My guest Aaron Green founded a staffing company called Professional Staffing Group, or PSG, in 1996. He has grown it along with 6 other related companies to just shy of $100m in revenue and 2,000 employees. Most of my guests operate small companies and PSG of course started small, but I wanted to learn from an owner who had managed to scale a company and their role in it over a long period of time.
Frequent listeners of Think Like an Owner may notice a connection to previous guest Jared Henderson, CEO of Assist Services. Aaron is an investor in that company along with Tim Ludwig, who introduced me to both, and we chat briefly about the company near the end of our conversation. Over the course of the episode, we talk about hiring for growth, books and models for managing that have worked for Aaron, how he’s learned to delegate, and how he spends his time today as his company has grown.
I learned a lot from this conversation with Aaron and I hope you walk away with a few lessons and insights too.
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Good to see you, Aaron. Thanks for joining us here. I’m excited to hear about PSG and obviously it’s a much bigger company than when you first founded it and started it when it was just you, of course. There’s been a ton of growth there and I’m excited to hear about the different stages of your growth and how you evolved as a manager and CEO. So I’d love to hear about your background and then early days with PSG and then what you’re working on today and how that growth path has gone for you.
Thanks for having me. I was excited to be able to share some stories with you. I was looking forward to today for a bit. I know it’s been a little while since we first spoke. Born and raised in the Boston area. I’m just about turning 52 now. Grew up in around Boston, went to Tufts University. And when I graduated Tufts University, I was a civil engineer. I’ve put that to use right away by going into the recruiting industry. I’ve been doing recruiting as a part-time job at school and there was a recession back in the early ’90s when I got out of school. So I stuck with what I was doing and never really looked back, got into the recruiting industry in 1990. And actually, I started in ’88 while I was in school and then 1990 is when I went full-time recruiting.
And by ’92, I decided that I had plenty of knowledge and wisdom acquired in those two years out of college and decided to start my own business. So this company called Commonwealth Resources was the first business that I started. That company is still in business today. I’ve got two partners in that business, just bought out. One of my partners just retired actually, which is an interesting phase of life to be in, which is your colleagues are starting to retire. I thought that it was always years and years away. But yeah, so I started out in a company called Commonwealth Resources. And then as I said, that company is in business today. It was run by two of my partners.
After about two years in that business from 1992, actually four years, in 1996, decided I wanted to do something within the recruiting industry, but that was a little bit different. Didn’t really know a lot about the staffing and recruiting business. I was actually on exercise bike at a gym that I went to back in 1996. I was reading about this company called Kelly Services, which is one of the largest staffing companies in the world. They were being highlighted. It was in Fortune Magazine. I was also reading the article. I was like, “I could do that.” So I just went about it, started… And the only type of staffing I knew about in the temp world was administrative staffing.
The company even didn’t have a receptionist. I’m not sure what made me qualify to place administrative professionals back at that point in time. But just started putting up ads and recruiting people and then calling companies and just put one foot after the other and things got started and it stuck. But it was one of the things that people are like, “Oh, did you do research? What did you look at? How did you figure out what you wanted to do?” I was like, “Just started.” I wasn’t really sure what exactly what I was doing. But as I said, slowly but surely figured things out and really built a nice business, I think.
Do you remember getting your first customer?
I do. And so it actually wasn’t me. It was one of the people that worked in the business. And we had a very sophisticated prospecting plan for new business, opened up the yellow pages and turned to A, which was the architects. And then like the firm, they’re not currently a client and they haven’t been for some time, but their names started obviously with A. So it was like pretty much you turned to open to the yellow pages and it’s like the first professional business that was in there and we acquired them as a client. But I sure do remember probably wasn’t the neatest, cleanest experience for the client. If I remember correctly, it took a couple of tries to get the placement right. But yeah, we placed an administrative assistant with his architectural firm and figured that stuff out. And then by talking to more and more candidates who we were interviewing for placement, found other companies that were hiring and just build off of things like networking in that fashion
I know very, very little about the staffing industry or how a staffing business works. Can you walk us through a little bit about how it’s structured and what you do as a staffing business?
The staffing business is really, really varied. There are companies that focus in one area of staffing. There are companies that focus more broadly across a number of different, either industry verticals or position types. And it could be everything from placing entry level or entry point type positions, let’s say call centers or distribution centers to placing doctors in positions on a temporary or full-time basis. I’m not sure why that’s the exact spectrum, but it really runs the gamut in terms of any position that’s out there. There’s probably a recruiting firm that specializes in it and focuses in it.
