Aaron Opalewski, CEO and Founder of Spark Talent, joined David Folwell to talk about his experience in the staffing industry. He shared what it’s been like to create Spark Companies, a portfolio of companies that operate within different niches. He talks about the company’s growth over the past year and also shares his philosophy of being transparent about both success and failure. He also talks about a unique situation where he worked with one of his former competitors and they created a new, successful company together.
David Folwell: Hello everyone. Thank you for joining us for another episode of The Staffing Show. Today, I am joined by Aaron Opalewski, who is the CEO and founder of Spark Talent. Aaron, super excited to have you on the show today. I think we’re going to have a really great conversation around growth and some of the trends that are happening in staffing. Thanks so much for joining.
Aaron Opalewski: Dave, thanks for having me on. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’ve actually listened to a lot of your episodes and created some connections from your podcast, so it’s cool to be a guest. Thank you very much.
Folwell: Awesome. Well, I’m happy to hear that. And to kick things off, could you just tell us a little bit about how you got into the staffing industry and then we’re going to jump into what is Spark Talent?
Opalewski: Sure. I got into the staffing industry in October of 2007. I was doing personal training before staffing. And as the story goes for a lot of us, knew absolutely nothing about the industry prior. I was basically doing some training sessions with a director that worked for Aerotek and we got to know each other over a period of time and he recruited me. He was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I was still in college at the time and liked what I did. It was a great way to pay for school, but I told him I wanted to get into business, didn’t exactly know what that looked like. He brought up interviewing with them, looked into that and decided to move forward with that. And the rest is history. Here we are.
Folwell: That’s amazing. How many years ago was that?
Opalewski: So 17 years ago, I believe. October 2007.
Folwell: So you jumped into Aerotek. It looks like you guys can’t see Aaron, but it looks like you have still continued to hit the gym though, you have not let go of that.
Opalewski: I am trying. There was a time where I was not doing that and got back into it.
Folwell: It’s a good thing.
Folwell: Cool. Well, next topic, let’s jump into. Tell us what makes Spark Talent different and tell us a little bit about the size and growth of your agency?
Opalewski: Sure. So I think what actually makes us different is probably more what we’ve created over the last three years. We just crossed 10 years a couple of weeks ago, which is cool. So we started Spark Companies and really, what that’s become is we have a portfolio of companies that operate within different niche specialties or sectors, whereas some people are set up this way and some people just say like, “Hey, we do it all.” And I think that there’s some agencies that are actually set up that way and a lot that aren’t, and just try and be the flavor of the month, us included when we started out. And that worked for us for a period of time at Talent. And then as we grew bigger, it didn’t. And that’s really what spawned us creating Spark Companies and ultimately having these different entities where we can go into a client and really look at a situation and decide where’s this best for? What service line is this best for?
We don’t have to force one type of sale like let’s get it right for the customer knowing that if we do the right thing long-term, we’re going to have the opportunity to do great things with that client in some capacity.
Folwell: That’s really great, and I think one thing that’s interesting about Spark just from our conversations is that you’re growing this year, right? You’re growing in a year where, I’ve said this on the podcast before, but 30% of staffing firms have had layoffs. So it’s been a hard year in staffing for a lot of agencies. And what does the growth rate look like for Spark? And it sounds like it’s part of what you think has driven that as the niche focus, but if you could talk about the growth rate and then some of the secret sauce that you’re willing to share on what’s helped you continue to drive your growth?
Opalewski: And I’m pretty open on this stuff. The industry historically isn’t, but anyone that’s deep into this knows it’s all about the execution. It’s not about what you necessarily just put on paper. So over the last two years, we’ve grown 117% on our gross profit line. So a little bit more than double in size, which we’re extremely grateful for. We’ve learned a lot along that time period, and that’s been awesome. It’s opened us up to where we’ve really taken things to another gear where we’ve opened up some additional service lines. And in my opinion, that’s what’s really continued that growth this year, even though there’s parts of the industry are your contract labor right, well, it’s down across the board.
