RPO & StaffingTalent Acquisition

Above the Glass Ceiling

Embodying the entrepreneurial spirit, Pinstripe’s Sue Marks stands out among CEOs shaping the RPO marketplace.

by Karen Angel

Most entrepreneurs work for others for years and only venture out on their own after they become seasoned. Not Sue Marks, who started her own company shortly after graduating from college.

“I grew up with the DNA that says, ‘If you’re smart, you work hard, and have your own business, you can be successful,’” said the founder and CEO of the recruitment process outsourcing company Pinstripe.

“I enjoy creating new products, new markets, new solutions for clients. I like to help them see around corners. We like to think, ‘What’s next? How can we do for our customers what other people are not?’”

That sort of thinking has propelled the three-year-old Brookfield, WI-based company into the No. 9 spot on HRO Today’s Baker’s Dozen of the top RPO firms. One of just a handful of pure-play providers in the space, Pinstripe gains an edge from its entrepreneurial spirit and emphasis on speed to market, Marks said.

“Every time we begin a new client relationship, it’s a startup,” Marks remarked. “We’re helping them remake their recruitment function and go from good to great. In most cases, I think that entrepreneurial DNA is one of the things that makes our firm different from the competitors.”

For example, she said, Pinstripe harnesses the latest search and social-networking technology—Facebook, Twitter, and various blogs—to deliver not just active but also passive candidates. The company has even coined the term RPO 2.0 (a variant of Web 2.0 denoting next-generation services) for “getting to passive candidates and processing and pipelining them faster than anyone else.”

“We’ve been very successful in taking the high-level search techniques and making them repeatable, scalable, and deployable against our high-volume RPO customers, so we can deliver really great recruiting results to them fast,” Marks said.

“On all the social-networking sites, people post a lot of information. We go through and garner that information and turn it into information recruiters can use to call those people. We’re transformationally delivering these pipelines of passive candidates to people so they have higher-quality candidates. And at the end of the day, given what’s happening with the economy, we can only afford to have the best candidates on our team.”

Pinstripe’s Requisition to Results (R2R) strategy takes RPO 2.0 one step further by working with clients to retain employees after the recruitment process ends.

“After the offer is accepted, we’re helping to ensure that that candidate gets onboarded competently,” Marks said. “We service a longer value chain; we’re more transformational than transactional, and yet our entrepreneurial culture gives us an edge in terms of speed, so our clients get speed with results.”

Among those clients, which number about 30, are large global brands such as Kodak, AT&T, Citigroup, and CUNA Mutual Group, which recently signed Pinstripe to a major multiyear contract. Healthcare companies including Carondelet Health Network also form a big part of Pinstripe’s practice. The firm has about 150 employees, most of whom are dedicated to recruiting and associated processes.

In a sense, Marks, 52, has been shaping Pinstripe’s business model her entire life. Her father worked for Management Recruiters in downtown Milwaukee before leaving to start his own search firm. One of her earliest jobs, when she was just 10, was cleaning Management Recruiters offices. “I grew up listening to my dad make recruiting calls in the evening,” she recalled. “It was practically part of my upbringing.”

She liked the idea that he was calling “people who had jobs during the day because he was going to get them a better job.”

After high school, Marks set her own accelerated pace, going to work for the family firm. “I dialed-and-smiled and placed secretaries,” she recalled. She took courses at night, graduating from Marquette University. At just 19, she married Charlie Marks, an engineer. (He retired 15 years ago to help raise their three kids, enabling her to throw herself into her work.) From a young age, she wanted to be her own boss. In 1980, at 24, she launched a traditional staffing firm.

“The world didn’t really need just another staffing firm, but I knew we were building a different kind of staffing firm,” she said. “The great thing about youth is you’re overconfident and overenthusiastic and don’t know what can’t be done.” In 1997, she added a division that provided “alternative recruiting.”

