As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Rob Figliulo. He has been CEO of SPR, a digital modernization consultancy based in Chicago, since 1991. SPR builds, integrates, tests and manages technologies for clients seeking to improve their access to information, company-wide collaboration and connections with customers.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Rob Figliulo: “What I’ve learned as a CEO is that you don’t often make ‘big’ mistakes that define your career or your company; rather, as in any other position, you make several small, manageable mistakes that you learn from over time. And as you grow, you become more confident in how to manage your mistakes or the tough decisions you have to make as CEO.”
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Rob: “Back in 1990 when SPR started to grow into what we’ve become today, our stated goals were two-part: 1) to be the largest and best IT services company with the best people, tools and processes available, and 2) to become the largest employer of mainframe developers in the Midwest. At the time, we started with a very small group, bringing in an annual revenue in Chicago of around $2 million to $3 million. But by reaching for these goals, we ended up bringing in $55 million annually in the Chicago market in just six or seven years, and have only continued to grow in the years since.
The underlying vision driving these goals is for SPR to consistently take the human imagination and turn it into something concrete using technology. It is this vision that makes SPR and our employees unique. We employ creative engineers, give them a place to problem-solve and grow their careers, and ask them to bring our customers’ business ideas to life using the tools available.
As a result of this, our goals haven’t changed much in the last 30 years. The main difference now is that we want to be the largest and best digital transformation services provider with the best people, tools and processes available. And we now strive to be the largest employer of digital transformation and cloud enablement experts in the Midwest by serving as an incubator for talented engineers to start and grow their careers.”
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
Rob: “It is important to SPR to show everything in terms of risk, cost, quality and time. No matter how technical a problem is, our customers just want to know that our solutions will bring only necessary risk to their businesses, that they’re affordable, that they actually solve or fill their business needs, and that they won’t take years to implement.”
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Rob: “The most important principle guiding everything we do at SPR is to always create work we can be proud of. If you care about your work, you don’t just care that your customers are satisfied — you want them to be delighted with the services you’ve provided. And as a leader of your company, pushing your employees to be proud of their work empowers them to further invest in their projects and careers.”
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Rob: “When SPR went from being a public company to a private company in 2002, we faced a real inflection point that could’ve gone either way for us.
At the time, shareholders weren’t confident in the IT growth model, so shares in companies like ours were selling fast. But because everyone was trying to sell, our shareholders struggled to find buyers. Although it was a high-risk, SPR decided to take the responsible step by returning the money we received in the markets to our shareholders at an 80% premium.
For the next two years, I went through a pace-your-floors-constantly time as CEO working to get SPR back to a properly capitalized position. And now, our business is flourishing and capitalized efficiently. When you have enough capital, life is good. But if you don’t, then you constantly worry about things like making payroll, paying bills, etc.”
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
Rob: “Just like any business, SPR has had its ups and downs, but we are in a great spot today. We are a private company that is properly capitalized and that prioritizes our relationships with our clients and each other. We are proud of the creative, complex work we’re doing, and our customers are consistently delighted with our services.”
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
Rob: “In a digital-first world, every business needs to know how to leverage technology in order to innovate and survive. As a result, the five most important things CEOs should do to build a successful service-based business are 1) move into the cloud if you haven’t already, 2) give your workers efficient collaboration and productivity tools, 3) ensure your data is optimized for analysis 4) utilize emerging technology like AI and IoT 5) and modernize your applications.
- Move into the cloud. If you are not already there, there’s a good chance that COVID has made you at least consider moving to the cloud. In fact, according to our recent cloud maturity survey, 51% of IT decision-makers accelerated their cloud migrations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For many, these migrations may have felt chaotic and rushed. But when done purposefully, the migration process can be a simple one that takes your existing infrastructure and puts it into a cloud environment. Doing this is low-risk and relatively inexpensive, and it allows your business to more agilely operate and innovate.
