One on One with ACME Consulting's David Kelleher

David Kelleher
A lot companies were founded in the last 12 years. Not a lot of them grew during the Great Recession and even fewer have experienced growth every single quarter since inception. Enter Portland, Ore.-headquartered boutique firm ACME Consulting. The firm’s growth is showing no signs of slowing down, either. Co-founder and Senior Manager and Principal David Kelleher says the firm is still looking at an annual compounding growth target of 30 percent as it expands into new geographies to help clients solve their most pressing problems. Kelleher sat down with
Consulting to discuss the firm’s continued growth and more.

Consulting: How has ACME been able to keep up consistent growth even though the economic downturn?

Kelleher: The way we tend to engage clients is by working on what we would describe as only their most vital initiatives. We don’t really take on work unless it is sponsored at a senior executive level and is a very high level priority. With medium sized companies, preferably a CEO sponsor and in the top 3 priorities in the company, and then large multibillion-dollar multinationals we work tend to work on whatever is in their top 10, top 20. Those are initiatives that no matter what don’t get cut. By positioning ourselves with those vital initiatives and also being aligned with certain industries we’ve been able to weather the storm.

Consulting: What have been some of the biggest growth areas for ACME?

Kelleher: From my perspective, it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy in that as you grow you have more mass, and as you have more mass you get to take on bigger and bigger problems. Where we’re seeing significant growth is in ACME’s delivering in broader teams. As opposed to one or two or three consultants on a project, we’re seeing more and more of the larger programs where we’re taking accountability for the delivery of a program as a firm and are bringing 10 to 15 or more resources to bear on a longer-term project. We’re seeing a lot of growth in that respect, and from a capabilities perspective we’re seeing a lot of growth in healthcare and quite a bit of growth in what we call change leadership—change management or transition management—that segment of services has been a significant growth area for us of late.

The way we approach our markets is by selling our core services—program and project leadership, strategy and executing on these big complex projects. In order to accelerate that growth in new markets we see the need to focus in certain specific verticals—healthcare, energy, digital, and as an overlay, change leadership. We’ll be heavily investing in those areas and we see those as catalysts and accelerants to growth in these new markets. They’re all pretty ubiquitous. The types of problems we want to work on are those that are not optional for clients.

Consulting: You’ve recently introduced unlimited PTO, how does that work in practice?

Kelleher: It basically sends a message to our employees that everyone’s a grown up. We expect you to take care of your client work and the work internal to ACME and take care of yourself and your family. Rather than having this overly legislated PTO policy where people are trying to tick and tie hours, where do I allocate this time when I need to go to the dentist on Thursday afternoon—we just say, do what you think is right and it’ll all come out in the wash. We have utilization targets and thresholds tied to various bonus constructs so people are incented to still hit various utilization targets, but at the same time, they have the freedom to go and do whatever they want. It allows people to personalize their own work/life balance. From a management perspective what we really need to watch for is kind of the opposite of what you’d watch for in a more formal PTO construct, which is to make sure people are actually taking the time off they should.

Consulting: ACME Just had its 12-year anniversary—what are your goals and hopes for the next 12 years?

Kelleher: Twelve years seems like a long time, and we’re certainly proud of what we built over that time period even though it hasn’t always been smooth sailing from an economic perspective and we have grown every quarter of our business. Our ambitions are growing pretty substantially. We feel our brand in the markets we serve and the services we provide are things we’d love to see expand considerably. My expectations is that we’ll double the size of the firm in the next 3 years, and will continue to double at an even more rapid pace. Building a successful consulting practice in different markets is no easy task. You have to establish a brand, there’s typically meaningful competition, for us, myself and Pete and Scott my two partners we all live in Portland still and are from here, so there’s something to be said for the founders’ DNA and what that can do for a firm. What we’ve found recently is that the geographic expansion activity has to include both hiring senior leadership local to the new markets and moving people with a history with our firm to transplant that DNA. That’s what we’ve done in San Diego and that’s proved to really allow that practice to get moving quickly.