Chris Free is one of the owners of Rapport Benefits Group Inc., an employee benefits and compensation consultant firm. The four-person firm began operations in 2006 and is now located in the William M. Factory Small Business Incubator in Tacoma. It’s a career he never thought he would find himself loving 10 years ago when he was just graduating from high school. But it was his father, a career military man, who gave him the skills to succeed.
“My father taught me how to look at the world through numbers, while not losing human compassion,” he said. “So many of the lessons I learned from him can be traced back to his innate understanding of numbers and how they relate to each other.”
That base led to at least an interest in the world of insurance, which often involves juggling numbers as well as understanding what people need, he said, admitting that he develops spread sheets of mathematical formulas just so he can then figure them out.
“I love Excel – I even build spreadsheets for fun,” he said.
That drive to build something from nothing attracted him to small business ownership, not the industry itself. That was secondary.
“Like most of the people who enter the world of employee benefits, I fell in by chance. For most of my life, I have wanted to own businesses. Honestly, the industry was not important. I have always wanted to build things that would provide for people, and make a difference in the world.” he said, noting that the key to succeeding in the business is being a trusted advisor to clients rather than just a seller of products.
“Having and maintaining a solid reputation is almost everything in this industry.”
While he had been dreaming of running his own business and had the plans in place, he admitted that he wished that he had learned more about the role of money and cash flow in small business operations.
“I wish I would have had a better understanding of how it ‘feels’ to run a business and see what the money in the business actually does and how that looks a lot like an individual’s personal finances,” he said. “This type of financial literacy is missing from most of our country’s employees – and is the real reason behind all of the ‘crises’ we are experiencing now. … Housing isn’t a problem; we have houses, but everyone failed to make smart financial decisions regarding houses. Health care isn’t a problem either; we have health care, but everyone is afraid of using the system because they have not planned financially for anything unexpected.”
That lack of planning by many people, the national slowdown and the rising costs of health care is putting a pinch on many business related to health care and insurance as pricing increase faster than wages can cover them.