When former co-workers Melissa McGuire, Barry Pronier and Joe Hanel decided to form their business, they could not anticipate the economic downturn on the horizon. “We felt good going into this -- we felt good about 2002,” says Pronier.
The trio launched Sherpa, a Charlotte-based recruiting and staffing company specializing in finance and accounting, on September 1, 2001. In ten short days, they would re-evaluate everything. The events of 9/11 brought economic doubt and a wave of uncertainty to employers and employees everywhere.
Companies were feverishly revising their forecasts and business plans were altered to mirror the state of the nation. Then months later, a series of accounting scandals shook the financial world – Sherpa’s terrain.
This unexpected crevasse in the economy on the trek up the mountain was no small hurdle. But as mountaineers who attempt the climb, perseverance and focus was key.
“A friend once offered a quote,” laughs Pronier, “‘Tough times spawn great start-ups.’” This would prove to be their mantra.
These partners, with twenty-five years of financial experience combined and another thirty-six in the recruiting arena, relied on experience, education and instinct as they quickly regrouped.
Just as the Sherpa leads expeditions to reach the summit, these pros were poised to guide their future. The group would later find that their name would not only resonate with their target market, but would take on new meaning internally.
“For us ‘Sherpa’ means experience, trust, reliance and integrity,” says McGuire. “You wouldn’t go up the mountain without a Sherpa.”
Mapping the Expedition
So where does a financial recruiting company fit into an economy on the slide? How do you bring credibility to a profession tainted by the Enron scandal? Like smart entrepreneurs, you put one finger on the pulse of the market and go for the strongest need.
“When the economy is soft, this type of business doesn’t typically do well,” says McGuire. “We service a broad spectrum, but we were effective in finding our niche.”
While the nation was preoccupied with corporate conscience issues, and finger pointing at congressional hearings, Sherpa zeroed in on the importance of quality accounting professionals. The Enron effect trickled down through boardrooms to the finance departments of publicly traded companies across the country. Arthur Andersen’s obstruction charges shed light on the importance of quality accounting here in the Charlotte area. Good news for Sherpa.
Jobs surrounding corporate governance, Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) reporting and internal audits, were critical to the survival of public companies finding themselves in a fish bowl. Sherpa was poised to navigate the path to identify the perfect candidate.
With their collective experience, extensive contacts and their first employee on board, they talked to their corporate colleagues about the need to upgrade their staff to minimize financial risk.
Building Trust One Step at a Time
Hanel heads the Specialized Financial Recruiting division at Sherpa, placing chief financial officers to senior accounts in highly critical positions. He concedes that recruiting is a relationship business.
“We pride ourselves in delivering on hard finds.”
Since the best people are often those not actively seeking employment, contacts are key. The importance of their network and growing list of candidates is crucial to the success of recruiting. For Pillowtex director of finance, Rich Hofmann, it was critical. To build his department, Hofmann worked with McGuire, Hanel and Pronier while they were recruiters at another company. “We worked together to create an entire finance department – from job descriptions to salary,” says Hofmann. “In the end, we were very happy with this team of people and the job they did.” When Sherpa opened, Hofmann followed them.
Since then, Pillowtex has fallen on hard times, but Hofmann still relies on Sherpa exclusively to fill project-related positions. “They don’t throw resumes at you like other recruiting firms. It’s a very personal business.”
Pronier leads Sherpa’s Project Solutions division, filling the need for senior level project positions. More often, companies are relying on seasoned professionals during transition periods such as expansion, acquisition or restructuring. Or in Wachovia’s case, they need project augmentation assistance when they are trying to find a candidate with a very specific set of skills.
“We have a number of good generalists, but when it becomes a niche request, we don’t warehouse that on an ongoing basis,” says Ned Sergew, vice president and senior business consultant for Enterprise Business Solutions at Wachovia. “Sherpa’s network is one of the broadest in town – they know people who know people.”
Hiring for a specified period, Sherpa says taking this route allows for the ability to manage labor costs associated with the project. Although now Sherpa is seeing their largest growth in the area of Project Solutions and Accounting Operations, initially, their growth boom was in permanent placement.
McGuire, responsible for the Accounting Operations division, claims that accounting is what information technology was in the 1990s. “Accounting was overlooked and under-glamorized – and today is more important than ever.”
With a diversified inventory of candidates, the recruiters at Sherpa draw on their industry background to match skill sets with their client’s needs. They access the market with a high degree of precision, delivering the best talent for the job. With a prescreening process in place, candidates are carefully matched to fill positions with speed and ease.
“We also offer our clients options,” says McGuire. “A client might come to us looking to fill a permanent position for a particular task and we might recommend a resource with senior experience, then suggest they fill the position permanently with a junior staff member once the heavy lifting is done.” As a result, the overall cost to the client is much lower.
It’s this type of insight that builds loyalty and trust. It’s the kind of recommendation that comes only with experience.
“We talk a common language,” says Laura Belcher, who runs a sixty-person operations group at Transamerica Reinsurance. “They understand that transactional activity drives financial results.”
Belcher has consistently used Sherpa’s services since she took on the role of vice president of operations fifteen months ago. Sherpa has placed numerous candidates at Transamerica, from permanent-to-contract and temporary positions. According to Belcher, Sherpa allows her to stay focused on her work as they collapse the hiring lead time.
“My time investment is efficient,” she says. “They bring prescreened, qualified candidates to me. Beyond skill set, they understand our culture here and can identify a good match for our company.”
Today, Sherpa employs sixteen professionals, each with credentials in finance and/or accounting and recruiting. Important, says McGuire, because “you wouldn’t want to be tied to a Sherpa who didn’t know their way.”
As the business grew, the staff increased. But when you hire people for a living, is it harder to hire for your own staff?
Pronier doesn’t think so. “We are focused on self-motivated sales people who are good at what they do and share our same core values.”
Sherpa’s offices are filled with adjoining desks and partitions in a room geared for communication. With three specialty areas, each with a dedicated team, they encourage cross-over. McGuire, Pronier and Hanel sit amongst their recruiting and account managers, leading by example.
“We didn’t put ourselves in offices,” says McGuire. “We want to foster a team environment and we are set up to function as a team. In the end, I believe we attract good people because we are passionate about our business.”
No Where to Go But Up
With nearly three years in the market place, coupled with impressive growth, the sky is the limit for Sherpa. The company’s revenue has increased 126 percent in the past year. Pretty good for a start-up spawned in tough times.
And while the economy proved detrimental for some, it helped boost revenue for Sherpa in their temporary and contract businesses – the sector with the highest growth. Not surprising in today’s skeptical state chilled with hiring freezes where short-term jobs filled the void.
Success is sweet, but has Sherpa reached the summit?
Just as Sherpas blaze their trail, this team of entrepreneurs has lofty ambitions.
“We can see ourselves expanding to other locations,” says Pronier. Currently Sherpa focuses on a sixteen county region surrounding the Charlotte metro area. While finance and accounting are a natural fit given their experience and education, they see the benefit of specializing in one area as the common thread in a successful recruiting and staffing business. They are considering recruiting in other specialized fields as their journey continues.
“Right now,” says Pronier, “We know this business and are committed to continuing what we know best.”
When asked of their desire to ever climb Mt. Everest, this team of risk takers surprisingly shakes their heads. Perhaps with a Sherpa leading the way they could be persuaded.