Service leadership: Janice Bryant Howroyd created the largest black female-owned business based on exceeding client expectations.[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
BY 2004, JANICE BRYANT HOWROYD AND HER brother Carlton Bryant had not only been attendees at the annual vendor recognition dinner hosted by their client MillerCoors for three years--they had been consistent winners. The ACT-1 Group had taken home first- or second-place honors in the minority vending category every year it had attended. ACT-1's founder and CEO Bryant Howroyd and its Executive Vice President Bryant were even more ebullient this year since they had been invited to sit at Chairman Peter H. Coors' table. Surely, they would take the top honor for a minority- or female-owned Tier 2 company. When the WMBA first place winner was called, however, it wasn't ACT-1. When the company was not selected, Bryant Howroyd and her brother were embarrassed and disappointed. How could ACT-1 not have won, the two thought as they exchanged an uneasy glance. They politely sat and followed the rest of the program as the Tier 1 winners were announced: Second place went to a global wheat producer. As the company accepted its award, Pete Coors exited the table to take his place on stage to announce the most coveted award of the night. First place went to ACT-1.
"Jan and I went from, 'I don't believe we didn't win anything this year' to 'We won the big event! We won the top award!' Everyone was cheering. It was a grand moment," exclaims Bryant. "And that's when we started to feel like, 'We can do this!'"
That honor is just one of many confirming moments for Bryant Howroyd, who in 30 years has created a billion-dollar juggernaut using a business model around one specific area: work. Asserts Bryant Howroyd: "Work is what we know; work is what we do. Whether we're helping to design and manage work or helping people to achieve work and careers."
It's a simple but apt description for a company that ranks No. 2 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE COMPANIES list and has shown phenomenal growth during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression--revenues have grown 111% in the past five years. Managing the basics has been the key component to ACT-1's growth and success. It has gone from a one-woman operation in the back of a retail shop on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles that focused on employee placement to a multilevel headquarters in Torrance, California, that serves as the nerve center for an expansive global operation that currently employs more than 1,600 employees in more than 300 satellite U.S. offices and in several countries, offering a range of services from employee background checks to executive travel management. This growth has earned ACT-1 the distinction of being the largest woman minority-owned employment agency in the United States.
Covering an array of industries and serving corporate giants such as Merck, Sempra Energy, and AT&T, Bryant Howroyd has mapped out an expansion strategy based on understanding the demands of a changing work environment, anticipating client needs--in many cases, beyond its core business objectives--and then providing customized services that deliver maximum results. Even as this recent economy has wrecked companies, large and small, Bryant Howroyd continues to grow her business, increasing its international presence and posting $1.8 billion in revenues for 2011.
"As a business owner, I've seen many companies fail and just as many suffer through the recent economy," she says. "We've actually grown our business over this economy. I believe that's because we're delivering efficiencies to organizations in ways that they may not have previously been open to or thought about as relative to their growth plan and we're doing it in a very cost-effective manner.
"Over 30 years in this industry has taught me a lot about how people look for work," she continues. "It's taught me equally if not more about how companies need to achieve work. And so delivering great results for companies through technology and solutions processes has really caused us to gain advantage in what has been a tepid and in many instances hard economy for many of those in our own industry."
Bryant Howroyd's competitive edge comes from creating and owning a variety of services, all driven by proprietary technology solutions. That approach has given ACT-1 the flexibility to not only develop solutions to specific client requests but to adjust and manage the costs. Technology has helped it coordinate multiple objectives in line with client goals. "Being able to integrate [our technology offerings] into a large global company becomes a powerful sell," says Bryant. "It's a very strategic approach that we've always taken."
Colleagues and associates all credit ACT-1 success to Bryant Howroyd's dynamic foresight and her ability to understand the specifics of job execution. Her consistent performance, innovative talents, and vision have moved her company beyond resilience in this tough economy to being a leader in the multibillion-dollar staffing industry. It is why Bryant Howroyd's ACT-1 has been named BLACK ENTERPRISE Industrial/Service Company of the Year.
