Cover Story – Help wanted

Posted on Mar 4, 2013 :: Cover Story
Margaret LeBrun
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Jim Beré, chairman and CEO and of the Neenah-based, global customer care outsourcer, enthusiastically handles all the issues that come at him as the company experiences exponential growth. Gone are the days when the telephone ruled in customer care; today more than half of such work Alta handles for its clients involves electronic communication. Antique telephones courtesy of AT&T, Appleton. Photo by Shane Van Boxtel, Image Studios.

Jim Beré laughs often and smiles a lot. You half expect him to slap his forehead in wonder, given his sunny demeanor.

As chairman and chief executive officer of a company that is ramping up to fill hundreds of new jobs, Beré has reasons to smile. Alta Resources, headquartered in Neenah with locations in California and the Philippines, is in the enviable position of having increased business through the recent recession and prepared itself for more exponential growth.

The company hired 643 people last year, now employs more than 1,249 locally — a total of 2,139 worldwide — and plans to add as many as 500 more jobs this year. Last fall, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker visited Alta to announce $1 million in state credits issued through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. toward Alta’s investments in capital and technology. Beré is pumped up for the challenge and excited about not only growing jobs but boosting the community as a result.

“For Alta not to maximize its potential, that would hurt me more than anything,” Beré says, gazing out the windows of his seventh floor office. The view overlooks the Fox River and Neenah Towers I and II, where Alta has space for more than 200 to work since the company’s 180,000-square-foot headquarters, built in 2005 at North Commercial Street, has been filled. “You know, we spend so much time trying to make sure we do everything right, and we’re looking at that 5 percent that we did wrong and not really celebrating. It’s really moments like this, when you think about it … it’s kind of like, ‘Whoa! That’s really cool!’” He laughs.

People who don’t know what goes on at Alta sometimes refer to it as a “call center,” but that would be a simplistic and narrow perspective of the services offered by the privately-held company. Alta Resources is a leading business-process outsourcer — known in the industry as a BPO — providing integrated customer care, e-commerce, sales and fulfillment for Fortune 500 companies. It focuses on the consumer packaged goods, entertainment, health care and health insurance industries. Clients’ demands for cost-saving efficiencies, e-commerce, social media, 24/7 communication and a need for highly-trained experts in niche industries such as health care are driving Alta’s growth.

The company dedicates its employees to specific companies, most of them well-known brands. Clients include a major entertainment company, a household products company and many other recognizable brands. Entire floors of the company are decorated with colorful murals, characters and motifs that anyone in the world would identify. Beré would be proud to dish about each and every one of the 30 current clients with star power, but … sorry! To protect the brands they’re entrusted with, they are companies Who Shall Not Be Named.

“When we do our job right, we’re invisible,” says Kim Peterson, chief marketing and strategy officer for Alta.

One new client agreed to talk about his experience with Alta Resources at Beré’s request. Sunrun Inc., a solar power service company based in San Francisco, chose Alta last fall after reviewing a roster of some 30 outsourcing companies to handle everything from technical issues to customer service. A dedicated staff of 22 Alta employees, plus a director, handles 60 percent of Sunrun’s customer service interactions for its 30,000-plus clients.

“They’re really helping build brand equity for our business,” says Tom Asher, director of customer care at Sunrun. “Having great customer service interaction is critical — and they are helping deliver for us. Jim Beré is a great leader and the staff he’s hired and maintained over the years is really impressive. We picked the right vendor.”

From Ameritel to Alta Resources

Beré knows first-hand the importance of establishing a brand and caring for customers – Alta is the second customer-care company he co-launched. After starting his career in finance and marketing at Kimberly-Clark, he co-founded Ameritel Corporation in 1982. It did so well it was named to the Inc. 500 list of Fastest-Growing Companies in the U.S., and in 1990 he sold it to an international BPO, Convergys, which maintains an Appleton location.

In 1995 Beré co-founded what would be called Alta Resources with former business partners, wooing a large former Ameritel client in the consumer packaging industry. Alta established a facility in Brea, Calif., in 1997. Before long Alta was also named to the Inc. 500 list of Fastest Growing Companies, and in 2004 Beré was named a recipient of Ernst & Young’s “Entrepreneur of the Year Award” for his work with business and technology in Wisconsin.

