Published February 16, 2010
Volume 18, Number 2

Employee Benefits Specialists’ President Joan Rhodes: ‘Self-Sufficient and Feisty’

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

There are many things about Joan Rhodes that make her a singular person. Not the least is her multitude   of siblings. She is the fifth of 10 children, preceded by four brothers and followed by four sisters and a little brother.

In the midst of a busy upbringing, she acquired the ability to fend for herself and became “very self-sufficient” at an early age. “I could cook, clean, and take care of little ones before I was 10 years old,” she relates.  As though that was not enough, to prove she was the equal of her older brothers, she had a paper route and played baseball and football. “I have always been a bit feisty, but that has helped me survive in a tough world many times,” says the woman who heads up Hacienda’s Employee Benefits Specialists, the company she founded in 1987.     

Rhodes’s working career started early. Her father’s industrial plumbing supply business in upstate New York prospered in the post-World War II construction boom, and as a young teen she would go into to the office to work at the switchboard. After a time, she ventured into the warehouse. “I learned to drive trucks, and in general had a chance to do things there that I never would have experienced otherwise.” 

From the family business she branched out to the local grocery store, and then the department store. One summer she worked all day at one and then walked to the opposite end of the shopping plaza for the night shift at the other. Her retail experience led to work as a junior model, but after high school she took a full-time job at a radio station as a traffic manager.

That is where she met her husband, who had recently completed his master’s degree in broadcasting at Syracuse University. They married and had two daughters by the time Rhodes turned 21. She stayed home with the babies for a few years, and then her entrepreneurial spirit resurfaced. Rhodes started a modeling agency, which led to a business producing fashion shows, both run from a corner of her kitchen.   

Her next move was opening a series of retail women’s stores in the area. Retail was “more fun than economically rewarding,” she observes, noting that she put in a lot of hours and wore multiple hats, from buyer to sales person. In one of the stores, Rhodes transformed a dressing room into a playroom so she could bring her youngest kids to work.

Did she see herself as some kind of pioneer? “Women have always been working in retail,” she says, before conceding that some of the things she did exceeded the norm for mothers at the time--the late 1960s. She did have support at home. “My husband was always open to what I was doing. He never said, ‘You can’t do that.’” To illustrate, she mentions her determination to get her pilots’ license. She figured out that the least expensive way to get airplane time was by flying for the civil air patrol. With four children by then, she often took along the youngest and tucked him into the plane.  

The next major life change occurred in 1983, when her husband took a job managing a television station for an ABC affiliate in Fresno. The family left Syracuse for California, and Rhodes went looking for a new job.

“Having been an entrepreneur before, I checked out many things--real estate, securities, retail management,” she relates. “No one would pay me what I thought I was worth. I needed a job where my paycheck was a result of my own hard work, so I turned to insurance.”

She chose her field well. The very first year she earned an invitation to the company’s President’s Club. What surprised her at the event was the lack of female colleagues. “The gift for the spouses was a charm bracelet. My husband wondered what to do with it. The industry had given no thought to women as anything but spouses. I pointed it out to the president at the time, and it was a good laugh.

“Today, this is no longer the case,” she continues “I find working with other women to be great--they are hard workers and often are your best allies.” 

Her experience in insurance led her to realize the need for knowledgeable and reliable third-party administration (TPA) services. With several successful ventures behind her, Rhodes decided to strike out on her own and fill the void. She established her own TPA company, Employee Benefits Specialists, in 1987.

“We do administration of COBRA, flexible spending accounts, voluntary insurance benefits, dental claims, and reconciliation of employer benefit bills, among other things. Our newest product is a self-service online billing and eligibility system called Workterra. Basically, we provide administration and enrollment services for our clients’ employees. We have some very large clients, up to 35,000 employees, right on down to some with just 50 or so on the COBRA and flex side.”

For someone whose earlier passions were flying and fashion, employee benefits sounds like a relatively tame field, but Rhodes finds it satisfying on several fronts.

“We are a service company, and people are our greatest asset,” she comments. “Developing good managers takes time, and it’s very gratifying when someone turns that corner.”

She also finds the dynamic business environment energizing. “You have to stay up with changing times. We are always adding new services and products, and there is always something new to learn.”

Perhaps the greatest attraction is that three of her four children work with her every day, each making a unique contribution. Chimane, her second child and younger daughter, has a law degree from Hastings. “Her hard work and many abilities, such as in sales, have no doubt been key to our success,” Rhodes comments. Son David does software development. “His talents have helped bring us our latest and greatest product, the online enrollment tool for employers, called Workterra. My other son, Larry, is in sales and does a great job working with brokers, clients, and prospects. I cannot imagine what my life would be like if they had not joined me in the business over the years,” she remarks.

While she might be approaching retirement age, Rhodes does not see much slowing down on the horizon. After a few years on the market, the Workterra system has proven itself and is sparking interest in many corners. “We’ve hired consultants and are going to create a more national image this year,” she announces. 

She spends most of her downtime with a camera at her side. “I love photography and still think that someday I will go back to school for it,” she confides. In the meantime, she has carved out a niche taking pictures, especially at the steady parade of family parties and weddings. “My pictures are of people having fun. They aren’t staged. They come from my heart. It might take hundreds of shots, but when I capture something that’s genuine in a person, it shows.”

Pondering her many career changes, Rhodes muses, “I always thought I could do everything. I can’t say I’ve been 100 percent successful, but when you get out of bed in the morning, you have to enjoy going to work—and I do, every day.”

For more information, visit www.ebsbenefits.com.  


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