The businesses I’m involved in, PSG is probably the least specialized, meaning we orient ourselves around our clients. So we work with a lot of mid-sized companies in the Boston area. Sometimes those companies are global and we provide staff to them around the world from the Boston office, and other cases they’re more just like colleges and universities or hospitals that are just here in Boston and we build custom staffing programs for mid-sized companies in the Boston area is what we do. We tend to provide services in not necessarily frontline positions at those companies, but more in a support role, so let’s say like administrative or marketing or accounting and finance of technical type positions. In other cases, we do a lot of work in the call center space as well.
Did you have any focus when you first started? You mentioned architects, but perhaps you started more broad. How did that evolve?
In this business is win most businesses. It’s typical that in order to build up and get the larger clients to trust you and believe that you can provide a good service to them, you need to have done a lot of work with smaller relationships. It was definitely, I think, from 1996 until late ’99 was when we acquired our first large exclusive client, still a client today. So it’s really nice. They’ve stayed with us the entire time. It’s a consortium of colleges in the Boston area. And the reason we were able to secure that business and win that business was we had a previous client go to the consortium and then the consortium was bidding out their work and they said, “Oh, you need to include PSG.” And lo and behold, we were fortunate enough that they decided to select us and then built.
It’s like, “Okay, you’ve got the credibility of working with a client who maybe needs to spend $750,000 a year or $1 million a year, which then gets you in the ball game to be able to credibly present for businesses, maybe a million and a half to two million and then it just goes up from there.” So it was, I guess, as I said before, one step after one. At least that was the way we did. I’m sure there’s probably other ways and people have had other experiences. But for us, it was just keep building up one year after the other on the past successes and the track record. We don’t tend to go and sell to everybody, or we’re not constantly trying to bring in tons and tons of new business.
We work really hard to make sure that the clients that rely on us can rely on us and the service has consistently improved year after year. And then that typically allows us these days to sort of our new pieces of business within our existing clients and that sort of that custom staffing program thing. We’re big enough to provide a volume of services, but small enough to say, “All right, we’re not going in and saying, ‘Hey, here’s our cookie cutter approach. Do you want it or not? It’s more what are your problems? What are your needs and how can we help you solve some of those problems?’”
So it sounds like then today what you’re required to grow is you just need more employees to service the existing customer demand. So then what was it like early on when perhaps that customer demand wasn’t there? How did that balance change over time?
That’s a good point. The recruiting industry is a double-sided market place. We had a double-sided market before things like eBay existed and stuff like that. In the late ’90s in Boston, there was no shortage of customers. There was a lot of hiring going on. The economy was really strong. So started the business at a period of time where it was just incredible demand. There wasn’t so incredible demand for brand new staffing companies that hadn’t done this before, but there was certainly incredible demand for hiring. And we were able to take advantage of that. The business in the early days grew like crazy, I think, the first year, which was a partial year in 1996, we did a little over 200,000 in revenue. And then the next year, I think, it was 1.7, the year after that 3.8, the year after that it was, I think, mid sevens, and then we hit 12 million, and then we ran into this brick wall of the dot com bust at the time.
I learned a lot of lessons from that. But yeah, so the demand was consistently increasing in the late ’90s. There was a little bit of a blip and I didn’t really know what was happening at the time, but I think that the financial, there was some like a currency crisis. Something would happen in the Asian markets in like ’98, I forget exactly what it was. But that caused a little bit of a stall in the economy. We definitely felt it at the time. We didn’t really know what we were doing wrong and it actually spurred us on to coming up with some new marketing campaigns that worked out well. I think at the time we decided to put together baskets of food and some wine and drop them off at maybe 30 or 40 different key clients and with a little note that said, “We know staffing’s never a picnic,” and then got a bunch of people to call us back and say, “Thank you,” and give us some opportunity.
So that first piece of adversity definitely turned into a really great marketing strategy that worked well. But yeah, so the challenge in the late ’90s was finding people and there weren’t all the tools that we have today where you can go and figure out how to find people online and do content or even post job ads. Back then it was the newspaper. So it was like you got to spend your money, in my case with The Boston Globe. And it was just a question how much you wanted to spend and how effective your ad writing was, but you didn’t get to, at least for the industries that we served, you didn’t get to sort of… They weren’t the incredible amount of tools that are available today.
