Looking for the walking definition of serial entrepreneurship? Search no further than Clay Bethune’s office at eNet Payroll Services, the latest in a series of eight businesses he has founded or purchased.
Bethune’s companies have covered a wide range of industries, from jewelry (Sterling House), to trucks (Mid America Truck Sales, which he sold in 2006), to human resources (eNet).
While still at the University of Missouri-Columbia—from which he graduated in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics—Bethune joined the internship program at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company in Columbia.
“I was extraordinarily shy growing up and was trying to do something challenging that would make me more outgoing,” Bethune said. “I thought if I could sell life insurance that it would be a big challenge.”
Bethune said he achieved great success at Northwestern Mutual and learned a lot from the company’s training program but didn’t see himself working there for the next 60 years.
“I’d always been really interested in business, always read the business books,” Bethune said. Favorites include One Cup at a Time about Starbucks and Built from Scratch about Home Depot.
Following the examples outlined in business books, Bethune set a goal from the start to build companies that could grow and prosper on their own. He said that people often start businesses that become “just another job” and that he wanted to build businesses that could sustain themselves with or without him.
Early efforts included Bethune & Associates, an insurance brokerage, and Sterling House, which employs a direct-sales/ house-party strategy for selling sterling jewelry to women in their homes. These companies provided him with the experience, resources and connections to move on to bigger and better opportunities.
In 1999, Bethune started Missouri’s first America’s Cash Advance, a consumer-finance loan company that now has six locations in the state, stretching from Chillicothe in northern Missouri to Caruthersville in southwestern Missouri.
Following his “sustainable business” philosophy, Bethune said, he started America’s Cash Advance because it was a business he could duplicate easily. Within two years, he had five locations.
But one business spanning the state was not enough for Bethune.
“I didn’t want to put all of my eggs in one basket, and after about two years I started a company called Gateway Mortgage Group,” Bethune said. Gateway is a mortgage brokerage started in 2002 and sold in September 2006 to Landon Albertson, Bethune’s friend and former competitor.
Albertson merged Gateway with his firm, Mortgage Trust, to form Gateway Mortgage Group. He and Bethune still work together, with Bethune’s new company handling payroll for Gateway.
“Clay is a visionary,” Albertson said. “ He is somebody who is always on the cutting edge of any business he starts.”
Bethune’s new company, eNet Payroll Services, fits that criterion, meeting what Bethune believes is a growing need for outsourced human resources. ENet offers a full range of human resources services, tailored to the needs of the client businesses.
“For a small business, we’re their partner when it comes to HR and payroll,” Bethune said. “We can handle payroll, insurance, benefits, 401(k) and HR consulting for anything they can’t handle, such as safety manuals to help reduce their cost of work comp.”
ENet is able to work with companies ranging in size from two to 1,000 employees, but Bethune said the companies that need eNet’s services are often those that have been in business for two to four years and are experiencing the growing pains of moving beyond the start-up phase.
For example, one of eNet’s new clients is a company with 15 employees. Working with eNet, the company has set up a 401(k) for the owner and other employees, administered by eNet. It also uses eNet to manage timekeeping and to create employee policies and handbooks.
Bethune said one of eNet’s services, “pay-as-you-go workers’ compensation insurance,” is particularly unusual in the marketplace. Working with insurance providers, eNet allows employers with dramatically fluctuating payroll costs to pay for their workers’ compensation benefits as a component of ongoing payroll expenses, so they don’t have to rely on long-term payroll projections that may not be accurate.
Today eNet employs five people, including Bethune, and has one office in Columbia. In the long run, Bethune intends to expand the company throughout Missouri and nationwide.
Recently, Bethune partnered with Elly Swetz to open Elly’s Couture, a women’s clothing store on Broadway.
“Clay deals with the advertising and all of the financial aspects—things I never would have thought about doing,” Swetz said. “Having Clay as a partner makes a big difference.”
Based on Bethune’s record of building successful businesses, it is a good bet that we haven’t seen the last Bethune start-up.