Passion Drives Bennett

July 11, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — When Jeff Bennett left what is today his largest competitor to launch Otterbase Technical Services Inc. (OTS), the then-26-year-old did so with the belief that “he could do it better.”

“That answer, ‘I can do it better,’ is really vague,” Bennett said. “What do you mean you can do it better? How? With whom? Are you going to provide a better service? A better product? Do you have some kind of magic methodology you are going to use?”

During the two years at the Detroit firm where he was employed, Bennett had become frustrated that his coworkers didn’t share his attitude.

“I’m a very passionate person, no matter what it is I’m doing,” he said. “I was very passionate about my job and it wasn’t as much the product; I was passionate about success, passionate about winning. I sold our services to win.”

Bennett expected everyone he worked with to be just as passionate as he was, and that was the problem.

“I was surrounded by people who weren’t as passionate as I was about being successful,” he said. “There were a few here and there, but most of them weren’t.”

He felt that if he could build an organization filled with people as passionate about winning and success as he was — no matter what the product — the competition wouldn’t stand a chance.

“We would essentially ‘out-passion’ them,” he said. “It’s an issue of pride. The more pride, the more everything. That’s the bottom line.”

He compared the notion to that of a championship collegiate football team.

“They’re not playing for money; they are simply playing for pride.”

Bennett and his brother, Bill — OTS president and CEO, respectively — launched the company with that philosophy in early 1998. The supplemental staffing company originally specialized in IT services but quickly expanded into all markets, including clinical, manufacturing and engineering.

OTS today is one of the nation’s fastest growing staffing companies with a rapidly growing list of Fortune 500 clients. Its recruiting methodology can be applied to any customer in need of contract labor, regardless of profession, scope or scale.

Bennett attributes that to the company’s internal culture, defined by the acronym PDH — passion, diligence and humility.

“We’re a sales organization, and the ‘me-first’ attitude is more prevalent in sales organizations than any other industry,” he said. “I felt that if we could combat that attitude and hire people that could sincerely put the interest of the team and the company above their own, then we could outperform our competition with fewer resources and fewer personnel.

“If we could surround ourselves with those people, then success is inevitable.”

In the beginning, nurturing that culture was easy — it was just the two brothers, plus their supporting families and a pair of Great Danes.

February marked the seventh anniversary of Jeff’s proposal to his high school sweetheart, Meg, on the very same day he quit his job and packed a U-haul truck bound for Grand Rapids.

“She really didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “I proposed by asking her if she trusted me and if she had faith in me. When she said yes, I asked her to marry me, and then told her that I’m quitting my job and tomorrow we’re moving to Grand Rapids to start this company with Bill.”

Bill left a career as a chemist to manage the company’s finances, and offered a spare bedroom in his Belmont home as the company’s first office.

They shared a phone and a beat-up computer, working back-to-back on a card table and a desk. Bill’s two dogs quickly became Jeff’s dogs, too.

“They would bark every time the phone rang and I would have to say I was working from home that day,” he said. “Bill would honestly hold their mouths shut when I was making sales calls.”

For the first year, the brothers ate cold cuts for lunch every day, bought in bulk. Jeff and his wife lived in government-subsidized housing. The company was self-funded, with the Bennetts living on credit cards.

“I vividly remember that long walk every day to (Bill’s) mailbox hoping for a payment from a client,” Bennett said, “because we were going deep. But I would never trade those days. They were the most exciting and humbling days of my life.

“There were certainly personal risks and we were certainly aware of all the consequences of a failing business, but we didn’t let that intimidate us,” he said. “Being fearful of starting a new company, that’s being aware of the consequences of the actions you are going to take. What you can’t afford is intimidation.”

Bennett soon acquired the passionate talent he had hoped to build the company with, including Keith Langbo, director of regional operations, Maureen Bartlett, director of branch recruiting, and Amy Mosure, office manager.

In the few years since, OTS combined the company’s unique culture with innovative recruiting and placement methodologies to achieve unprecedented growth. In May, it placed its 1,000th contract professional. It has added offices in Detroit and Boston, and its operation extends through virtually every part of the country.

In recent months, the Bennett brothers were recognized as Ernst & Young Entrepreneurs Of The Year, and OTS was recognized as one of 50 Companies To Watch In Michigan by the Edward Lowe Foundation.

“It’s foolish of me to think that these accomplishments are individual,” Bennett said. “Our success stems from every person in our organization.”    

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