The Staff's His Life

Seeking to work where he functioned best, Ken Ballard left his traditional banking job to work as a temp. Now he owns the agency.

by Cal Workman

Ken Ballard, owner of Spherion professional recruiting and staffing services in South Burlington, rose from a temporary position to recruiter, client services manager and branch manager before buying the franchise that last year paid out a total of $1.2 million in wages.

This year, when income tax reports are filed with the state, there's a good chance an employee from Spherion professional recruiting and staffing services in South Burlington will be handling them. The staffer will open and sort the mail, scan the tax returns and perform data entry and other administrative tasks to assist the state in meeting its May filing deadline. At the same time, in as many as 30 locations throughout northwestern Vermont, other Spherion employees will be filling in as credit analysts, accounting clerks, collection agents, customer service representatives, administrative assistants, order fulfillment workers, assemblers and packagers.

A steady supply of companies with short- to long-term staffing needs, along with a pool of qualified skilled labor, are critical to keep employment agencies like Spherion afloat in an industry that is described as a high-stakes matchmaking game.

At the center of Spherion is owner Ken Ballard, whose rise to the position of president is a story that unfolds like a modern day fairy tale. In just six short years, Ballard climbed from a temporary position at the company to recruiter, client services manager, branch manager and finally president and owner of the franchise that last year generated 612 W2 forms and paid out a total of $1.2 million in wages.

Fresh out of the University of Maine with a degree in business, Ballard entered the marketplace during the recession in the early '90s. He admits he wasn't very directed, but he was always drawn to sales and customer service. Friends urged him to move from Portland to Burlington and for Ballard, an avid outdoorsman, "moving up here was like entering recreational paradise."

A native New Englander born in Manchester, N.H., from a family of entrepreneurial restaurant owners, Ballard claims, "I'll live in the north 'til I'm too arthritic to handle the cold."

What followed was a series of jobs for airlines, airline services and banking, and a search for fulfilling work. Within a year and a half of entering the banking field, he was promoted from teller to customer service representative and a desirable corner office. Still, he was restless and thought his career in banking held no real promise for advancement. In a quest for a better job, Ballard left a secure position with benefits and struck out as a temporary worker for Norell temporary services agency.

He remembers his mother's saying to him, "Ken, you left a good little job to work temporary."

Spherion connects job seekers with a host of potential employers in the area through its long and productive history with organizations and businesses in the state. Kari Landry (left), is client service supervisor and Julie Colangeli is employee service supervisor; both work in the staffing group.

"I thought, 'Yeah, a good little job that was leading me nowhere in terms of income,' and I discovered in the process, the traditional workplace was not where I functioned best. I never gave the temporary services industry much respect. I thought it would be highly repetitive work for low pay. But when I found out that temporary workers on assignment at the bank were getting paid more than I was, it wasn't a difficult decision to say I can accept the level of risk in order to find a better job." Ballard sought out introductions to new employers and new industries and thought working temporary jobs gave him the chance to shop around for the right fit. He spent the next six months doing just that: working one- to three-month assignments with various employers in Chittenden County. He was an executive assistant for the president of Jogbra, an accounting clerk for Aon Risk Managers Captive Insurance and a customer service representative for McAuliffe.

"One day I showed up at Norell for a paycheck and there was a vacant seat in the office and I inquired about it," he says. "They were looking for a recruiter, and I applied for it because I really liked the way they treated me. Brad Worthen, the owner, impressed the hell out of me, and Kelly French, the manager, was so smart. Both really knew the industry and I aspired to be like them."

Within a couple of weeks, a permanent position was offered to Ballard, and working under French, he quickly learned the ropes. He discovered recruiting was demanding, high-volume work. Every week he needed to reel in a large number of qualified people to fill a broad range of employer needs. The company placed ads in newspapers and reached potential employees through other resources, including the Vermont Association of Business and Industry Rehabilitation, the Vermont Department of Employment and Training, colleges and church groups. Ballard says the search for skilled employees is constant. "Anywhere we can have access to people, we cultivate relationships with them in search of referrals," he says.

Worthen praises Ballard for his mental tenacity and for what he calls Ballard's sixth sense for identifying elusive qualities in people that suggest whether they will be reliable workers.

"A lot of people think they can jump into this business and shuffle people and paper around and make it work," Worthen says. "It's not like that at all. It's a constant balancing act. You can leave at the end of the day and with everything set for the next day only to come in at 8 a.m. and find you've built a house of cards. Your answering machine is filled with messages from workers saying, 'I can't work today, I have a headache.' Your product is another human being, and you're not going to bat 100 percent all the time, but Ken keeps his eye focused on quality by accepting only the best-qualified people."

After a year as a recruiter and employee manager, Ballard jumped to the other side of the tracks and worked three years for the employer clients.

"I really got to know the businesses and learned all about HR concerns, hiring, managing, compensation, benefits and employment law, eventually becoming knowledgeable about the entire industry."

In June 2000, Norrell merged with two other national employment agencies, Interum and Spherion, and integrated the companies under the name Spherion. A publicly held, national company based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with more than 400 offices worldwide and its own human resources "think tank," The Saratoga Institute, Spherion is a big national player in the field.

Interum's practice of permanent placement services was folded into the new company, and Ballard took on the role of permanent placement recruiter for the company. For every person placed in a permanent position, the company earns a fee that ranges from 5 percent to 25 percent of the employee's first-year salary.