So it definitely was a situation of like, “All right, how do I take this opportunity on Sunday when the newspaper comes out to get as much as I can get going.” So it caused us to do stuff like open on Sundays. If people wanted to call in, they could call in and get a live person instead of waiting for everybody else to get to the office on Monday. We always were trying to do things that got us either the best candidates first, or if we weren’t able to get it first, maybe now we’re able to be the most responsive through utilizing software and some other things like that.
How closely tied is staffing to the economy?
Pretty closely. I mentioned earlier that when we were talking in the warmup, I was chairman of the American Staffing Association and part of the board of directors. I’m a member of the board of directors there for, I think, about nine years. Back when I was on the board, we sponsored some research as a trade organization that the theory was the staffing industry was a leading indicator of the economy. What we found at that time was that actually that’s not true. It’s a concurring indicator of what’s going on in the economy. So generally speaking, the staffing industry is pretty tied to the economy itself. But when you ask that question, it’s like, “Well, what economy?”
So if you’re in healthcare staffing, you’re tied to probably what’s happening in the world of healthcare, not so the broader economy. But generally speaking, for the businesses I’m involved in, they tend to be pretty cyclical with the economy, except for when you create your own recessions by making mistakes. Those things sometimes get handed up to you by what’s going on in the world and sometimes they get handed to you because you made a mistake and it looks like a recession, even though it wasn’t one outside.
Do you have few examples of those types of mistakes that looked like many recessions within your business?
It’s probably less a specific, “Oh, wow, we went left and we should’ve gone right.” And it probably has a little bit more to do with my trajectory as a CEO, but also being involved in other businesses as a board and investor. So they think potentially maybe getting a little bit unfocused and thinking about putting time into other businesses that I’ve been involved in without necessarily backfilling my own role as effectively as I could or should have is probably the biggest mistake, I think. I think when you and I were talking, when we first met, I talked about the story basically. But I lead this business. I’m here day-to-day. So as I started putting time into other things and being involved in other businesses, I should have figured out a way to replace myself. But here we are. Not a bad outcome, but that, I think, would have helped along the way of really making sure that there was a solid management team that allowed me to maybe get to a board level, even within this company, within PSG.
Speaking of delegation, you must’ve been really good at it in the early days, growing that quickly in the late ’90s into 2000. How did you make sure your role kept evolving and you made sure that you were delegating as you scaled?
I wish that back then I had that fully formed thought that you just described. The way you just described it was like, “Oh, I need to delegate. We need to grow. And how do we grow into this management structure, or how do we build a management structure that we can grow into?” It was definitely a lot less sophisticated than that. I was really fortunate. The company was really attractive to people. I think there was a great energy in the business. So in a lot of cases, as we were interviewing people for placement, people would be like, “Oh, you guys hiring here? Can I work here?” And just through that process ended up really attracting a great team that probably less than delegating and more than just work really hard and muscle things through.
We used to get started at 7:00 in the morning and six o’clock at night would roll around and we just passed out the menus, like the order delivery or whatever because there still wasn’t that online. It was like we called the delivery company and got dinner for everybody. And around seven or eight o’clock at night, people started to head out and we just rinse and repeat and did it the next day. It wasn’t necessarily like a process of delegating, I think it was more… I think what I did well was motivate and energize a team and also had built a really strong culture at a time when I didn’t understand exactly what culture was, but I did.
You asked me for a mistake that caused a recession earlier. I’ll go back to that. It was probably underestimating the importance of culture and overestimating the value of hiring outside experienced people without necessarily focusing on the culture part. So it was like, “Oh, this person’s got this experience. Maybe at a larger company, they’d be great at PSG because we need to learn from them and things like that.” And what ended up happening, and I probably repeated this mistake a couple of times, where it’s like where there wasn’t that culture fit and there wasn’t as much alignment and therefore the experience was kind of… It wasn’t as valuable as I thought it was going to be. And then that just caused some cultural problems that put the brakes on some growth.
That didn’t start to happen until probably… I think we started feeling it in late 2000 and then going into 2001 and then 2002, and then it happened again probably in 2003 or 4, having sort of had that same issue. I’ve probably learned the lesson half a dozen times now in my career. I don’t know if that means I learned it or I just keep experiencing it. But that’s definitely one of the things that I would take away from my experience as a business person is just that having an aligned culture and a cohesive team is pretty much, I think, the best secret weapon in business. And not having that, it almost doesn’t matter how hard you try. It feels like you’re really running through mud.
So when you started to feel that hiring was becoming a little off, how did you make sure to bring the business back on track? What did you do?
