Considering that their company exists to serve corporate finance and accounting departments, Rochelle Rivas and Mark Weber talk surprisingly little about money or numbers. Nor do they wear three-piece suits every day, or spend all their time wooing the banks and the Big Four.
For Rivas and Weber, founders of The Darton Group, business centers on people. Connections, networking, referrals. Facebook, LinkedIn, blogging, coaching, counseling, lunch meetings. Where another company might start with a resume, these two start with a conversation.
Radical at the time they began in 2008, this approach allows the pair to quickly and effectively insert themselves into the Charlotte business space as a top connector of highly experienced finance, accounting and project management professionals with companies who need them. But for Rivas and Weber, getting to know people is more than a strategy: It’s a way of life.
A Balance of Powers
In 2006, Rivas and Weber were executives at the same company, traveling out of different cities (Rivas from Chicago, Weber from Charlotte) every week. Though their relationship started years earlier when Rivas was a customer of Weber’s company (says Weber with a grin: “Honestly, I found her tough the first time I met her”), the two quickly realized they were ideal business partners.
“She had a different drive than the people I’d been working with,” remembers Weber. “And ultimately that drive is what made the program so successful. There’s a yin and yang thing with us.”
But more importantly, Rivas points out, they shared some core values. “Ethics, integrity, honesty, hard work, family: The things that are important to us at the core are the same.”
And perhaps chief among those is the respect they share for the people in their lives, including those they work with. Weber first started noticing this similarity when he would visit Rochelle’s Chicago office. “The senior management we worked with didn’t treat the support staff with a lot of respect,” he recalls. “Rochelle was one of the few people I would see who was on friendly terms with everybody.”
So they began discussing business ideas and quickly realized the finance and accounting market was ripe for a new type of people-oriented consulting option. Over the next two years, they gradually drew up a business plan and in 2008, they turned their backs on the corporate world and planted themselves full-time in Charlotte.
Shortly after Rivas and Weber left their high-powered, secure corporate positions to found the new venture, the economy suddenly imploded around them. Even with their eyes on people rather than numbers, they couldn’t ignore one glaring fact: The numbers were bad.
Says Rivas: “We were watching our competitors, potential clients, all these firms close. People getting laid off, things were just falling apart.”
Says Weber: “We were surrounded by constant negatives. The odds were already stacked against us as a new business, but then you layer on top of that all the bad news…”
“The first year we should have failed,” agrees Rivas.
Weber says the only way they survived was by maintaining a positive attitude despite the odds. Rivas adds, “and networking our behinds off.”
While others were retreating, battening down hatches, and laying off, Rivas and Weber were inserting themselves into the marketplace, laughing a lot, talking to everyone, and giving a lot.
“I think people were waiting for us to go completely mad,” laughs Rivas. “Things were falling apart around us, and we were just doing our thing: Calling people on the phone, inserting ourselves into the community with a great attitude.”
Weber adds, “There were times on a Friday night we would just be in the office at night watching YouTube and laughing, just to keep it real.”
“You know, when you have nothing to lose, it’s all an upside,” smiles Rivas.
Rivas and Weber had nothing to lose, but that doesn’t mean they had nothing to give. In fact, giving has been a part of their company ethic from the very first day. During that economically rough first year, they opened their doors to anyone who had been laid off, providing free coaching and counseling, an endeavor that provided no revenue but continued to build their social network.
To everyone who came in their doors, they offered the same advice and training they follow in their business: Focus on people. Make calls, meet people, attend social events, do lunch, build your network, spread the word.
Before Facebook and LinkedIn had become household terms, the two had added social media to their arsenal and begun coaching others in best practices. It might have been a tough sell in a sector that is not perceived as “naturally inclined to go out and network,” says Weber. And indeed, “probably 60 percent of the people we talked to had no idea how to use LinkedIn or even that it existed.”
But with the economy falling apart and senior finance and accounting positions becoming difficult to find as the unemployed pool grew and the job pool shrunk, many people were ready to stretch themselves and explore new options. “I think we had an easier time getting people to hear us because of that,” says Rivas.
