The Ahola Corp. made a name for itself as a pioneer in payroll services. Founded in Cleveland’s western suburbs in 1967 by Chet Ahola, the company would become one of the first in the country to offer automated payroll services and one of the first to provide automated tax filing. It was at the forefront of its industry during the rapid technological advancements of the last half-century.
With those advancements came changes. Today, the Brecksville-based firm provides a full suite of services to help clients manage employee-related needs, including cloud-based payroll services, human resources, benefits administration, time management solutions, paperless on-boarding, family business solutions and 401(k).
The company celebrated its 50th anniversary in August 2017, and with that milestone came an opportunity for self-reflection. The results of that process will be announced this fall, when Ahola will unveil a comprehensive company rebranding meant to encompass the myriad of ways it has evolved over the last half-century and kick off the next.
The rebranding, now underway, has involved more than a year of research efforts and included input from an outside consultant, clients and Ahola employees. The result will go well beyond a refreshed logo or website, says marketing manager Sonya Ahola, a third-generation member of the family business.
“It’s about redefining who we are as an organization and as a brand, and making sure it’s aligned with who we are and who we want to be,” she says. “Historically, we have been a local, small payroll company providing a necessary service that [businesses need].”
That’s how Ahola started out when Chet began providing computer services to clients. The company founder would buy computer time from downtown Cleveland banks at night, drive home to the western suburbs where he lived with his wife and partner in the business, Rheta, and their children, then deliver paychecks to clients by day. Success came a couple of years later when Chet wrote enhanced payroll software and ended up inheriting a large portfolio of clients to whom he provided automated payroll from a business partner.
Today, the Ahola Corp. has the distinction of being the world’s longest continuously operating family-focused payroll service provider. It has since been handed over to the second generation of owners, with Chet and Rheta’s four children — Mark, Marja, Jeff and Scott — all involved. Jeff serves as CEO, and Scott as CIO.
To date, Ahola has provided automated payroll services to more than 10,000 corporations. It serves thousands of clients across the country and recently announced the opening of a Cincinnati office to supplement operations in the Cleveland and Columbus markets.
The rebranding initiative is meant to reflect the changes that have taken place as Ahola has evolved from strictly payroll to human capital management.
“As the market has shifted, we’re really moving toward how we can continue to help employers manage their entire workforce, not just the payroll and tax compliance,” Sonya says.
The company believes clients will need more assistance as technology continues to advance and prospective employees — in a tight labor market — have standards for the workplace.
“There’s definitely a need for the new generation of the workforce,” says Sonya. “They’re expecting more features and functionality.”
Given that Ahola specializes in serving family owned businesses, the company recognized a desire among its clientele to put all employee-related tasks into capable hands. Small business owners are running their businesses.
“They don’t have time to worry about tax and payroll and making sure their employees’ vacations are right and employees have access to their benefits,” Sonya says.
Serving private, small to midsize family companies is a niche Ahola has carved out for itself. With a staff of about 65, Ahola itself fits this mold, and the qualities that come along with this work environment are reflected in survey responses from clients and staff members.
“One thing that we hear from our clients is they really value our one-on-one relationship with them. They know our staff by name. They know we have their back,” says Sonya. “That’s been a common thread, that we’re accessible and we’re there for them and they have a dedicated person and team that’s working for them.”
From employees, the marketing team has heard that Ahola cares about people and treats them like they are part of the family.
“We’re a family-owned business, but everybody is like family,” says Sonya.
This feedback is a crucial part of rebranding, with comments from customers and employees providing a “common thread” that will provide the foundation for a new brand platform.
What Ahola intends to get out of this process is a better understanding of what its brand means and reenergizing is staff. Plus knowing why clients choose to work with them, and what makes them unique. When all is said and done, the initiative will lead to a refreshed mission statement, vision, brand promise and values, and a clearly communicated message about the company today. It is primarily about telling the company’s story in the right way, but will also include some of what Sonya describes as “aspirational” elements.
“The company is still the same,” she says. “We’re making sure we’re conveying who we are in a way that’s authentic to what we can bring to the market.”