While enjoying success on a national scale, Brent Tilson remains dedicated to local causes
By Jon Shoulders | Photos by Josh Marshall
Many people would probably consider themselves fortunate to create and run one successful business from the ground up throughout the course of their careers. At the age of 49, Greenwood resident Brent Tilson has not one but two under his belt, including a human resources firm that has garnered national attention and currently operates in 40 states across the country. According to Tilson, it’s all been part of a carefully executed career plan that started well before developing his business models, before acquiring initial experience working for other firms in his chosen field, even before graduating from high school.
“I was always enamored as a kid growing up from the stories my dad would tell about his parents and grandparents,” Tilson recalls. “My great-grandfather was the county clerk for Indianapolis and had his own law practice. I was always enamored with that entrepreneurial side, and in high school I knew I wanted to someday do my own thing. I didn’t know what it would be, but I did know accounting came very easy to me, and I also thought that if I knew accounting, then that would allow me to pursue other businesses.”
After graduating from Perry Meridian High School, Tilson attended Indiana University in Bloomington and married his high school sweetheart, Bridget Wilson, during his freshman year. A bachelor of science degree in accounting quickly led to jobs at auditing company KPMG, as well as Katz, Sapper & Miller accounting company in Indianapolis, providing him with the three years of work experience required to earn a certified public accountant license. In 1992, armed with a CPA certification and an unyielding optimism, he decided the time was right to strike out on his own and obtained a line of credit from a local bank.
He wanted to hang out his shingle under the moniker of B.R. Tilson and Co., an accounting operation that specialized in local real estate, manufacturing and retail businesses. “The line of credit I took out was on our house equity, and I just told my wife to trust me and that I was going to start a CPA firm,” he says. “Since I always knew I wanted to start my own firm as soon as I could, I thought the longer I stayed working for someone else’s firm and made more money over time, the harder it would be to leave to do my own thing and replace my income.”
Three years later, a conversation in his accounting office sparked the idea for what would eventually become a multimillion dollar human resources firm. A client asked if Tilson could handle payroll processing for several hundred of his physical therapist clients, and the mental wheels began to turn. “As he was leaving, I thought that maybe what he should do is let me be the employer of those physical therapist clients of his,” Tilson recalls. “He can contract with me, and I’ll make sure the payroll processing gets done, the taxes get done, and I’ll worry about benefit administration, compliance and all of that. I’ll make sure all the stuff that he’s not good at, the stuff that comes along with being an employer, gets done so he can focus on his business. I realized that could be a business in itself.”
By September of that same year, Tilson had incorporated and opened the doors of Adminiserve, his own professional employer organization (PEO).
As the late 1990s approached, Adminiserve’s expansive client list required his full-time attention, and he sold B.R. Tilson and Co. Focusing solely on Adminiserve would prove to be a rewarding career decision, and by 2003, his PEO had been recognized for three consecutive years by Inc. magazine as one of the 500 fastest-growing privately held companies in the nation, including the highest ranking for an Indiana-based company at 11th in 2001. Tilson was an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist in 2000, 2001 and 2002, and made the 2000 class of “40 Under 40,” an annual award given by the Indianapolis Business Journal for Indiana’s top young executives.
In 2002, he changed his company’s name to Tilson HR to reflect its growing list of services and underscore the personal touch he still feels every business should value. “In the local market, competitors often just refer to a company by the owner’s last name,” he says. “So I thought, ‘Let’s not make it hard.’ We also dropped the ‘HR’ over time. People think ‘HR’ can mean recruiting and staffing, and we don’t do that.”
In an effort to increase its national presence, Tilson acquired Amerisource, a Phoenix-based PEO, in 2012, and he hopes the company, now in its 19th year, will continue to expand into additional markets around the country. “Denver, Austin and Phoenix have some of the fastest-growing entrepreneurial markets, and we thought going into Phoenix as the first of those would be a great way to continue our overall growth strategy,” he says. Tilson’s client base now includes both smaller companies and much larger firms, some with more than 400 employees on their payroll, and the firm serves many industries including medical, nonprofit, engineering, advertising and real estate.
“Brent has the unique combination of financial understanding with his accounting background and the communication experience from being in what is really a people business,” says Derrick Christy, a Tilson client and the founder and president of Approved Mortgage Corp. in Greenwood. “He leverages those strengths in his own business and in what he does for the community.”
While juggling duties with the company, Tilson frequently speaks at conferences on subjects ranging from outsourcing to company growth to topical issues like tax updates and the Affordable Care Act. “I’ll draw on my experiences both working with businesses and running my own businesses,” he says. “It really challenges you because you have to bring your A game and go out and look at the topics of the day and deliver it in a way that’s interesting.”
Throughout continued national recognition and steady company expansion across 40 states, Tilson has kept a constant focus on improving Johnson County — the county he grew up in — and greater Indianapolis. “Besides being a very successful entrepreneur, his knowledge of our business climate makes him a strong advocate for the community,” says Cheryl Morphew, president and CEO of the Johnson County Development Corp. (JCDC). “He understands the importance of sustaining and growing the business community and the need to build solid economic development strategies to support that growth — be it infrastructure, quality of life, tax climate, et cetera.”
Last year, Tilson co-founded Aspire Johnson County, a volunteer group of elected officials, community leaders and business owners launched by the JCDC to develop and promote the county as a place to live, work and visit. He also serves on the Greenwood Redevelopment Commission, which is currently focused on infrastructure for citywide growth, as well as the Indianapolis Board of Tourism. This fall, Tilson will assume the role of chairman of the National Association of Professional Employer Organizations and will also serve on the Indiana Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors. “Luckily I have a great team of leaders at my company for the day-in and day-out operations, which helps when I’m doing the community and association work I do, which is often,” he says.
Brent and Bridget, a retired dental hygienist, celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary last year, and these days they typically prefer spending their evenings relaxing in their Greenwood home or enjoying quality time with their four daughters, Becky, Brooke, Blair and Brielle. Brent says that with Brielle, the youngest sibling, leaving home this fall to begin her undergraduate studies at Taylor University, he and Bridget will have more time for date nights in Greenwood and downtown Indianapolis on weekends. “We’re both big Colts fans, and we’ve had our season tickets for years,” he says. “We’ll probably try to discover more restaurants and things, too.”
The family has been members of the Columbia Club on Monument Circle in downtown Indy since the days of Tilson’s great-grandfather, and gatherings at the 125-year-old establishment have become a family tradition. “We celebrate all of our big events there and birthday dinners,” he says. “My daughters are fifth-generation members, which is special. Brooke and Blair are both getting married in September and October of this year, and that’s where they’re both having their receptions.”
Tilson says his interest in the economic, physical and commercial well-being of Johnson County and its surrounding communities is the natural consequence of a lifelong presence in the area. “You can probably take where I live today and put a string around it, and I’ve lived within a 10-mile radius of where I am today compared to where I grew up,” he says. “My kids tease me because I live two miles from the house I grew up in. When I was a kid, I played at the house next door to where I live now. I suppose you feel fairly strongly about a place when you’ve been there so long.”