Lessons from a High-Growth Guru

The CFO of a fast-growing print management company shares what he has learned.
Marielle SegarraAugust 8, 2013

Joe Busky is a growth company guy. As the CFO of InnerWorkings, a public print management services firm, he has overseen dozens of acquisitions and $650 million in revenue growth since he was hired in 2008. InnerWorkings looks for the best printing prices for its clients, which include big brands like Absolut Vodka and Supervalu stores. 

Before InnerWorkings, Busky held the roles of assistant controller, treasurer, head of FP&A and chief accounting officer at Dade Behring, a medical diagnostics equipment testing company. Dade saw significant growth, exploding from about $300 million in revenue when Busky started to about $2.5 billion by the time Siemens bought the firm nearly 10 years later.

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Busky stayed on at Dade for a year after the sale before realizing he belonged at a high-growth company. “I think I’ve learned over the last 20 years or so that I’m more of a entrepreneurial company person,” he says.  It’s a good thing Busky thrives at growing companies; when he joined InnerWorkings in 2008, the company recorded about $250 million in revenue; now, it rakes in $900 million. The company has also completed 30 acquisitions in the last seven years and went global in 2011.

Now, InnerWorkings is hoping to keep growing by expanding into more international locations with its large customers and by winning business from small and midsize companies.

CFO recently spoke with Busky about the company’s growth plan and his role as finance chief.

InnerWorkings has been heavily active in acquisitions over the last several years. What types of companies are you buying?
We have been buying a lot of tuck-in companies that are much smaller than us. All of our acquisitions over the last seven years have had between $5 million and $40 million in revenue. They are asset-lite companies, so they don’t have any printing equipment. And they typically have good, small-scope relationships with large companies. We look for companies that are not for sale and that have very entrepreneurial owners that can take the relationships they have at very big companies and expand them with an InnerWorkings business card.

What is the benefit of acquiring companies with entrepreneurial owners?
We have found that the best sales talent out there are the owners of these small brokers we have been buying. These acquisitions obviously bring us acquisitive growth. But almost as important, they bring entrepreneurial talent into the organization that lead us to other organic growth. As evidence of that, 70 percent of the enterprise deals we have signed over the last three years have had some connection with these former owners and these businesses. Either they introduce us because they have a relationship with someone at a big company, or they help us close the deal.

What have you learned from all these acquisitions?
We’ve learned that, first of all, it’s not as easy as it sounds. When you have someone who started and grew a business and had it in their family for years, or even decades, that company is their baby. Sometimes it’s hard to integrate them into the Innerworkings family. But instead of coming in like “Big Brother” and taking over the business and telling them how to run it, we try to leave these guys alone and let them run things. There are certain things that, as a CFO, I demand that we do. They have to come onto our systems within three months and they have to move their treasury function to us. But that’s actually perceived usually as a good thing, because it gets an administrative burden off the shoulders of these former owners. And then they’re left with just servicing their existing customers the way they have in the past.

What are your biggest challenges as CFO in this particular industry?
The biggest one is staying on top of going global. We bought two companies in 2011, one in Latin America and one in continental Europe. And so the process of integrating those companies into InnerWorkings, as well as dealing with the expansion into new geographies with existing clients, is crucial. We’re moving into countries like Russia, China, South Africa and Australia with existing customers. It’s a safer way to grow around the world when you’re going with existing clients. But nonetheless, expanding into those kinds of locations comes with a unique set of accounting, legal and human resource risks.

Where are you looking to grow?
We’re looking to grow in a lot of areas. Eighty percent of our business is enterprise, where we provide outsource services to a large company. So we’re obviously looking to grow that segment of the business by moving into new geographies as well as landing new customers. The landing new customers piece is a very long, difficult sell.

We’re also looking to grow the other segment of our business, the other 20 percent, which is the small and midsize market, where we sell more on an opportunistic, one-off basis. We reach out to small and midsize companies through an inside sales division here in Chicago that cold calls small and midsize companies, trying to get their print moved to us and away from who they’re using now, which might be a small broker or a direct manufacturer.

How much time do you spend on strategy?
About 25 percent. Eric Belcher, the CEO, and I spend a lot of time together with the regional presidents to map out growth strategies. Like every company, we don’t have unlimited capital or time. So we spend a lot of time talking about which ones we should go after and and what the returns would be.

As a public company, we really have to take a balanced approach to top-line growth and bottom-line growth. That’s usually where I come in. The CEO and the presidents would probably be a little more focused on top-line growth. I try to bring some bottom-line discussion into the conversation. Our publicly stated growth strategy or financial goals are to grow the company’s top line at least 15 percent organically each year, and at the same time to grow our EBITDA margin in the range of 50 basis points a year. Those goals help us maintain that balance.