An Interview with St. Charles Consulting Group’s Managing Partner
by Phil Davis
With the start of the 2012, St. Charles Consulting Group began its 10th year of operation. In connection with this significant milestone, a Chicagoland newspaper recently interviewed Phil Davis – the managing partner of St. Charles Consulting Group – to get his reflections on the start-up of the firm back in 2002. Since many of our readers are unfamiliar with our humble beginnings, we decided that sharing Phil’s observations would be a good way to start the new year’s series of the Free Range Learning News.
After you have had a chance to read the article, please share your thoughts and reactions directly with Phil.
Q: Describe your business. What do you do?
We are best known for our training expertise, and we offer a full spectrum of service – we help companies put learning strategies together, build leadership programs, design and deliver training courses, apply training-related technology, and administer learning programs & systems. We are also experts in human resources and business process design. In general, we help people become more productive and companies more profitable – our commitment to our clients is “preparing your people for yourtomorrow.” Given the pace of change in today’s economic environment and the need for businesses to be in continuous improvement mode, we believe it is critical for companies to stay at what we call the “learning edge.” The St. Charles Consulting Group helps them sharpen and maintain that competitive edge.
Q: What made you start your business?
Very simply, my employer went belly up … Many people remember Arthur Andersen’s global training center on Rt. 25 north of St. Charles (now called the Q Center), and I was one of the partners in charge of the Center when Andersen collapsed in 2002. So, like 400+ other learning professionals, I suddenly found myself without a job. But, before all of that happened, I had been working with Bob Hiebeler – another Andersen partner who was responsible for the firm’s knowledge sharing capabilities – and we had already put together a business plan for selling “best practice” training services to Andersen clients. So, when Andersen imploded, we decided to offer similar services to the marketplace. Up to that point, Arthur Andersen was recognized by many as the “gold standard” in the training industry, and we hoped to leverage that great reputation in our new venture.
Q: What has been the most difficult obstacle in running or starting a small business?
Well, the best laid plans … We quickly found that Andersen’s reputation did not help us much at all – partly because of the bad press that Andersen was getting at that time, but more because of the fact that, now working as independents, we had no track record, no referenceable projects, no intellectual property, no infrastructure, no significant capital, and no branding that we could call our own. It was very sobering, and for all practical purposes we were starting from scratch. That was by far the toughest hurdle. But an important factor working in our favor was the fact that Andersen people had to go somewhere. So, we started contacting former Andersen partners who were now at other public accounting firms or had moved into other companies. And, slowly but surely, we began to build up a customer base. We also pulled in many former Andersen training and HR professionals as consultants to work under the “St. Charles” banner. Now, some ten years later, our business is thriving, and we have been able to sustain a truly distinctive commitment to excellence.
Q: What do you enjoy most about operating your business?
With a nod to Nike, I love the ability to “just do it!” Being able, for the first time in my working life, to make a significant decision without having to consult a committee or get approval of a leadership team – this was new freedom for me, and I found that I really enjoy being an entrepreneur. Running your own business comes with a great deal of flexibility – in terms of resourcing, pricing, marketing, and even the lifestyle choices that you make. Of course, it also comes with responsibility and accountability. (For example, we now provide for the livelihood of nearly 70 people.) If things don’t work as planned, you often have only yourself to blame. But, in general, we have been very fortunate and have gotten some great breaks along the way.
Q: Is this what you pictured yourself doing when you were young? When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
As nerdy as it may sound, in college I set my sights on becoming a partner in one of what was then the “Big 8” accounting firms. I dabbled in a few different majors in college, including math and engineering. In that maze, I took some accounting courses and found that accounting brought many of my interests together and brought my career goals into focus. As it turned out, that accounting background has proven to be exceptionally helpful in building a business over the last ten years.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
I generally sleep just fine, but I do worry about the economy, because this is out of our control. When you are running a consulting firm like ours, you are somewhat “downstream” of other companies, and how your client base is faring relative to the economy is very important. Fortunately, a number of our key clients are recession resistant for the most part, and many of our other clients realize that investment in training can be a differentiator when times are tough. So, we actually have experienced our greatest growth during these last few very difficult years. But I still worry about it. Another thing I worry about is succession planning. The St. Charles Consulting Group is at a point in its lifecycle where it needs an infrastructure that is not so dependent on our current partners, so that we can continue to be successful long into the future. We help clients create meaningful succession plans, and we are now in the process of creating one for ourselves.
Q: If you could give one tip to a rookie business owner, what would it be?
How about three quick tips? 1) Be flexible – the unexpected will definitely happen, and you need to be agile in responding to unanticipated events. 2) Don’t give up – it’s likely to be harder than you first imagine and success may take longer than you anticipated but, when you are successful, the rewards help you forget how hard it really was. 3) Consider getting one or more partners early on – of course, it needs to be the right partner, but I don’t know that I could have done it on my own. In our situation, the partnership doubled our start-up resources, provided a good sounding board for ideas, and it was a source of support when times were tough.