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February 2011
A Fish In Water
By Carol Gifford

     For Michelle Fish, CEO of Integra Staffing and Bankston Partners, and founder of the Diversity Forum, “My work is my family.”

     Fish and husband, Robert Fish, who is president of the company, have involved their children, Kylie Makenna, 8, and Samuel Bankston, 4, in the company since it was founded in 2002.

     Fish believes that her family and workplace can function together—and she exposes her children to her work as much as she can. They visit the office, go to work-related social functions, and travel with her, when possible.

     Named one of the “Best Places to Work” in Charlotte for two years in a row, Integra offers employees a place where they don’t have to separate their family from the workplace.

     “People who have to compartmentalize their lives are not having much fun,” she says. “I believe in a fun, inclusive work environment. If it’s not fun, I don’t want to do it.

     “Instead of compartmentalizing, I have a very supportive infrastructure. You have to decide what your time is worth. If it’s not an activity you have expertise in or want to spend time on, then hire someone else to do it.”

     “Michelle is a strong, intelligent businesswoman who has some powerful connections in Charlotte,” says Joe Machicote, vice president of organizational development at Snyder’s-Lance, Inc. “She’s got an extremely big heart and she gets the most out of her people and her connections.”

     Integra Staffing’s logo was designed around Fish, her husband, and daughter. Guests at a recent award dinner may have been a bit surprised to find they were seated at a table sponsored and hosted by Kylie Fish, 8.

     Another time, Fish took her daughter to an awards ceremony. Her daughter pulled on Fish’s arm to whisper, “Mommy, are you getting an award?” She answered no, and her daughter asked, “Then why are we here?” It was a teachable moment, says Fish.

     “My clients have embraced it. They ask me if she’s coming along,” says Fish, who has noticed other people are bringing their children along to after-hour work events. “I understand there are adult events but I try to bring Kylie along because I want her to experience what I do in work and in the community.

 

A Fish in Water

     Fish started Integra eight years ago, when her daughter was just six months old.

“She sat in her carrier on plenty of conference tables from here to Lake Norman while we looked around for office space,” says Fish. Then, when she added a specialized recruiting and consulting firm in 2008, she named it Bankston Partners, after her son.

     Fish’s mantra is, “First understand the culture of a company, because most companies hire for skills and end up firing when there is not a good culture fit.”

     Her culture is to “build new things,” or to be an entrepreneur. Fish’s latest progenies are Integra, Bankston, and the Diversity Forum, established in 2009.

     “I want to build it, hire people smarter than me, and then let them build it,” explains Fish. “It’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses—and to be able to recognize others’ unique abilities. Empowering others is the number one thing you can do to build a successful, thriving organization.”

     Fish first worked at a staffing company where she rose to regional vice president of sales and operations, responsible for 14 offices, nurturing her Carolinas’ division into the largest and most profitable region. Then she started her own.

     “I worked my way up the ladder and learned many right ways to do things,” says Fish, “but I also recognized there were other ways of doing things.” It was a valuable insight.

     Today, Integra has grown from four to more than 400 employees in the Charlotte metro area, and is the third largest contingency executive search firm and second largest staffing agency in Charlotte. It’s also the second largest female-owned company in Charlotte.

     “I met Michelle and she represented the company very well,” says Doug Meyer-Cuno, president of Carolina Ingredients, a seasoning blend manufacturer with a facility in Rock Hill. “We’ve used an executive recruiter from Bankston Partners to help us find a controller, a quality control manager and a plant manager.

     The plant manager search was a process where we were looking for a candidate within our industry and so it required a lot of talent research throughout the U.S. Integra Staffing was able to find the right candidate and the process from start to relocation was complete in two months. That’s a win-win situation for us since time is a precious commodity.”

 

Swimmin’ Upstream

     Integra has a solid record of profitability in the $70 billion staffing and executive search industry, experiencing only one negative growth year in 2009, when other companies were also feeling the effects of the recession. In 2010, Integra and Bankston combined, achieving 27 percent growth over the previous year.

     The privately-owned company has no debt, has been named to the Inc. 5000 Fastest-Growing Company list in 2008 and 2009, and is often named as a fast-growing company in state and regional rankings. Integra and Bankston currently have candidates placed in over 30 states.

     Integra has more than 2,000 successful placements. It helps Fortune 500 companies locate qualified candidates to fill jobs at all levels. Clients include major banks and health care systems across the country.

     In fact, Integra has a separate division for clinical and clerical health care, Integra Rx Solutions, to better meet the needs of health care clients. Integra Rx Solutions has experienced tremendous growth recently with the addition of new contracts and additional recruiters.

