Cover Story – Drawing inspiration

Posted on Aug 1, 2014 :: Cover Story
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer
Omni Resources president Gail Ondresky and Solutions Group team leader Jeff Lang believe in finding solutions that help a client meet business goals. That means spending time working through proposed solutions on a whiteboard before a line of code is ever typed or hardware is purchased. They have been known to wrestle over the dry erase pen when brainstorming. Photos by Shane Van Boxtel, Image Studios.

Omni Resources president Gail Ondresky and Solutions Group team leader Jeff Lang believe in finding solutions that help a client meet business goals. That means spending time working through proposed solutions on a whiteboard before a line of code is ever typed or hardware is purchased. They have been known to wrestle over the dry erase pen when brainstorming. Photos by Shane Van Boxtel, Image Studios.

James Young knows all too well dead time can kill his business.

As the president of Spring-Green Lawn Care Corp., he had seen it too many times before. A franchise owner treated a customer’s lawn, spotted a problem area in the grass and recommended a fix for the homeowner. Those recommendations were written up and left with the bill, often on a sheet of paper tucked into the door.

Then, the waiting game began.

There was no telling if, or when, the homeowners would read the recommendation or request the proposed solution. When they did call, critical time was lost as the call center, which did not have the information left by the technician, tried to connect the customer to the franchise owner to schedule an additional visit.

Worse, the homeowner might never understand they needed to call.

“You can just see the information getting lost in the stacks of paper that take up our daily life,” Young says. “We were missing opportunities to strengthen our franchise owner’s relationship with the local customer and strengthen our brand nationally. There just had to be a faster way to connect everyone.”

Finally, Young decided to follow up on a recommendation made by R.R. Donnelly, the company’s direct mail provider, and make a call to the Solutions Group at Appleton-based Omni Resources.

After some marathon sessions working through ideas on a whiteboard, Omni was able to craft a solution that starts with the mobile devices the technicians were already carrying into the field.

Now, if a problem is detected, the technician takes a picture and sends it directly to the homeowner’s email and into Spring-Green’s national customer service center, where it is linked to the customer profile along with the technician’s specific recommendations.

When the customer calls, the customer service center looks at the same photos and proposed solution and can immediately schedule the follow-up visit. Often, they can get a response from the customer even before the technician leaves the site.

The result: happier customers and franchise operators, stronger repeat business and a stronger brand nationwide.

“A lot of IT partners struggle to go from the vision to what it means in practical business terms,” Young says. “What was great about working with Omni was that they were really good at understanding our business goals and making sure the solution met them.”

While it sounds as simple as “there’s an app for that,” the solution developed by Omni Resources incorporates several complex parts involving Spring-Green’s marketing, customer and technical services operations. Spring-Green, based in Plainfield, Ill., operates in 26 states with hundreds of independent franchise owners who deal with a wide swath of different grasses, pests and regulations. All of it has to be digested in real time, attached to the correct customer file and ready to go as an outbound marketing touch within moments. And it all has to be seamless for the customer.

One of Lang’s favorite sayings is that the whiteboard is more powerful than the keyboard when it comes to innovation. Code writing has become a commodity, and while a company can buy thousands of lines of code inexpensively, it may never get a solution that truly meets its business needs.

One of Lang’s favorite sayings is that the whiteboard is more powerful than the keyboard when it comes to innovation. Code writing has become a commodity, and while a company can buy thousands of lines of code inexpensively, it may never get a solution that truly meets its business needs.

Whiteboard wizardry

It all started with a whiteboard.

For Jeff Lang, Omni’s Solutions Group managing director, there is no better way to get at the root of creating the right solution to complex problems. This is especially true when it comes to technology, where there is often a temptation to jump in, recommend the latest gadget or start writing code that may create a wonderful app, but it doesn’t really solve the business challenge.

“The whiteboard is always more powerful than the keyboard,” Lang says. “More stuff gets fixed here than has ever been fixed on a keyboard.”

That is a critical component of the culture at Omni.

When tasked to solve a problem, Lang and his group do not immediately bring in the hardware and software specialists and start writing code. Instead, they gather the necessary stakeholders, learn the business objectives, gather ideas and then begin sketching out proposed solutions.

Only when they have a good idea how a solution will help the client accomplish its business objectives do they proceed toward implementation.

“We always have to have a firm grasp of what we are trying to achieve for our customers to be successful,” Gail Ondresky, president and CEO of Omni Resources, says. “And if there is no payback in a solution, we need to be prepared to have that conversation. And we have.”

It’s an approach that made the company a finalist for the Insight Publications Innovation Award earlier this year. And in June, Omni received the “company innovation” award from the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce for its ability to “engage talent to act entrepreneurially, think critically and solve problems creatively.”

For Omni, the awards are recognition of a company culture built around the simple words of the great innovator Thomas Edison: “There’s a way to do it better – find it.”

It wasn’t always that way.

Staffing evolution

Founded in 1984, Omni Resources has, for most of its 30 years, provided information technology staffing to support its clients. IT staffing remains a critical component of the company’s business mix.

It was still primarily an IT staffing agency when Ondresky joined the firm in 1995.

“When I first came, it wasn’t that the owners were opposed to doing that kind of project work, but they also wanted a high return on investment for it,” she says.

Staffing was the primary function, and the innovation projects were more of an occasional pursuit rather than part of the business model. Still, the company grew steadily, and had offices across the state in Appleton, Milwaukee, Madison and even into Minnesota, though the  company closed the Minneapolis office in 2008 because it was underperforming and it opted to concentrate its resources on the higher-performing Wisconsin-based offices.

Events in 2008 prompted company leadership to reevaluate the Omni business model.