Tough decisions, unfortunately, at the time. Most of those situations where there had been cultural issues ended up in partying a company with the person, with the employee and it’s just over time became… It was like, “All right, this is really hurting the… Even though this person might be really good at what they do, it’s hurting the business because of the cultural implications.” And obviously, I think over the years, I’ve gotten a lot better at talking to people earlier when I saw that stuff start to happen and at least explaining, “Hey, this is what’s happening and this is what it takes to work here at this company.”
In the early days, I probably wasn’t as cognizant of it. I was probably frankly more, me and myself, a little bit miserable and tried really hard to make it work as opposed to saying, “Hey, here are the standards and here’s what it takes to work here. We want you to stay and be successful. Here’s what you need to do.” If I could go back 20 years and tell my young self what my current self knows, that would definitely be the thing I didn’t start in my brain, like inception or something.
Yeah, that’d be nice to be able to do that.
It really would.
So then what traits do you look for when you hire for new folks?
Each of the companies that I’m involved in and I’m the CEO and I lead the organization here at PSG and then I’m also involved in another four recruiting businesses and then also a transportation company, a business that we transport kids to school, not yellow buses, but more sort of individual transportation for kids that have either become homeless or are in a foster program, each of the business has its own values. I think generally speaking, most of the businesses I’m involved in, if not all, share some common values across the spectrum. But this is you’re talking about professional staff, a group of PSG. So for us, we have three values. They’ve been the same for, gosh, 20 something years at this point. It was neat to have created these values early on and then probably before I even understood exactly what they meant.
And then still to this day, they’re the same ones. I think it’s a lot of what I internalized as a person, but diligent teamwork is one of our values, which is this mashup of working really hard but also working as a team and working hard to be part of a good team because I think good teamwork is really difficult, development of people. So there’s always been this growth and learning aspect of what gets me excited about coming to work and working with people. It’s one of the more fulfilling parts of what I’ve been able to do as a CEO is have people like, I don’t know, grow and develop throughout their career and build their life around this little business of mine that I am a part of.
And then the last piece is fun. I just think it’s, as I always like to say, it’s like take your job seriously, just don’t take yourself so seriously. I think that those three traits tend to be pretty common in the other businesses that I’m involved in as well. I think just from an internal like I fit in this, when those things exist, I tend to fit really well. If some of those things don’t exist, then it tends to not be a great culture fit for me. And when it comes to teamwork, we do a lot of work with some of the material created by Pat Lencioni. So The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a book that thought of as like a standard around teamwork and he updated the material since then. The Ideal Team Player, I think, is a more recent book. We really work hard to try to find people that are team-oriented. That’s not the only success trait that a business would have. There’s plenty of businesses where teamwork isn’t necessarily even important. But at least as a staffing business, it’s definitely a team-based business, at least the way I experienced it.
How do you evaluate someone’s ability to work in a team?
As someone who’s in the staffing industry, you’d think, gosh, you’ve been doing this forever. You’re probably really good at interviewing and hiring people. I think I am for clients, but for myself, there’s a certain less… When you’re interviewing and evaluating somebody for a client, you’re really trying to figure out, are they going to fit with your client? When you’re interviewing and evaluating someone for your own team, there’s definitely the aspect of like you can have chemistry and start to fall in love. So they can be like, “Oh, well, I really like the person, or I connect with that person.”
So for us, we follow the material, is produced in a book called Who by Geoff Smart. We’ve put some of our people through the training that topgrading is like a side-by-side module with who. We basically build out what attributes we look for in a person, so that attribute of wanting to be part of a team and working effectively as part of a team, and then we just build our questions based on the material that was produced in the book Who. The longer you and I talk, the more books I’ll talk about that were meaningful to me. But I personally work really well. Once somebody creates a model, I’m like, “Okay, I think this model doesn’t fit. That doesn’t work for me. This model does fit.” And then it’s like, “Hey, someone else has already done all the thinking here. So why don’t we put our thinking into how to execute it as opposed to take something that’s a pretty good idea and make it perfect?”
So we use the material in Who to uncover whether or not someone will be part of a team. We don’t tend to do stuff like, “Oh, we want an athlete, someone who had been an athlete in school or something like that,” because they must, in many cases, it… I don’t know, some companies look for that as a trait. We don’t necessarily look as much at the things you’ve done, but why you’ve done them and how well you’ve done them, and how you’ve interacted with colleagues and with other people.