     Bankston Partners, the arm that specializes in the accounting and finance, information technology, project management and sales and marketing fields, opened in 2008.

     Fish’s companies have thrived, she believes, because of her emphasis on getting outside the bubble and becoming immersed in the client’s workplace culture. “We are ‘entangled’ with our clients. We know and understand their culture as well as they do. They do not have to continue to train us on the intangibles that it takes to make a specific person successful in their company.”

     “When you meet the people at Integra, they’re different,” says Dwayne Black, senior vice president of operations for a company with a manufacturing site in Charlotte. “They actually listen to what we’re looking for and they’ve had the ability to recruit some really good talent for us.”

     Black has used Bankston to hire engineers, upper level managers, product managers and supply chain professionals. He says he “doesn’t have the time to spend on the phone with 20 different candidates” and that “Integra weeds out the deadwood.”

     “I have pretty high expectations and it’s usually a challenge for people to meet them, but the people I’ve worked with at Bankston are really dedicated to what they do,” he continues. “They understand the needs of the customer and the marketplace. It’s a personal touch and feel that is different from other recruiting companies where it’s all business,” says Black.

 

Outside the Bubble

     The world is a global marketplace and Fish believes it is essential to understand not only her international client’s needs but to continue to further her personal education by extensive travel and immersion into other cultures. This year alone her travels outside the U.S. included Mumbai, Goa, Hong Kong and London.

     She recalls the massive call centers in Mumbai, where she said the city opens up around 11 p.m. for call center workers to shop, go to the gym or visit the vendors selling food and clothing on the streets.

     “I watched them at work in the call centers. Their English was as good as mine. Once they become familiar with the areas (Southern versus Northern states), you could hear the different dialects they picked up,” says Fish.

     Traveling with her family is another way to expand her knowledge base. Fish takes her daughter Kylie on a mother-daughter trip each spring. They pick out the location together by looking at maps or a globe. So far, they’ve visited Disney World, New York City, Las Vegas and New Orleans.

     “It’s harder to think outside the bubble if you never leave the bubble,” Fish says.

     In 2009, Fish moved one step further outside of the workplace. A group of MBA students from Montreat College had studied her company to look at diversity issues, writing a thesis on how well diversity is acknowledged and accepted in recruiting and consulting firms. They were investigating the fact that Fortune companies had a better track record retaining diverse candidates as opposed to mid-sized companies.

     “We realized the need to offer diversity and inclusion training to all mid-sized companies that we served, and that this training could benefit more than just our clients,” says Fish.”

     Responding to this need led Fish to the startup of the Diversity Forum, a non-profit organization providing Fortune companies and trained professionals the platform to educate business leaders on how diversity and inclusion can spur business innovation and create sustainable growth opportunities.

     “The Diversity Forum,” explains Machicote, who is chair of the Diversity Forum advisors, “brings together the top minds in business and the community to educate the public about specific issues and talk about best practices.” The advisory board he chairs meets quarterly to discuss the hot topics in the community and consider forum topics for the public events held during the year.

     He says there are a number of well-respected diversity organizations in Charlotte, but there’s always room for more discussion of the issues.

     Charlotte’s a great town but there are still a lot of challenges and opportunities around diversity,” Machicote says. “People are nice and very polite about the issues, but may not want to tackle issues upfront. We lag behind other cities in this area.”

     “I want the Diversity Forum to be the organization that starts the conversations about these sensitive issues that will flow back to the workplace and in the community,” says Fish.

     “I am passionate about diversity and inclusion and it’s something that has spilled over into my community and my family,” says Fish. “Now, I realize what a legacy is…it’s about creating a vehicle that can allow all willing participants to leave the world a better place.”

 

Transparency

     Growing her company and new ventures is a straightforward proposition for Fish.

“If you want to know something, ask me,” she says. “You can get bogged down with your own thoughts, with worrying about your competition, and you can drive yourself crazy. I’m not like that—what you see is what you get. I’m focused on our family of companies, our clients and our community!”

     Fish says it’s a new, different world today and competition is everywhere. Companies need to be open to opportunities and to collaboration.

     “Open up and don’t be afraid to show your cards,” says Fish. “Just because you’ve shown your cards doesn’t mean someone else can duplicate them. Share your weaknesses just as easy as your strengths, and doing this will create a safe environment to allow others to do the same!”

     Her advice for business owners, gleaned from The E-Myth, is: “Stop working in the business and start working on the business. Don’t be your best employee or buy yourself a job by being an entrepreneur! You should always make sure the sum of the parts is greater than the whole!”

Carol Gifford is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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