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A Closer Look: Melissa Ness

President and CEO, Connectify HR


Iowa native Melissa Ness is using her leadership experience with professional employer organizations to build a new entrepreneurial venture with Connectify HR. Launched in August 2021, Connectify’s mission as a professional employer organization (PEO) is to simplify the business of running a business by connecting numerous vendors, suppliers and services through a single organization that can take the time to understand each client’s business. Ness was most recently chief financial officer of West Des Moines-based Aureon. Before Aureon sold its Aureon HR subsidiary (formerly Merit Resources), Ness worked for that company for 14 years, with roles as chief financial officer, chief operating officer and ultimately president.  

What was the need that was perceived for this organization? 

The need that we perceived was a local, high-service, high-touch PEO. The Midwest is actually really under-penetrated from a PEO standpoint, so there’s always been a lot of opportunity in the Midwest and in Iowa. Generally the coasts have a lot more PEOs than we do, and they’ve been slowly making their way here. Merit Resources has obviously been here, so they paved the way, I think, and taught a lot of us what PEO meant. 

How do you define the role of a PEO and how Connectify HR will serve clients? 

The role of the PEO is really to bolster small to medium-sized businesses, in everything [that involves] HR and employment you can think of. And so we partner with companies, from the smallest to our largest [client company], which is over 500 employees now. We want to meet them where they’re at, and customize based on what they have. Our name, Connectify, comes from connect and simplify … that’s really what we want to do. Employment is so complicated and HR is so complicated, and it just keeps getting more and more complicated, so we really want to simplify that and partner with them to create a great experience for their employees, a great experience for the owners. 

Tell me about the kind of culture that you are trying to build with Connectify. 

The culture is really a culture of empowerment, of autonomy, a kind of entrepreneurship, if you will. I really want people to be their best selves, which means challenge and development, working hard and being able to make decisions, creating an environment and structure that allows for that and to feel proud of their work. 

It seems like there has been a lot of consolidation in the PEO industry. Is that creating more opportunities, or meaning that PEOs have to seek out specific niches in their markets? 

You’re spot-on. There has been a lot of consolidation across the country, and we’ve seen it just right here with the few that we have in Iowa. I think it’s created more awareness of PEOs with private equity [firms] and other companies like that, and so it spawned more opportunities for PEOs to start and more PEOs to grow, which has created, again, more awareness, which I think is good for the industry. It’s a pretty new industry, maybe 30 or 40 years old. I also think in some cases, it’s created an opportunity for more locally owned PEOs to flourish. 

What do you see as a few of the toughest issues that small and medium-sized businesses need help with? How are you differentiating yourselves in those areas? 

Everybody’s hearing the talent issues, so both finding and then also retaining talent and, boy, everybody seems to be struggling with that. And so we partner with our clients and, depending on their size, their industry, their location, help them with strategies on both of those things. And that’s an inside-out process. It doesn’t happen overnight, but we really do work with them to partner on that. … Our response time is something that we put a lot of emphasis on, which seems to be a differentiator. We want to respond within hours of any request or any question that comes to us. What we provide is so personal they can’t wait for hours, days and weeks to hear. What’s going on with my payroll? Can you tell me about my benefits? What’s happening with my 401(k)? I have a work comp claim. What do I do? We want to customize our solution, based on getting to know them and building that relationship and customizing the solution to meet their needs. 


Another thing that companies are struggling with is remote work — that’s something we can help with. They don’t quite realize the kind of workers’ compensation, tax and HR exposure when they have employees in other states, and so we can work in 49 states and we are in quite a few of them already, based on all that remote work going on. And I do think it’s something that I want to continue to try to make sure that we educate on. You don’t know what you don’t know until something happens. 

What has been the most surprising thing you’ve found in the process of starting your own business? 

There have been a few. One of the first ones out of the gate was the name. It’s really hard [finding a unique name]. It’s a very crowded space to try to find that and I was really surprised by how long it took us. You kind of fall in love with something and then it’s taken, so that process was surprising. But the support from the community has been overwhelming and, honestly, really inspiring, and that confirmed the thought process around it. 

Tell me more about the ownership structure. 

I was very careful — I really had some offers that weren’t quite in alignment with what I wanted — to find partners that were committed to building to last and who wanted to contribute to this community. So I have a very tight, local group of investors here. Myself and Joel Duncan are the only two [owners who are operating] the business; the others are silent. Between Joel and I, we own more than half of the company. 

Tell me about your early career, how you got started in this field.

I started in public accounting, and then through that I started working with small to medium-sized businesses on the accounting side. I just really liked it. And then from there, I went to work for a couple of entrepreneurs. And again, just growth companies and starting companies, I really liked that. And then I landed at Merit in 2007. And what I found, while I like numbers and financials, I really liked the people part and so I found the combination of business side and HR was just a really good fit for me. 

What do you enjoy doing in the community in terms of civic involvement and giving back? 

There are so many good ones — I can’t pick a favorite. I like to give time to multiple organizations, … [among them American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Junior Achievement]. YSS is another one, and Rotary, we do some service work through that. I’m also on the [Greater Des Moines] Partnership Talent Board, and then I’m on an outside board, for Shaw Electric, which I really enjoy. 

What’s the best camping destination you’ve been to? 

There are so many in Iowa. I had no idea until we started camping — it’s just crazy. I haven’t seen them all, but one of my favorites is Ledges [State Park]. And we really love Clear Lake; we go there every year, we just love being on the water. 

Best advice you’ve gotten that you hang on to? 

I feel like everything that I’ve learned or said that was smart came from somebody else. On that note, [that advice was] “find great mentors that have complementary skill sets to you.” I was given that advice and I took it to heart, and have found really great, amazing people who have been willing to help me and share advice and experiences. I was nervous to ask my first [mentor], but what I found is that people want to help, especially if you’re respectful and you listen. It’s definitely one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever had.

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