We’re a little less than flat at this point in that service line, but overall we’re still up big. So without having those other service lines, I feel like we might be experiencing some of that too, but us investing in that over this period of time has really been fruitful for us.
Folwell: And could you tell us a little bit about what those additional service lines look like and where you are seeing positive trends?
Opalewski: Sure. We operate in eight. Our biggest ones are still…so contract staffing, so contract to direct-type staffing, direct hire. One of our newer service lines, we call it recruiting partner services. I don’t compare it to RPO completely because I think it’s a different level of RPO. That’s the way that we pitch it and deliver on that business, but it stems as a cousin from RPO-style business. Then we have our shared services team, which is an actual internal group that is really the infrastructural support for all of the portfolio of companies.
From that, we started external version of that, which covers HR services for clients, mostly people that are in a company that are under 100 headcount, but we do have some instances where we’re outsourcing parts or even all of HR departments with companies that are over that size and on SOW-type programs them as well. So those are a few of the service lines. We have others, but those are a few that have really grown for us over the last couple of years.
Folwell: If you’re open to it, would you share a little bit about how your RPO is different? The partner outsourcing?
Opalewski: Actually, I’ll be completely transparent with you. Our person that leads that business unit, we have them in their first ever actual RPO training. So I’ve read on the topic, we’ve done a lot of stuff, but we put our own programs together and what we’re finding out is that we’re doing certain things within that that are not in normal RPO programs. We’re also priced higher in some of these instances, but we’re offering a more robust solution on what we’re doing.
I was joking when I said this to our person, but I’m like, “Hey, we do full-scale versions of that and then we’re calling them ‘micros.’” But I think our micro version of that is actually more like a formal RPO, but we’re still learning about what that actually looks like because we took it to this other gear focus and margin point that we create within clients on that. Well, I’m like, “Hey, do you want to go into this training? It’s set up with Visis Group, who we actually learned about from your guys’ podcast, and Tom has been great to us, learned a lot from him while they were doing an RPO thing. And I’m like, “Okay, let’s go learn some more because I think we’re going to be able to drop in more levels to this. We can always improve. There’s always more to learn.” But don’t get sucked into like, “Oh man, how we’re doing this works really well. So we bring some unique things to the table on this.” Don’t get too sucked into whatever you learn, if that makes sense.
Folwell: Interesting. So it sounds like no formal background in RPO service delivery. So you went into it with, “How should we define this product and deliver it without the expectations of a historical of how it’s been done before?”
Opalewski: I think for us, how we built it out was through failure on programs where we were operating under a contingent model and we would see ways if we control different parts of the process, we could do a better job for the client and convert better for the client. But the contingent model isn’t set up that way or in a lot of instances. In some clients we could get it there. But this was a different way to frame and package that to clients. And again, it really stemmed from a lot of our failures and it’s like, “Hey man, if this and this were this way, we could have done a great job on that project.” And success leaves clues, but so does failure. And we were able to put some of those things together and create our own programs and that unit has just completely taken off for us.
So it’s not for everybody and not for every instance, but where it makes sense, our teams are converting extremely well on it. We’re very happy with that group and how it’s grown.
Folwell: That’s really great, and I’m going to jump back here a little bit. So you have all these different verticals that you’re serving, and I actually had a conversation with Tom yesterday and we were talking about challenges agencies see with scaling and hitting plateaus. One of the things he talked about was actually spreading their service line too early, which seems like you have a pretty clear idea of when to do it and how you’ve done it. I can only talk about it from a SaaS perspective, software-as-a-service side. I’ve seen a lot of businesses try to go international too soon. I’ve seen them try to expand outside of their core vertical too soon when I was helping them with marketing, and historically I’ve seen it. I’m like, “Oh, it slowed you down for a year or two. Still okay, but probably did the right move.” Did it slow you down initially? How have you managed that and been able to scale it?
