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Slalom Consulting's not so secret sauce - Brad Jackson billboard

Slalom Consulting’s not-so-secret sauce

September 25, 2014

When the company now known as Slalom, LLC was starting its consulting business about a dozen years ago, the idea of one day becoming a half-billion dollar business seemed unimaginable.

In fact, back in those early days, the company was sometimes being paid in goods instead of cash.

“Some of the work we did for computing hardware,” said Tom Chew, the general manager of Slalom’s national operations.

The bartering days are long gone.

Slalom, LLC has nearly 3,000 employees worldwide and expects revenues of more than $500 million this year. The company has been growing at an average annual rate of 37 percent for the last 12 years, without making any acquisitions, and it opened its first international office in London in September.

Puget Sound Business Journal also recently named Slalom the 15th largest privately held company in Washington state, based on 2013 revenue, and Consulting magazine recently placed it among the top three consulting firms to work for. That’s one of many local and national “best places to work” awards Slalom regularly receives.

John Tobin, the company co-founder and president of Slalom North America, once dreamed of reaching $30 million in revenue. Now, he says London is just the beginning of a broad-based, multinational company that is growing fast – but still staying true to the values on which it was founded.

“I see us as a $4 to $5 billion company,” he said.

Buy local, be good

The Seattle-based company attributes much of its success to maintaining the same core values Tobin jotted down just weeks after the consultancy was formed. Those values include being humble and authentic, and seeking to “Do what is right, always.”

Tobin insists they aren’t just lip service.

“We definitely preach this, teach it, talk about it,” Tobin said.

That company culture has attracted some of its key employees, and kept them loyal.

Shivani Desai had taken time off from her career to go on an international backpacking trip and was looking for something meaningful to do with her life when she was approached by Slalom’s nascent Chicago office in 2004.*

Desai said she had expected to embark on a new career as an actor, or maybe as a writer or even a yoga instructor. She was surprised to be recruited by a more traditional company that still seemed to have heart and, like her, wanted to do the right thing.

“They would say things in meetings like, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’” Desai recalled. “I’d be like, ‘Really?’”

Desai, a business development executive with the company, said Slalom has maintained that same culture even as it has grown from two offices, in Seattle and Chicago, to 16 and counting.

“It’s not even like secret sauce,” Desai said. “Anyone can do this, but we just really prioritize it.”

From Two Degrees to Slalom Consulting

The consulting arm started as a small outgrowth of Two Degrees, a finance recruiting and accounting firm founded in the early 1990s by Brad Jackson, the company’s chief executive.

From the beginning, Jackson said he hoped to one day add a unique brand of consulting to the company’s offerings.

“We had our day jobs, but I was also looking at, ‘How do we use technology to do something different?’” he said.

Jackson was so committed to expanding into consulting that at one point he even bet his own house and car on the company’s financial success. But by the late 1990s, the red-hot job market was making it tough to recruit the consultants he needed to get the business off the ground.

Then the economy went into recession in 2001, and Jackson said experienced consultants who had taken risks on dot-com ventures were suddenly available.

Many road-weary recruits were interested in giving the new consultancy a chance, but Tobin said they had one request: “If you can promise that I don’t have to travel, I’ll totally come work here.”

That caveat helped to form the company’s unusual model of creating local offices where consultants can develop a deep familiarity with their clients and their community, and no one has to travel if they don’t want to.

“We were the place to go if you wanted to do great work, if you wanted to be in consulting, and you didn’t want to travel,” Jackson said.

The local model has many more benefits than just helping consultants escape the grind of travel.

Tony Rojas, president of Slalom, LLC, said employees who live in the markets where they work are more familiar with the culture and rhythm of that particular business community, and have a better understanding of Slalom’s clients there.

That means knowing what hours people typically work, understanding things like whether people typically conduct business on email or by phone, and being aware of which technologies they prefer to use.

Local consultants also are able to form longer-term relationships with clients and develop a deep familiarity with the business, Rojas said. That way, clients aren’t constantly having to get the new guy up to speed on what they are doing.

The company also sold clients on a more nimble approach to consulting than its bigger counterparts, Jackson said. Instead of bringing in 100 consultants for a massive project, it pitched smaller, more experienced teams with both a business and technical background.

“Blending business and technology was really the way we were able to win our biggest pieces of work,” he said.

Microsoft and more

It didn’t take long before the consulting business was exploding, taking on big-name clients and opening offices around the country. It was eventually renamed Slalom Consulting, and the parent company that includes Two Degrees and other businesses is now called Slalom, LLC.

Slalom serves about 700 clients a year, and its roster includes Coca-Cola Enterprises, Weight Watchers, and Hyatt Hotels and Resorts. It also has maintained years-long partnerships with major technology companies, including Microsoft.

The relationship between Slalom and Microsoft is so strong that when Slalom recently raised issues around the way business investment funds were structured for a particular product, Julie Korte, U.S. alliance business development manager with Microsoft, said top Microsoft executives listened and ultimately changed the program.

“(Slalom has) developed that relationship and earned that kind of trust and respect,” Korte said.

Bring work back to the United States

These days, Slalom also is building a U.S.-based team that does the kind of technical work once routinely outsourced to other countries, such as India. Just two years old, the team of nearly 300 employees— and growing—accounts for about 13 percent of the company’s revenue.

Slalom executives say the national delivery team has been a hit with clients who are frustrated by years of wrangling with time zone differences and the other bureaucratic headaches that come from working across continents. Slalom says its domestic developers are as much as five times more productive than offshore developers, because they are able to respond quickly and interact directly with clients.

“It was really listening to clients, to what they wanted: A solution that was cost-effective but also here in the U.S.,” said Troy Johnson, Slalom’s co-founder and general manager for new market development.

Slalom also has been adding highly experienced national consultants who have the real-life experience to help out local markets with bigger, more complex projects. They include a doctor and a nurse, a former chief information officer of an insurance company, and a former chief operations officer of a bank.

“We have people who have walked a mile in your shoes,” said Denis Farmer, a managing director with Slalom’s national office.

As Slalom expands into new markets and adds new lines of business, executives say they have been careful not to lose sight of the things that helped drive the company’s original success.

“The biggest thing that happens in consulting is that (as companies) start getting bigger, they change,” Johnson said. “For us, our core values are the same. We’re adding this to it, but we’re not changing.”

*Since this article was originally published, Shivani Desai has left Slalom.


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