The Milwaukee advantage
Provade thrives after moving from Silicon Valley
World headquarters: 770 N. Jefferson St., Suite 230, Milwaukee
Employees: 25+ in downtown Milwaukee
Industry: Software and technology, primarily for the staffing industry
Many high-tech firms in America flock to Silicon Valley, but Provade Inc. made the reverse migration, moving its headquarters from California to Milwaukee two years ago.
It is in Milwaukee that the company has sustained impressive growth, adding employees and expanding its business.
“We’re not your average Milwaukee company,” said Peter Parks, the firm’s chief operating officer.
Parks, a Marquette University graduate who worked at Manpower Inc. for a decade, was part of the team that founded Provade in 2004. The company opened its Milwaukee branch office in 2009 after Manpower became one of Provade’s customers.
Provade creates software for the staffing and consulting industries, and its core product is a vendor management system called Provade VMS. The company has achieved continued success in Milwaukee, eventually choosing to call the city its official home in 2012.
“Milwaukee’s local talent pool has enabled Provade to continually grow and innovate,” said Edward Jackson, president.
“We have successfully transitioned from Silicon Valley to the Midwest and have been able to find highly talented individuals. Milwaukee’s central location provides the perfect backdrop for a global organization expanding its reach into new markets. We are happy to be a part of this thriving community and look forward to deepening our roots as we continue to develop new products and services.”
After opening the Milwaukee branch office, the company’s new hires continued to happen in Milwaukee, a fact not lost on Provade’s executives.
“Over time, Milwaukee was just a much easier place and a better place to hire and to have employees,” Parks said. “It just happened naturally. Attrition happened in other areas and growth continued happening (in Milwaukee).”
The fact that the company was able to find continued growth after relocating, “speaks volumes for technology and innovation in Milwaukee,” said Tom Rumberg, Provade vice president of technology and a Bay Area native.
“In the right environment, that Midwestern mentality really helps with innovation,” Rumberg said. “Having worked in Silicon Valley and worked here (in Milwaukee), I am a lot more open and free to work here than I ever was there.”
Brew City edge
Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, said the technology sector in Wisconsin and the city of Milwaukee is on a positive trajectory.
“In general, I think the bigger picture is that companies are finding reasons to be in Wisconsin,” Still said. “The reason is, with most internet- and software-based companies, you can be just about anywhere as long as you can find the talent. And most say you can find the talent here.”
Provade has indeed found talent here.
“Truly, our most talented developers, we’ve hired here,” Parks said. “The people who have stayed with us the longest because we’re most interested in them are people we’ve hired here.”
“We’ve added more staff here than we ever did in California,” Rumberg said. “Each person we have hired has had a meaningful impact on the value of our product.”
Parks said that with the “startup mania” in Silicon Valley, “people don’t stay in a job very long.” Talented individuals often jump from company to company and startup to startup, and as Provade grew out of its startup stage, that lack of consistency became less desirable.
“As soon as we opened an office (in Milwaukee), we began to contrast our experience here with the Bay Area,” Parks said. “Almost every time we had a hiring decision to make, we immediately looked here first and we almost always fulfilled it here.
It was just so much easier here. People have a deeper association with their employer. There’s a sense of community within your company that just doesn’t exist (in the Bay Area). And that’s not to knock the Bay Area. Obviously, it’s what causes the innovation out there, people are bouncing around and there’s an availability of talent. But here, the consistency is very desirable.”
The company felt more comfortable and secure investing in its staff in Milwaukee. In Silicon Valley, said Rumberg, “companies are leaving in droves.”
“In Silicon Valley, there’s a ton of technology and innovation, but it’s almost a shotgun approach,” Rumberg said. “It’s very fickle…In Milwaukee, you stick with a company and you grow with a company. There’s not much job-hopping going on.”
No skills gap
Provade has not encountered any problems with a technology “skills gap” in Milwaukee, Parks said. The local talent the company has hired are all graduates of Wisconsin-based universities.
“We have some transplants that moved here from Florida and California. Aside from them, the employees are local, and all of them are from local, Wisconsin-based universities,” Parks said.
“We’ve had very good success mining institutions like MSOE (Milwaukee School of Engineering), UWM (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and (UW-) Madison, where some of our staff has come from, and they’ve come to us pre-trained,” Rumberg said.
“When people come in to interview, and they understand our story and they see that we’ve brought not only the company but we’ve brought individuals from California and other areas to move to Milwaukee, that’s a real attraction,” Parks said. “We are a little different from your average employer here, and so by being different, Milwaukee is attracted to us. It’s made it easy to bring people in.”
Two other factors have affected Provade’s ability to be successful in Milwaukee. The first is cost.
“It’s much more affordable employing people here than it is in the Bay Area,” Parks said. “It’s incredible competition out there. For similar positions, you’re looking at two-thirds or less here to the total cost compared to Bay Area, and that’s maintaining very competitive salaries for the Milwaukee area.”
Still said the positive movement in the technology sector in Wisconsin is in part due to the relatively low cost of doing business here.
“In general, companies can find that this is a competitive place to locate,” he said.