Opalewski: I think this run, I think we have made mistakes on that over the last 10 years, absolutely have. I think that when we did, there’s actually more to it because we are at one point on a decentralized model and moved to a centralized model. So that cuts down some of the communication complexities within how we operate some of our development stuff, making sure that people are culturally aligned, so we are able to cut down some of our complexities that way, pick up momentum. And then when we had implemented some of that stuff, I think it worked better than if we had all this stuff going on that was still in its infancy. I think it would’ve hurt us.
So the answer is all in the timing of when you do it. For me personally, I believe for us at least, if I was to be coaching someone or advising them within the staffing world from what I know of it, I’d probably push them to other people if they’re outside the staffing world. But I think once you’re crossing a $10 million gross profit line, not your revenue line, but a gross profit line, you should have the teams built up or it depends on how you’re financially managing your business. But if you are reinvesting into the business, you should be able to create some funds there to start to look at dabbling in some of these other service lines. But my opinion, again, the reason you need those investment funds is you’re going to have to deploy actually different focused humans probably with different skill sets and unique strengths and abilities to do that service line. They shouldn’t really be bouncing between two different service lines or four, or in our case eight, right? That should not be that.
Folwell: From a leadership perspective, how do you manage across all of the eight service lines? Do you find that any challenges with the different personalities with different…I think of IT staffing versus professional light industrial tend to see quite a bit of a different approach there. Any learnings or things that you’d like to share with the audience there?
Opalewski: I think that’s a great question. You’re spot on. For me, uniquely, I started in technical staffing early in my career. After about a year and a half, I started my first company. We focused mainly on industrial staffing and then dabbled into skill trades and had a lot of success with that over four and a half years. And then when we started Spark, we continued to do those two sectors, but started to add back in more of the technical professional stuff that I had done in a previous life as well. So I think that helps being that I was pretty well-rounded in getting exposure to all of that. But as you expand and grow, I think it’s more about like, okay, you have volume and non-volume recruiting, or at least this is how I look at it. You have to run those two styles of recruiting on different KPI sets, which leads to different management styles, different conversations.
And again, why it’s important to…if you’re going to do this different stuff, you need to figure out how you’re going to communicate with those groups differently. I, for periods of time, crossed all that up. And I think that although on a micro-scale, that produced some amazing people and amazing talent. They were very versatile, which is important in agency staffing. It hurt our ability to scale or, like you said, things took longer, right? And over the last couple of years as we added those things and we did it more team by team and ran different KPI sets for those teams, it’s gone better for us. It’s still not perfect, right? We’re always working on improving and have things we must improve on. But having those different…that’s the framework for setting it up to run those different areas properly.
Folwell: And digging in a little bit, you mentioned the KPI side of it and I know having talked with some people on your team, you have some big aspirational goals that you’re going for in terms of creating opportunities.
Folwell: And again, in your background right now you’ve got creating opportunities above your head. Could you share a little bit about what the aspiration is for the organization and then also, anything that’s unique to what you guys do or how it shifts between the different groups?
Opalewski: Yeah, I don’t think there’s really anything unique about…I don’t have any problem sharing what our KPI sets are because it comes down to the execution and intention of what happens within those. For us, I think on our volume side, we want to see five submittals a week. We want to see some additional stuff like within process that we track and stuff like that. But to simplify it, five submittals a week with intention. If you’re on the volume side, that’s at least 10. It can rise up all the way to 20 depending on what they’re specifically on.
So different sets for different style recruiting, extremely important. We struggled when we crossed those things up. It got a lot clearer for us as we started to break those apart and have different people focusing on those different lanes.
Folwell: It sounds like you simultaneously broke up and segmented your organization while also centralizing it. So you brought everybody into one area because you mentioned that you went from a decentralized model. Tell us a little bit about what that experience was like and some of the benefits you saw from it?