- Give your workers productivity tools and software. For a service-based business, your people, their expertise and their talents are your “products.” But in order for them to do their job well, they need to be able to collaborate with their colleagues, work directly with their customers, etc. Give them cloud-based productivity tools, such as Microsoft Teams or Slack, that they can leverage to quickly solve problems, gather information and collaborate. While it sounds like a simple step, many service-based companies overlook or underestimate the value of collaboration tools for their employees, and their productivity almost always suffers as a result.
- Optimize your data. As a service-based company, you need to stay attuned to changing customer wants and emerging industry trends so you can quickly adapt your service offerings in response. Your services won’t be useful to anyone if they don’t actually address your customers’ most pressing business needs. While your business has endless data at its disposal that you can use to uncover these trends, none of it will be actionable unless the data is first accurate. Make sure your data is correct and in a usable format before leveraging your data analytics platforms to reveal actionable trends.
- Leverage emerging technology to innovate. Once you’ve grown comfortable with your cloud environment, avoid becoming apathetic. There are several emerging, cloud-based technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), automation, machine learning (ML) and the Internet of Things (IoT), that you can use in your cloud environment to innovate and differentiate your services further and remain competitive.
- Modernize your applications. Similarly, once you’ve moved your applications and software to the cloud, continue looking for new iterations and best practices you can deploy to continue modernizing them. Going back to the first question asked in this interview, even your greatest software work can eventually become a “mistake,” or grow obsolete, if you don’t update it based on the latest technological advances.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Rob: “There are three people I can thank for a lot of the lessons I’ve learned in my career. First, Carl Kaechele, who came to work at SPR in the early days in a project management role, taught me everything I needed to know about managing risks and delivering products and services to clients. Because of the skills I gleaned from him during the time he managed me, I was able to be promoted fairly quickly early on in my career.
Second, is Dan Quaid, a mentor and friend of mine who recently passed away. Dan, who was originally a customer of SPR’s while at Sears, had a real, old-school Chicago way about himself. During those harder years after going private, Dan showed me the value of business relationships by helping push through a large invoice that was going to be key to us maintaining the necessary cash flow for the next few months. As CEO, I had gone to him and explained our situation, and he immediately helped us cut through the Sears procurement bureaucracy to get the invoice paid — even though he had no obligation to do so. I never forgot that. So later, just before he retired and was looking for a short-term role, I was more than happy to offer him a job managing projects at SPR and providing business expertise to our teams.
Lastly is another SPR employee I worked with in my early days at the company, Hans Rehm. Hans was a senior programmer I worked with on my first project. In those days, we had programming flow charts we would use to iteratively test the software and uncover flaws we needed to fix. And since this was back in 1976, we still used manual coding sheets that I, as an entry-level team member, would then key into the mainframe computer. Hans, however, had an incredible understanding of software, so he wouldn’t need this trial-and-error process. At first, clients would get nervous that he was behind schedule because he didn’t take the traditional iterative approach to the development process. But they were immediately impressed when Hans would run the program and have no flaws on the first try. I learned most of what I know today about writing programs from Hans who still remains a good friend of mine to this day.”
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Rob: “It would be giving access to careers in IT to as many people as possible. This includes people who’ve historically been left out of the technology community, such as women, people of color, those with disabilities, veterans and more. SPR has several women in positions of management including Litha Ramirez, Executive Director of Experience Strategy & Design and Nancy Kastl, Executive Director of the Testing Services practice and the founder of the Chicago Quality Assurance Association (CQAA). In 2003, we launched nAblement to offer candidates with disabilities an opportunity to grow into tech careers, whether at SPR or with our clients. And in addition to summer internships, there’s almost always an early-in-career student working alongside us throughout the year. By partnering with programs such as Year Up, ITKAN, Step Up, Chicago Jobs Council and Equal Access, SPR creates opportunities for all students to engage with cutting-edge technologies.
Underrepresented segments of the IT labor force have historically faced challenges like overt or less obvious discrimination, more difficult paths to career advancement, stigma, tokenism and questioning whether their talents are truly valued by their employer. By actively seeking out quality candidates from among people with disabilities, veterans, opportunity youth and other underrepresented populations, while consciously considering historic gender disparity in both hiring and promoting, SPR is prioritizing developing a more respectful and human-centered culture and providing access to careers in IT to all.