And when you speak to somebody, if you really pay attention to the clues, in many cases, just simply saying we versus I, if you’re talking to somebody, it can tend to be a good indicator. If someone’s an I person, “I did this, I did that, I was successful with this,” they tend to be less team-oriented, and then as opposed to more of someone who’s like, “We accomplished this,” and almost you have to work hard to untangle what that person did from what the team did because they’re just so interested in how the team was successful. So those are some of the things that, as you’re talking to people, you can notice. But that idea of identifying attributes that you’re looking for in a person and building questions that discern whether those attributes are there or not is the way we interview anyway.
Is there any book or a model that helped you begin to delegate parts of your role as CEO as the company grew and there’s pieces you had to start to let go of and you had to build a close team around yourself as CEO? Is there any book or model that helped you do that?
If you follow the Pat Lencioni trajectory of books… And it’s funny, here we’re recording and you asked me to have a recording device on a set of books. I’m actually looking at a whole bunch of business books right here in front of me. It’s an interesting trip down memory lane. So there’s a book called The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive that really helped me understand… And one thing I really like about Patrick Lencioni’s books is that the book starts out and it’s usually like there’s a fable that describes a bunch of characters that show up in the various books that he’s written that are all about modeling the behavior of the concept that he’s trying to communicate. And then once you’ve read the fable, then you read the model after that.
So The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive is really a lot about team building and buy-in and creating buy-in. So you talked about delegating, I think the first step in delegating is making sure that there’s a shared view of what needs to get done. And oftentimes people, when you’ve got a strong team, it’s not necessarily you delegating, it’s more somebody saying, “Hey, I could do this, or let me take this off your plate, or giving a shot at working on this I think it’d be an interesting exercise for myself.” I think I did a good job of creating an environment where people wanted to grow and therefore were more taking from me as opposed to, I think, delegating.
You can certainly make it like, “Oh, I need to give this task to somebody else, or I need to delegate this responsibility to somebody else.” In my case, it was probably more creating the right environment where people took things from me and then creating a structure to make sure that things were done effectively without necessarily meddling with the person, which for people I’m in business with, they’ll laugh when they hear me saying this because I tend to sometimes be too much of a meddler.
What do you think you meddle too much in?
I think I’m better at it now. But I think over the years, I like execution so much and I like being a part of getting things done, that sometimes I think as a board member needed to be able to feel comfortable saying, “Here’s my viewpoint, you need to take with it and do what you will,” as opposed to feeling like I needed to be a part. Like for me, it’s like, “Oh, this is an idea. Let’s go put it into action,” which I think has made me really good at startups over the years, but not necessarily as good at working with more senior people who wanted the running room and the runway. And so fortunately, I’ve got good strong-willed outspoken partners I’m involved in, who are like, “Hey, Aaron, you’re too involved in this, step back,” or in some cases, you can feel almost like there’s like a grinding or something in the relationship.
And fortunately, like I said, I’ve been involved with some really good people who having that open communication is something that’s pretty… I remember one time I called to a business part and I was like, “I feel like I’m driving you crazy. Can we get together and have dinner because this relationship’s really important to me and I feel like I’m driving you nuts?” But I think it’s definitely that I like to see ideas get put into action that I think causes me to meddle a bit more maybe than I should. I also think I’m not clear as I need to be sometimes. And it’s like the conversation that I just had in my head and the one I just had with that person are two different conversations. So that’s something I’m learning to be better at, but definitely is a challenge for me because there’s definitely, like I said, the different conversation up here that was taking place between me and the other person.
Yeah, certainly, that could be definitely a big challenge. As the company has grown, how have you spent your time differently, not just in the business, but outside the business too?
One thing that’s been really neat for me is… So I’m involved in a company, this professional staffing group or PSG that’s in Boston, but there’s another business I’m involved in called PSG Global Solutions. PSG Global Solutions is an outsourcing company where we provide recruiting support services to large corporate employers, Fortune 500, or actually we think we’ve got even some Fortune 10 clients. And then we also provide recruiting support to the staffing industry. And that business is based in Manila in the Philippines. There’s currently experiencing a typhoon actually. So all of our staff is not only not able to go to the office because of COVID, but they’re also now losing their power, which is really hard on the team.