Opalewski: Yeah, I’m definitely not knocking that model. We have some good friends that work extremely well in that model. There’s amazing companies out there that do very well with that. I think that’s been part of it for us is I worked at Aerotek for a year and a half, amazing company. I learned a ton. In our first company, I think we copied a lot of what we knew from there in regards to how to structure your day and everything. And some of that dragged into when we started Talent and as we approached COVID in 2019, we were focused on diversification. And I throw the quotes up there, right? You can have a great strategy and it can be the wrong time to deploy it, hence what we’re talking about on when to do this stuff.
So our thought process was, “We want to diversify out of automotive.” After we had hit records in ’18 and in ’19 we’re seeing some of the automotive climate softening. So we want to diversify. We’re pretty aggressive. So we, over a period of 18 months, went from two offices because we had two pretty successful locations. And decided that it was a bright idea to go up to nine all across the country, Nashville, Tampa, Texas. So we’re hitting some hard time zones and really good idea, hindsight being 20/20, if we were going to do that again, I would’ve probably took in all those investment dollars and picked one of those markets and tried to set up that one market rather than dinking and dunking in seven markets and putting small teams together with a low outlay of operating expenses and trying to get it off the ground organically. In some cases, following clients, but did we see some success from that? Yes, we did. Did we have a lot of things that didn’t go how we wanted them to go? Yes.
So fast-forward a couple of months after we roll out that expansion, it was 2020 and the pandemic hits. So we got these small offices and people are then working from home. Over a period of time, six months into that, we had had some people that had turned over within. If an office has one person, you’re one person away from not having an office. So we had some of that happening and we’re working well where that wasn’t happening within just communicating like this. One of the positives about the way we did it is we didn’t have any long-term leases and we were able to pivot the direction we wanted to go on that pretty quick. And we said, “Hey look, we are going to shut down these offices. We’ll operate this way. We’ve been doing it for six months anyways. We can see who that’s working well for the people that it isn’t working well for already exited out of the organization. We’re picking up a lot of good synergies for this. Let’s drop the operating expenses and let’s see what we got here.”
We downsized our office in Michigan. And we ran that way for another…until the end of 2021. And that’s when we bought the building that we’re in today, and we re-expanded out our square footage outlay, but with this one office, in the process of that, the place we downsized to, we still hold that lease, that’s a little longer-term. So one of our outfits is sitting out of there until April of this year and they’ll be joining us. They’re like literally two blocks down the road.
Folwell: That’s great.
Opalewski: So yeah, we’ll have that one office and then we’re operating in more states and with more clients than ever before, just in a different way at this point.
Folwell: That’s great. And it seems like good advice for those looking to diversify or spread out and also the timing component of it. That seems like some lessons learned there for sure. I’m going to shift gears a little bit. So one thing that I’ve picked up on, again with conversations with your team and with yourself is that culture seems to be a huge part of your organization, which I think comes down to who you hire, how you hire, but also how do you actually bring people into the culture. Could you explain a little bit about what your culture is and then how you ingrain that into your organization?
Opalewski: Sure. Well, I think first, our focus on when we hire culture, characteristics that someone has in the skillset, whether it’s the skillset that they bring or a skillset that we see hints of, that we think we can bring out in the person. And in the staffing world for us, because we hire a lot of people that it may be their first job. A lot of times that’s what it is. We see the potential in somebody. So I’m a big proponent of people don’t come assembled. You got to build them. No one’s perfect. We all got work to do. And when we’re learning something right or coming into a new industry or it’s our first job, you can say you want to hire for a culture and that’s cool, but the core values that we live by are guideposts. I’m not perfect on them. No one’s perfect on them, but they’re train tracks and it’s our job as leaders in the organization or like, “Hey, when someone gets off the tracks, let’s bring them back on. Let’s communicate to them through the core values.