The job market has changed significantly in the past 30 years: It's become a more global economy. Technology has increased the rate at which business tasks are performed and the level at which employees need to be prepared. Contingent workers, which have grown significantly in the past half decade, now represent roughly 26% of the workforce. The cost of executive travel is, according to the Global Business Travel Association's recent Business Travel Quarterly Outlook, projected to rise 4.6% just this year. All of these factors are forcing corporate managers to find ways to complete tasks while dramatically cutting profit-depleting costs. When Bryant Howroyd launched ACT-1 in 1978, the firm focused on staffing permanent and temporary workers. And although such services continue to be its core business, it has developed into a vertically integrated operation that can provide any service or solution to meet a given company's human capital needs.
In addition to assisting with talent acquisition and staffing management, it has created an array of services for its efficiency-minded, cost-conscious corporate clientele: A-Check America facilitates employee background checks, CTA Travel handles corporate travel, DSSI provides document and file management services, and California National University offers distance learning courses.
To attest to Bryant Howroyd's visionary leadership, she directed her team to develop Agile-1 more than 10 years ago. Run by Peter Carvalho, its current president, the unit is its fastest-growing vertical--driving international expansion through global talent supply chain management services. Currently operating in countries that include the United Kingdom, Puerto Rico, Canada, and South Korea, Carvalho says that operations will expand to a minimum of eight countries this year and several more by the end of 2013. "Given that our foundation is staffing, we constantly look for ways to complement and supplement that that make us stand out just a little bit with the competition," explains Bryant, the former president of Agile-1 who now directs operations for the company's online university.
The development of each new company and service, however, is beyond fulfilling a business requirement. ACT-1's strategy is to implement services that support and build on its clients' business focus. "Regardless of how they are looking for talent, it's important for us to understand what their own strategic process is for their growth, how talent plays into that," explains Bryant Howroyd. "Many times we know more about their strengths than they do. But we always have to make sure they own that information and that they access it in a way that can be meaningful to them as they deliver and plan their growth."
One such company is Merck, which contracted ACT-1's services in 2005 to manage the firm's contingent labor force. "Initially ACT-1 provided Merck with contingent staffing as well as process and technologies to streamline the life cycle of a contingent worker from pre-hire to exit," explains Aaron Dent, vice president of indirect procurement at Merck & Co. "This approach was very innovative. No other staffing company had focused on managing contingent works in this way. In late 2010, Merck challenged Agile-1 to demonstrate its full sourcing and supplier management capabilities. "They did, and did this so well that Merck awarded Agile-1 with an exclusive contractual relationship to provide us with all our managed staffing needs. This arrangement frees up Merck resources in my organization to work on other value-added initiatives."
It's that level of customer service that differentiates ACT-1 from its competitors. "If you're simply delivering great people to an organization at the time they need it, you're a part of their service team," Bryant Howroyd states. "But if you're delivering it in a way that they can actually learn from the information and plan forward and do that in a cost-effective manner, you've become strategic to that organization. Our growth is designed that we become strategic to the companies we work with. If you are a service provider, that may be a first foot into the door, but if you stay a service provider, you're not guaranteed to stay at the table."
It's not just her work ethic that keeps Bryant Howroyd at the table; it's her ability to navigate challenges as if they are nonexistent. She accepts often being described as Pollyanna, acknowledging that she learned as a child from both her parents to focus on solutions and opportunity. "A few years ago, we were having a particularly tough conversation between our respective teams," Dent recalls. "Just as Janice is arguing a point, she pulled out a big Ziploc bag of peanuts, put them on the table, and offered them to everyone in the room. I'm not sure to this day whether she was hungry, or if she was trying to simply diffuse the tension in the room. But it was uniquely Jan--and it worked. The simple gesture, or clever ploy--depending how you look at it--brought us back to collaborating and problem-solving for mutual benefit."
