Reaching the pinnacle of success for Nina Vaca tested her entrepreneurial savvy inspired by dreaming big Featured

8:00pm EDT April 30, 2013
Nina Vaca, president and CEO, Pinnacle Technical Resources Inc. Nina Vaca, president and CEO, Pinnacle Technical Resources Inc.

To turn Pinnacle Technical Resources Inc. into one of the fastest-growing technology companies in northern Texas, it just took a living room office with one employee, a big dream of success and Nina Vaca’s entrepreneurship.

Now, some 16 years later, the founder is not only chairman and CEO of the company, which provides contingent IT workforce staffing and vendor management services to Fortune 500 companies in North America, but she oversees 4,200 employees who help the company earn revenue of $236 million.

Vaca talked with Smart Business about the combination of entrepreneurial drive, motivation, culture-building and astute hiring that she has used to propel her company to these heights.

Q. Your organization seems to have a group of passionate people who love what they do, and that seems to come from the top. How are you able to get people passionate about what they do?

By simply communicating to my team that everything in life is a matter of perspective. How you view yourself, how you view what you’re doing in the world — it’s all a matter of perspective.

We have found a way to have an incredible perspective about the industry we’re in. You’ll never see such a big group of people on fire about third-party contract labor. I mean, it’s not sexy, but it’s something that’s growing tremendously.

The perspective I grew up with in my childhood is that you can do anything you want in a country like the United States. That perspective shaped my ability to dream big and to be passionate about what I do. I do the same thing at Pinnacle.

There’s a fundamental difference between motivation and inspiration. I think you can inspire people about what they’re really doing, being part of an award-winning company, their contributions to this economy, how it’s allowing us to be a better country. Those are things we often don’t think about when we do our day-to-day jobs.

I take the perspective at the 10,000-foot view and communicate it often, and people are excited about it.

Q. How do you communicate it? We often see that leaders who communicate well create effective cultures that can carry on without them.

What you’re talking about is actually extremely difficult to do once you start to grow quickly. An example of someone who has nailed this concept is Mary Kay [Mary Kay Ash, founder of cosmetics maker Mary Kay Inc.]. I really try to emulate a lot of things she is doing.

As we grow larger, it’s more difficult. What you have to do is really make certain that your culture is advanced not just by your leadership team but the layers behind them. When we were smaller, I would do a campaign with a different theme every year, and everything we did that year was based around that theme. You even see this in large corporations — there’s a theme for the year and everyone moves in that direction. We would have shirts made, mugs made. We would constantly see it visually, because you can launch a theme, but if you’re not seeing it every day, there won’t be enough energy around it. Whether it’s on a mousepad or a pen, you have to constantly be reminded of the theme.

Those are small tactical ways that we’ve been able to energize the group, and believe it or not, they work.

Q. How many employees do you have?

We have 4,200 people in the U.S and Canada. By the mere fact we are in third-party labor, we have lots of W-2s. And there’s a lot of motivation around those 4,200. Every Friday, everyone around the country wears a Pinnacle shirt. That’s just what we do. It’s part of our a culture. It’s a tradition that we have upheld. Little things like that are really important.

Q. What was the impetus behind founding the company?

I could tell you I was a visionary who knew Texas was some sort of can-do business state and that it would be the last one into the recession and the first one out as well as a right-to-work state. But the truth is I come from a very entrepreneurial family, so I understood the risks of starting a business and growing one. I had a front-row seat to make sure I capitalized on the opportunity.

Like a good entrepreneur, I found a need and serviced it. Starting a service organization, the barriers to entry are very low. I was young and aggressive. Again, I watched my parents and their parents and my whole immediate family make their way through entrepreneurship, so I wanted to do the same.

Q. Do you have a theory about children of entrepreneurs? Do they have a built-in entrepreneurial spirit? Talk about that front-row seat and how it helped you take that leap.

That front-row seat helped make me who I am today. During my upbringing, the silent example my parents taught me was big in the fact that I watched them lose a lot. I always tell entrepreneurs to never be afraid for your children to see you stress or to see you fail. It’s naturally human that we want our kids to have a better life and to have it easier — and to not see you cry and not see you lose. But I actually think the opposite. I think watching my parents have and have not — mainly have not — really taught me a lot about risk tolerance.

