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5:54pm EDT November 29, 2001
In 1990, Al Schnur arrived at Psychological Consultants to Industry with the understanding that he would segue from staff psychologist to a role as a partner in the industrial psychology practice, groomed to take over as the owners retired.

It took him 11 years to acquire the company, and for most of that time, he didn't put in a day of work at PCI.

Through a serendipitous set of circumstances, Schnur found himself in a position to acquire the company this year, shortly after he joined it for the second time. Now, he's doing a lot of the things he went to PCI to do the first time, such as building the client base by leveraging technology tools that weren't available a decade ago.

Richard Hamilton, president and CEO of West Penn AAA, says the auto club has used PCI for 25 to 30 years and has always been satisfied with its service. The difference now, he says, is that not only does Schnur have the professional skills, "he also seems a little more business-savvy and more marketing oriented."

After earning a Ph.D. in psychology, Schnur tracked down two of the principles of PCI at a professional conference in 1990 and delivered a sales pitch to convince them they should hire him. When he came to Pittsburgh for an interview, PCI's owners took him to dinner and barely asked him a question. Instead, they gave him their own pitch about the benefits of living and working in Pittsburgh.

PCI's partners were all nearing retirement, and they needed a plan for succession. They were looking for someone with the energy to promote the company and build it beyond the solid but limited stable of clients it had retained since its founding in 1957.

Schnur took the job and administered tests and did assessments for PCI clients including Giant Eagle, Mine Safety and, one of its biggest clients, Phar Mor, the retail chain that ultimately came to operate more than 300 stores in 33 states. That company was growing quickly and had a substantial need for personnel assessments to make decisions about its management talent.

PCI's bread and butter had always been in-depth assessments of high-level managers and executives, costing hundreds and, in some cases thousands of dollars. Because of the labor-intensive nature of the work, the practice had retained a limited number of clients.

In 1992, Phar Mor declared bankruptcy after insiders were discovered to have bilked it out of more than $1 billion. PCI, with a big book of business with the bankrupt retailer, had to wait in line with other creditors while the courts sorted out the financial morass. The affair hit the company -- and Schnur -- hard.

"That led to two or three months when I was given a paycheck and told, 'Don't cash this.'"

Schnur says he had no doubt about his employer's integrity. And he felt a loyalty to the partners who had taken him in and was loathe to disappoint them. Nonetheless, he reluctantly initiated a job search.

"Even though I was holding onto my paycheck, I still felt very guilty about even looking at other opportunities," Schnur says.

He landed a job with another firm just blocks away and broke the news to his bosses.

"I think they were relieved because they probably would have made the decision that (they couldn't) afford to have (me) around," says Schnur.

He worked at a series of consulting firms around the country, including Bridgeville's Development Dimensions International and an online assessment venture launched during the dot-com bubble. He returned to Pittsburgh this year for some time off before a planned relocation to New York City to set up operations for ePredix, a company that offers online assessment tools for human resources needs.

But Schnur had second thoughts about moving to New York and talked ePredix into letting him start a territory in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, he began to make contacts with people he knew from his previous stint here.

He called PCI and discovered all of the partners had died, and control of the company was in the hands of the last partner's family, none of whom had any interest in running it. Schnur met with the last partner's brother and found him eager to get someone to run the business. The family hired him as president, and he got a 10 percent share in PCI.

A previous manager had left the finances a mess, and family members had been drawing money out of the business as well. A competitor had spread rumors that PCI was going out of business, and a potential buyer used the discovery process to ferret out PCI's client list for its own use.

Schnur, eager to take control, and the family members, eager to rid themselves of the business, structured a deal in June that allowed him to buy the firm.

Using e-tools

Schnur knew PCI had retained a strong but limited stable of clients. But he also knew that while he could do in-depth assessments for high-level employees, he had nothing to offer at the lower end of the scale, for instance, to evaluate customer service candidates or retail clerks.

"I had a big tool box with a hammer in it," says Schnur.

Through his experience at ePredix, he realized that online assessment tools were inexpensive, created little more work and allowed him to offer an additional service to existing and potential clients. He struck up a deal with Profiles International Inc. to offer online or paper-and-pencil tests that measure suitability for call center duties or sales aptitude, for instance. The tests cost between $9 and $38; Schnur offers them to clients for between $15 and $150.

And now he's got a few more tools to build the business.

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