In many ways, the stars have aligned for Alta to realize rapid growth. Outsourcing, once considered a cheap but not always reliable way for companies to shove unwanted tasks off their plates, has evolved into an important component for large companies that count on customer service, consistent branding and efficiency for their success.

“There was a time when customer service was a department in the basement in a lot of companies, and now, customer service is their brand,” says Peterson. “It’s not just about what happens when you open that package – it’s what it’s like if you have a problem, or a question.” Some clients even send their own employees to Alta for product and brand awareness training, she adds.

According to Baird Research, 20 years ago large companies outsourced just 10 percent to 20 percent of their customer care business; in 2010 that figure rose to 35 percent and by 2015 it will increase to 40 percent.

“You sort of have a megatrend of business shifting from doing it themselves to outsourcing,” says Beré. “They’re saying, ‘Is this really our expertise? Do I really want to buy a $2 million telephony system, or build another building for something that isn’t my primary business, when capital is tight and I’d rather innovate in my own products?’ As an industry, we can fill that gap. We can bring best practices to that. We can bring technology and metrics. We’re participating in that big shift.”

The industry is still quite fragmented in terms of market share, Beré explains. The top nine companies that do global customer care together enjoy a total market share of 22 percent. Opportunities have opened up for smaller companies, like Alta, to focus on a niche and exploit it.

Changes in the health insurance industry, for example, offer tremendous opportunities to companies that specialize in outsourcing, Beré says. The Affordable Care Act will result in 9 million individuals shopping for insurance through newly created insurance exchanges. People will have questions. Trained individuals will need to be on the other end of the phone or keyboard when they call or email.

“Our hope is that we would get some business in that area,” Beré says, confident that Alta will, given its concentration of expertise in the health insurance industry.

Attention to efficiencies and metrics

Continuous improvement processes help prove to its customers that outsourcing work with Alta makes sense. The company incorporated Six Sigma principles in 2006 and now has 43 green belts and one black belt in the program. Since then, Alta has saved about $45 million – and passed $40 million of that on to its customers, according to Mark Strassburg, Alta’s Six Sigma black belt and director of quality.

Sunrun’s Asher, for example, is pleased that since it contracted with Alta last fall his company has been consistently achieving targeted metrics – already saving 10 percent to 15 percent on its customer service budget.

Strassburg says there’s a perception that Six Sigma is for manufacturing, but it can be applied to any business process that has quantifiable and defined goals.

“We define the problem, measure the baseline of the problem, analyze for root cause, implement improvements and then put controls in place,” he says. “We are able to apply it to our contract center work, customer care, sales, IT, human resources or other functions as well. We apply the methodology and it really strengthens relationships with our customers. In many cases, it’s triggered additional business.”

Continuous improvement initiatives in Alta’s fulfillment processes, especially in postage and shipping, have saved about $700,000 for the company and its clients since they began focusing on them about four years ago, according to Paul Loebbaka, Alta’s vice president of fulfillment.

In addition to Six Sigma, Alta also focuses on workforce management, call-quality assurance and training and compliance, such as training to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and FDA regulations.

Global operations bring new business

The ability to offer round-the-clock service has also led to new clients. Beré tells the story of a Kansas City client whose work Alta lost to a competitor some years ago, costing 150 jobs in Neenah. “We asked why we didn’t get the job, and they said ‘Well, you don’t really have a global strategy or presence,’” Beré says. “And we replied, ‘You never asked about that!’” As a result, Alta established operations in Manila, the Philippines, in 2004, positioning the company to handle future global demands. Now about 522 work in Manila and about 368 work in California.

Peterson was attracted back to Alta as a result of its global growth. Today, she says, outsourcing is seen by many companies as critical to their success. “They know that in the new economy, you just cannot have waste,” she says. A big part of her job is conveying the importance of brand equity to Alta’s employees.

“I always tell them we’ve been trusted with some of the greatest companies in the world, and they trust us with their brand,” Peterson says. “I find that both exhilarating and terrifying. It’s just an enormous responsibility. If you have a bad interaction in social media with a company, you have to address it. There’s just so much at stake.”

Because of this, potential clients take their time in selecting or switching to a new BPO partner. It also takes considerable time to train customer service employees to thoroughly understand each brand and all the technical details of each one. It often takes years to land a new client, and a typical sales cycle takes 12 to 18 months. By the same token, happy clients keep their business with Alta and generally stay for at least five to 10 years.

