Tina Hodges is an Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) spouse in Nashville and co-owner, Chief Executive and Chief Experience Officer at Advance Financial. In 2018, the company made its seventh consecutive appearance on the Inc. 5000 list of America's fastest-growing privately owned companies. We asked Tina how the company manages healthy, rapid growth. Here's what she shared:
Since its humble beginning in 1996, our company has embraced a perpetual state of exponential growth. By 2014, we had 300 employees. Fast forward four years and today, we have more than 1,000. In those same four years, total revenue increased from $51 million to more than $222 million--that's 335 percent growth! Such rapid growth is why we've been named to the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing companies for seven consecutive years.
As a startup, we knew our country had a deficit in credit accessibility, but I don't think we imagined the depth of it, or how many people would flood our stores seeking access to credit--requests which banks often turned down. To keep up with demand, we opened stores across Tennessee. Next, we extended our offerings to consumers across the country via an online customer portal. We're on track to expand our online presence to 20 states next year.
While such rapid growth is exhilarating, I advise any entrepreneur who wants to grow quickly to take a step back and think about what rapid growth truly entails. We all want success, but sometimes we forget that obstacles will inevitably spring up along the way. For example, our company grew so fast that we overlooked two critical aspects--company culture and customer service. So, we set out to improve them, and are now industry leaders in both.
Here are three lessons we've learned about how to keep a rapidly growing company healthy:
1. Stellar customer service starts with employees
Our successful growth would not be possible without motivated, hardworking associates. We quickly figured out that happy employees correlate directly with satisfied customers.
To ensure the well-being of employees, our benefits package includes fully paid health insurance, health and wellness programs, a competitive 401(k) match--and we're poised to launch paid parental leave and student loan repayment programs in 2019. We listen to our team to ensure that our programs are relevant to employees and their families.
Each employee also receives 40 hours of paid time per year to volunteer in the community. We encourage togetherness and schedule regular company-wide service opportunities. We host Newbie Nights for recent hires, give exciting trips to tenured employees on significant work anniversaries, and host an annual charity talent show. We participate in walks, races and enjoy friendly competitions, such as holiday decorating contests.
Our Learning and Development Department emphasizes professional growth, providing opportunities at every level. Programs like our two-day Manager Certification and bi-monthly, day-long Management Camps equip employees to advance their careers and reach higher goals.
To be enthusiastic about their work, employees need to be fulfilled and engaged. We've found that engaged employees are more likely to engage customers. That's the secret to customer service.
2. Don't be afraid to seek outside help
Sometimes, business owners detect a misalignment between their perception of the company and the way things are actually running. Fast growth exposes all of the cracks in the seams. When we realized our service experience and company culture models weren't aligned, we knew we needed an outside perspective.
We contracted a customer service consulting and training firm to help create our Experience Department, which caters to office guests, employees and customers. All three sectors now enjoy a unique, world-class experience.
We also tapped a professional consulting group to redesign our management structure and hire our A-team. Their years of experience provided us with specific, actionable steps to navigate rapid growth, including the mantra "select with science and retain with culture." As a result, we're locally and nationally recognized as an employer of choice for new graduates.
3. Clarify the mission
It's especially important that employees understand why we take our culture so seriously, and how that impacts the company overall. To impart these values, we devised our pseudo-Golden Rule: Treat customers how we treat you. We want employees to know that they are our most important asset. It's our job to treat them with the same respect and consideration that we ask them to show customers.
We intentionally built our culture to support employees' needs, with programs including a Corporate Care Fund to provide financial assistance to employees experiencing temporary hardship. Funded by employee donations that are matched by us, it covers housing, utility, healthcare and other necessary costs during emergencies, such as fires or floods.
Not only do we go out of our way to care for employees, but we also encourage them to support one another. With such a well-established structure, team members can focus their energies on the needs of the company--and most importantly, our customers. That's how our business maintains equilibrium even during periods of rapid growth.