The second factor impacting Provade, and one that is specific to Milwaukee, is the city’s connection to the staffing industry. With ManpowerGroup’s headquarters in downtown Milwaukee, Parks said, skills in that field are readily available in the area.
“We serve the staffing and consulting industries,” he said. “We enable their services through our product. They are finally turning more and more to technology.”
In addition to the software and information technology skills needed at Provade, “(A) skillset we need is an understanding of the business end, which is the staffing industry…and Milwaukee excels in the area of staffing,” Parks said.
“Staffing is under-recognized in the city’s economy,” Rumberg said.
“It’s another example of Milwaukee playing to its strengths,” said Thad Nation, executive director of Wired Wisconsin.
“Milwaukee has a disproportionately large share of Fortune 500 companies located here. Instead of trying to get companies that have nothing to do with the history and heritage (in Milwaukee), we’re best served focusing on our strengths.”
Having in part grown out of Manpower, staffing is in large part where Provade has grown its business.
“We started back in October of 2004,” Parks said. “I worked for Manpower for 10 years, and one of the last things I did there was work on VMS technology. We did a lot of in-house development, and we figured out that being a software company at Manpower wasn’t working, so we looked at our outside vendors, and one of those vendors was PeopleSoft. We ended up selecting PeopleSoft in 2003, and I was the liaison between Manpower and PeopleSoft. In that time, I met Edward Jackson, (Provade’s) president, and we ended up having at the same time the idea that staffing companies should be doing this.”
Why not Milwaukee?
By identifying the need in the staffing industry and embracing the emergence of cloud technology, Provade found its niche.
While the company has evolved since starting in San Mateo, Calif. and relocating to Milwaukee, its core software, the VMS, has remained constant, and that product has made Provade unique in its industry.
“We differentiate ourselves from the rest of the market in that we built our technology on top of Oracle applications,” Parks said. “What everybody else did was build from the ground up. We decided to build on top of Oracle because the foundation gives us tons of things that our competitors have to continually build and maintain themselves. Oracle is a multinational corporation, and we operate in more than 40 countries. They have a foundation that handles multi-currency and multi-language. They handle taxes around the world very well. Those are complex things. Oracle has thousands of developers that develop that base product. We’re taking that really strong base and then we’re building usability and flexibility on top of it. At its core, it’s Oracle applications with other technology on top of it.”
Provade is right on the “tail end” of the three or four “really big players” in its particular industry, Parks said, managing a little more than $2 billion in corporate spending. The company’s largest competitor in the industry does almost $20 billion, Parks said.
To this point, Provade has largely eyed multinational corporations as customers to grow its business.
“We have traditionally focused on really large customers,” Parks said. “Oracle Corp., Capital One, Humana – those are examples of customers of ours, mega-corporations that spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars a year on staffing.”
Now, Parks said, Provade is beginning to see further growth by targeting mid- to small market companies, as well as Milwaukee-area companies.
“As we begin to look toward more smaller companies, we’ve found some opportunities with partners in the Milwaukee area,” Parks said. “We’ve spent so much time looking outwardly; we recently recognized we’ve been neglecting our own backyard. There are a lot of opportunities right here (in Milwaukee).”
“It’s a recent phenomenon for us to look locally,” Rumberg said. “Provade is a global company with staff all over the world. To a certain extent, we’ve neglected the area we’re in, and we’re trying to change that. There’s a lot of commerce and activity going on right in our backyard.”
Being located in downtown Milwaukee is a big asset to the company, Parks and Rumberg said.
“If you’re going to be anywhere in Milwaukee, (downtown) is the place to be,” Parks said.
“As a small company that works with big corporations, location does matter,” Rumberg said. “Downtown Milwaukee is a pretty big draw.”
And compared to the Bay Area, where employees can commute up to two hours each way, Rumberg said, it’s a lot easier to get around in Milwaukee.
“It just goes into the quality of life. (With) better quality of life, the better work you’re going to do,” Rumberg said.
“We’re right by Cathedral Square, in my opinion, the heart of downtown Milwaukee. We’re close to the lake and dining and all that. It’s a very nice place to work.”
“In Milwaukee, we could walk 10 square blocks and see all the different companies – insurance companies, manufacturing companies, software companies, educational associations, things like that,” Parks said.
Another challenge that Provade faces, Rumberg said, is how the City of Milwaukee is perceived in the global technology industry.
“Perception is probably the biggest stigma we have,” Rumberg said. “People that are here recognize that it’s a good place to live and do business. Not everyone (outside of Milwaukee) shares that opinion. The more Milwaukee does to promote itself, the better it can be.”
However, Parks said the response from Provade employees who have relocated to Milwaukee has been “nothing but amazement.”
Parks added, “It amazes me what people’s view of Milwaukee was before they came here. (Employees and their families) continually express how happy they are to be here. In particular, the ones that moved here from California are amazed at the sense of community. They really love the Milwaukee area. That’s one thing that they’ve all commented on. They wish they made the move here before.”
“If you can get the talent, and you have enough business,” Rumberg said, “Why wouldn’t you come to a place like Milwaukee?”