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March 2012
Respecting People; Impacting Businesses; Making a Difference
By Casey Jacobus

     When Bill and Gina Sofio chose to move to Charlotte to be closer to family, they were also looking for new careers. Both of them had worked for large multi–national corporations for over 20 years and they wanted a change. Bill had experience in a variety of sales management positions, while Gina had a broad knowledge of human resource issues from her work with giant pharmaceutical companies.

     They weren’t eager to rejoin Big Corporate America. They wanted to follow something that was already successful with a proven track record, but they also wanted to do something on which they could put their own stamp and which would draw on their skills and experiences.

     While researching job opportunities in Charlotte, the Sofios were excited by one company in particular: Express Employment Professionals. Express Employment Professionals had been helping people find jobs and helping businesses find the people and human resources support they needed for over 25 years.

     “This was such an impressive company,” says Gina. “Although neither one of us had ever worked in staffing before, this company was an incredible draw.”

     Express Employment Professionals was created in 1983 by founders Robert A. Funk, William H. Stoller, and James Gray after the dissolution of Acme Personnel, a Washington-based staffing company in which all three were associates.

     Although it was established in a time when the oil industry took a devastating downturn, and had its headquarters in Oklahoma City where banks and business were failing daily, Express Employment Professionals was able to generate impressive gross revenues of over $2 million during its first year.

     In 1984, Express Employment Professionals acquired the franchise rights to 30 Acme Personnel staffing agencies across the United States, and in 1985, when the first Express employment agency was franchised, the staffing company experienced phenomenal growth. Within five years, Express ranked among the top staffing firms in the U.S. and was recognized as one of the fastest growing privately held companies in the country.

     By 1994, Express Employment Professionals had 180 franchised employment agencies with sales of more than $325 million. Today, Express Employment Professionals has more than 550 franchises in the United States, Canada, South Africa and Australia. In 2011, the staffing company generated $2.1 billion in sales in 2011.

     “We spoke with both new franchise owners and long-term owners and they all praised the training, support and leadership that Express Employment Professionals provides,” reports Bill. “They put the focus on customer service and believe they are doing something very worthwhile in putting people back to work. We were absolutely drawn to this company.”


Employing Themselves

     Fortunately, the Sofios were able to step into an Express Employment Professionals territory in Charlotte that had been vacant for about five years. Their franchise covers Charlotte south of Trade Street. They opened for business on January 3, 2011, with a staff of two. In the first six months they met their sales goals and hired two more staff members.

     While it may seem counterintuitive to start an employment agency during a recession, Bill explains that it was really a good time and getting even better.

     “The economy is wobbling, but it’s wobbling upwards,” he asserts. “Many small and medium-size businesses are reaching out for assistance in meeting their staffing needs.”

     As a full-service staffing agency, Express Employment Professionals offers a full range of employment solutions for area businesses and job seekers, including professional search, temporary and contract staffing, evaluations and direct hire, flexible staffing, and onsite services.

     For employers, Express Employment Professionals can also help provide solutions to HR challenges, including an HR Helpline, HR compliance audits, employee handbook creation, Organizational Effectiveness Surveys, onsite client training programs, and affirmative action plans. For the job seeker, Express will evaluate individuals’ skills, offer interview and resume writing tips, and work to find a job that fits the candidate’s skill and abilities.

     “Our efforts impact people’s lives,” Bill states simply. “Every day we make a difference. It is extremely gratifying.”

     The Sofios say their goal is not to just place people in jobs; it is to form business partnerships. They try to understand their business clients so well that they know an organization’s goals and challenges and understand its culture.

     “Its easy to find people with the right skills,’’ Bill says, “It’s much harder to find people who will fit the client’s culture. When we make the perfect match, it is so gratifying to see the enthusiasm of the person getting the job and of the client who is getting an employee who fits cleanly into the organization.”

     Janis Mire, HR manager for several local interconnected firms, told Bill and Gina when she first met them that “she never used placement firms.” However, they stayed in contact, sending her interesting articles and invitations to seminars, and a year later she called them to fill a position for her.

     “They really listened to what I wanted and sent me terrific candidates, one of which I hired,” says Mire. “The fact that I got exactly what I needed right away was because they understood exactly what I wanted.”

     Now Mire has asked Express to fill a part-time vacancy for her as she doesn’t have the time to do the legwork herself.

     “I was very impressed with their depth of knowledge of the business of placement,” Mire adds to her glowing review of Express.