But one of things that’s been great about that business over the years is just this opportunity to travel. In 2006, I got involved in that business and took my first trip to the Philippines. That’s been something that sort of travel has been a way I’ve spent my time. I’ve been fortunate and that I could blend them. So if I go to Manila for two or three weeks, I used to go two weeks a quarter, I was like, “All right, go to work in the Philippines, work nights because we were US-facing.” So we had to be working at the same time schedule as the people in the US are. And then weekends would be like, “Go to Hong Kong or go to the Bangkok or spend some time in some of the islands in Thailand.” It was nice to be able to have that sort of like the business and personal sync up. That has been really cool for me to this day, like love just getting on a plane.
I don’t care if it’s like go to someplace outside the country for a weekend or whatever. It doesn’t bother me at all. I actually really enjoy it. In fact, some of the best time I’ve ever had has been on airplane solo and just 14-hour flight or something like that. It’s like, “Gosh, I can sleep for seven hours and I can think for seven hours.” And it’s just a great way to recharge. And it was some pretty neat downtime for myself, especially before they had international Wi-Fi and you just were disconnected and it was… I don’t know, it was a really nice reprieve. So love that. And I’ve probably gotten more into electronic dance music over the years as well.
So that’s a little hobby of mine where I like to be able to go and enjoy, go into an outdoor music festival or something like that. I’m currently one of the oldest people that tends to show up at those, but it’s sort of… I don’t know, it’s just keeps you feeling young and really neat. I’ve been going to Miami Ultra for, I think, maybe seven or eight years or something like that now in a row and there’s one couple that’s older than me that I see every year when I go there. That’s been a fun thing to do as well. And I also blend that with the travel, has been pretty neat.
What would you say is your most memorable travel experience, something that you still think about today?
Well, the first time I went to the Philippines was definitely memorable. My business partner, Mike and I, we wanted to get involved in this thing called offshore outsourcing and barely even understood exactly why or how, but I felt like it was part of the staffing. It felt to me like an add-on to staffing, meaning we provided temporary employees to companies, we provided full-time permanent employees to companies. And then there was another way to get work done, which was outsourcing. So we wanted to go visit some potential partners in the Philippines and figure out how to go hire people over there to come work at the company and then be able to provide those services back to US-based companies.
But I definitely had never been to Asia at that point and the Philippines, to me, it was like I probably couldn’t have found it on a map before we started doing work there and got on a plane. So Mike and I booked tickets to go to the Philippines. We started out in this town called Cebu, which is about maybe an hour flight South of Manila. That’s on a different island. You can’t drive there. Anyway, we’re like looking things up on the internet and it’s like, “Oh, it’s on the State Department terrorism watch list.” And I see advisory about traveling. I’m like, “What the heck are we doing?” Almost like kid from Boston that had never been to Asia before. And I’m like, “Well, we didn’t know each other growing up, grew up probably two towns over from me.”
And so it was like, “All right, we got on the plane and traveled over there.” We were pretty nervous. We actually only planned to spend, I think, two nights in the Philippines. So it’s like we’re traveling with 24-hour flight. We missed our connection in Tokyo. So we went Boston to New York, New York to Tokyo, got off the plane in Tokyo. We were late taking off from New York and we realized we weren’t going to… We knew coming in we weren’t going to make the plane. And so we were talking to the people at Japan Airlines about rerouting and we’re like, “Well, [inaudible 00:32:44], could we just go to Manila then instead of Cebu?”
The person we were talking to was like, “No, it’s not safe there. You’ll be getting out at midnight,” which only added to the anxiety. So come to find out it’s actually feel super safe when you’re in the Philippines. There’s no reason we felt that way at all. It was really, really comfortable there. But that was a pretty big eye-opener, where it’s like you look up stuff online and do your research and says one thing. And the government says be careful. And it was like show up and it’s like everyone’s like, “Come to my house. We want to cook for you. We want to show you our beaches and things like that.” So that was definitely a memorable trip. Then met my girlfriend at the time over in Tokyo after that for another two days and then flew home.
So it was like this barnstorming trip to the Philippines for no reason whatsoever. Like I said, I had a small worldview at that point in time. Now, it’s much, much bigger. But that to me it was like a real transitional time for me. It was definitely an eye-opener because what I thought I was about to experience and what actually happened could not have been more different. That’s a trip I really enjoyed, both from a business and personal perspective. I still remember eating dinner in Tokyo. And it was like we just woken up because it was sleeping days and we went to dinner and it was just like this weird falling asleep because it was night out, but like being wide awake, I don’t know, that whole changing 12 or 13 time zones was definitely very painful to go through at once.