So when we’re coaching someone, when we’re hiring them, coaching them, promoting in a demotion or a tough conversation, how do we tie this back to the core values and why it’s important, why we do it this way? It’s important to explain that to people. I think you get a more aligned team. And probably the number-one thing we talk about with our leaders because we promote not completely, but as much as we can from within. And there’s so many positives to that and it’s a big…if you were to enter on the front of our building, it says, “We help people grow.” That’s the purpose of our company and we believe a big part of that is promoting from within and building up people.
With that though, what’s a con? Well, you got people that have never been leaders before. Sometimes they get injected into leading their friends. It’s just these different dynamics that come on because we do have a tight-knit group. It’s great, but it’s something that we have to coach on, be aware of, be intentional about. And now with all the growth we’ve had the last two years, we’ve made a hire or two that…well, two to be specific, that have a little more tenure. And we’re doing that to balance out like, “Okay, we believe in the leaders we promoted, we believe in the team that we have. We got to put some more people that have seen some more things around to be other good support systems for some of these newer leaders.” So I think that’s our philosophy, but even within that, there’s things that you got to work on to continue to cultivate that. So I hope I answered your question on that.
Folwell: Yeah, no, you did. That’s a great answer. And also, I love the whole “people do not come assembled” concept and none of us do. We all have work, always. I second that as well. Do you have rigorous training programs if you’re taking people with no staffing experience bringing them in or how are you approaching that?
Opalewski: Yeah, it’s something we’re constantly working on. We weren’t really heavy with that this last year, knowing that we had grown a lot in the past year. We had good forecast for continued growth this year. And we were doing a lot of those promotions. So we had put in a formal executive-level training position. We’ve made some tweaks to that throughout the year. We still have that role, but we’ve scaled it back a little bit because I think we’re a little ahead of where we thought we could be with it. And that’s okay. I’m just talking honestly. Not everything we do works out. We have good ideas, bad ideas. It’s panned out percentage wise, really good for us. Again, grateful for that, but that’s something where I’m very proud that we tried to go heavy on that role and it’s still all good. All the people that were involved in that are still here.
We’ve repositioned some seats because we think they’re better to match their unique strengths. And we just weren’t seeing the increased ROI on how quickly a recruiter could hit the floor and pick it up within that. And so we didn’t scrap it, but we adjusted that. So what we do right now is our formal training right out of the gate, we do book trainings. I call them book trainings, but just like team classroom style trainings monthly. I’m a proponent of, “You learn at submittal.” So it’s really big account managers training’s an ongoing everyday thing. Again, we’re open to remote. We have a lot of good people that work like more of a flex schedule or some people that work in different states. Man, have we had some great successes with that. It’s also been probably our hardest thing.
What I’m seeing right now and how maybe I changed my tune on this, but people that never worked in an office setting, we’re trying to set that up where we hire them where they can be in more. Someone that we hire, whether it’s in staffing or out, they’ve been in an office setting for a period of time, and that seems to work better for us on being flexed out more because some of us don’t have that perspective of like, “Okay, you came into the workforce in 2020. You’ve literally never worked in an office.” It’s kind of crazy, but that’s the reality. So that’s another area for us that it’s gone tremendously over the last three years, but we’re starting to tweak even that within what’s working well for us and where we think we need to improve.
And it’s like, “Okay, if we don’t feel like we are doing a good job of cultivating someone that’s never been in the office and setting them up…” staffing can be very sink or swim and there’s part of that that we’re really competitive, but I want to be able to put my arm around someone and if they’ll put in the effort, we’re going to put in the effort with them. And we’re definitely better at doing that in person than we are if someone’s calling for the life raft remote. So I hope that makes sense.
Folwell: It does make sense, and I candidly have missed some of the in-office days. So I’ve been remote for a long time with my team. We spread it all over the place. Now it’s like we get a couple of moments together and I think all of us through especially challenging years, it’s like I wish we could have a few days a week in office together.
