In business, growth equals success, but growth also usually comes wrapped in challenges, sometimes extremely difficult ones. Liaison Technologies CEO Bob Renner has seen this firsthand over the last few years. The main complication Renner has encounted is keeping his data management company stocked with enough talented workers to keep its growing customer base happy and satisfied.
“The market we participate in is an active one; it’s consolidating and there’s a lot of competition,” Renner says. “And over the last five years we’ve grown at a 50 percent compounded annual rate. So attracting and retaining top talent at the velocity we’re growing is a challenge that has been top of mind for us, especially in the last 12 to 18 months.
“Finding people that have the right skill set and fit into your company’s culture is tougher when you’re growing,” he says. “Some days it seems like there’s zero percent unemployment in the space we’re in. So when I think about business challenges, that’s the key one for us.”
The problem became apparent about two years ago, as Liaison’s leaders started noticing several factors impinging on the company’s ability to attract and retain talented knowledge workers: a sudden salary inflation trend; competitors’ direct attempts to lure Liaison employees away; and a shortage of suitable talent coming from colleges, notably Georgia Tech, the technology-education giant sitting in Liaison’s backyard.
“Over the last 18 months or so, in the local market here in Atlanta, we saw salary inflation that was accelerating more quickly than our standard practices were to raise salary and compensation,” Renner says. “This was counterintuitive, because at the same time you’re hearing a lot of economic news talking about high unemployment rates, which, depending on who you’re listening to, ranged anywhere from 8 percent to 15 percent in our local market. That was the first indicator.
“A second factor that has led to this being a focus issue for our executive team is that as Liaison has grown rapidly, we’ve become more visible to the larger competitors in our space,” he says. “So we’ve seen some very active recruiting efforts from competitors into our organization. Some of those were successful, some were not so successful, but they became quite visible. We saw a lot of pressure being put on by competitors looking at Liaison. Before this, we had been under the radar screen, but once you reach a certain size and visibility, you end up with a more competitive recruiting environment.
“Lastly, we faced a shortage of talent coming out of the colleges. We recruit heavily from Georgia Tech, and you’ve got a lot of other firms like Google, Facebook and Microsoft also fishing in that same pond. So bringing in new recruits from the Atlanta area, even once you recognize and resolve the other two challenges, continues to be a challenge for us.”
Liaison has taken a number of steps to help make it easier to attract and retain talent. Among those initiatives, the company has:
- Hired a full-time recruiter.
“We decided to bring on a full-time permanent employee as a recruiter at Liaison,” Renner says. “This company has been around for 12 years, and this is the first time we’ve staffed that position with a permanent employee.”
- Communicated to employees its vision and the importance of retaining employees and attracting new ones through networking.
“The most rudimentary thing we did, which is something a fast-moving company can overlook, is we began to communicate a message to the employee base focused on retention and on networking to attract new talent,” Renner says. “We began to get much more active in our internal communications about the culture and the mission of the company. We used lot of the methodologies from the Jim Collins ‘Good to Great’ model, which we think fits our culture very well. We ramped up the communication so people understood the vision of the business, how important top talent is to us, and how serious the executive management team takes that. We did this through a series of road shows to all of our facilities. This took a lot of investment by the executive team, by our HR team, a consistent level of communication.
“This galvanized the team in understanding our mission, understanding what we’re looking for, reinforcing how important our people are to our success and to us getting to where we want to be.”
- Created more flexible work schedules for employees.
“We made some adjustments along the way in terms of work flexibility,” Renner says. “We have a lot of people that telecommute now, quite a few more than a couple years ago. We’re probably up to about 25 percent of our workers that telecommute. Some people work two days from home; some work from home all the time. And our Dallas office is 100 percent virtual at this point. That was by their preference. All of our people in the Dallas area are now virtual workers only. So that has ramped up a lot.”
The transition toward having more workers telecommute has been smoother than some of Liaison’s leaders expected it would be.
“I was probably the biggest skeptic of that,” Renner says. “I’m pretty old-fashioned in terms of coming in to the office. But now, seeing this at work, we haven’t seen anything in the way of downside, so I’ve gotten over my apprehension about it. The company has adapted very well to it. We’ve embraced it more than a lot of other companies I talk to on a regular basis. Having people telecommute is one of those things that you wish you would’ve done sooner, once you’ve seen it at work.”
- Consolidated its Atlanta operations into a single headquarters facility.
“In Atlanta, we were spread across multiple offices, but in the last 12 to 18 months we consolidated into one facility,” Renner says. “This created more unity and more visibility across the company. I think it has really helped with the culture, and with retention and motivation. It represents a big financial investment by the company. We took a pretty big hit in doing this, just so we could have a bigger facility everyone could fit into. I think that helped a lot.”
The employee attraction and retention initiatives set in motion by Renner and his team have started to bear fruit for Liaison.
“To give you a perspective on that, we hired 45 people in the last 120 days,” Renner says. “When you’re a 300-person company, that’s pretty serious growth. And we’re really looking for specialized talent; some of it is coming out of college directly, and some of it is experienced knowledge workers.
