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Smart Growth

February 2016
Wanda Smith, Symphony Placements

Wanda Smith, Symphony Placements

In the lifespan of every small business, there is a pivotal moment that may make or break the company’s future, and savvy entrepreneurs recognize these moments and make shrewd, calculated business moves in order to thrive. When Wanda Smith, CEO and President of Symphony Placements (, a full service flexible staffing and human resource solutions company, found her young business mired in the recession of 2008, she knew she had to make a bold decision and pinpoint a path for revenue expansion. Smith decided to go through the arduous, time-consuming process to apply for certification as a Minority Business Enterprise (MBE), a state program established to ensure that small, minority- and women-owned firms had the opportunity to participate fully and fairly in both state and federally funded projects.

“There is a ton of paperwork, including financial reports and tax returns, to apply to be a MBE through the Maryland Department of Transportation. It was a desperate time for a lot of businesses, including mine. I was looking for any angle I could find to survive and grow my business, and I recognized that even during a recession, the state government will continue to spend money and allocate long-term contracts,” says Smith. “For any state contract over $100,000, a certain percentage of the funds are put aside for a MBE.” Although it was a long process, Smith’s wise move not only saved her business, but it also positioned Symphony Placements for long-term success. In fact, Symphony Placements doubled its revenue in 2013 and again in 2014; last year, Inc. 5000 ranked Symphony Placements as the No. 931 fastest growing company in the United States.

Richard McClearn, Wanda Smith and Marta Chavatel lead a talented and dedicated team.

Richard McClearn, Wanda Smith and Marta Chavatel lead a talented and dedicated team.

“Becoming a MBE opened up a whole new area of business opportunities for me,” Smith recalls. “I was suddenly able to investigate who the big contractors are that are bidding on large state contracts and whether they have requirements to hire a MBE subcontractor. I was able to go into a new segment of business – call centers. I am now a large call center staffing provider and have created a profitable niche revenue source for Symphony Placements. In fact, I have five current contracts in the State of Maryland that are all call center related. I am able to place individuals in a call center and when that job is complete, they move quickly to another call center.”

Once Symphony Placements was fully entrenched in the call center business, Smith recognized another huge revenue opportunity. When the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) was signed into law in 2010, the State created Maryland Health Connection, the official health insurance marketplace. And like most states, Maryland needed a bounty of workers to man call centers to answer questions and assist with enrollment. “I was able to become a prime vendor for the ACA call centers in 2013, and this significantly attributed to my huge revenue growth in 2013 and 2014,” Smith says. “Plus, most call center contracts go for three to five years with sometimes two one-year options. This ensures you have three or so years of steady work, and when the contract is up and it’s rebid, if the contractor did a good job, he or she is typically the first preference to be awarded the contract again.” Some clients need positions filled in 24 hours, so Symphony Placements’ vast database of screened individuals is especially beneficial. “We can place people the next day. We will search through our database and view data entry scores, where candidates live, whether they need access to a bus line and their criminal background check. We have call centers that need 100 people in one-day’s notice,” says Smith, who adds that staffers in call centers make around $14 per hour.

Wanda Smith (center in silver and black jacket) and her team at Symphony Placements.

Wanda Smith (center in silver and black jacket) and her team at Symphony Placements.

Smith’s ability to fulfill her clients’ staffing needs and place highly-skilled, screened and qualified individuals at their business goes beyond simply choosing the right people. “For clients that apply for state contracts, I do the research on the RFP to ensure that we can place people who are qualified and meet the requirements. I put a plan into action even before they have the contract so that we are ready to go as soon as they need us.” This collaboration and hard work pays dividends for Symphony Placements.

“Due to our success in the call center business, an international company recently reached out to me and asked me to obtain my MBE certification in Virginia so that I could recruit and help them open a new call center in Virginia. They also asked me to obtain a Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) certification, a federal contract program,” Smith says. “This is just the tip of a huge iceberg, and the call center business will continue to grow for us.”

Another key to the expansion efforts of Symphony Placements has been Marta Chavatel, vice president of business development and operations.

Chavatel joined the company in 2011 with over 20 years experience in staffing and recruitment. Chavatel wears several hats at Symphony Placements and says that one of her first goals when she arrived was to build a strong recruitment team. “Our recruiters do so much more than just recruiting. They are case managers and work together as a team. We are fortunate because they are so passionate about their jobs and our clients and they truly want every person who walks through the door looking for a job to be successful,” she says. “We’ve empowered our recruiters to make key decisions on their own, and we’ve instituted an effective checks and balances system so that if one of them is out, we can assure our clients that a colleague is handling their staffing needs.”

Cover story 4

Chavatel says that the call center business has helped fuel the growth of the company, as Symphony Placements has staffed call centers for medical facilities, hospitals, an automobile title search company and more. “The state contracts with 60-70 placements for each project have kept us growing; however, we provide the same exceptional customer service to smaller jobs. Sometimes a client only needs one or two placements but then later needs 15 or 20. We also get a lot of referrals from small clients because they appreciate how we check in on them,” says Chavatel, who adds that she is targeting Harford County and the State of Virginia as additional areas for future expansion.

The expansion over the past few years has allowed Smith to purchase and renovate a Cape Cod house on Old Padonia Road in Cockeysville to serve as her company headquarters. “We are on pace to increase sales this year by $3 million. We have huge revenue growth opportunities, and my goal is to make Symphony Placements a $20 million company, and we are well on our way.”

