Monday, December 14, 2009

Howard’s Inner Circle, No. 2: Businesses Turning to the Independent Distributor Model

The greatest overhead expenses are often those associated with employees. This is why many companies are reducing severance benefits or eliminating matching contributions to 401(k) plans. Some are being more creative and instead minimizing the size of their workforces by utilizing so-called “independent distributors.”

I have recently seen this with an energy provider to businesses and personal residences as well as a company that sells video telephones. The attraction is savings on guaranteed salaries, payroll taxes, employees’ benefits, and many of the costs associated with supporting inside salespersons. These companies might provide some help on setting up a Web site by providing templates, but the ones I came in contact with didn’t even provide a uniform style for business cards for these independent distributors.

Businesses are doing a great job by promoting this new status, and rather than using the old term “commissions” speak of “residual income” and play up the fact that it is a new industry or a new product subject to exponential growth. In this tough economic environment, any source of potential income draws interest. Because younger individuals might not see the importance or availability of medical insurance and retirement plans benefits and have difficulty finding jobs, independent distributor opportunities have great appeal.

Companies like the fact that underperforming independent distributors won’t hurt their company’s bottom line as much as full-time underperforming employees and are likely to give up after awhile.

There are a number of downsides to relying on independent distributors including the expected government scrutiny asking if these individuals aren’t really employees and should be treated as such for payroll taxes purposes. “Look for an Obama administration to aggressively challenge independent contractor status.” is the prediction (at from Dean Zerbe, former senior counsel and tax counsel for the Senate Finance Committee and now national managing director for alliantgroup. Another potential disadvantage is the fact that an independent distributor might be working for more than one company at a time and place his or her maximum efforts and loyalty with the product or service that is generating the greatest revenue at the time.

This will be an interesting trend to watch and advisors to businesses especially lawyers and accountants are sure to benefit as they counsel the many businesses who might consider utilizing independent distributors, as well as defend those when federal and state agencies question this status.

The above is from the second issue of my newsletter, Howard’s Inner Circle, which periodically appears on my blog, “Instigator” at It may be reproduced in full if that fact is stated and Howard Wolosky is given credit as the author.

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