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September 2011
Straightening the Learning Curve
By Casey Jacobus

     Handshaw, Inc. has evolved over its 27 years from a company which primarily sold e-learning solutions to a company which offers more diversified services. Under the guiding hand of Dick Handshaw, a pioneer in the e-learning industry, the company has become a consultant to businesses, offering them a full range of training services, from performance consulting to technology solutions.

    “The typical vendor / provider business model is the vendor asks the client what they want and then gives it to them. For us it is all about results and the client relationship. We spend the time to ask questions and understand the client’s business. Together, we help our client craft a custom solution that will meet a business need,” says Handshaw. “We look for clients where we can make a difference in their business.”

     Handshaw says the company builds its personal relationship with clients by asking the right questions and understanding the client’s needs before making any recommendation. Handshaw has to understand the client’s overall business goals and how the project objectives might impact those goals before offering a solution.


Real Learning

     Dick Handshaw was an entrepreneur from an early age. Growing up in western New York, he had a paper route and cut lawns while attending Elmira Free Academy. After graduating from Alford University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1972, he relocated to Atlanta where he worked as a freelance photographer, eventually learning video and graphics as well. He went back to school and earned a Masters in Instructional Systems Technology from Indiana University. “I was there when the Blizzard of ’78 buried a freight car,” jokes Handshaw.

     When his first wife got a job with NCNB in 1979, they moved to Charlotte and Handshaw got a job with First Union. There he developed one of the first interactive, computer video-learning applications for employees at over 100 First Union branches.

     “It brought me a lot of recognition,” says Handshaw. “I was invited to a lot of international conferences.”

     After two and a half years with First Union, Handshaw left to help found Educational Technologies, Inc. where he led instructional design engagements. That lasted another two and a half years before Handshaw decided to start his own company.

     “I’m not a corporate guy,” says Handshaw. “I don’t like having anybody else between me and the customer. I love owning my own business.”

     Actually, Handshaw had calls from prospective customers before he even opened the doors of Handshaw, Inc. in October of 1985. His reputation had preceded him. He was sitting in his living room when a former client from Bojangles called. Then, United Carolina Bank was making his phone ring. And, finally, NCNB offered him a big project they wanted done by the end of March 1986.

     “We want you involved,” said NCNB officials.

     So Handshaw hired his first three employees and completed the project. Since then, his company has done over 100 more projects with NCNB, now Bank of America.

     “It’s all about reputation,” says Handshaw. “It’s all about being good at what we do. We’re not interested in being the biggest. We’re interested in having good clients and making a difference in their businesses.”

     Handshaw has also brought his training experience to the academic arena, holding adjunct teaching positions at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the University of South Carolina at Columbia.


Real Lessons

     Charlotte was a good place for a young entrepreneur in the 1990s. The business climate was focused on growth and there was plenty of encouragement for young business owners.

     Handshaw was the first tenant in the Ben Craig Center, which opened in 1986. The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, First Union National Bank and other business leaders had collaborated to create the center as a non-profit organization. It was to operate as an incubator for encouraging small businesses, providing resources such as office space and equipment, a network of mentors and advisors, educational opportunities and capital access.

     “I got an education in running a business at the Ben Craig Center,” asserts Handshaw.

     He also joined the Metrolina Entrepreneurial Council, which is now known as Business Innovation and Growth Council or BIG. Dana and Jim Robinson, heads of Partners in Change and coauthors of six books, including Performance Consulting: Moving Beyond Training, served as Handshaw’s mentors. Handshaw also got advice from Ken Iverson, CEO of Nucor Corporation and an innovator in corporate management, as well as making steel.

     “You can’t be in business by yourself; you have to have some help,” Iverson told Handshaw.

     Handshaw found a good banker in Wes Sturges at United Carolina Bank and soon added a good attorney and a good accountant to the mix. He also met Carla, his wife of the past 23 years, six months after starting his business. He took her out to dinner on the very last money in his savings account and claims it was worth the investment.

     “It really helps to have a spouse who supports you when no one else does and in the tough times,” says Handshaw.

     Not only was the Charlotte business climate of the 1990s supportive of new young companies, it was a period in which the big banks were gobbling up smaller banks and every day seemed to bring news or rumors of a potential merger or take-over. As the banks merged, they had to consolidate the ways they did business, mesh new operations with old ones, and retrain hundreds of employees. Handshaw led the way in helping the banks find solutions for all these problems. This was both a perfect opportunity and a potential danger for the young company.