Going High-Tech
One of the keys to success for Symphony Placements, Smith says, is the ability to constantly listen to the marketplace and create new avenues for revenue sources. “We have so many satisfied customers who started reaching out to us asking, ‘Since you help us with call centers, health care and other areas, can you help us with information technology?’ I had been toying with the idea of expanding into IT for the past year or so, but I knew I needed to find the absolute right person to be the director – someone who understands the business, has the experience and the connections. I have the experience in staffing and can teach someone the business, but I needed someone who could teach me IT.”

Awards & Recognitions

Maryland Philanthropy Association Outstanding Volunteer Award for Smith’s involvement with Casey Cares Foundation – 2015

Finalist, EY Entrepreneur Of The Year – 2015

Inc 5000 Ranked No. 931 in the U.S. for fastest growing company – 2015

Finalist, Maryland Business Breakthrough – 2014 Maryland Chamber

Mayor of Baltimore Top 100 Women Owned Award – 2014

Baltimore Business Journal Fastest Growing Women Owned Business – 2013

SmartCEO Future 50 – 2013, 2014 and 2015

Certified Woman Owned Business (MBE, DBE, WBE and WOSB)

Smith found the perfect individual in Richard McClearn, who was hired in January as Director of IT Staffing Services. With over 30 years’ experience in information technology services, McClearn has a unique understanding and assessment of IT talent from the point of view as a business owner, contractor, prime and subcontractor. His significant experience in IT allows him to effectively create staffing solutions for IT clients, as he has witnessed firsthand the evolution of technology and its impact on businesses.

McClearn says he is as “excited as a little kid” about his new position and says it’s a perfect match for his skills and personality. “I wanted a new challenge and had developed a great rapport with Wanda and Marta over the years. They both have such great business sense, and I know this new division will be successful, as I know the IT business and they definitely know the staffing business,” McClearn says, his excitement evident in his voice. “I have vast experience in hiring IT professionals, and I am now ready to learn how to recruit.” McClearn says that when he was in need of staffing in the past, he recognized that one of the most important things to look for in a staffing company is whether they thoroughly vet and test their candidates. “This was never an issue with Symphony Placements, so I knew I would be able to recruit the best in IT and that companies would come to us.”

McClearn is actively establishing partnerships with key individuals in IT. “I know every major decision maker and the top salespeople in IT in the area,” he says. He aims to place professionals in mid-level and higher positions – desktop engineers, project managers and Subject Matter Experts (SME) – with some positions paying $100 per hour or more.

Extended H.R. department
Smith sees her company as more than just a temporary placement firm – Symphony Placements is an extension of companies’ human resources departments. “More and more employers are using staffing companies for temporary to permanent positions. Otherwise, a small business must create an ad, place it online, conduct interviews, assess a candidate’s skills and do a criminal background check … it’s very labor intensive, and we can handle all of that for them.”

Once a company’s staffing needs have been met, Smith and her team continue to collaborate with their clients. For example, a large health care association client of hers recently received a surprise visit to check its Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliance required the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “They met one of my temps who is a medical assistant in the hallway, and then went to human resources to review her certifications, CPR card validation, and whether she had a recent physical, childhood immunizations, and flu shot. I was able to send everything immediately to my client through the Cloud.”

Smith says those who come to her for employment run the gamut from retired individuals looking for some money for the holidays to those with a doctorate degree looking for a new career. “We also work with a lot of men who stayed home to raise the kids because their wife was the breadwinner. Once the kids are grown, he needs a job but has a 15-year gap on his resume. Temp work can separate him from that stack of resumes, he gets a foot in the door and is able to showcase his skills in-person.”

“There is so much satisfaction in helping someone better themselves through employment,” Chavatel adds. “I had one individual who cried when we found her a job. She was so happy because her son had asked her for three months if they could get pizza delivered for dinner, and now she could afford to do that for him.”

Staffing Stats

3.32 million people per week in U.S. work in temporary staffing

$30.69 million economic impact, 3Q 2015

$17/hour average wage for temps

76% work full time comparable to overall workforce

49% say it’s the best way to get permanent job

93 percent of orders for temp to full were hired full time by Symphony Placements’ clients

– Wanda Smith, Symphony Placements

In order to make applying for a job easier, Symphony Placements went completely paperless in 2015. “I have over 11,000 individuals in my CRM system, so the amount of filing cabinets we would need would be space prohibitive,” she says. “People don’t have time to come in for three hours to do paperwork, so now they can do the forms online. Also, we can conduct interviews via Skype, so someone from Frederick doesn’t need to drive to our office for an interview.”

Those who are placed through Symphony Placements are all W-2 employees of Smith’s, and they receive the same benefits as her staff – health care, vision and dental insurance, paid vacation, paid holidays, referral bonuses, online software training, 401(k), profit sharing, life insurance, long- and short-term disability and more.

“The tremendous growth we’ve experienced the past few years is just more reassurance that we are doing it the right way,” Smith says introspectively. Symphony Placements has garnered multiple business awards (see sidebar); however, Smith says the recognition she’s received for her philanthropic work gives her the most satisfaction. Smith serves on several non-profit organizations’ boards, and she gets the most excited when talking about the Casey Cares Foundation, which provides ongoing, uplifting programs to critically ill children and their families. For her annual holiday party, instead of guests bringing a bottle of wine, Smith asked them to bring a pair of pajamas for a sick child as part of Casey Cares’ Kami’s Jammies Program. Smith also mentors students at TESST College of Technology to help them improve their interviewing skills. Who knows … these students may be coming to Symphony Placements very soon to land a great job. I95