as a bonus or if he does continue to perform and it’s on the company books, it acts as his golden handcuffs. Because then if he leaves, the other two employees keep the cash value.
So you can structure these things a lot of different ways. But a lot of times in the early startups, we’re just positioning people for these conversations later. So we’re not taking big extremes but we are able to help them – make them aware that there are rewarding compensation plans that can help with the fact that in any three-partner organization, 80 percent of them, one person is going to be silent in five to ten years. The other person might as well just be a really good employee and one person is going to be responsible for the overall growth.
So we just start positioning those and then we review process to make sure that it’s playing out that way and what are the options to do something about it. So in the startup phase, that’s what we’re seeing. We’re also seeing places where a business owner is coming in and they have somebody who is just as important to them, but they don’t own anything and the business owner doesn’t want to give away equity because he has heard stories from his friends. It’s too early to give away equity as well.
Kevin: Or they may need to give away equity to like a VC partner or somebody else coming in. So they just don’t want to start diluting equity too soon and too much and they need something in place to help them. So we see that in the startup phase.
On the larger employer scale, a lot of times what we’re getting is in the multiple – in the key employees, there’s somebody who’s running it. They’re not going to be able to get ownership for one reason or another. Sometimes there are other investors in play who just say, “No way.” Sometimes there are just different circumstances. But regardless, it’s a key employee and that’s an easy one to address is how important is he. What revenues is he bringing in?
We have a process that we take people to help them understand and give them estimates of what it would cost to replace somebody and what they’re producing and how to balance comp plan versus – you know, reward versus cost.
Brandon: Do you involve that key employee in the process or is it – a lot of this is done behind the scenes and then you bring them in and ask them what’s really valuable to them?
Kevin: Right. So a lot of times, we are educating the business owner on what these things can do and how they may play into the business and what the main goals are of the business owner. We show them structures that they can get behind.
Once we know that they are pretty comfortable in exploring the idea, we then go over how we communicate it to the key employee because that’s where they get nervous. What are you going to say to them? But we need to go through that process because we want to hear what’s important to them, so that we can tweak any design that we come up with, that fits into what their vision and what they want to get out of it for their time at the company.
Brandon: Are you seeing any shifts more towards – we hear the total rewards thing pop up a lot where it’s like unique benefits, you have flexible work, all that stuff. Are you seeing any of that in the key employee phase where you may offer a little something unique?
Kevin: Bring your dog to work?
Brandon: Yeah, something like that.
Kevin: Not too much. The key employees are pretty high-performing people.
Kevin: So whether they’re at home or at work or flying around the country, not really vacation. They’re typically motivated by performance and results.
Brandon: Yeah, that makes sense.
Kevin: Now, what their end reward may be is I want to work hard for another 10 years and then I want to retire early at 45. You need something that can come in and provide that because they’ve got to wait until 59 and a half to take their 401(k) or deferred comp, whatever you did before.
So they need a structure where they can get access to funds prior to that without the penalties and taxes. So yes, where typically the relaxation or that type of stuff is either already in place when we get in there. So you get seven vacation weeks paid for or this amount of flex time.
Brandon: I got a gym membership or whatever it may be, yeah.
Kevin: Yeah. I see that somebody said, well, I get a – the employer was so happy because they provided them a massage every month. We got to the employee and he goes, “Yeah. Somebody will give me $100 a month to get my own massage.”
Kevin: I don’t care –
Brandon: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Kevin: So I don’t see too many high-performing people stay because of a little perk. It’s usually they want a clear path to, “If I perform, what do I get?”
Brandon: That makes sense and I like what you say about basically involving them in the process, really asking them. Like if you wanted to retire at 45 and yet you’re putting down some money into the 401(k) or deferred stuff that you’re not going to be able to access until a certain age, but yet I want to stop working 15 years earlier. How would you know that unless you involve them in the process early on? So I like that point you’re making.
Kevin: Yeah. Here’s what’s interesting. Sometimes you find out that this person wants to run their own business and instead of guessing at when they’re going to do it – we’ve had employees in charge of about $1.5 million in profit running multiple franchises that wanted their own franchise store.
Brandon: Oh, wow.
Kevin: And we put a clear path in there. Now here’s the cool part for the business owner. He got clarity around – yes, this guy is going to go and he’s going to start his own franchise. But I put a plan in place where he works for me for eight years and all I have to do is give up $200,000 a year and into premiums and at the end of eight years or however you structure it, he has the funding to go do it. But I get – for $200,000, I get clarity around $1.3 million of profit for the next eight years and the guy is already running it. It’s predictable. It’s a known. I will do that.
So you give both sides clarity on what they want and if – it’s not like an employee is going to go to the employer and say, “Hey, you don’t know this. But I’m going to – I really want to start my own business and I’m not going to tell you when I spin off,” versus, “Hey, this is going to be important to them. Are you willing to work together?”
Usually if you can get clarity and the math makes sense, then it’s a win-win for both sides. You’ve got a good working relationship and they’re going to work hard to get that, to work towards that.
Brandon: Out of all the things that you mentioned, paying employees well, the equity, benefits, profit sharing, revenue sharing, phantom equity, the insurance – the way you can use deferred comp and insurance to incent people, what do you like? Do you like a combination of a lot of that or is it just really – you got to – it’s going to depend on the business, the key employee and what their needs are. What do you typically see?
Kevin: Yes. I always say that there’s a – I call them the “six pillars of compensation” and you need to be aware of them. A lot of times, it’s some sort of blend of X amount of them are the right answer. Where we come in is helping people with what I think is that – the insurance aspect of it. The 162 Leverage Bonuses just aren’t known as tools and a lot of times, they are so much cleaner and incentivized and give clarity to both sides much – in my opinion and I make the argument – much clearer for everybody and much more protected than the others.
So it’s worth learning about. But at the end of the day, making an educated decision with all of the options on the table is usually the best way to go. Sometimes we’ve worked through with big companies and at the end of the day, the business owner said, “You know, that’s not an option I’m going to get behind on this side. But it did give me clarity and confidence to take this other package back to them.”
That’s fine too. As long as people are making an educated decision and are learning what the options that work best for them are, I’m happy.
Brandon: Kevin, I really appreciate you coming on the podcast. This is a lot of fun. We could keep talking honestly forever. But we got to go. Where can people learn about you? Maybe your website. Anything you’re up to, where you’re featured, anything like that, where you want to point people to?
Kevin: Sure. So www.IntuitiveCompensation.com would be our website. We’ve got some quick storyboards up there. We can’t use client testimonials due to confidentiality rules around our industry. But there are some good stories there that help paint a picture of how we work with business owners in different types of compensation and if you relate there, there are next steps on that website.
Brandon: All right. Kevin, thanks for joining the podcast today. I appreciate it.
Kevin: Thanks Brandon.
[The views expressed are those of Kevin Monaghan. The information provided is not intended and should not be construed as specific tax or legal advice. Neither Intuitive Compensation Group nor Kevin Monaghan provides tax or legal advice. You should seek advice from your own tax or legal professional for such guidance.
Kevin Monaghan is an agent of Massachusetts’ Mutual Life Insurance Company – MassMutual, Springfield, Massachusetts. Intuitive Compensation Group is not a subsidiary or affiliate of MassMutual.]