The Darton Group’s intense networking efforts began to pay off in December 2008 when they signed their first customer, Hickory Springs Manufacturing. Thanks to their coaching and counseling activities, they had contact with hundreds of potential job seekers, and knew exactly who was right for the job before they had even left the Hickory Springs parking lot.
“We thought we’d hit the jackpot,” remembers Rivas. “It was a very exciting day.”
Shortly after that, the company signed TIAA-CREF, and soon their client roster started to look like the “Who’s Who in Charlotte”: Duke Energy, Carlisle Companies, National Gypsum, Ally Financial.
From the beginning, the group had focused on a diverse client and employee base. Because of Charlotte’s banking legacy, it could be tempting for a finance and accounting organization to focus most of its energies on one or two large bank clients. But Rivas and Weber deliberately chose to seek a diverse client base, a strategy that has worked well for them.
Although the business is thriving now, Rivas and Weber recall vividly that first year’s difficulties, and how hard they worked to stay positive in spite of the bad economic news and the severe decrease in their family incomes. “You become far closer with your family,” laughs Rivas, “when you have to find free things to do together because there’s no money to go out on a Friday night.”
But despite the hardship, they both believe that starting the business during difficult economic times was good for the company. The dozens of people they assisted have become, in some cases, a pool of staff to draw on as needed. Others have become clients as they’ve moved into new positions and once again become responsible for projects.
In addition, Weber says the financial climate forced The Darton Group to run lean right from the start. In easier times, a company can easily overspend thanks to the ready availability of credit and clients. Because The Darton Group started with nothing during tough economic times, they had to learn to make every dollar stretch, and that has continued to serve them well. “When you have money you spend money,” says Rivas. “The way we did it, everything had to be very disciplined, and we still are today. I wouldn’t change that.”
But the two point to another trend that is serving their industry well, even as it’s changing the face of employment in our country. As companies are forced to become leaner, many have restructured how they hire, moving away from traditional permanent employment to a contract-based model, hiring exactly the talent they need when they need it and for the finite length of a specific project.
At the same time, perceptions are changing as highly talented individuals begin to view contract work as a valid career option. Rivas talks about a shift especially in the financial services industry: “Before the economic crisis, a lot of people had identities that were aligned with the banks, and when this shift occurred, many of them truly lost who they were.”
But now, she says, people are learning to pick up and re-invent themselves. Many appreciate the intellectual challenge, flexibility, and satisfaction of contract work, combined with the soft benefits, competitive hourly wage, and team atmosphere provided by an organization like The Darton Group. Rivas says the shift is so profound that several of The Darton Group’s employees left full-time, senior-level management roles at major corporations to join the firm’s consulting team.
Return on Investment
The Darton Group’s intense focus on people attracts high-quality clients and employees alike on a referral-only basis. “Good people know good people,” explains Rivas. “We know when someone in our network refers somebody, it’s going to be an ‘A-level’ talent. We want only the best-in-class talent for our clients.” But ‘A-level’ talent is not the only thing that sets the company apart.
Unlike much of their competition, The Darton Group acts as a consultant for their clients, conferring with them on goals and objectives. Rather than trying to fill a seat at a company, they help the client discover the best strategy for reaching their goals, and then help them find the resources to implement that strategy.
Furthermore, once an employee is in place, The Darton Group never just places them and waits for them to bill hours. “I’m on the phone and meeting with our employees regularly,” says Rivas. “I want to know when the project will be done, and how it is progressing.”
Rivas and Weber have high hopes for their company and for the economy, and those hopes are based in no small part on the community they’ve chosen as their base and home. When they were planning The Darton Group, they could have chosen any city to be their home, but there was never any question: They knew it would be Charlotte.
“Charlotte is a very robust, generous city to entrepreneurs,” says Rivas. “Plus the industry here was primed for growth. And it’s got energy, it’s got health care, it’s got manufacturing, it’s got everything you could possibly want in a city.”
Along the way, the two were astonished at how helpful Charlotte people were, even to newcomers like them. “All along the way we’ve asked for help and people have given it us, and that is what makes Charlotte a very special city. We are so profoundly grateful for the way that people have opened their doors to us. It’s a very welcoming city.”
Weber and Rivas say it’s a city they expect to see rise out of the economic slump better than ever before. “You gotta believe you can re-invent yourself. Charlotte will let you do that.”