But it was a nice eye-opening experience and being able to learn just how wrong you can be, even if you do your research versus what real life actually is. I’d say that was a pretty pivotal trip. And I met some really enjoyable times in Spain as well. I really liked traveling to Spain. Probably been there, I don’t know, six or seven times at this point.
Do you have businesses in Spain?
We do support one client with operations in Spain. In fact, we just did a nice hiring project for them in Barcelona. We’re just wrapping it up. But yeah, no, that’s one area. There’s business in Asia and then really US-based stuff, other than the global support we do for clients when needed.
So what do you think you’re going to do with your time in 5 to 10 years from now that you aren’t doing today?
I don’t think anything. Maybe that sounds like a… I think I mentioned earlier, I’m about to turn 52. As I was going through my late 40s, I was getting to a point where, I don’t know, I feel like it’s like the way I had thought about my life was this sort of like, “Oh, I’ll work really hard, build great businesses, and then at some point in time retire and then go do something else.” And that something else was always the thing that I was sort of like the carrot I was chasing. And then in my late 40s I found out that whatever outside interests I wanted to develop, I was probably not that good at developing them. And so got to a point where I was like, “Gosh, what it was I put on this world to do,” and realized I just really love working and building teams and working with people and being involved in businesses and partners and things like that.
And so I hope 5 to 10 years I’m still doing the exact same thing because, I don’t know, I feel like I went through this period of time where I was like trying to figure out how to be retired and I’m like, “Wait, I actually don’t want to be.” I love working in the structure and rigor around having a business that needs my attention and being able to, like I said, be involved with other people. If you put a gun to my head for spinning answer the question, 5 to 10, I hope I’m doing more mentoring and helping others to be able to experience it and achieve what I have. But that’s more of the same, probably not different than the same. Those are the things. I don’t know.
It was a neat realization about a year ago where I was like, “Wait, I really like doing this.” I’m like, “Wait, I don’t need to go find something else to do. I just want to do this.” And once I did that, it was such a weight that came off of my shoulders of trying to figure out the next chapter. I was like, “This chapter is just continuing and just it might be in different ways because I’m probably less interested in working 15, 16 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week, but more interested in figuring out how to do things in a really smart way and involving others and giving them a chance to experience some of the stuff that I did.”
One of my biggest lessons in life is you don’t need to figure out what’s next if you love doing what you’re doing right now. That was definitely something that… I was surprised by when I figured it out, but really happy that I figured it out as quickly as I did, although at the time it felt like it was a lot of a longer path back to that answer than I wish it had been. But it was fulfilling on the last now that I got there.
I like it. Speaking of lessons, what college class would you teach if it could be about anything you wanted?
I would love to teach a class on how to build your business during a recession. I think recessions are such an interesting time to go through, all the incredible amounts of anxiety that you could face as a leader. And the uncertainty, I mean, certainly now going through this COVID world that we’re in right now. It’s like there’s no playbook. No one says, “Oh, when there’s a pandemic, do these things.” But helping people understand the framework and how to think about challenges and problems and uncertainty and lead during uncertainty, I think, would be a really neat… I’m not sure it fills up a whole semester, but it’s probably been some of the most interesting times that I’ve been through and I’d love a chance to talk with people and teach people who aren’t necessarily experiencing that now but will at some point, where they can go back and say, “Wow, I think that guy was talking about that and he taught this class and this is what I learned from it.” I think that’d be the class I teach.
Like I said, it’s probably one of the most impactful points in a business person’s life is when you’re handed this plate of uncertainty and this less demand for your services and it’s like how do you figure out what to do. On the flip side, I think it’s one of the more… I’ve always said, you make all your money during recessions. You just don’t know what until afterwards. During the recessions, you might be losing money or breaking even for long periods of time. But all those decisions that you make, every little step you take at that point is what sets that company up afterwards for where it will be. I didn’t realize it in recession one. Actually, no, I didn’t realize it in recession one. But that’s probably what I went through after the fact was when I realized that the business it’s like all these steps we took is exactly why we are where we are right now. But in each of the three recessions I’ve been in business during is sort of… They’ve got a lot of similarities, but they definitely have got their own flavors to them, this one, especially with COVID.
Yeah, certainly this one’s definitely an interesting lesson for your future class.
And sure is.
What’s a belief you used to hold fairly strongly that you’ve changed your mind on?
