Starting Over at a Start-up

Laid off from a financial-services giant, Craig Emrick found a new beginning at a technology start-up company.
Kimberly BlantonNovember 4, 2010

He enjoyed all the trappings of executive privilege — a driver to shuttle him to meetings in Manhattan, client dinners in Mayfair during a four-year posting in London, a secretary to handle the Xeroxing.

Craig Emrick doesn’t need any of it now.

After State Street Global Markets laid him off in January 2009 as a managing partner, he discovered his passion. That’s also what sustains him, since he hasn’t drawn a paycheck yet, either.

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“It’s not about the paycheck. It’s about using your skills and enjoying what you’re doing,” Emrick, 51, says about his recent decision to invest some of his State Street severance in Alivia Capital and become a partner and CFO. With Alivia’s backing, he’s also developing to sell iPhone applications with weather, trip logs, and other services useful to boaters like himself.

Career transitions like Emrick’s — from Fortune 500 behemoth to boot-strapped start-up along Boston’s Route 128 corridor — are easier said than done. “There’s always quite a bit of apprehension about people who’ve been at larger organizations, about their ability to roll up their sleeves,” says Joshua Wimberley, a recruiter at Korn/Ferry International.

Laid-off executives usually have no choice but to seek employment at a smaller company, however, particularly if they had worked in the financial industry, which still hasn’t recovered from Wall Street’s near collapse. Yet Matt Bud, chairman of The Financial Executives Networking Group, says many seasoned professionals waste time trying to get hired back on at major corporations. “I call it looking for love in all the wrong places,” he says. “The truth is they will almost never hire them.”

Emrick’s career transition required not only that he shed a reliance on an army of underlings but that he give up annual compensation at State Street estimated by recruiters to be around $400,000 (he declines to discuss his pay). He also traded a suit and tie for the gently worn corduroys he sports around his Woburn, Massachusetts, office, where he, like everyone else, takes on mundane responsibilities, such as refreshing the jumbo jar of pretzels perched on the water cooler.

The hardest part “wasn’t the decision to join Alivia. It was the process of grieving the loss of State Street,” says Emrick’s career counselor, Wendy Friend of Keystone Associates.

Both Emrick and Alivia’s CEO, Kleber Gallardo, took a leap of faith when joining forces. Every new hire is a gamble for small firms — Alivia has just 10 employees in Woburn, though it uses hundreds of programmers in Argentina and China. Alivia sells customized software to financial and other clients and also invests in its clients and consults with them on business plans and operations.

Gallardo, who found Emrick on LinkedIn, says his critical advantage was a side project he started after several months of unemployment. Emrick, who owns a 36 foot Rampage Express power boat, couldn’t find a good iPhone application to take out on the water. He started to exploit that niche. Another advantage was his history of working on new products within State Street, which he joined in 1995 after 11 years at Lehman Brothers in New York and London.

“The biggest thing that attracted me wasn’t that he had a CFA,” or chartered financial analyst certificate, says Gallardo. “He had an entrepreneurial spirit. I saw that flame light up — he had started to do something.”

For his part, Emrick felt comfortable with Alivia’s CEO: the two had worked together when Gallardo worked at State Street briefly in the 1990s. Technology start-ups are extremely high risk, but he was impressed by Gallardo’s successful track record of launching prior start-ups, including Bonaire Software Solutions. Alivia isn’t yet profitable, though it has clients and expects to be cash-flow positive next year.

In the early days, Gallardo observed that Emrick, who hadn’t shaken the State Street mold yet, was trying to do too much, to “become a big company. Now he sees to go small, step by step.”

Perhaps Emrick’s reason for developing the iPhone boating application also applies to tacking from one career track and to something brand new.

The app was, he says, all about “getting on the water, spending more time having fun.”