Staffing at Its Best

     According to the American Staffing Association, the staffing industry generates more than $97 billion in sales in the U.S. annually. Nearly 2.6 million people are employed by staffing companies every business day. And U.S. firms hire 9.7 million temporary and contract employees each year. In fact, 25 percent of companies use staffing firms.

     A decade ago, a job seeker could whip up a resume, send it off to prospective employers, job boards and websites, sit on the couch and wait for the phone to ring. Those days disappeared with the recession. Today a business receives hundreds of applications for an open position and, for many companies, reviewing all those applications can be a time-consuming addition to an already overloaded workforce. For companies needing assistance, Express Employment Professionals can provide the answer.

     “Because many companies have already cut staffs to the bare bones, their employees are overloaded,” says Gina. “They don’t have the resources available to do a thorough search when they decide to hire. What’s more, many employers aren’t looking for people straight out of school. They want people who can come in, sit down at the computer and make an immediate contribution.”

     Express Employment Professionals places people in all sorts of positions. The lion’s share of the Charlotte franchise business has been in office administration, including executive assistants, data entry and entry level accounting positions. But, Bill says, the manufacturing industry is also stable, if a shade unpredictable, and blue collar positions account for about 35 percent of Express’ business.

     In its first year of business, Express has placed about 200 people in permanent jobs and served over 50 companies. “We’ve been particularly busy the beginning of this year,” Acknowledges Gina.

     The average Express Employment Professional franchise generates a gross margin cash flow of $695,000 annually for approximately $3 million in sales. In 2010, company-wide sales were up 46 percent.

     Express has been particularly aggressive in meeting its own staffing needs. As Bill and Gina meet the talent first, they pounce on the most appropriate for their own company.

     “I don’t want sales to get too far ahead of staff,” Bill insists. “We probably have more staff than most comparable organizations, but that means we are set up better for greater growth and superior customer service.”


Adding Extra Value

     Both Sofios say that what sets their Express Employment Professionals franchise apart from competing staffing agencies is their passion for high quality output and customer service.

     “Our goal is to form business partnerships with our clients,” Bill reiterates. “This allows for customized solutions for their problems.”

     Amy Garrison, HR manager for a medical device company, calls Express Employment Professionals “absolutely great to work with.” Garrison has called on the company to help primarily with temporary staffing needs and says, “Express is my preferred vendor.”

     In addition to meeting their staffing needs, Express has provided services that go beyond meeting employment needs.

     “If I need tools or research information, they get it for me quickly,” says Garrison. “We partner together. We’re like family.”

     One of the strengths of Express Employment Professionals is that each Express Employment agency is locally owned and operated, but is backed by the expertise and support of an international headquarters. Drawing on Gina’s experience in Human Resources and the leadership and training provided by headquarters, Express is able to offer a variety of HR support to its clients.

     Among these added values are a Human Resources Helpline which gives clients immediate and direct access to experts who can provide coaching on handling specific HR issues, sample policies and forms, and information on compliance issues.

     To ensure that a company follows current HR laws and regulations, Express can conduct an HR Audit and identify areas that present potential liabilities. Through a full day, onsite or remote audit, Express specialists will review a business’s interview processes, time-off practices, performance evaluations, state and federal postings, handbooks, and so forth, and produce a comprehensive report with recommendations for improvement.

     Express can also conduct an organizational effectiveness survey which can increase recruiting and retention by providing employers with the opinions of their employees about a variety of issues including leadership, rewards and recognition, training, communication, compensation, openness to change and conflict management.

     Express can also provide customized on-site training on a wide variety of topics, ranging from team building and managing conflict in the workplace to performance appraisal processes to handling accident investigations and reporting. Its most popular seminar is a three-hour presentation that covers the 10 most common employment-related lawsuits employers face.

     “All of these are complementary values we can bring to a business partnership,” says Gina. “Once we know the organization and are able to have a serious, ongoing conversation with them, we can provide incredible service. Our goal is to know the organization so well we hire the applicant who is the right fit for them.”

     Rather than setting financial goals for the growth of his young company, Bill says his goal is for Express to be the place where Charlotte companies go when they need help with staffing needs, leadership training or HR services.

     “We want to be at the top of the line for companies in Charlotte,” both Sofios agree. “Five years from now, we want Express Employment Professionals to be a respected company where we are viewed not only as the top choice for staffing but as a strong business partner, adding value to our clients while at the same time having the privilege of putting many, many people to work in the metro Charlotte area!”

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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