Opalewski: Two of our biggest units are mostly flexed out. A lot of them work four ones, or maybe two in, three out, but a lot of the people that perform well on those teams have also been doing this within our model for longer periods of time. And again, there’s some outliers in that that just kill it, but those are things that we’re working on internally. And again, okay, so if it’s at submittal that a lot of the training happens and it’s not something where you’re right next to that recruiter, then we’re training our people like, “Man, you got to be really intentional on your teams, on hopping on a Zoom on….” We have standup meetings. We’ll stay on after do a separate one with your team. You have to then cultivate that and be intentional about it. That’s how it’s going to work.
Folwell: That’s great. I know we’ve talked a little bit before this podcast about how you…and you’ve already shared more than some people do on this and talked about how you’re a little bit more collaborative in the industry. Could you just elaborate on how your approach to collaboration, and I think you had an interesting story about somebody that was a competitor at one point and now you’re working with as well?
Opalewski: Yeah, my mentality on this has just shifted a lot specifically since…it’s hard to say this five years ago now, but probably for about five years, my mentality on this just started to shift. But the first company that we created after Talent, so I guess our second company, Spark Packaging, and we merged with…there was a competitor that followed me online and reached out to me. And in the past, I would’ve just brushed that off or ignored the person or whatever. Well, a couple of my people that are coaches to me in different industries, Ed Mylett, Andy Frisella, I actually think I’ve heard their name on your podcast I listened to before. But both amazing guys, great people to follow. They’re coaches of mine and I started working with them back in 2018 and I got to just observe how they operate within people that are within the same industry and both super competitive people. But I saw a different thing than I was used to within my first 12 years in staffing on how you could potentially behave.
And to me, this is just how I’m wired personally, but it was God working on me to really step into my own on what we were going to be rather than what I thought the industry was supposed to be from what I learned other places. And again, not knocking it at all, Aerotek, Allegis has done amazing things. But we all have unique strengths and abilities and I think we should follow our own path. We don’t have to follow someone else’s.
So I started to really open up to just being more open with some of the stuff. I would never share our KPIs in the past, but now, I can tell 10 people that and there’ll be five people that have the right mindset on it and five people that don’t. And guess who’s right? Everybody’s right because it’s all about your mindset. So that started happening and Billy, who is one of our operating partners now, reached out to me and I would’ve blown him off. But after a six-month period of him kind of pinging me on social, he had asked if I do any coaching. And it was in the middle of that transition for us and we were still all remote. And we’re flipping some of that stuff around and I felt like I had really jumped into becoming more of a student of staffing and I’ve learned a lot in a nine-month window as we made some of those transitions. And after talking to them, said, “Yeah, I’m open to that.”
And the short version is that we worked together for six months. Some of the things that we recommended worked really well for their company. And we were getting together at the end of 2020, probably around November, a little bit earlier in the month than right now. We were doing their planning for 2021 and I looked at it and I laughed because we had them on the same planning framework that we use. And it looked almost identical to what we had set up in our first year of Spark Talent. That initial year of Spark Talent, we grew 800%. So we completely smashed what we had set up and I’m just looking at this and I’m like, “Man, I know this looks like I got to go find my old sheet or pull it up out of our minutes and I got to pull this up, this looks like to a tee.”
We did really good on this planning, how we execute on it. But I know exactly what I would do now. This is going to be so cool. And so you had talked about us potentially buying them down the road and stuff like that. And we had built up a trust factor at that point, which is extremely important. But he’s just like, “Hey man, what if we just go do that now?” And it didn’t happen that night. We then had to pray about it, talk to family, figure out what that looks like on paper, and we were able to do all those things. What we ended up doing was we didn’t do an acquisition. We created a new company. We merged their company into it in over 18-month period of time. We rolled all our packaging-related business from Talent into that entity and they went out and they did great things in that first year. We grew over 500% for them that first year. And then they grew 100% in their second year. They’re continuing to grow now and do great things. So it’s been a success.
