Kathy Carrier's dad was angry when she left a lucrative job at a Fortune 500 company to start her own firm. But four years later, when she won an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, he told his daughter: "Clearly your vision for yourself was greater than the one I had for you."
In less than seven years, Carrier, 46, has built her Fort Wayne-based information technology writing and training firm, Briljent LLC, into a business with annual revenue of $2.3 million and a roster of clients that includes Carmel-based insurance firm Conseco Inc., the state of Indiana and Deerfield, Ill.-based drugstore chain Walgreen Co.
But Carrier's journey hasn't been bug-free.
After getting her bachelor's degree in business administration from Indiana University in 1981, Carrier became a certified public accountant and did audit work for the Fort Wayne office of New York-based Ernst & Whinney (now Ernst & Young LLP). She then joined the audit department of Lincoln National Corp., a financial services firm that was based in Fort Wayne at the time but now is based in Philadelphia.
Over the next 15 years, Carrier worked her way up to the position of training director for Lincoln Life, the company's life insurance unit. She oversaw 52 trainers and 1,200 courses, 74 percent of which were IT courses. When the company restructured and slashed her staff to six, she proposed starting her own company, with Lincoln outsourcing its training to her firm.
That's how Briljent was born in 1998. (Carrier's grandparents were Czechoslovakian immigrants, and briljent is the Czech word for brilliant.)
Briljent struggled somewhat in the early years but continued to grow. Then 9/11 and the recession hit, and Carrier realized the firm couldn't survive if it didn't diversify beyond training.
She talked to all of her clients to find out what they were still spending money on, and in every case, there was a large computer application that was being developed. "So we segued into technical writing for IT projects and started to grow like crazy," she said. Briljent now employs about 50 people, one-third of whom are independent contractors.
Carrier made some moves that boosted Briljent. As the corporate marketplace got tight, Briljent branched into the public sector. The state has goals for the use of women-owned businesses, and under current targets, at least 5 percent of a contract should be subcontracted to a certified women's business enterprise. Carrier has devoted a lot of time to developing that source of business, and Briljent now has 30 state contracts.
She also decided to focus on Indianapolis firms as the economy in Fort Wayne weakened due to the flight of many big companies. Briljent has an Indy office near the airport and is looking to add a downtown location. Carrier commutes here four days a week.
Another key to Briljent's success has been persistence, Carrier said. It took five years and more than 100 meetings to become a preferred training provider for an Indianapolis-based Fortune 500 firm.
B.J. Bischoff, an executive in publicsector services in the Indianapolis office of South Bend-based accounting and consulting firm Crowe Chizek and Co. LLC, used to own a training firm and was one of Carrier's first mentors. Briljent and Crowe now work together on state bids.
Carrier is a rare businessperson in that she focuses on how she can help clients, Bischoff said. "She's been really proactive in bringing business opportunities our way that we may not have known about."
Carrier is also strategic about making deep contacts in organizations, meaning several people at several levels, Bischoff said. And her energy level is contagious. "She makes people think if she's involved, it will be a successful venture."
Another colleague, Merit Smith, said Carrier's energy level is so high, "she almost vibrates." Smith, who is now vice president of health care practice for Simsbury, Conn.-based Robert E. Nolan Consulting, was her boss at Lincoln and sits on Briljent's board.
Carrier sees the growth of her business not only as something that will benefit her and her family, but the community as well by creating jobs, Smith said. "There's almost a spiritual component to what she's doing."
Carrier said she really is having the time of her life. "I love what I do. I have an incredible leadership team that handles all of the many details, and I've carved out a niche for myself developing relationships with new clients."
She's not crazy about the long hours-she starts her day at 5:30 so she can get to Indy by 8-and she works Saturdays. "But that's the price you pay if you want to be an entrepreneur at age 40. It takes you away from family and volunteer work."
Carrier makes sure she's home every night by 5 to cook dinner for her family. (She and her husband have four children, ages 10 to 22.) And having her own business has given her flexibility to be with her family "in vacation mode" more often. "We have more financial resources to do cool things," she said, such as a cruise they took last year.
Carrier emphasized the large role her husband, Dave Carrier, has played in the success of Briljent. "It's really unusual to have a husband who, at age 40, encourages you to leave your job, spend all of the family's money and start your own business. We were maybe 18 months into the startup, cash flow was awful, and he said one night, 'I don't know what you're worried about. If anybody can do this, you can.'"
Now, Kathy Carrier said, they'll both be able to retire much sooner.
Other men were not nearly as supportive. When she was thinking about leaving Lincoln and looking for a business to buy, a senior, male member of the Fort Wayne business community told her: "You should stick to your knitting. Stay at Lincoln. That's your best opportunity to earn a good income."
Research revealed that 95 percent of Briljent's income in its first four years came from leads or business provided by women, Carrier said. In those early years, men wouldn't respond to her e-mails, but women would always give her a chance. It's completely different now, she said.
One of the women who helped Carrier was Norma Larance, former vice president of the life insurance strategic business unit at Conseco and now an insurance consultant with Dallas-based CompuPros. Larance kept giving Briljent projects because, "[Carrier] keeps working with you to make sure you're getting exactly what you want," she said.
Briljent is now certified to get federal work, opening a new source for growth. Carrier and board member Smith went to Oklahoma recently for a Students in Free Enterprise competition, where Briljent was the case study for 18 college teams who analyzed the company and suggested new product ideas.
"We're always looking for the next growth phase," Carrier said.
Kathy Carrier is president and CEO of Briljent, which has 30 state contracts.