     Despite the business the bank mergers generated, Handshaw recognized the need to diversify his client base. In 2000 he landed the contract for a store managers training program for Krispy Kreme. Later this program was adopted for front line executives. Then came another training program for Electric Power Research Institute.

     “Diversifying is very important,” says Handshaw, “but you have to keep a focus even as you diversify. However, diversifying lets you play in different markets and change your service offerings.”


Real Value

     Handshaw Inc provides training services, performance consulting, and technology solutions to its clients. The core to its training services is instructional design, as with the program it developed in partnership with Cleveland-based KeyBank. KeyBank is one of the nation’s largest bank-based financial service companies.

     Handshaw worked with Key’s Community Banking training for over a year to refresh its Teller School curriculum. Handshaw leveraged and updated portions of the existing program while developing new course content.

     “Handshaw has the right mix of experience and expertise in e-learning design, development and consulting to partner with us to bring this training to a new level,” says Donna J. Burrer, Key Community Banking training director and senior vice president.

     When Handshaw does performance consulting for a client, it first analyzes the gap between the company’s goals and its results. Then it develops various interventions and processes to improve the result, and provides an evaluation at the end of the project.

     For the North Carolina State Employee’s Credit Union (SECU), which serves 1.3 million members with over 200 branches in the state, Handshaw developed a learning management system in which designers can rapidly create and deploy e-leaning courses that can be easily updated and maintained. The same content can be reused for both paper-based and classroom courses representing savings of time and money. The system is used by employees to register for courses, instructors to schedule classes, and managers to track progress. By offering an integrated approach, Handshaw helped SECU reduce their time to develop, deliver and manage all learning, resulting in significant cost savings.

     “We spoke with numerous vendors of traditional learning management systems over the past two years, but felt Handshaw offered the best system for us,” says Leigh Brady, SECU’s senior vice president for education services. “Their ability to listen and respond to our needs was a big factor in our decision to go with this group.”


Real Results

     Handshaw, Inc. has survived two economic downturns in the past decade. The first, the bursting of the technology bubble in 2002, had perhaps more impact on the company than the more recent meltdown of the country’s financial institutions. The biggest challenge for the company continues to be the rapid changes in technology.

     “We have to reinvent ourselves about every five years,” says Handshaw. “The challenge is to keep looking ahead and to see where the market is going. You want to be there when it gets there.”

     Handshaw credits his employees with the company’s continuing success. All of Handshaw employees have master’s degrees and, because of their depth of experience, the company has been able to diversify both its client base and its services. There has been very little turnover among the company’s employees during its 27-year history.

     “When you get good employees, you want to keep them, “says Handshaw. “When we get the good ones, we take care of them.”

     The Handshaw team has recently created a new Speaking, Consulting and Workshop program for its patriarch with the tagline “Real Learning. Real Results.” Drawing on his 30 years of experience as a learning performance improvement professional, Handshaw is traveling around the country, speaking at international conferences such as the American Society for Training and Development and International Society for Performance Improvement. He also gives Performance Technology Workshops for groups like Bank of America and Hilton World Wide.

     “The ‘Real Learning. Real Results.’ program has exceeded our goals and expectations for 2011.” says Handshaw. “We originally intended to do six to eight events, but we’ve actually hit two times that number of venues.”

     What’s more Handshaw enjoys it. “I love it; I thrive on it,” he exclaims. “It puts me out there with my customers.”

     Handshaw regards highly two particularly valuable employees, Brent Jennings, vice president of sales/marketing and David Carmichael, vice president of operations. Jennings, who joined the company in 2006, has over 20 years’ experience in the software and service industry. He spent 10 of those years in the learning market with Pathlore Software and market leader Legent/Goal Systems. He has held a variety of senior sales management positions at the corporate, divisional and regional levels. At Handshaw, Jennings leads the sales and marketing efforts.

     “I have always admired his passion for client satisfaction and his personal integrity,” explains Handshaw.

     As vice president of operations, Carmichael manages the allocation of Handshaw’s production resources across as many as 20 concurrent projects. He also oversees the operations budget and works daily with the Handshaw executive committee to direct strategic initiatives and company goals.

     “We are fortunate to have good people with a great depth of experience.” says Handshaw. “Handshaw is a very harmonious place; everyone is good at what they do and happy to be here.”



Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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