Folwell: That’s amazing. And so one of the things that you and I had also just briefly discussed was that you are open to collaborating with other agencies and how would you approach that or who should be reaching out to you? If they’re listening to this, who should be connecting with you?
Opalewski: Well, again, we could do a whole podcast just on this. Selfishly we won’t. But I’ll frame that out with a few questions or a few statements, I guess. There’s 20,000 plus staffing companies in the United States. There’s 1% of those that are over $100 million. That’s not very many. Even less than that, there’s the big five, right? The big five are working with each other. They’re collaborating. They’re saying, “Hey, we can’t do this.” They’re on all the boards and it’s all good, but they suck up this big portion of the staffing market, and I don’t have this stat line in front of me that’s probably on SIA or ASA, but I still don’t believe they make up more than like 30% or 25% of the overall market.
Folwell: Still really fragmented.
Opalewski: So they take a big chunk of that, but there’s still this huge market out there. Well, what happens within the rest of that? It’s extremely fragmented. It’s an easy business to get into if you’re good in sales, all this kind of stuff, and all that’s true. Well, 85% of staffing businesses are under the $5 million line. And so what happens with that? There’s some really good lifestyle businesses that are created. But if you’re looking at legacy or building something for your family or creating an enterprise value, the multiples at those levels are just not as good as you climb up farther.
So what we’re focused on is creating scenarios where we can bring people into our ecosystem and create enterprise value on what they’ve built. We would be open to doing a full acquisition potentially. It’s not really our strategy. We want great other operating partners to stay on, become part of what we’re doing. I won’t get into every detail, but we’re essentially on a roll-ups strategy that’s formulated very well. I have a very good coaching on how to build that out, which I’m grateful for. And we believe we can take those companies. You got over 56% that are under a million. A lot of those are probably mostly direct hire. They’re going to get a one or 1.5 multiple if they have to sell because it’s probably just them and if they leave, there’s issues on the valuation within that. Well, we want to bring them into our strategy. Hey, maybe we’ll work something out. They keep majority or half of their equity or whatever the scenario is, and we can grow their enterprise value eight or nine times at this point.
That’s our strategy. Pretty open on it. If someone else wants to try and copy it, good luck. It’s not easy to do. But what are people good at at those levels? They’re probably great with people. They’re probably great with selling. They’re probably really good at recruiting. What’s some of the tougher things to do within what we do? Build a team of other people that are good at that, takes time, build an operations team. We try and take the operations and the infrastructure and all that out for people and allow them like, “Hey, you’re good at this niche.” We found the right healthcare partner, and there’s a lot of niches within that, but it’s not our bag other than some of the rev cycle stuff. We do do some of that. Man, we found someone that was really good on that and had that niche and they wanted to grow it, but they’re struggling with the infrastructure side and we just think we could set that thing on fire in a good way. We’d spark it.
Folwell: Spark it, I love it.
Opalewski: Yeah, that’s it. A lot of the companies are smaller, they’re good lifestyle businesses. But we’re focused on creating a community where we can scale these things more. We’re in a people business. Well, someone goes off cracks one of these things open and it’s you and a couple other people, there’s a lot of approach to that. We’re doing something like I just took a lot of the operators out to Malibu and it’s just cool to be out. We have this group and community and way to collaborate with each other. We help each other out. We’ll bring each other in on situations and do a better job for a client. It’s just a lot of fun.
Folwell: That’s awesome. I love the model and the approach, and also the openness and willingness to share it today, so it’s been really great. With that, we’re going to jump into the last set of questions, the speed questions. So first one I’ve got for you is what advice do you wish you were given before entering the staffing industry?
Opalewski: Would be that just because you’re a top producer doesn’t mean you’re set up to be an exceptional leader. There are two different skill sets. There are aspects of being a top producer that you can lean on as a leader. You got a lot of other things to work on if you think you’re just going to do that. And then inversely, for the executives, promoting your best producers isn’t always the best. It can be, but not always.
