When Jory Lamb, affable founder and CEO of Calgary-based VistaVu Solutions, decided his company was ready to do business in the U.S., he opted for a region most similar to his home turf in Alberta. Lamb determined that his 17-year-old enterprise software firm, which provides cost accounting services to drilling companies (and is ranked 385th on the 2013 PROFIT 500), would thrive in Colorado’s oil and gas sector, which is similar to Alberta’s.
Lamb’s initial reception in the high-altitude western city seemed to reinforce his hunch: within hours of touching down, he met with local Chamber of Commerce officials, who connected him with accountants and lawyers as well as a banker eager to offer terms and credit. As Lamb recounts, “He just said, How much do you need?’ I said, What can you give me?'”
Reality hit when Lamb and his sales team kept hearing the same message from prospective oil sector customers. Unlike Alberta, where major oil and gas firms are based right in Calgary, the managers of the Colorado drilling companies he approached all said that their Houston-based head offices called the shots. “We realized opportunities were driven out of Houston, so lesson learned.”
Time to move
VistaVu’s decision to move closer to the decision-makers located in the Texas oil capital offers some valuable insights on how to establish a profile and grow your presence in a dense business hub like Houston, which is for the oil industry what Manhattan is for the investment banking sector.
First, Lamb realized that it made more sense to buy an existing business than build one from scratch, so he acquired two small firms that develop enterprise software applications, one in Denver, the other in Dallas. “All of a sudden, boom, we had employees, clients, and critical mass. We had activity.” VistaVu’s new client base now extended into Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas.
The second, and more difficult, challenge, involved building a U.S. team that could boost VistaVu’s presence. Lamb admits that he initially went about the recruitment process the wrong way, and advises other entrepreneurs to pay close attention to how they go about staffing a branch office.
Because he didn’t know anyone in Houston, Lamb relied on Monster.com, the job search site, and various head-hunting firms to recruit a sales team. That approach generated plenty of frustration and distraction. “In the first couple of years, we mowed through a lot of people,” he says. During one particularly unstable year, he spent 220 days in the U.S., fighting fires in the company’s branch offices. “I thought at that time that I could manage from a distance.” He couldn’t.
Hiring the right people for the new office
In 2009, Lamb and his team decided to take a different tack. Instead of trying to run the U.S. offices by remote control, they’d look for a strong manager who had the skills to take the operation in hand, build a cohesive sales team and end the revolving door problem.
During the head-hunting process, Lamb learned that Roy Garcia, a veteran HR software executive, had turned up as a candidate. Garcia, based in Houston, had been an account executive for Ceridian in the 1990s and jumped to the oil industry in 2002. He’d eventually landed as vice-president of sales with Transzap/Oildex, which delivers software-as-a-service solutions to oil and gas firms across North America. In fact, VistaVu had worked with Garcia while he was still at Oildex, and at the time, Lamb had broached the possibility of recruiting him.
During the eight month courtship, Lamb saw that Garcia had the drive and connections to push growth in VistaVu’s U.S. division. “We had a lot of arrows pointing in the right direction.” Garcia formally joined VistaVu in 2010.
The numbers since then tell the rest of the story. In 2012, $1.65 million of the company’s gross revenues, or 39%, came from exports—quite a hike from export revenue in 2007, which brought in just under half a million dollars.
Lamb points out that the decision to hire Garcia gave VistaVu more confidence in recruiting senior executives from larger firms, such as a new vice-president of operations lured away from the global IT powerhouse consultancy, CGI. The pitch? The opportunity to take on a leadership position in a fast-growing, entrepreneurial firm. “There’s a tonne of senior executives who want to be part of that story,” says Lamb. “We have a lot to offer.”