“We would argue that we were the founders of what is now called the RPO industry,” Marks claimed. “The only thing that was available to companies prior to that was contingency search. What we started to do was outsource pieces of the recruiting function.

“I said to myself, ‘Pitney Bowes makes mailing machines, and they also outsource mailrooms. I had staffing and recruiting companies, why couldn’t I outsource recruiting departments?’ That’s what we started moving our business model toward.”

By 2000, Marks said her company had become the largest independent recruiting firm in southeastern Wisconsin. That year, she sold it to staffing giant Kelly Services, although the terms of the accord prohibit Marks from discussing the sale.

Post-sale, she stayed on with Kelly almost four years. Although she characterized it as a valuable experience, it also cemented in her mind that she was “meant to start and grow businesses,” noting that her grandfather was an entrepreneur, too.

While at Kelly and after she left, Marks helped finance and guide several HR and technology startups, including VirtualEdge, an applicant-tracking system that ADP ended up buying. “I do have a great deal of experience in the HR and technology space because of being an investor and a board member on a number of small companies,” Marks noted.

By the end of 2004, with RPO adoption gaining steam, she decided the time was right to start her own operations again. She launched Pinstripe the next year. “I thought there was a lot of runway left in the RPO market and that we could have fun and do good work for customers and build a great company,” she said. “The value proposition is really strong in providing outsourced recruiting services.”

Still, when it comes to outsourcing, many companies have trouble pulling the trigger. “They feel like they’re giving up control, when in reality, a well-structured outsourcing partnership produces more standardized processes and more detailed metrics, reported more often than ever before, which actually gives you more control because there’s more transparency,” Marks said.

In a time of economic downturn, this is more important than ever, she opined, because “there’s a more compelling economic case from a cost-reduction standpoint to look at RPO.” For example, RPO may be able to give an organization a much better grasp of its cost per hire than before because many companies don’t account for all of their recruitment spend. RPO also replaces a fixed cost with a variable one, providing opportunity for savings. In addition, RPO firms often are more adept at “managing the paper flow” as job applicants rapidly multiply, Marks said.

Additionally, RPO firms can help businesses navigate the thorny task of laying off workers in one division while managing new hires in another—for instance, a company whose online division is growing while its traditional business is scaling back. “That’s always so hard for them to manage. Organ­­izations do try to use their talent within, but sometimes when they use a hatchet instead of a scalpel, unfortunately, good people get laid off,” Marks added.

In the male-dominated RPO and HRO field, Marks is one of a few female CEOs. She pointed out that Pinstripe also is one of very few women-owned firms with venture-capital backing. As such, she said she feels a responsibility to pass her know-how on to other women and fledgling entrepreneurs in general by making herself available to mentor through groups such as the Young Presidents’ Organization, the Women’s International Network, and several Wisconsin-based associations. An active member of Marquette’s Golden Angel Network, she still invests in and provides guidance to startups.

“I like to be involved in mentoring young or less-experienced entrepreneurs and also driving the entrepreneurial economy,” Marks said. “How can Wisconsin have a really strong climate that encourages economic development and entrepreneurship? I’m particularly interested in encouraging women and minority entrepreneurship.

“I’ve always lived by that pay-it-forward philosophy,” she continued. “I’ve had many, many role models and mentors in my life, and they’ve never asked anything in return except that I do that and be that in my life.”

Marks’ two older children have interned at Pinstripe, and she said they sometimes help her with new-media projects. But she freely admitted that she spends most of her time and energy on work and that sometimes her life lacks balance. “I’ll often speak to groups of women, and they’ll say, ‘How do you balance it?’ and I say, ‘I don’t. I’m an unabashed workaholic.’”

But, she added, “I think I’m one of the luckiest people in the world because I love what I do. When you’re passionate about what you do, it doesn’t seem like work. We feel a calling to make a difference for the companies we work with and for the people we’re recruiting for those clients. When we can help someone find a better job with one of our clients, what a difference we’ve made in that person’s life.” HRO

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