How do you navigate a bad market, sail to the forefront in a good market, race ahead of your competition, chart solutions to business problems, and hoist a vigorous bottom line? According to Anthony (“TJ”) Felice, founder and president of Exervio Management Consulting, the key is placing innovation at the helm.
And Felice should know – he framed Exervio on the ribs of a shipwrecked dot-com, navigated profitably through the choppy waters of the post-dot-com bust economy, and continues to build market share in an increasingly competitive industry.
In 2001, Felice was running the Charlotte office of MarchFirst, Inc., a business strategy and software development company serving Global 1000 companies. Although Felice’s branch was operating profitably, it was among the very few of MarchFirst’s 72 offices that were.
As the parent company faltered, Felice made an offer to buy the Charlotte office. He was at the bank preparing to seal the deal when the news came through that MarchFirst was filing for bankruptcy.
Immediately, Felice offered to bail out the Charlotte office by collecting on receivables for MarchFirst in exchange for the opportunity to start anew with his own company.
The new company, Exervio Management Consulting, inherited much of the management team Felice had put together for MarchFirst, as well as all of the client relationships he had built. As a result, it operated profitably from day one and has never required external funding, despite its birth in the midst of stormy financial times.
The expertise that brought Felice’s MarchFirst branch to the forefront and keeps Exervio thriving is the same expertise Felice offers his clients.
“An organization’s ability to succeed,” claims Felice, “is directly tied to their ability to innovate.”
Simple concept; complex application. According to Felice, innovation can be broken down into three steps – idea generation, selection and governance, and implementation.
Generally, clients come to Exervio with a specific business problem, and sometimes require assistance with only one of the three steps. For instance, a local exchange carrier offering local voice and long distance asked Exervio to help them add additional service offerings to their suite. Exervio began with idea generation.
“We approached them with the idea of expanding their services to include Web hosting. They agreed to hear our pitch,” recalls Felice. “We worked collaboratively with their key executives to identify the barriers to entry, document the one-time and recurring costs, and develop a detailed cash flow. At the end of the exercise, the client had all of the information required to assess the risk versus reward of pursuing this specific initiative.”
In the selection and governance stage, Exervio can help organizations establish the governance structures required to guide companies through the confusing array of ideas and possibilities and help them choose “the right idea.” Once a particular idea is seized upon, Exervio can facilitate the third stage of the process, ensuring that the “right thing is done well.”
Other times, clients seek Exervio’s guidance in two or three of the steps. For instance, a financial services client came to Exervio as they were embarking upon a multi-year program to consolidate their extensive system of back office operations. They were seeking guidance in developing a plan of attack that would yield the greatest returns in a given time frame.
Exervio developed an evaluation tool that was used to model a variety of consolidation approaches, ultimately producing a recommendation based on the client’s risk versus reward criteria. “We spent twelve weeks charting the course for this multi-million dollar program,” says Felice. “Then we designed and implemnted the governance structure required to organize, manage and mobilize the various projects required to achieve results.”
The idea sounds simple, and yet to structure the process well, the client needed the significant time and expertise investment offered by Exervio.
“Organizations typically know where they are in their respective markets, and most companies have a sense for where they want to be,” explains Felice. “The challenge is navigating that journey, charting the course to get from one point to the other.” And that’s the value Exervio adds to the process.
One thing Exervio does not do: they don’t hang around indefinitely after project completion. “The client’s business is their business,” explains Felice. “We’re there to provide niche expertise; to come up with new ideas, or improve their ability to select and implement ideas. Once that’s done, we’re off and running.”
Setting the Sights
Felice sums up the innovation that brought Exervio out of the wreckage of MarchFirst with one word: Focus. “We did not deviate and try to be all things to all people,” he explains. “We knew what we could do, and we held true to our vision of how we could add value to clients.”
In order to do that, Exervio has by design remained privately held. Felice contends that tying a professional services company to the public markets anchors it to unrealistic and essentially harmful expectations.
Exervio’s business is “about relationships, and it’s about solving business problems,” says Felice. “And when you work with clients in that capacity, there are natural ebbs and flows. You may not have a smooth, consistent growth curve that looks the way investors want it to look.”