Now we’re all grown up, and when we have decisions and we have our lulls and it’s full of peaks and valleys, I never sweat it because even at our worst we’re light years ahead of where my parents were. I keep my perspective very crystal-clear on the mission we’re trying to accomplish.

Q. What’s an example of a challenge that you faced in your organization, what you learned and how were able to find a solution to overcome it?

I started the company in 1996, and we grew very quickly. As a service organization at the height of the dot-com era, there was lot going on in the staffing of third-party labor. Margins were big and life was good. I had a group of about 50 consultants, and life was great. Then, in 2000, we had our first recession.

I had a partner at the time, and we were pretty much down to a liquidation plan. One of my first customers, which we had about 50 percent of our business in, took it to India overnight. To say we were devastated is an understatement. My partner at the time said, ‘I’m out of here. If you have X [dollars], you can have it all.’ So I bought all of nothing, pretty much. It was a very lonely time for me — emotionally, in business. To be down to a liquidation plan and have the consultant say you need to wrap it up and let go, that was a very devastating time for Pinnacle.

But I have learned throughout my personal life experiences that it’s in your darkest moments that you always find your most inner strength. The absolute refusal to give up and the fact that I did have 100 percent control gave me the freedom to literally take matters into my own hands, which is what I’ve been taught to do my whole life. I diversified the business, I recruited some of the best talent in the industry, I went and talked to our customers and found out what they were really looking for. We found a niche in fixed-base, deliverable IT solutions. I leaned on my mentors and my family to work for free. I worked for free. Fortunately, my husband had a great job. I had an absolute refusal of giving up and had the ability to share a vision with others and have them come on at relatively low pay or, in some cases, no pay. That was the tipping point for Pinnacle. It was in 2001. We were literally at our worst. We’ve been growing since then.

Q. How did you extrapolate that vision, communicate it, and then create the plan to get there?

I spent a lot of time personally recruiting and handpicking all the right people. The CEO’s job is getting the right people on the bus.

Q. When you say the right people, you must have had an idea of what you were looking for.

Oh, absolutely. They had to embody the traits we were looking for, and they had to have the right type of expertise.

Q. How did you figure that piece out?

By being a student of the industry. I spend a lot of time figuring out what our next play should be. If people aren’t buying contract labor, they’re buying fixed-priced, deliverable IT solutions. You have to be a student of the industry, a student of the procurement process. When you do business with Fortune 500 companies, you have to be able to figure out why they buy your service. ?

How to reach: Pinnacle Technical Resources Inc., (214) 740-2424 or www.pinnacle1.com

The Vaca File

Nina Vaca

Chairman and CEO

Pinnacle Technical Resources Inc.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in communications and business, Texas State University-San Marcos

Vaca on delegating and motivating: I spend a lot of time working not just on the business, but in the business. Of course, as we’ve matured, I’ve had to work more on the business and not as much in it. But you have to be willing to do both. You have to be willing to roll up your sleeves, and you shouldn’t ask people to do things you’re not willing to do yourself.

Vaca on grooming IT workers: America is at an all-time high for IT workers in this country. Yet the number of degrees we’re producing, not just in technology but in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics], is at 1980 levels. So we’re upside down. If America wants to continue to be a front runner in the world of information technology, we have to create a bigger pipeline. What companies like Pinnacle are doing is taking matters into our own hands and specially grooming our own. We have veterans program, a youth program. We’re doing everything we can to be ready for tomorrow.

Vaca on corporate citizenship: I don’t believe you should just live in a city — you should help build it. At Pinnacle, we do that on steroids. We’re involved in a number of initiatives: the Blueprint for Economic Prosperity program; the [Dallas] mayor’s internship program; the Peace Through Business program. I have the privilege of serving as chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. We’ve grown our corporate partnership in the last two years by more than 70 corporations. We’ve had to change our approach to achieve this, because corporations are shrinking the amount of philanthropy dollars. We no longer communicate to them that this is goodwill or corporate responsibility or a feel-good item. Our new approach is more pragmatic: Here is our mission, and our goals, and here’s how that mirrors your mission and your goals. It’s a business proposition. And it’s something they’re willing to invest in.