Folwell: I think there’s the curse of the top sales guy wanting to be the leader and then getting there and hating his job. What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? It could be an investment of money, time, energy, et cetera.
Opalewski: I’m going to give you a few. First, my wife. Hopefully I get some points for saying that, but it’s true. I think who you decide to share your life with, who you work with and who you choose to do life with outside of work. My wife works inside the company, so we communicate that way as well. But who you choose as your partner, specifically who you marry, who you work with in business, these are things that are going to affect the trajectory of where your life goes. You need to choose accordingly. So that, investing in businesses that I manage versus investing in businesses that I don’t manage. My track record is much better with businesses that I manage. Some of the PE things that I’ve tried to jump into, I’m not knocking it. It’s just for me, it’s been better to be involved in understanding what’s going on in the day-to-day.
And then investing my own self-development, back to the beginning. We’re all a work in progress. No matter, “Okay, we did something good or we hit a new sales marker or did this or did that or reach this income level.” Cool, but there’s always someone better. There’s always more to learn. There’s always another level. And the second you think that there’s not, man, you’re in for a rude awakening.
Folwell: Yes, love that. What are the bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
Opalewski: I don’t know that I’ll provide enough context on this, but I think the concept of balance. If you want to be the best at something, I think you got to throw that out the window. I think you got seasons of stuff. You got to be focused and dedicated and willing to sacrifice in seasons of life. Now, in some instances that could be a week, a day, a month, a quarter, a year. For me and our mission and what we’re doing, to me, I’m on a 20-plus year outlay on that and I don’t even know that it’s that because I love what we do.
I think inversely in that, trying to find balance within that. I just don’t think there’s people out there that are going to operate at a whole other gear, look to sports, and that’ll show you what it takes. It’s the same thing in business, in my opinion. Inversely, I think the more you do that in seasons, I’m at a point in my life where I’m 17 years into this. I’m probably working more and harder than ever before where that’s changed. And at the same time I am able to…people may not like this, but I schedule time in with my family whether it’s go out to California, go somewhere else. I take my daughter to school every day now. I schedule my stuff with my family first and then everything else around it.
Again, that’s what works for me. It allows me to be present with my family and it’s just something I learned from one of my coaches that also has a lot going on, and it’s worked well for me. It’s helped me. I’ve definitely been the guy that has gone on vacation and been on my phone. I’m just wired that way. So it’s something I’ve worked on and I don’t know. For somebody that’s probably a good nugget, schedule your personal time, be more present, flip that phone over. Treat it like a meeting in the capacity of be present and be where your feet are in the moment.
Folwell: And that’s great advice. And last question I’ve got for you, what is the book or books you’ve given most as a gift and why?
Opalewski: I got to read this because I always butcher the title, but I like The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. I’ve read it three times now. I’ve read a lot of books, but I’m also a proponent of reading the same book over and over again. I think you pick up different things at different times, and that’s been one of my go-tos over the last three years. I’ve read it annually. At this point, I plan to read it again next year because I picked up something different or it’s like, “Oh, I didn’t highlight this and now that’s important to me.” And I think that’s just how life goes, right? You’re in a different season and different things stick out to you.
So it’s been a challenging book for me to read, but man, do you have to get good with understanding as a leader that there’s going to be conflict and how you can work through those conversations directly, but also still with care. You don’t have to be a jerk to people, but you can’t be a pushover. And that book’s been helpful for me that way.
Folwell: That’s one of my favorite books as well. It’s a great recommendation. Any closing comments for the audience?
Opalewski: Well, Thanksgiving’s tomorrow. I hope everyone has a happy Thanksgiving. Yeah, man, this is a great industry to be in. I love it. It’s changed my whole life and I’m super passionate about it and I hope you are too.
Folwell: Awesome. Thanks so much for joining, Aaron. Really enjoyed the conversation.