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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 31, 2020 6 months ago

Rapid ascent: Executive's edge, hustle clear a path to the top

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‘If you can’t beat them, lead them.’ That's the mantra of Kye Mitchell, who quickly rose up to become COO of the billion-dollar company that acquired the one she co-founded.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Kye Mitchell will never forget the moment she decided to sell VistaRMS, the IT consulting firm she co-founded, to Tampa-based Kforce, a $1.42 billion staffing solutions company.

“They were calling me in the delivery room,” she recalls. “It took longer to do the deal than to have my daughter. It was crazy. I was like" ‘No, I can't do a conference call! This is ridiculous.’”

The year was 2005. Mitchell, now 50, had to let go of one of her babies — VistaRMS — while welcoming another into the world. “The acquisition was tough,” she says. “They had a lot of resources, and we were a small private company. Trying to navigate all of that, plus a new baby, made for a difficult year.”

Mitchell co-founded Washington, D.C.-based VistaRMS when she was 28 and led it to great heights of success. At one point, before the dot-com bubble burst, the firm was No. 2 on Inc. magazine’s list of fast-growing companies. “But then, as fast it went up, the market crashed,” Mitchell says. “We had companies going bankrupt that owed us $2 million.”

Although VistaRMS survived, the experience of having to rebuild the company’s coffers opened Mitchell’s eyes to a stark new reality. “We needed a national presence,” she says. “We needed a larger opportunity.”

'I think people can really see that if you stick with us, the sky’s the limit.' Kye Mitchell, COO of Kforce

That reality also included a dilemma men don’t have to deal with: being a business leader who is also an expectant mother. Mitchell says she sensed her partners in VistaRMS worried she wouldn’t return to the company after the birth of her daughter. “So we decided to sell it,” she says. “It was the right thing to do.”

But Mitchell didn’t leave. Instead, she embraced the culture of Kforce — a counterintuitive move considering many entrepreneurs struggle to conform to a Corporate America environment. Today, Mitchell is the chief operating officer of Kforce, one of a handful of Tampa-area public companies that do more than $1 billion a year in revenue. Her partner in VistaRMS, Don Harvey, had planned to retire following the acquisition but also wound up staying. He remains with the company too, serving as a senior vice president based in Atlanta.

“It’s because of the opportunities and culture at Kforce,” Mitchell says. “They really look after their people. And even though it’s a 50-year-old-plus company, they still allow us to create, to innovate. That’s really important to me.”

STRONG POTENTIAL

Harvey knows Mitchell and her abilities about as well as anyone. He hired her when she was just 21, right after she’d graduated from Penn State University, for a job at Vista Computer Services, which would eventually become VistaRMS. She worked under him for two years before leaving and eventually starting her own company.

“Then we got back together and formed VistaRMS,” Harvey says. “She caught on quick. You could tell that this young lady had a future.”

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Mitchell, Harvey recalls. He says the merger with Kforce left her scrambling to train and work with people all over the country — complete strangers who were, suddenly, her colleagues and direct reports.

“It was challenging,” Harvey says. “She was working like crazy, and I don’t believe she had it all right. She was managing folks that she’d never met before, and on top of that, she was working the integration component of the two firms, blending them together.”

Whatever mistakes Mitchell made, though, she not only learned from, but she also recovered quickly from them “because of her instincts and because of her ability to learn quickly and take a punch,” Harvey says. “There’s an edge to her. And she needed that edge because as you’re taking on all this new responsibility, you’ve got to be able to fail and get up from it.”

MOVE AHEAD OF THE PUCK

Mitchell’s skills have put her on the leadership fast track at Kforce — no small feat considering the long tenure of many of the company’s top executives. Chairman and CEO David Dunkel, formerly of PricewaterhouseCoopers, has led the firm for nearly 30 years. Joseph Liberatore has been with Kforce since 1988, serving as CFO before being named president in 2012. CFO and Executive Vice President David Kelly is the C-suite’s “newcomer,” joining in 2000.

Mark Wemple. Kforce COO Kye Mitchell has helped the staffing firm succeed by narrowing its focus.

That level of stable, consistent, long-term leadership is not the norm at large, publicly held companies. Mitchell credits it to Kforce’s willingness to nurture and groom people, like her, who bring an entrepreneurial mindset and willingness to be challenged to their roles.

“I think people can really see that if you stick with us, the sky’s the limit,” she says. “You can do what you want to do. I went from running one branch office, in D.C., to COO of the entire company in just over 10 years.”

Mitchell thinks Kforce, founded in 1962, has inspired loyalty because of its willingness to evolve and shift as a company. When she joined in 2005, it was a different enterprise, trying to be a one-stop shop for businesses that needed workers with specific skills on a part-time or permanent basis.

“They had a nursing practice; they had a scientific business; they had a clinical research business; they bought into the government space,” Mitchell says. “They were kind of all over the place.”

The rapid pace of technological change in recent years has led Kforce to substantially narrow its focus to technology and finance and accounting. That strategic move proved to be a winner. Today, Kforce has 50 offices across the country, including two national recruiting centers, and serves 70% of the Fortune 500. It provides some 36,000 workers to more than 4,000 clients.

Mitchell likes to use sports metaphors to explain why or why not certain strategies work. Like this one, borrowed from NHL superstar Wayne Gretzky: “Let's really look at where the puck is going,” she says. “Not playing it where it is today.”

In Kforce’s case, its leadership team had been around long enough and experienced enough economic ups and downs to figure out that technology — and, to a lesser extent, finance and accounting — is an area companies simply can’t afford not to invest in, even when times are tough. And that requires workers with the latest, most up-to-date skill sets — a demand Kforce, with its decades of staffing solutions expertise, was happy to meet.

So much so, Kforce is now the nation’s fifth largest supplier of IT professionals.

“We got out of health care staffing, we got out of clinical research, [and] we got out of nursing and the federal business,” Mitchell says. “That's allowed us to really focus in on technology. Today, every client we serve is driven by technology. That is where things are going.”

FUTURE CEO?

It’s no surprise Harvey thinks Mitchell could one day replace the first “O” in her title with an “E,” and become CEO of Kforce. She's already supplanted her rivals, becoming Kforce’s sole COO after a period when three people shared the role.

Kforce executive Don Harvey has known and worked with Kye Mitchell for decades. Courtesy photo.

“I like the way she’s been hustling, how she became our single COO,” he says. “She out-hustles everybody else and is someone who really gets after it.”

Harvey says Mitchell’s strength as a leader flows from her ability to empathize and communicate with people at all levels of the organization.

“She’s sat in the sales seat, doing the kind of work that the people who report to her today do,” he says. “She understands what it takes to be successful in our sales roles, in our recruiting roles, because she used to be that person. Now she's in the world of leading leaders that lead people. And that takes another level of expertise.”

Most importantly, Harvey adds, Mitchell is someone who brings other people along and gets them to buy into ideas. At the time of the VistaRMS acquisition, he was firmly on what he calls “the retirement track” when Mitchell asked him to help her with the transition. He thought it would be a temporary role — “to make sure things go well and all that kind of stuff.”

Fourteen years later, the bright future he saw for Mitchell is here. And he’s part of it. 

“I’ve worked hard with her,” Harvey says. “She worked for me, and now I’ve wound up working for her.”

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