Lancaster Is On The Move

July 30, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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BATTLE CREEK — With many Michigan employers shedding employees, it doesn't seem like this would be a good place to be in the business of finding employees for businesses and organizations.

Despite the economy, one West Michigan staffing company is definitely on a growth curve.

Michigan has “the 49th highest unemployment rate,” noted Mark Lancaster, president and CEO of EmploymentGroup. "We are in our eighth year of unprecedented employment decline. The number of people working continues to go down, according to the Upjohn Institute. Yet (EmploymentGroup) continues to win new business."

In spite of the challenging Michigan economy, EmploymentGroup sales were up 4 percent in 2006, for a total of $48.2 million. Its 2007 sales are 6 percent ahead of last year, and the company estimates the year will end with sales at $50 million. The current goal is $85 million in annual sales by 2010. Sales volumes include wages paid by client companies to the temporary employees provided by EmploymentGroup.

Currently, the company has about 2,000 "associates" on assignment. Since January, more than 430 associates have attained permanent employment through EmploymentGroup, and the number is expected to total about 800 for 2007.

Lancaster and his staff rely on a mix of high energy, creativity and sharp focus to achieve growth. They also adhere to a very disciplined growth plan for fast-growing companies, inspired by Verne Harnish's book, "Mastering the Rockefeller Habits."

"We like to say we create our own economy," said Lancaster.

The EmploymentGroup staff stays focused with the help of a “very aligned strategy,” Lancaster said.

"All 62 people in the company know exactly where we are headed through 2010. They know what our key objectives are and what we have to do," he said.

"It's hard to stop 62 people, all moving in the same direction."

Lancaster earned a degree in advertising from Michigan State University and started working for EmploymentGroup 20 years ago as a marketing director. After he'd been there a while, he saw some opportunities for increasing sales.

"I put my hand up and said I wanted to build a real sales organization," he recalled.

They gave him a shot at it, and it must have worked, because about three years later he was vice president of sales.

A true sales professional is constantly on the go, and Lancaster is clearly a pro.

"I have a great view from my office. It's my car," he joked.

He's on the road three or more days a week, visiting customers and staff throughout lower Michigan, northern Indiana and Chicago.

A marketing and sales professional works to capture the attention of his or her audience. At the company’s quarterly all-staff meetings, four of the top managers of EmploymentGroup put on a real show to hold the staff's attention and keep enthusiasm flowing. They dress up in the costumes and makeup of famous rock stars and do a short lip-synch concert. So far they've been the Rolling Stones doing "Jumpin' Jack Flash," Kiss doing "Rock and Roll All Nite," and the Beach Boys doing "Good Vibrations."

The company "rock show" is actually a communication vehicle.

“We lighten it up and make it fun," said Lancaster.

It's also good for morale. When he and the other executives come out on stage in their wild costumes and makeup, he said, “We're quite vulnerable in front of our staff — which they like."

This year the corporate theme symbolizing the growth plans is "Rockin' 2007."

According to Lancaster, the staffing industry began in the United States in the 1950s in the postwar industrial boom. EmploymentGroup was one of the first, started in Battle Creek by Jack Gray 50 years ago next February. Now owned by Lancaster and Linda Miller, who is the company’s CFO, EmploymentGroup's corporate headquarters is still in Battle Creek, but today it also has offices in Grand Rapids, Holland, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Marshall, Brighton, Charlotte, and in Logansport, Ind.

The company opened a managed services office in Chicago in June and will soon open a second Indiana staffing office, in Indianapolis.

This August, EmploymentGroup will celebrate the grand opening of its newest Michigan office in Grand Haven. In West Michigan, it's the lakeshore that has the greatest potential, according to Lancaster.

Clients range from local entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 corporations such as General Motors, Kellogg Co., Bissell Inc., Dart Container Corp., and many others. Nonprofits are also an important market segment for the company, including Western Michigan University and Michigan State.

According to the American Staffing Association, there were 353,937 temporary and contract workers in Michigan during 2005. The average tenure was about 12 weeks, but 125,394 of those workers ended up in permanent jobs.

More than $2 billion in payroll was generated by staffing firms in Michigan that same year, and there are about 1,100 staffing offices throughout the state.

EmploymentGroup has long experience in recruiting, screening, testing, training and placing both permanent and temporary employees in contract, administrative, professional, technical and light industrial positions. But they aren't just personnel experts: EmploymentGroup also has 19 years of experience in providing managed services to several major corporations. Those turn-key services are primarily mail and document management, archives, couriers, shipping and receiving, and custodial/grounds crews.

The managed services industry, especially companies providing security or cleaning, has been around a long time but is still growing and expanding its range of services, because "as the competition gets harder, companies have to concentrate on their core business" to survive, said Lancaster.

EmploymentGroup also provides search services to companies or organizations seeking professionals and managers.

"We're always talking to the "A" players — the best of the best," Lancaster said.

Using a sports analogy, Lancaster said his company maintains "a virtual bench" of key professionals who would be a good fit for a client organization suddenly in need of just such a person.

The emphasis is on finding "good people" for all levels of employment. "Good people" is part of the corporate logo.

"One of our values is well-being — the safety of workers in the field," noted Lancaster. To that end, the company has safety policies and training in place for any associates assigned to a working environment with potential health and safety hazards. Lancaster said EmploymentGroup's risk management department actually inspects potential client facilities for health and safety risks. In one case, he said, they had a potential major customer whose facilities the EmploymentGroup deemed too risky. "We actually resigned the account," he said.

The staffing industry has long been attractive to entrepreneurs because very little capital or personnel are required to start up: Basically, all that is needed is an office, computer and phone lines.

"There are no barriers to entry," noted Lancaster. He added that at one time, he was told there were 110 staffing companies active in the Grand Rapids area.

EmploymentGroup's continued growth is possible through capturing market share held by its competitors, so competition is a daily fact of life for Lancaster and his staff. But they are used to it.

"They (competitors) don’t keep me up at night, and I'm sure I don't them."

Rock on.

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