But the company’s ownership structure is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to innovation. For instance, when Felice talks about charting a course for the company, he’s not talking about literal travel. Unlike many of the big consultancies, Exervio employs a “geo-centric” business model which, in landlubber’s terms, means they don’t travel.
“We’re committed to partnering with local clients,” explains Felice, “to provide our employees with a tremendous work-life balance, and also offer our clients a powerful local asset.”
The quality of life benefits for the Exervio team are obvious, especially to Felice himself who moved to Charlotte in 1998 to escape the extensive travel requirements of his nine-year career at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture). But the benefits to clients are equally substantial.
“Our local resources translate into a one-time learning curve for our clients,” explains Felice. “We can come in and out of an organization seamlessly. If they need us again, we can be there within a matter of minutes or hours.”
The Exervio team doesn’t have to fly to Charlotte from London or New York, but that doesn’t mean the company offers less than world-class expertise. The management team boasts multiple decades of experience with big-name firms like Accenture, Mercer Consulting, IBM, and McKinsey, and an impressive track record for results in a wide array of industries.
Charting Difficult Terrain
Along with the benefits, though, business innovation brings its own set of challenges. Exervio is not one of the well-known strategy houses typically associated with “big ideas,” nor is it a huge global systems integration firm. “We sit squarely between them,” says Felice.
Exervio’s focus on innovation for local Global 1000 clients, combined with its expertise in executing the projects required to achieve results, provides a unique benefit to companies that have invested heavily in information technology, but that have not seen a strong correlation between that and their business strategy.
“Market penetration is one of the biggest challenges for us,” admits Felice. “Today, we do not enjoy the benefits of an established brand. Most of our new business comes from relationships, client recommendations and word of mouth.”
But Felice feels up to the challenge. Staying focused, doing “phenomenal work,” and building name recognition in Charlotte and Atlanta form the core of their strategy.
In fact, despite the challenges, Exervio continues to thrive and grow. They have already hired over ten new employees in 2005, with plans to hire at least that many during the remainder of the year. They officially opened their second branch in Atlanta, and within two years expect to open a third branch, though they have not specified a market.
“We’re going to grow organically,” predicts Felice. “We run the business profitably, and plan to fund all our growth from our operations.”
Exervio’s geo-centric model represents only a portion of the company’s commitment to anchor itself in the Charlotte region. “We have four core values in our organization,” explains Felice. “One of those is the triple bottom line: ensuring we improve our clients, our company, and our community.”
Exervio’s consultants are reviewed in part on their contributions to the community. “They’re clearly incented,” states Felice. “They understand the personal and professional benefits of participating, of making a difference in our community.”
Felice is vice chairman for the United Way Young Leaders, an organization that encourages young people to get involved as volunteeris for the community. Exervio is involved in more organizations than Felice can list – among them, Habitat for Humanity, Adopt-A-School, Rotary, Brain Tumor Fund For The Carolinas, YMCA of Greater Charlotte, Junior League, and a new foundation called SEED Charlotte that provides both funding and consultation to growing companies for workforce development.
“This is one of the things you can’t do when you’re traveling all the time,” Felice reflects. “We’re committed to establishing deep roots, and I think most of our employees recognize that establishing roots means getting involved and making a difference.”
A Winning Crew
Among the employees at Exervio who take advantage of the opportunities to serve the community are four in particular who have been with Felice for most of the company’s history, and who each have ownership interest in the company.
Edward “Pepper” Pounds has been working with Felice since 1999 and has been instrumental in helping Felice build Exervio from the ground up. He manages all of Exervio’s anchor accounts in Charlotte.
Mark Heisig and Jon Nance also started with Felice in 1999. Heisig handles Exervio’s management consulting practice, and Nance runs Exervio’s technology consulting practice.
Amanda Wrigley joined Felice in 2000 and has helped Exervio build and maintain its human capital. Felice attributes Exervio’s high success in sourcing great candidates and high employee retention to Wrigley.
Felice holds the managing ownership interest in the firm, although the company offers all employees the opportunity to earn equity.
Thanks to his team’s commitment and expertise, Felice rarely works directly on client projects any more, but his focus remains firm: “What really gets me excited is providing services to clients that result in driving significant benefits for them. I like to hear, ‘Hey, your team did a great job – we could not have done this without you.’”