It’s actually what I was talking about before. I always thought, as I was getting in my 20s and 30s and early 40s, it’s like you work really hard and then you must retire and then go do other things. If you’d asked me like how sure I was at that, I would have said 100%. And then all of a sudden having gone through that experience myself, I’m just like, “Wait, that’s so wrong.” There’s nothing wrong with really enjoying work and the benefits, not just financial, but also physical and mental of staying fresh and relevant and feeling good about the things that I’m doing. I think that’s probably the most strongly held belief that I completely disagree with now. I’m sure there are some other ones that I thought about it, but that one definitely was a pretty big eye-opener for sure.
Do you think there would have been any way to convince your younger self of that belief, or do you think you just had to wait until you hit that moment where that switched?
I don’t think so. I’m definitely the type of person that’s like I touch the stove, it’s hot, and then I have to touch it one more time just to make sure it’s really hot, as convincing and compelling as I think I can be. I don’t think I could have convinced myself of that back then. I was just so sure that that was the path and those are the things and all that.
What’s the best business you’ve ever seen?
It’s a little bit of… I forget exactly which cognitive bias it is, but I think it’s accessibility bias. First of all, it’s like, I don’t know, I feel like I have so much less exposure to things in these days because of the limitations of COVID. But that transportation company I was talking about, it’s called Assist Services, I have a partner in that business. I was the person that knows operations and my partner, Tim, really knows business acquisition and understanding how to evaluate the value of a business. So he had said, “Hey, I’m looking at this business. It’s a really neat, little company up in Portland, Oregon.”
And just like the purpose that that business… You said best and I guess you can define best in a number of different ways. For me, best is… My brain went there when you asked the question. It’s the difference that we can make in a person’s life. That business serves kids that are in situations where the federal government has said through this thing called the McKinney–Vento Act, they said, “If a kid becomes homeless and moves out of a school district, you have to transport the kid back to the school district that they got transitioned out of. Needs to bring them back to create stability in their lives.”
And when we first evaluated the business, it was more on financial metrics and they were good. The person who founded the company had done a really great job and she had built a nice business and was ready to transition to someone who had the ability to scale it up, I think, beyond what she had done. But it was just this is neat, little company that was nicely profitable and had a great team. The more Tim and I got into it, the more we were like, “Wow, this business isn’t about transporting kids to school. This business is about creating stability in a kid’s life that’s in somewhat unstable situation at the time. And the ability to maybe where not only are we creating stability through getting them to their school district that they need to get to and providing that service at a good price because getting them on a yellow bus is hard when they could be living in a number of different places and maybe sometimes 40, 50 minutes away from their school.”
But the other thing that became apparent was that our drivers spend a couple hours… in some cases, a couple hours a day to and from, or maybe it’s called five hours a week. And by hiring the right people, where one of the adults in that kid’s life that spends the most time with them, we are spending a significant chunk of that kid’s time with our drivers and the fact that we can hire the right people and create a great experience for a kid that probably doesn’t have a lot of great experiences. It’s a really neat business.
COVID is thrown it, gosh, like this is such a turmoil with it because kids aren’t in school as much as they used to be and kids are doing Zoom learning and things like that. And unfortunately, for the kids that we serve, they’re probably spending more time in places that they don’t want to be or shouldn’t be, instead of in school building where they are getting a lot of the services they need and the stability that they need in their life. But I’ve always been involved in businesses that have purposes like the staffing industry. It’s like we get people jobs. It might not be the most important thing in somebody’s life, but it’s pretty important. But that business, in particular, it really makes you feel good about the opportunity to have an impact and grow a neat, little business as well.
I totally I agree. We had Jared on the show a few weeks ago. He was our-
Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s right. Yeah. So you got to speak to the CEO.
Yeah. It was fun to hear about that business. It’s definitely up in there and the best business category in its own, right?
It is for sure. He’s a really good guy. I don’t know if he mentioned this, but I think Tim and I interviewed one person for the job. We did a lot of phone interviews. We did an in-person interview with one, and gosh, Jared was just so spot on both culturally as well as his past experience and what he wanted to do. And I feel really fortunate to be in business with him. He’s a good guy.
Yeah, he is. I agree.
I couldn’t be happier that he did not win the governor’s race in Arkansas. It was so nice that he came in second place on that and therefore he became available to work with us.
He probably views it slightly differently. But yeah, it all that worked out in the end.
That’s for sure, that’s for sure.
Well, he’s still going to have a political future if he want it.
He sure could. Yeah. Thank you, Aaron, for sharing your time with us today. This has been awesome. Really loved hearing about your journey so far and a little bit more about it Assists too. Those are both great businesses.
Appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. Gosh, this hour went fast.
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