Tom Ryan | Crain's Connecticut

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Tom Ryan

Background:  

Thomas M. “Tom” Ryan (right), a Norwalk native and a 1983 graduate of Fairfield Preparatory School, started ICR Inc. in 1998 with two childhood friends, working from a small office in Westport. Today, the company has about 175 employees with its headquarters on Main Avenue in Norwalk and branch offices in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Beijing and Hong Kong. ICR is one of the largest privately held communications consulting firms in North America, advising 600 public companies and others in industries such as financial services, healthcare, real estate, restaurants and retail.

The Mistake:

Being understaffed. For the first 10 years we were very focused on the top line, on driving revenues. That’s all we cared about. We didn’t have a CFO and we didn’t really understand profitability. When things are going well and revenue is growing, then that forgives a lot of things.

There’s a saying that when the tide goes out you know who’s naked. Well, we were naked and didn’t realize it until the financial crisis hit in 2008. Not having a CFO came back to hurt us. We needed an HR leader. We ignored some very important parts of the business; things we should have been doing.

We were naked and didn’t realize it until the financial crisis hit in 2008.

The Lesson:

We’re now on an amazing run for which we’re grateful because we’re investing in people. It took us one or two years to rectify things.

We hired a CFO in 2009 and invested in the finance department. We hired an HR director. Before we had no idea what our peers were doing to attract and keep people. But now we do and we’ve made those things a key part of compensation. We’ve hired 50 people in the past year. We now understand profitability per person, which not only helps us serve our clients but creates opportunity for people working here. We have a head of marketing now and we’ve rebranded the company.

We’re growing on a larger scale yet our mistakes are manageable. Making mistakes is a good thing; just don’t make a gigantic one. We’re at a size now where we’re running into a different set of problems. It’s the kind that develop when you no longer know everyone’s name.

We’ve worked in industry groups since the beginning and that creates a silo effect. Also having people working on different floors creates barriers. Getting people on the same floor is key. Twice a year we have company gatherings so everyone can connect better. Developing personal relationships is an important part of serving the clients and keeping people within the business working together.

We were a small entrepreneurial company and we waited too long to make change and we had to change when we were forced to. But things have worked out. We’re still entrepreneurial but our infrastructure is bigger and better.

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