LEADING QUESTIONS: Fast-growing firm handles ascent

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Welcome to the latest installment of “Leading Questions: Wisdom from the Corner Office,” in which IBJ sits down with central Indiana’s top bosses to talk shop about the latest developments in their industries and the habits that lead to success.

Michele Meyer, 38, founded the information technology firm CSCI Consulting Inc. in 2002. For the first two years, she was its sole employee. Today, the firm boasts 106 employees and 2010 revenue of $12.43 million—approximately an 850 percent jump from $1.46 million in 2007. (In 2009, the firm took the top spot on IBJ’s list of fastest-growing private firms in Indianapolis.)

CSCI designs, develops and deploys infotech software and systems for government and business clients, providing them with technical personnel and managers to see projects through. Its first client is still its biggest. The Indianapolis-based Defense Finance and Accounting Service pays all U.S. Department of Defense military and civilian personnel, as well as major contractors and vendors. CSCI provides support for its financial systems.

It seems appropriate, then, that Meyer grew up as a military brat, the daughter of an Air Force enlisted serviceman who worked in civil engineering. Between the ages of 3 and 12, Meyer lived in West Berlin, Germany, where her father was based. The family then moved to the military town of Warner Robins, Ga., adjacent to Robins Air Force Base. Growing up in Georgia, Meyer didn’t have a clear idea of where her life was headed, but knew she “wanted to be successful.”

“It’s kind of cliché, but I grew up watching ‘Oprah’ and believed that you could go and be a millionaire if you wanted to be, or you could sweep the floors one day and own the company the next,” she said.

She began her career with heating and air-conditioning giant Trane Inc., eventually becoming a customer service manager. She took what she learned to public accounting firm KPMG, where she was a senior consultant working in software testing.

Her exposure to other consulting firms and a demanding project that required 80- to 100-hour work weeks helped push her to create her own company.

“Within consulting, your people are your product,” she said. “In a lot of ways, you have to make sure that you’re treating that product well. And I felt like there was a lot of room for improvement there, and a lot of room for improvement on how you treat your clients.”

Meyer’s business plan and focus on frugality helped grease the skids for fast growth. In its first six years, CSCI essentially had no formal offices or equipment-related overhead, as its personnel worked on-site for clients and typically used hardware provided by clients. Meyer worked eight hours per day for clients, and then spent another six hours or so handling administrative and business development responsibilities for the company herself, such as accounting, payroll, recruiting and sales.

“I knew once CSCI was established, I could relax,” she said. “And I actually have been able to do that. I live a much calmer life, and 50 hours per week seems very easy.”

In 2009, CSCI set up shop in modest, 3,700-square-foot offices at 8225 E. 56th St., just down the street from the DFAS headquarters. The space houses a staff of 10, handling a gamut of sales, marketing and administrative duties, allowing Meyer to spend her time focusing on business development.

“We’re working really hard to expand into different markets. We’re working really hard to expand into different federal agencies. We’ve started getting more and more work. It’s kind of that snowball effect,” she said.

In the video at top, Meyer enumerates the challenges of fast growth, including making payroll for new workers when government clients can take 60 days or more to pay its contractors. She also expounds on a strategic misfire: establishing a rich benefits package for employees while the firm's profit margins were high, and then having to recalibrate and increase costs for employees when margins grew thinner. In the video below, Meyer provides advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, including how to handle a crisis and why being ethical in business is more important than short-term gains.

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