Born in Tarboro, North Carolina, the fourth of 11 children, Bryant Howroyd headed to Los Angeles in the late '70s to visit her sister. With an English degree from North Carolina A&T State University, she wasn't sure of a career direction. When she volunteered to help her brother-in-law staff and manage his hectic entertainment office, however, she discovered her calling. And as she ventured into building a business, she relied on basic fundamentals: faith, discipline, focus, and clarity, principles she outlines in her 2009 book, The Art of Work: How to Make Your Work, Work for You (Ask International Inc; $14.95).
"When I started my company in 1978, faith was my biggest asset," recalls Bryant Howroyd. "Today it remains my biggest asset. I knew very little about the formal aspects of building a business. I knew a lot about the aspects of discipline and work and I think bringing that into how I built my business helped me."
For a woman who personally signs birthday cards for all employees no matter where she is in the world, discipline is a consistent measure of how she conducts every aspect of her business. It not only allows her the focus and clarity to manage the full range of projects, but it's how she communicates her message to staff and strategies to clients. Bryant Howroyd realized how important specifics are in business when she first managed the merger business of a large client. "There was a lot of process we had to go through and a lot of process learning we had to achieve. There were a lot of commitments made in any contract--but whether it's with a large client or with one-on-one delivery, the key to succeeding is to really speak with clarity, write with clarity, and negotiate with clarity. Unless you have full-circle communication, where every line is dotted and every role is understood in a relationship, you leave a lot of opportunity for vagueness and vagueness is where business starts to fall apart.
"Discipline is not a dirty word," she continues. "There is far more freedom and opportunity for creativity and success in enjoying discipline. Years ago someone I very much respect told me the reason they were successful is that they embraced doing what other people resent or are reluctant to do. And I think that is a pretty good description. Look for the simple solutions. Simple doesn't always mean easy. That's where discipline kicks in."
A WORKING FAMILY
Raised in a loving and large family, Bryant Howroyd still quotes lessons and problem-solving strategies from her parents, and has successfully integrated family and business in her operations. Her younger brother Carlton has helped her through every stage of building and developing strategies almost since its inception. Her younger sister Patricia is vice president of corporate development.
Bryant Howroyd's husband, Bernard Howroyd, a staffing executive who started his company, AppleOne, in the 1960s, has been a supportive spouse throughout the company's growth and development, and eventually merged his company under the ACT-1 umbrella. "I've seen her grow and build on what I was doing," he recalls. "She was much more open to other things. She was making better decisions than I was. So I wanted to get out of being two things and since it became one, it's been much more successful. It blows my mind."
The couple has two children, Katharyn, who is the director of marketing, and Brett, the vice president of global development, whom the Howroyds are grooming as a successor. "My parents didn't ask me to join the company or tell me to. I decided to in college," says Brett. After expressing interest in being a part of the burgeoning enterprise, he had to earn his position in the company. Having worked in a range of positions, including as receptionist, he is now focused on strategies to coordinate more synergy among the ACT-1 brands.
"Our son, Brett, always knew what we did in our business," says Bryant Howroyd. "It's so exciting to me that he has a passion for this business. He approaches work as opportunity." Seeing work as opportunity is how Bryant Howroyd believes everyone should approach business tasks--either as an employee or an entrepreneur. She knows that life has challenges, but she advises not to focus on problems. "The excitement, the enthusiasm you bring to it is what makes the difference.
"Today is the best time ever to start a business," she continues. "Opportunities are ripe. Whenever you have an economic situation that is weakened a bit, whenever you find societies are having challenges, you also have the opportunity to bring solutions people may not have thought about before and you can deliver in ways they've never been open to receive it."
ACT-1 GROUP Founded 1978 Revenues (in millions) 2007 $850.000 2008 $735.013 2009 $998.684 2010 $1,400.000 2011 $1,800.000 Staff 2007 407 2008 336 2009 1372 2010 1,387 2011 1,600 SOURCE: B.E. RESEARCH. Note: Table made from bar graph.