“In the previous environment we were operating in, in terms of finding talent, that would have been a yearlong process, at least,” he says. “We had been having a lot of open head count go unfilled. The way that manifested itself, in terms of our numbers, is our profitability was far higher than we had experienced in previous years, and that was simply because we had open head count we couldn’t fill. Sometimes it’s not a good thing to have profitability above what you’re expecting. It doesn’t necessarily set you in a good place for the future.”
Liaison’s employee turnover has decreased noticeably.
“We have a human resources executive that sits in on our weekly senior team meetings, and the report from HR has been very good in terms of retention and turnover, especially since we started with the road shows and some of the other things we’ve been doing,” he says. “Anecdotally, that has improved quite a lot.”
Liaison has begun to see the labor market loosen up, so employee referrals are rising, and the company has been able to reduce its reliance on employee recruitment firms.
“In terms of finding qualified candidates, if you go back a couple years or more, we always did most of our recruiting through networking,” Renner says. “We basically had employee referrals, which our employees are incented to do, and we really didn’t use contract recruiters for anything. Then we went through a period of time 12 to 18 months ago where we had to pay an outside recruiter to help us fill almost every open position. We just could not find qualified candidates through the standard means of recruiting that we had used internally. But now we’re back to a place where, to fill these positions, we use recruiters for less than half of them. So that’s a positive sign in terms of good talent being available within the Atlanta market for us.”
Put the word out
Asked what advice he would offer other business executives facing the challenge of recruiting and retaining scarce talent while growing rapidly, Renner says getting the word out to your staff is crucial.
“If I were to give one key piece of advice, it’s communicate, communicate, communicate,” he says. “Create an environment where the staff has a lot of transparency to what it is you’re doing, and they understand the mission, and they’ve bought in to it. Doing this greatly helps with retention, because then when they get a call from a competitor, they tend not to listen as much.
“I think we undercommunicated for a period of time, and when we were a smaller company, communicating was easier. But as you scale the business, more effort needs to go into communicating your message. I know it’s a cliché, but as you grow, it’s easy to lose sight of the exponential communication requirement. It’s not linear. If you’re growing 50 percent a year, the communications requirement to keep everybody on the same page, to keep the culture intact, and to keep the employees engaged and motivated, is an exponential growth in terms of the effort that you have to put into it. I underestimated that at times, and I certainly won’t do that again.”
Liaison has also been challenged because it operates in a fast-changing market sector and finds itself facing larger, more sophisticated competitors than it has dealt with in the past.
“When the landscape you’re working in is dynamic and your competitors are changing, it’s important to spend a lot of time to determine where the white-space opportunity is — that is, where there’s a unique place you can position your company — and not try to compete head to head with the new competitors that you’re being stacked up against. Because the reality is, if you compete on the same basis as the new competitors, due to scale-based economics, etc., you’re just not going to be able to be effective. We’ve continually tried to determine what are the things we can do, based on our expertise and our assets, that will set us apart from the larger competitors.
“That’s a key piece of advice: Don’t try to do the same things they’re doing, because you won’t win. Within our company, we sometimes have senior people slip into the trap of ‘So-and-so’s doing this, so we should go do some of that.’ So you quickly come back with, ‘Can we do it better than them?’ The answer is usually no. So we dust ourself off and say, ‘Yep, we’re not going to go down that path.’ It’s important to leverage your capabilities and assets to do something different to achieve the same objective.”
HOW TO REACH: Liaison Technologies Inc., (770) 442-4900 or www.liaison.com
THE RENNER FILE
Name: Bob Renner
Title: President and CEO
Company: Liaison Technologies Inc.
Born: Streator, Ill.
Education: MBA, Emory University; B.S., Electrical Engineering, California State University, Fullerton
What was your first job, and what important lessons did you take from it?
The first meaningful job I had was I worked in a gold mine in Northern California. And what I learned from that is that I needed to go to college, because it was hard, physical work, and you can do that up to a certain point, but not much beyond that.
Do you have an overriding business philosophy that you use to guide you?
I’m driven and impressed by people that really put their discretionary effort into the business. In some cases, it’s not necessarily the smartest person in the room or the cleverest person in the room. I believe in people committing themselves to the business, in terms of interest. I like to surround myself with people that are engaged and love what they’re doing, so they’re thinking about the business not because they have to but because they want to. And I’ve been fortunate in this job to surround myself with some people that fit that mold to a T.
What trait do you think is the most important for a CEO to have in order to be a successful leader?
You need to be humble. A lot of people that get into executive positions quickly lose touch with how they got there. Most people get to this position through a lot of hard work, and with a lot of luck along the way. So staying approachable, staying humble, understanding that you’re fortunate to be doing the job that you’re doing — I think this is a very important attribute.
How do you define success in business?
Delivering something that’s valuable to the market. That’s not always easy to find, but you have to find it because it anchors everything else that you do.