Interview: Catching Up with Chris Sullens, President and CEO of WorkWave

Photo: Chris Sullens, president and CEO of WorkWave Photo Credit: Courtesy WorkWave
Chris Sullens, president and CEO of WorkWave | Courtesy WorkWave

Earlier this summer, Chris Sullens, president and CEO of WorkWave (Neptune), the provider of cloud-based software solutions for the field service and “last mile” delivery industries, won the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year 2016 award in the Software Services category in New Jersey. We interviewed Sullens about the award and received an update on what’s been going on at WorkWave.

Do you have any idea how you caught the judges’ eye and won the EY award?

The judges are independent, and we really weren’t privy to how they came to the decision, but during the interview process we got a lot of positive feedback about our growth and what we’ve been able to do with the company in the past eight years, since I got here. Our growth has happened in two ways. We’ve grown in terms of products, number of markets we are serving and classes of markets we are addressing. The revenue growth has come as a result of that.

I think that the fact that we successfully employed a mixed model for growth was another. We coupled strong organic growth — obviously a sign of a healthy business — with acquisitions. Acquisitions have accelerated our company’s roadmap and the evolution of our platform and our business. As you may have read or seen, most of the time acquisitions don’t work out as hoped or planned, but we’ve been lucky enough or good enough to have realized significant value from our acquisitions.

Do you have a secret sauce about how to integrate acquisitions successfully?

I wish there was a simple answer. I can only speak for us. We’ve learned over time to make sure that there is a lot of thought that goes into it before doing acquisitions. We think about the types of companies, products and markets that could be a strategic benefit to WorkWave. There is a proactive piece to it, where we find areas that are going to grow in the long term, and we look at companies that are addressing those areas well or that have a product that we think we could add to our portfolio and potentially do it better because of our business model.

We’ve also been good at being what I call “opportunistic.” Just because you have an idea of a company you’d like to buy — particularly with the kinds of private companies that we buy — they might not be in the market for a sale, or there is a potential mismatch between what they think their business is worth and what we think their business is worth. So having “ears in the market” and knowing the box you want to be in is important. Then, if you run across somebody who is in that box you can react much faster versus taking what comes across your desk.

We do a lot of planning around what life will look like after the acquisition, even before we get into the agreement. We try to do as much planning as possible before we even submit a letter of intent because a lot of the details in an offer letter are things that will become a part of the final agreement and will affect the integration of that company. We think about whether or not we want the entrepreneur to stay on, and if so, what role they will have. We think about how the business will fit into our portfolio. The more fleshed out you have these details in your mind, the more productive the conversations and the more attractive it is for the seller. They have to feel that the plans and strategies make sense and are attractive to them.

The most important piece is making sure that incentives are aligned once the deal is done. For example, if you provide a strong incentive through an earn-out, contingent payment or even a bonus to the entrepreneur to drive revenue or increase profitability, but you haven’t thought how that could affect the rest of the business, you may create a mismatch. One entrepreneur could be driving business because they want to get revenue or a contingent bonus in their area, but overall it might be better for the company to make investments in other areas. I have to make sure that myself, my team and the new team that is joining are all pulling in the same direction once the deal is done. This seems like a simple thing, but a lot of times people don’t think it through.

We know you are moving to Bell Works. How did that come about? And didn’t WorkWave just move?

We moved into our current office a little more than two years ago. It was double the size of the office we had prior, and our plan was to expand within this building. AIG, who was here, had plans to reduce their footprint in the building. When we made the decision to move, we had sized the new office for about 150 people, which we expected to achieve in a three- to four-year timeline. However, we were able to increase the investment in the business, and wound up pulling forward some people we had intended to hire in future years in order to take advantage of opportunities faster than we had initially thought. So, essentially, we hired much faster than we expected when we moved here. Today we have about 165 people in this space in New Jersey, and a lot more density than we expected.

As we looked at options, the maximum footprint we could expect in this building was about 50,000 square feet, and we had already outgrown 23,000 square feet. We had plans to grow aggressively. While expanding here would have been the easiest solution, it would have put us in a land-locked situation. It would just kick the can down the road. So we bit the bullet and began to look at options that were available to us.

We are an open office and very collaborative in the way that we work, and wanted a larger floor rather than having a lot of square footage over several floors. And we wanted to have it relatively close to where we are today, and easy for employees to get to. We were looking at environments that have some advantages for our employees, like begin able to go out and walk on trails, ride bikes or have shopping nearby, so they don’t have to get into their cars to do something during the day. This reflects our workforce’s bias toward millennials who want to work in the city and places like Hoboken. We needed to find a way to replicate that where we were.

We looked at Asbury Park, which we thought would be a good location for us, but finding space that was big enough and that was office-oriented was a challenge. We just couldn’t find a property that would work. Most of them are residential, hotels or retail. We also looked at Fort Monmouth, which has a similar vision to Bell Works’, and we looked at other buildings as well. What we really liked about Bell Works was that Somerset’s vision was in line with ours. We thought it was exciting and would be exciting to our employee base. The footprint of the building also worked. We will be taking 72,000 square feet all on one floor that we can make very open like we have now. There is plenty of room for growth on that one floor. We were also able to take an option for the floor below us. That was a very big factor.

The final decision came down to the momentum of the building. We looked at it a while ago, and it had a way to go then. It was a little bit risky. You didn’t want to be the one company in there with two million square feet unoccupied. As time went on, we could see and feel the momentum coming to the building. They signed more leases and we felt this was worth taking a chance on. Luckily others, like iCIMS, joined afterwards, so now there is strong momentum to fill the building. Our plan is to move in mid-to-late January 2017. We are heads down and planning, in terms of design and architecture. Obviously, everything that’s there needs to be demoed and built back out. It’s exciting to have another opportunity to build out the workspace that we want.

What’s next at WorkWave?

As our business evolved we focused on three big problems. The first was helping clients be efficient at the office. The newest area we’ve been investing in through our acquisition of FoxTrax (St. Louis, Mo.), which provided GPS for fleet tracking, our developments in mobile and the acquisition of Viamente (Neptune), a routing company, have been giving our customers visibility in the field. And now we are expanding that to add marketing and sales functionality.

We are helping our customers connect the dots from where they get their leads to how much they are spending, to what happens to that lead through the sales process. We want them to be able to get a true [return on investment] for their marketing activities. We made two acquisitions in 2015, which gave us the bones of a lead management and marketing automation solution designed for our target field service market. We’ve been hard at work integrating and building out the product, and we think this will be a significant area of growth as we move out of 2016 and into 2017.

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