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Business Observer Friday, May 18, 2012 10 years ago

Make the Customer Happy

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Dan Rodriguez's Veredus Corp. is building a national organization with the right people and hard work.
by: Rod Thomson Staff Writer

Dan Rodriguez and his partners at Tampa-based Veredus Corp. could not have launched their tech staffing firm at a worse moment: January 2001. Within months, the 9/11 terrorists attacks sent the economy into a tailspin.

“We were all wondering, gosh, was this really a good idea?” he says. He and his partners had left executive positions at Kforce Professional Staffing to feed their entrepreneurial spirits, but the very moment they began, the industry all but disappeared.

“Nobody was hiring. A lot of people were out of work,” he says, looking out over Interstate 275 from his Westshore office.

So the infant company decided it would give people help with anything that might improve their chances for getting work — enhancing their resume, providing interview tips, pointing them to good contacts at companies.

“We were doing a lot of things that were not generating revenue,” he says.

But he says the company had no real choice, and it seemed like the right thing to do. It turned out to be good business. When the economy picked up, many of those people gave back to Veredus.

“We had people who were very grateful that we had helped them out and now they wanted to help us out, because we were a new company,” he says.

Those people introduced Veredus to hiring people at companies, managers and provided other contacts and references that helped.

“That really was a pivotal moment, I think, for us,” he says. “Because it helped us really build our brand and helped make some really good connections out there.”

A second defining moment came during this last recession, when Rodriguez and the other shareholders all decided they were not going to lay off anyone. That turned out to be tougher than expected when the recession ran deeper and longer than predicted.

“We made a management decision that we weren't going to have layoffs,” Rodriguez says. “We were going to keep all our good people, all of our people who were putting in the effort, working hard and doing what we were asking them to do.”

The reasoning may have been part humane, but it was largely strategic for the company. “We wanted to hold on and keep them here as long as we possibly could,” he says. “We felt like we had a really good team and we wanted to have that team in place when things got good again.”

But the good times were further around the bend than expected. “It got pretty tough at the end,” he says.

How did that affect the Veredus bottom line?

“The revenue in 2009 did not support the amount of people we had here,” he says. “Quite frankly, as a privately held company, all the shareholders made a heckuva a lot less money than we had made in the past.”

But as a strategy, it paid off.

“When the economy did come back, we were able to get out of the gate fast,” he says. “In 2010 when it started getting better, we were in a real good spot. Our competitors were out trying to hire people and we were already up to speed.”

And it was excellent for employee morale. Most employees knew the situation and they have a strong loyalty to Veredus. Rodriguez says the company does not have nearly the churn as others in the employee staffing industry.

Veredus, as a company in the business of people, tries to be a people-oriented company with its employees. “We want to be a people business. So the way we interact with people is very important,” he says.

The results speak for themselves. Starting with just the handful of founders 12 years ago, the company has survived two recessions to have nearly 800 employees in six states and about $62 million in revenues last year. The company is opening offices in two markets per year and will end 2012 somewhere between $85 million and $100 million in revenues.

Local boy makes good
Dan Rodriguez, 48, is one of three children born and raised in Tampa, graduating from Robinson High School just a few miles south of the Westshore headquarters of Veredus.

After graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in recreation, he went to work for SRA Corp., a defense contractor in St. Louis. But he got into the employee staffing business with Romac, the forerunner to Tampa-based Kforce in 1991. After a short stint with Tech Data, he went back to Kforce until 2000.

“Kforce was a great company. I never have anything bad to say about them,” he says. “I just always sort of had an entrepreneurial spirit.”

He and his wife, Angie, talked about it and felt like it was a good time for him to start his own company. He was working a lot and they had two babies at the time — they now have three children — and so he took the plunge.

Along with three other Kforce employees — Vicki Adkins, Dave Hull and James Hawley — they launched Veredus. The company's name is Latin, loosely translated as “horse hunter.”

“I was blessed to have a very good group that started the company with me,” he says. “They're all entrepreneurs as well. They're all very active in the company.

“Initially, we thought we were going to have this little lifestyle company based in Tampa,” he says. “We didn't really start out having a vision for it being as big as it is now.”

And it didn't look like it might go anywhere at first.

“The six months after 9/11, in my business, was the worst I'd ever seen,” he says. So they embarked on the strategy to help people in any way.

And in those first months, they picked up some marquee Tampa companies as clients, whom Rodriguez declines to name.

Veredus does some things differently in the industry.

The staffing industry matches temporary and full-time workers to employers. So Veredus might have thousands of job-seeking candidates in the tech field who sign up and go through a vetting process to be represented. They pay nothing.

On the other side, Veredus has long-term clients, which are the companies that regularly have openings they need filled and go through Veredus or other staffing firms. The clients pay a percentage of one year's salary when they hire someone through Veredus. But filling full-time slots is only a small amount of Veredus' work.

About 90% of the company's revenue come from contract consultants, which are tech people who meet short-term needs for companies, maybe six to eight months. That is often when a company is launching a product or expanding, and it need programs written, but not long-term employees. Those consultants are actually Veredus employees, and get the full-range of benefits and coverage from Veredus. But they will work for a company for as long as a project is under way.

“Our sweet spot is really the worker bees,” he says. That includes programmers in primary software languages, and then many of the surrounding support skill sets, such project managers, quality assurance, analysts and so on. They do not do much at the C-suite level.

Growth strategy
While Veredus' founders did not originally envision a nationwide company, that is exactly what they are building. In a sense, the decision was foisted on them by their own success at hiring the right people at the core of the company.

“What really drove me to grow the company was that we had so many talented people,” Rodriguez says. “You can't keep all these talented people with a three-office organization. These people want to be challenged, they want opportunities, they want to be able to grow.”

The company has grown every year and is gaining momentum coming out of the recession. Again, as Rodriguez tells it, the company is doing it on the shoulders of employees who are excelling.

Veredus has a national accounts team that has clients outside of Tampa and the company's other offices. When that team has established a large client in city, then Veredus will expand to the city if it is one of the top 50 tech markets in the country. The account executive and a few other Veredus employees open up the office and build on the existing foundation.

Two years ago, with offices in Tampa, Orlando, Atlanta and Raleigh, N.C., the company opened offices in Miami and Richmond, Va. Last year, it opened offices in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. This year, it opened an office in Dallas and is planning one in Minneapolis. And next year, it is examining Austin, Texas, Phoenix and New York-New Jersey.

That's as far out as Rodriguez is looking. “It's an inverted pyramid with me at the bottom, and I have to create opportunities for all those people.”

When growth became a part of Veredus, the company created a five-year plan to reach $100 million in revenues. It is in the fourth year of the plan and will either hit it this year or next year.

“This business isn't rocket science,” he says of the staffing industry. “You make the customer happy.”

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