How To Be A Fast Growth CEO

When Bob Cagnazzi started his IT solution provider firm BlueWater, he figured the best way to grow big was to plan big -- so he hired people with abilities and titles rarely found at a fledgling firm. His idea was that the company would grow into the staff. It was a gamble, but it paid off: 'This year, his company is ranked No. 29 on the Fast Growth 100, with $165 million in revenue and two-year growth of 133.76 percent.

’In our case, when we started the business, we built a platform to support fast growth. We were hoping and driving for fast growth,’ said Cagnazzi. ’We put in the systems, and had positions that you don’t normally find in a small company. Then, we established anchor clients, and began marketing the brand, building the sales team and adding the right people.’

A solid foundation for building and maintaining a Fast Growth company is dependent on mastering the three ’Ps’: Planning, People and Partnering. Those three principles guide the top executives running today’s fastest growing solution providers.

Step 1: A Pie-In-The-Sky Plan

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First off, Fast Growth leaders plan for success. For example, they might hire a Chief Technologist before they’ve launched their first product or service offering. They hire first, and try to figure out what position they’ll create later. (More on that in Step 2.) They also provide an environment where employees can flourish and grow.

’You want people to feel they work in a place where their voices are heard,’ said Adrian Liddiard, COO at BlueWater. ’When you have that, then people want to stay. We don’t tolerate bureaucracy or have a political org chart. If you have a great idea, go to the CEO and tell him.’

Fast growth companies tend to keep alive their entrepreneurial spirit, which means many have a flat org chart and an environment that is slightly less structured than at some of their competitors. That, too, is part of the plan; thinking outside the box is encouraged and conventions are questioned.

’Our culture is a little different. We’re not siloed at all. We look at sharp people, then give them broad training. We look for those with interest and aptitude, for example, folks that might be a network administrator, but may have an interest in storage. We get well-rounded individuals,’ said Joe Shields, IP Pathways president. IP Pathways saw 314 percent growth between 2008 and 2010. ’The other thing is that we incent and promote entrepreneurial behavior. By promoting revenue growth among everyone, we all feel like part of the family. There’s not a lot of hierarchy here.’

Fast Growth execs have a vision -- they know where they want the company to be and then they formulate the path. ’Are you building? Are you planning? Praying?’ asked Tony Jimenez, founder and president at MicroTech. ’Be aware, when you have money, put it where you’ll get the most bang for your buck. And when you don’t have money, convince your vendor partners to invest in R&D and to leverage your niche.’

The best part of having a big plan? Seeing your success, said Shields. ’It’s great when you can look and see the company has turned into something more than we imagined. [In life,] you’re not always in control of the end product. Got to count on the work you’ve done and hope for the best.’ Those that reside in the executive suite (or cubicle) control what they can, and what they can’t control, they rely on their people to manage.

NEXT: Step 2: It’s All About The People

Step 2: It’s All About The People

Leaders of Fast Growth companies recognize that their firms are only as good as their people. Many engage in ’opportunistic hiring,’ that is, bringing on employees with outstanding resumes although there is no specific job outlined for them. And when it’s not practical to hire, they still interview, carefully keeping track of prospects so when the time comes, help is just a phone call or e-mail away. For example, BlueWater maintains a database of candidates it can reach out to when needed.

’We’ve had some big challenges acquiring a talent pool,’ said Shields. ’We had to get good at networking and finding engineering and salespeople.’ IP Pathways continuously discusses and gives training so that the quality of service is maintained. The company hires both recent college grads and highly specialized technologists with years of experience on their resumes. ’It’s a mix. For a marketing position, we looked at recent marketing and graphic design college grads. We have a great local graphic design school. So we went right to a college grad for that. Other tech positions want experience; these folks need to have a baseline understanding of what the customer is looking for.’

In a down economy, there are plenty of resumes to wade through. The challenge is finding the truly exceptional candidates, the ones that differentiate themselves based on their skills, their background and their personalities. As these companies have seen double- and triple-digit growth, they’ve started to witness the challenges of maintaining large staffs. Companies are often tested when instead of hiring 10 then 20, then 25 people, they are hiring 20, 40, 80 even 800 people, said Jimenez.

’So you are making sure that they are equipped and have the tools they need and are educated on new challenges,’ said Jimenez. ’And, of course, you run the risk that once they’re trained, they leave to go to a competitor.’

Jimenez said that training staff helps keep them relevant, and although their extra knowledge makes them attractive to ’poachers’ from other companies, it does help retain employees. ’People want to be a part of a winning team, one that embraces new technology,’ he said, but noted that hiring is always a challenge. And once the right match is found, you hope the new employee is not a ’job hopper,’ Jimenez noted: ’Rather than get good at something and find where their skills match, they leave for another opportunity.’

Retention is always a source of concern, but continuing to invest in new technologies seems to help entice employees to stay. The key, say the execs, is to offer technology that is exciting and provides the opportunity for employees to excel by offering clients unique solutions. After all, they are technologists, and they enjoy learning and testing their skills.

NEXT: Step 3: Grow With Your Partners

Step 3: Grow With Your Partners

As these companies grow, their partner relationships continue to evolve. For example, BlueWater initially focused on a couple of technologies with Cisco, but now they are engaged in the vendor’s entire suite. ’Our breadth of technical expertise has grown. We’ve grown with Cisco as far as business units, and in terms of the increasing numbers of people we deal with. We are able to understand what the road maps of our vendors are now,’ said Liddiard. ’EMC and VMware are new vendor additions we brought on as we grew. We’re looking to add complementary products.’

In a former life, Shields had to partner with VARs. That experience shaped his view of how his own company should, and should not, operate. ’We learn from positive and negative experiences,’ he said. ’We lead from the front, and work really hard. We try hard to lead from the front and please our customers every day.’

Aside from all the planning, people managing and partnering, there are intangible rewards from running a fast growth company.

’The most rewarding, I think, is bringing the agility and nimbleness we’re known for and maintaining that way of doing business to clients even as we’ve grown,’ said BlueWater’s Liddiard. ’The second-most rewarding aspect is to see the employees grow. My services team took on managerial roles four years ago. It’s extremely rewarding to see where they are today, and how they continue to take on responsibilities.’

For Jimenez, the rewards are even more personal: ’It gives me the ability to share my success. I’m able to spend money to give back to the community. I’m a member of a number of communities -- I’m a veteran, an Hispanic, a small businessman -- and I’m fortunate that I am able to help them locally and nationally.’