Operating under the Spherion corporate umbrella gives the office a competitive edge, says Ballard. Headquarters provides a network operating system, website, access to a national database, marketing collateral, industry best practices and affinity relationships with its sister offices and all the major job Web sites. Of course, there are restrictions, mostly around the types of jobs deemed too risky for employees in areas such as the medical profession and childcare or in jobs involving heavy lifting.

Worthen's contract was up in 2000, and he chose to opt out of the business to start another company. He sold the business back to Spherion, and for the next two years, the South Burlington office became a corporate branch with Ballard as manager.

Operating under the Spherion corporate umbrella gives the local office a competitive edge, Ballard says, because headquarters provides a network operating system, website, access to a national database and affinity relationships with sister offices. He meets with Jayne Gill (pictured), managing director, New England Technology.

Ballard laments, "I had all the responsibility but not the compensation package." But the experience fueled his growing desire to buy the franchise back from the corporation.

Purchasing the company proved to be his greatest challenge. First, the company put Ballard through a thorough screening process to ensure he had adequate knowledge of the business and of running a business along with a solid and positive relationship within the business community.

Financing was another hurdle. Ballard didn't have enough collateral to purchase the company. The Small Business Administration wouldn't back his request for assistance because the corporation exercised too much control over it to qualify it as a true small business. Every bank turned him down until an introduction to the little-known Vermont Economic Development Authority, a state-sponsored, high-risk financial backing program, opened the door to Merchants Bank, which agreed to finance a loan.

2002 was a busy year. In January, the financing finally came through for the business, and along with it came the enormous responsibility of running the business and managing upwards of 100 flexible employees and three core staff members. In April, Ballard and his wife, Jennifer, a branch manager for Chittenden Bank, purchased their first home, a townhouse in Williston. In July, they welcomed their first baby, Samuel, who Ballard says "looks like his mother and acts like his father with lots of attitude to spare."

With just one year under his belt as owner, Ballard says business is brisk and the future looks bright. Revenues for fiscal year 2002 were up 1 percent from the previous year, offsetting a three-year slide averaging 30 percent. Ballard estimates he's the fifth-largest service agency out of 11 competitors in the area and within the top three for profitability. His territory is large, covering Chittenden, Addison, Lamoille, Franklin and Washington counties in Vermont and Clinton County in upstate New York; but his goal is to be the best agency, not the biggest.

"The pool is only so big, and it keeps getting redivided," he says. "My growth is not a result of any organic growth in the community; it's from taking away from someone else's shortcomings. We're outselling and out-servicing our competitors."

He cites several advantages to working with a flexible staffing agency for both the prospective employee and employer. For job seekers, he promises access to employers, a safe workplace, a consistent and accurate paycheck and benefits including health, dental, eye care, short-term disability and 401(k) savings. Ballard claims the agency "is not a work-a-day-here, work-a-day-there facility." Instead workers can expect longer assignments averaging nine months and wages that average $10.17 an hour. More than anything, Ballard says, he gives employees a chance to scope out the job marketplace, network and show off their abilities.

"I don't get anybody a job, ever. They get it themselves. We provide access, assistance and timeliness, and we put our reputation behind every one of our employees."

Spherion is able to connect job seekers with a host of potential employers in the area. The agency has a long history with many area organizations and businesses in the state, including the University of Vermont, Dakin Farm, Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., Planned Parenthood, Vermont Legal Aid, Husky Injection Molding Systems, Bombardier Capital and Homebound Mortgage.

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters works with Spherion because, according to human resources manager Chris Donner, he and Ballard "gel philosophically." When Donner joined Green Mountain two years ago, the company was using three staffing agencies, an inefficient way to fill short-term needs, thought Donner, who shopped around for one agency with which to form a lasting partnership. He knew Ballard from attending job fairs and liked his enthusiasm and attitude.

"It's been a terrific match working with Spherion," Donner says. "Ken knows we're looking for quality employees and he trusts our evaluation of workers and works with us on issues. Though I try not to, I can call Ken on short notice and say I need help and I know I'll never hear, 'No way.' "

To help with the push over the holiday season, Spherion sent 48 flexible employees to the Waterbury plant where they helped out in production assembling gift baskets, bagging and palletizing cases and helping in the shipping department. The partnership with Spherion worked so well that now, every other week, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters allocates a work space within the human resources department for the Spherion recruiter to conduct interviews and exit interviews, saving workers in the neighboring Waterbury and Stowe communities a trip to South Burlington.

The advantage of working with a professional recruiting and staffing agency, for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and other businesses, is one of time and money, says Ballard. Spherion conducts a 10-step interview process that mirrors or adds value to the HR efforts and saves them time sifting through mountains of resumes and interviewing candidates. The fixed cost of using a temporary services agency is less expensive than the cost related to hiring and adding benefits, a figure that Spherion's Saratoga Institute places at around $6,500 per hire. Ballard adds that in tough economic times, businesses might be more hesitant to hire a full-time person. Working through the agency, Ballard says, "They can try before they buy and make sure they're making the best hiring decisions."

The clients rely on Spherion for service and qualified workers. The workers depend on Spherion for income and exposure. Ballard recognizes he has an obligation to both parties, a responsibility he doesn't take lightly. He reflects philosophically, "It's a bit like a chess game, and I'm always trying to make the best move for everyone involved."

Originally published in March 2003 Business People-Vermont