Pam Fountain-Wilks, president of Principal Technologies Inc. staffing firm, sometimes feels that she's just fallen into her career.
When she started in retail 30 years ago, that was “supposed to be my high school, part-time job,” she said. Then she worked a decade in the industry before accidentally falling into staffing, she said.
But when Fountain-Wilks ponders her career paths, and subsequent successes, she “totally believes it's by the grace of God that I've been so fortunate,” she said.
Her 15-year-old firm — which specializes in placing engineering, information technology and accounting professionals in permanent and temporary positions -- “weathered some pretty miserable years in 2009 and 2010,” Fountain-Wilks said. To survive, she had to lay off staff and tap a line of credit, she said.
Debt-free again, her multimillion-dollar company has more than doubled its revenues in the past two years, Fountain-Wilks said. The firm, which employs 17 full time staff along with several contracted workers, has about 200 active clients.
“I never aspired to be a big company, but somewhere along the way I had to keep growing to give my employees, whom I respect, career paths and a place to grow,” Fountain-Wilks said. “It's not about me, it's about them.”
The Small Business Administration recently named Fountain-Wilks, 48, Oklahoma's small business person of the year. From her offices at 11600 Broadway Extension, she sat down with The Oklahoman to talk about her professional and personal life. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Tell us about your roots.
A: I'm a homegrown girl. I grew up in Oklahoma City, with a sister four years younger. My mom worked as an admin in H.R. for Grace Petroleum and my dad was a drafter. He drew industrial product illustrations for advertisements and manuals.
Some of his career, he worked for himself and, when he did, his drafting table took up one-third of our den. I graduated high school from P.C. Original.
Q: What was your first job?
A: I started as a stock room clerk for Zales Jewelers in Shepherd Mall, three weeks shy of my 16th birthday. When I left five years later, I was assistant store manager.
I worked another five years with Whitehall Jewelers, hiring on before they opened in Crossroads Mall. I started as a store manager and moved up to regional manager.
All the while I was also going to school at UCO, often attending class in the mornings and working noon to 9. It took me eight and a half years after graduating high school to complete my college degree. Some semesters, I could take only one or two classes. But I never quit.
Q: What prompted your move into the staffing industry?
A: I had my children and needed to work weekdays. My mom suggested I go to Express Personnel (now Express Employment Professionals) to find work and they ended up hiring me as a recruiter. I was a natural fit because in retail — an industry which is notorious for high turnover — I was constantly recruiting and interviewing.
I developed an intuition about people and learned to read between the lines and identify red flags. I knew when I needed to dig deeper, ask the tougher questions and not be afraid to do it. I worked for Express two years, stayed home with my kids for three, and worked a year as a recruiter/staffing manager for Office Team-Robert Half.
Q: How'd you come to start your own firm?
A: A former Express co-worker started her own staffing firm in Tulsa and wanted me to run an Oklahoma City branch. I already had started thinking about going out on my own, so I agreed if we were 50-50 partners. I opened in '98 and bought her out in 2004. When I started, we staffed for just engineering jobs. We added IT in 2000 and accounting in 2003. Part of what's kept me challenged is learning each of these industries.
Q: When did you incorporate government contracting?
A: In 2005, when we got our 8A small business certification as a women-owned business. I took a look at the greater Oklahoma City territory and realized if we didn't do business with the government, including Tinker, FAA and state offices, we could serve fewer than half of employers here. Government contracting is a really long sales cycle, but when you're awarded a contract, it's usually for five years.
Q: How do you expect health care reform to affect your business, after the key mandates kick in Jan. 1? Some observers expect employers, as their insurance rates rise and profit margins are squeezed, will turn to staffing firms as an alternative to adding full time staff.
A: There's so much uncertainty still. But I do expect to pay higher insurance costs for our own employees. We've always paid 100 percent of the premiums of our full time staff, but we've only offered contracted workers the opportunity to buy insurance. But in July 2014, when our own health plan renews, we'll have to offer health insurance for several contracted workers. I'm not about trying to run from our responsibility. I say we face it head-on. But the increased costs may mean we have to raise rates for our clients.