The first was the beginning of the Great Recession, which forced companies in many industries to change the way they did business. Certainly, the tech industry took quite a blow, as many industries cut back on tech support and began to shop for those services on price-point.

Leadership quickly realized that continuing business as usual was nothing more than the quickest route to hanging up the “out of business” sign.

Instead, Omni went through a major internal change that expedited its change in focus: the original owners, Robert and Veronica Mueller, retired and sold the company to the employees though an Employee Stock Option Program.

Now, everyone had a stake in the company’s success.

“I would say the ESOP experience has given us a definite leg up,” says Brent Otto, the company’s controller and ESOP administrator. “I would say the enthusiasm level has certainly increased and the Solutions Group has been a major driver of that.”

It didn’t go smoothly from the start. For Omni, 2009 was one of the worst years in its history as the economy bottomed out and the company transformed itself internally.

That transformation was a two-fold process: the redefinition of the company as a solution provider with a group of employees dedicated to those projects, and the development of the “Omni Innovation Process.”

Innovation defined

Five years later, the Solutions Group numbers 50 employees in the Appleton office, and has been expanded on a smaller scale in the Milwaukee and Madison offices, with 10 and 6, respectively. In its first year of operation, the group accounted for 5 percent of the company’s revenue when compared to the IT staffing. That’s now 30 percent, and the company expects to derive 50 percent of all revenues from its Solutions Group in two years.

Sales for Omni Resources exceed $20 million annually.

“Staffing will always be part of our core business, and we have often benefited from having our foot in the door through staffing,” Ondresky says. “But within two years the Solutions Group will be at least half of our business. It’s an area of great growth.”

As the Solutions Group has grown, it has created its own roadmap to innovation, breaking the process down into four distinct segments: ideation, technology design, planning and execution. By knowing where a client is in the process, the staff at Omni can better understand what resources are needed and provide them more efficiently for clients, Lang says.

Omni may work from ideation to execution phase, or simply assist with any one of the phases for a client. For Omni itself, the process is continual.
“There is always more to come,” Ondresky says. “You don’t do it once and stop.”

Hot opportunity

Miller Electric Manufacturing’s search for a better way to deliver valuable performance data from its power supplies and welding equipment prompted the company to begin discussions with Omni’s Solutions Group in late 2011.

Miller had an existing IT staffing arrangement in which Omni provided additional help as needed. What Miller needed in this case was a creative solution to make data accessible in a timely fashion for its clients.

The end result, launched in late 2013 under the name Insight Core, is a solution that transmits that data – such as time on, material used or amps – in real time to the cloud, where it can be accessed as needed by multiple devices. Prior to the introduction of Insight Core, the data had to be downloaded manually from each machine.

“Our customers wanted a better understanding of what was happening in the welding cell,” Nate Lamers, director of information technology for Illinois Tool Works, Miller’s parent company, says of the challenge Miller was facing. “For some of our customers, this was really eye-opening data.”

The data, especially in real time, gives manufacturers better control of the welding process for productivity, quality and efficiency. It can also provide vital information on compliance with exacting specifications.

Again, it started with the whiteboard. Omni staff also visited welding cells for detailed information on the processes and how the machines were collecting data.

“We had some great whiteboard sessions,” Lamers says. “It was about getting all the ideas out there so we could start to leverage the expertise and develop the solution that was best for our customers.”

Miller will celebrate Insight Core’s first year on the market in November. While it doesn’t have a long track record, Lamers says the customers who have integrated the system are having great results.

“In many cases, this is new information. It’s a powerful tool,” he says.

Path forward

Providing the tools to run a business better is a critical component of Omni’s business vision. As Ondresky points out, while their clients need innovative technology to run their businesses, they are not technology companies. Instead, they are trying to deliver better products and services to their clients so
they can hit their revenue targets and remain in business.

It’s Omni’s task to give them the technology tools to do that.

“Technology is changing fast for many of them,” Ondresky says. “We want it to be an asset that keeps up with what their business needs.”

Another role Omni has grown into is that of innovation evangelist, particularly when it comes to the career pathways that relate to innovation and that those jobs can be found right here in the local economy. It’s a particular passion for Lang, who says the challenge is that students and teachers just don’t know the opportunities that are out there.

“There are all kinds of careers that relate to innovation,” he says. “We want them to know they don’t have to go to New York or Chicago.”

That passion for reaching out to interested students led to Omni’s involvement with the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce’s Connect a Career web portal. Launched in 2013, the web-based tools allow students, educators and working professionals to connect for job shadows, speaking opportunities or participation in career fairs.

Omni donated $40,000 in development services for the online portal, which now has seven high schools and more than 140 businesses participating. The chamber is currently looking to expand the scope of the service.

“Omni came in and made it happen,” says Patty Milka, director of the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce Competitive Workforce Development program. “They are a living and breathing example of why Connect a Career is so necessary.”

Previously, the opportunities provided by Connect a Career were handled by individual businesses, teachers and students, resulting in a lack of information and frustration on all sides.

For Omni, Connect a Career represents the mantra of finding a better way.

“We are always asking ourselves ‘How can we do it better?’” Lang says. “We tell our clients we will give them a better solution and I’ve got to back that up.”

About Omni Resources

Founded: 1984 as an IT staffing company
Headquarters: Appleton, with offices in Madison and Milwaukee
Employees: 160
Services: IT staffing and technology solutions for businesses both locally and nationally, including companies in the top 50 of the Fortune 500 listings. Omni Resources became employee owned in 2008, helping to reshape the company. Gov. Scott Walker’s administration recognized the approach noting the company was the only employee-owned technology company in Wisconsin.
On the web: www.omniresources.com