When Strategic Financial Solutions announced its ambitious plan more than a year ago to hire 1,500 people within five years, the company zeroed in on the Buffalo Niagara region's readily available, low-cost labor supply.
But economic times have changed, making it harder for the company – like many others here – to fill its open jobs. The region's unemployment rate fell to 4.5 percent in July, the lowest for that month in 18 years, and average wages have climbed, especially at the low end of the scale with a rising minimum wage. Employers are competing harder with each other for good talent.
Strategic Financial Solutions says it is ahead of schedule on its long-term hiring goal. But executives say the company also is struggling to fill some positions, in customer service roles.
"We're scaling quickly, so if I wasn't hiring 350 people in the next year, this wouldn't be such an issue, but we are," said Kimberly Celic, senior vice president of human resources. "We are looking to hire 15 to 20 reps a month. For this market, it's a lot."
Other businesses can relate to what Strategic Financial Solutions is going through.
A report by economists at Canisius College said the national economy appears to be at "full employment." In the Buffalo area, the report said, the region has had "sustained, though modest" employment growth since the end of the recession. And while average annual pay here remains below the national average, it has grown at the same rate as the national average since 2010.
In response, Strategic Financial Solutions has gotten creative about hiring and keeping people, It's relying on employee referrals and paying incentives of as much as $5,000 when those referrals turn into a sought-after new hire. It's trying to create a workplace that is both productive and fun. And it's promoting from within as its workforce expands.
The company isn't a debt collection firm. Instead, its employees work with clients who are deeply in credit card debt, by negotiating settlements for them. Strategic Financial Solutions has 600 employees in New York City, and when it decided to expand elsewhere, two of its investors with Buffalo ties, Jordan Levy and Ronald Schreiber, made a case for the Buffalo area. The company is eligible for up to $10 million in state tax credits, contingent on reaching the hiring goal.
Strategic Financial Solutions finished training its first wave of workers just over a year ago, starting out in temporary space downtown. The company moved into its permanent home, a Uniland-owned building on Lawrence Bell Drive in Amherst, in December. So far, it has filled 60 percent of the space in the building, said Ryan Sasson, the co-founder and CEO.
Strategic Financial Solutions has steadily filled jobs in two of its categories: sales and negotiations. "Both of those roles, if you have a collections background, it's easily transferrable," Celic said.
That's partly because Buffalo has a lot of debt collection firms, offering a pool of experienced workers to draw from. Some of those workers prefer to switch to the "other side" of collections, advocating for people in debt, Celic said.
But the company's customer service jobs have been harder to fill. Those workers handle questions from clients about the progress in their settlements.
"I think it's difficult by nature because they are hearing the angst and hardships," Celic said. "They can't take (clients') debt away. They can't just press a number and take away that debt for you."
Customer service roles at Strategic Financial Solutions pay in the high $30,000 to the mid-$40,000 range annually. Another factor in filling those jobs: competition from other, well-known employers such as GEICO, which has built a huge customer service operation in CrossPoint Business Park.
As Strategic Financial Solutions aims to fill all categories of jobs, two themes frequently come up: employee referrals, and workplace culture. To the company, those two themes go hand in hand.
"I will pay my employees for helping bring like-minded individuals who they think would be a good fit for the culture any day," Celic said. Strategic Financial Solutions has offered referral bonuses of up to $2,000 or even $5,000 for certain roles, and is rolling out a new program in which employees can earn points toward free trips.
The company says its push for referrals is showing signs of paying off. Patrick Donnelly, senior director of sales, said of the 20 sales reps just starting a training class, 11 came from referrals.
Sasson said the company sees its workplace culture as essential to attracting and keeping people, and distinguishing itself from other employers.
"It is work hard and results oriented, with a mix of caring about the people you're helping and having fun with the people you're doing with it," he said.
Employees at Strategic Financial Solutions spend a lot of their time on the phone, sometimes talking through difficult situations, so the company tries to make the workplace atmosphere appealing.
Its expanded office space includes massage chairs, a pool table and a Ping-Pong table. Managers hand out free cupcakes every Tuesday. There are prize wheels to spin, and blue rewards cards distributed to employees who are recognized for their work.
Activities in the office are also part of the picture, Donnelly said. For a recent "decades day" theme, members of Donnelly's team dressed up as 1980s pro wrestlers.
"What was interesting to me is that our production levels that day, from a sales perspective, were as high as any other day," Donnelly said. "Where you would think there would be distractions and everything else, I think the excitement, the energy levels on days like that where you're having so much fun, the production follows right behind it, which is tremendous."
Eboni Pruden, manager of customer service and operations, recalled an after-hours employee outing to Dave & Buster's, where co-workers ate, drank and played games together. "Those types of team-building exercises are what really make people enjoy coming to work and working with their neighbors and peers," she said.
Robert Duggan was recruited to join Strategic Financial Solutions last fall as its vice president of operations for negotiations. He had spent 22 years with two different collections firms.
"The big thing to me was the commitment to jobs in Buffalo," said Duggan, who now oversees employees in both Amherst and Manhattan.
Duggan said Strategic Financial Solutions has trained its employees to use LinkedIn, the business networking site. The company was bringing in a photographer to take professional photos of everyone for their LinkedIn profiles.
Some employers might see that as setting up employees to leave, but Duggan disagreed.
"The feedback we've gotten from employees is, 'This is amazing, you're reinvesting in me as an employee.'"
The company stresses to new hires the impact they can have on clients' lives, by working to settle debts with collectors, Duggan said.
Some clients are in dire situations, said Justin Koestler, customer service manager. "I've spoken to people that have $350,000 in debt and that's not counting mortgages or anything," he said. "It's just an incredible burden for some people to bear, so we certainly have to play the role of counselor every now and then."
Astarr Peoples, negotiations team lead, said she reached a settlement on behalf of a client with cancer who was given six months to live. The client recently sent her an email thanking her, a message that included an air hug.
"It was a good feeling to be able to help him in that way," she said.
Late last year, Strategic Financial Solutions converted to an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, giving workers more of a stake. Just recently, the company removed a wall to open up access to more workstations. Employees signed a piece of it that will be saved and displayed, a reminder of when just 200 people worked there.
Sasson, the CEO, said he is confident about the company's growth pace in the Buffalo area, and what that could lead to.
"In New York City, you're a small fish in a really big pond and it's tough to make a difference," he said. "Even though you're helping people, it's tough to help the city. I feel completely different here. I feel like Strategic is actually able to make a difference in the community, in the resurgence of Buffalo."