Some will remember the short-lived Revlon contract Alta took on in 2006, one of the few brands that allowed its name to be associated with a hiring blitz at Alta. The contract was unusual in that it was for a specific new product that the company unexpectedly eliminated, rather than an established item, Beré explains.

While global operations are important in offering flexibility to clients, many are drawn to Alta because of the culture of its Northeast Wisconsin employees. Dave Quandt, vice president of customer care at Alta, says “Wisconsin nice” is a phrase that clients have independently mentioned in their experience talking with representatives on the phone.

Alta employees handle upwards of 13 million phone calls each year. Phone calls, however, make up slightly less than half of all the company’s customer care business today.

“The way in which people elect to communicate with the company has varied dramatically,” says Quandt. “Dialogue over the phone is still very common, but it isn’t the lion’s share of what we do. Social media is the quickest channel we’re evolving today – we meet the customer in whatever way they reach out to engage. The web and other electronic media really drive most of the transactional volume. And fulfillment is a key part of that.”

E-commerce

About six years ago Alta began working with a local e-technology company called Bean Basket. Three years ago it bought the company, brought its employees in-house and harnessed their expertise to quickly build on its e-commerce business. Today, e-commerce makes up about 16 percent of Alta’s business and is poised for the most growth.

“It’s been a great fit,” says John Ambrose, director of e-commerce, who joined Alta Resources along with Bean Basket founder Michael Harper and 10 of their former employees. “It was a perfect time for Alta, in terms of where they were headed, and we’ve made some great strides over the last 36 months.”

The e-commerce division of Alta encompasses not only communication with consumers but much of the technology needs of the company, Ambrose explains. “When a client comes to us and says, ‘We need a strategy to use the web as a revenue generator,’ we help on the strategy side and bring in a fully-integrated service approach on top of the technology.” More than 100 individuals now work in technology-related activities at Alta.

Fulfillment services

Hand-in-hand with customer service is fulfilling promises of sending products, tickets, coupons and more. To meet this need, about 80 to 100 people (depending on the season) work in Alta’s 200,000-square-foot fulfillment center about five miles south of Neenah. Each year they process millions of items directly to their consumers.

Alta has done mail fulfillment since a major client asked for it in 1995; in 2001 the company added package fulfillment and in 2008 it doubled its facility to accommodate growth.

Alta’s rapid growth will result in hiring throughout the company, including hourly customer care jobs, technically-trained individuals and college-educated managers, Beré says. Some growth may occur in California, where the pool of Spanish speakers is deeper. In Neenah, questions abound about the lack of downtown parking, and the potential search for a new location that can once again bring all the local employees under one roof.

Giving back to the local community is important for Beré.

“I’d love to tell you story after story where people at Alta are involved in their community as volunteers,” he says. “I’ll tell you … we’re changing our community.”

Beré has chaired the Leadership Giving Committee for United Way of the Fox Cities and serves on the board of Legacy Private Trust. For many years he has also served on the international board of World Vision. One of the largest non-governmental organizations in the world, World Vision aids communities in disaster assistance and development. Currently, Beré chairs the U.S. board for World Vision and has traveled the globe to such places as Haiti, Japan, Thailand and recently, Senegal.

“I’ve been to so many countries where they can’t generate jobs,” he says. “You go to an African country, and you’ll meet the people – some of the nicest people in the world – and many are so poor, they live in a place smaller than my office. And I’ll tell you what – I’d hire any one of them. The dignity that occurs with job creation is amazing.

“If we can create jobs in the communities in which we do business,” Beré adds, “we’re going to make our communities better.”

A CLOSER LOOK

Alta Resources

CEO: Jim Beré

On the web: www.altaresources.com

Employees: 1,249 in Neenah, 2,139 worldwide

Locations: Neenah, California and the Philippines

Founded: 1995

Number of phone calls answered: 13 million*

Number of credit cards processed: 24 million*

Number of emails answered: 32 million*

Sales: More than $1 billion on behalf of clients

* Figures from 2011

 

Margaret LeBrun

About Margaret LeBrun

Co-Publisher, Executive Editor View all posts by Margaret LeBrun →