Tricia Dempsey | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND

Journey to Acceptance
By Robert Green

In human psychology, acceptance is a person's assent to the reality of a situation, recognizing a condition – often uncomfortable - without attempting to change it, protest, or exit. The journey of Tricia Dempsey, CEO of Agile Resources, to the crucial acceptance of her own native leadership strength and business acumen is a powerful story of human drama and triumph of the spirit.

Tricia Dempsey was born in Wilmington, Delaware where she lived until age 10, when her father was transferred to Atlanta to be the head of sales for one of Atlanta’s largest insurance companies. She attended Snellville Middle School and South Gwinnett High School. She enjoyed a happy childhood and when thinking about what she wanted to do when she grew up, she pretty much thought only of being an Administrative Assistant, “because that’s what my mother did,” she says. She developed a love of basketball early and was one of the first girls to play varsity in 9th grade for South Gwinnett. As power Forward, she eventually became team captain and was scouted by a number of Division I schools, including Clemson. In the end, Dempsey accepted a scholarship from tiny Emmanuel College in North Georgia. “I loved the school, but it was a big change for me,” she says. “The rules were quite strict on student behavior but this allowed me to develop many firm personal relationships with people. Also, I had been raised Catholic, and my time at Emmanuel allowed me to develop a more individual form of spirituality that I greatly value to this day.”
During college, Dempsey taught at summer camps for kids and enjoyed it so much that she decided to become a teacher. Her years in the classroom were a great learning experience - for her. “My first teaching job was at Lilburn Middle School as a Language Arts teacher,” she says, “and we had 60 different cultures in that school, many of whom didn’t speak English. But we made tremendous progress, largely because everyone was so cooperative and accepting. There was no “norm,” since everyone was different. That’s where I learned the power of diversity.” After five years in the classroom, Dempsey began to feel something else – that she loved the kids but was starting to lose patience with the parents. “The parents at my first school where not involved at all,” she says, “and the parents at my second school were TOO involved.” Neither are good, of course, but she found the over involvement to be over the top. Constant second guessing, pressure to change grades and the questioning of her own character and abilities became tiresome and caused me to begin looking for a new career.

Dempsey’s husband, a Georgia Tech graduate, was employed in the field of information technology for Southern Company and she enjoyed listening to him talk about his work. The more they talked, the more she began to feel that IT was a field that she would like to work in. “Summer was starting and I had my contract to teach the following year, which I hadn’t signed yet. I told my husband that I was going to look for an IT job and that if I found one that I liked that I would not be going back to teaching. He was very supportive and thought the idea was great,” she says.

One of Dempsey’s first interviews was with Larry Parker, who ran Diversified Business Systems, an IT staffing company in Atlanta. “I had no experience,” says Dempsey, “but he said ‘there’s something about you’ so we’ll give you a chance.” She started by doing  recruiting to learn the business, but Larry wanted her to do at least one thing a day related to sales, because that is where both she and he felt that she would eventually end up. Dempsey astounded the old pros at Diversified by signing up the first client she called – the CDC – and then making her first resource placement there. As she was learning the IT staffing business Dempsey was liking it more and more, but was also discovering that it did not have the best of reputations among business entities. Dempsey decided early that SHE would be the exception to the rule – that she would always call back – both clients and candidates – to let them know where things stood; no disappearing candidates or disappearing work opportunities and everything done as promised and when promised, if not sooner.

This personal mission, together with a solid work ethic and a great personality soon made Dempsey responsible for over half  of the revenue generated by Diversified. It was the late 90’s and she felt that she was indeed still learning the business, so she was grateful when her annual salary eventually made its way up from $40,000 per year to $55,000, but she could not help but make a mental note when the company was sold for $10 million to Cotelligent. “My goodness,” she thought, “the company just sold for that much and I had a lot to do with it.” After the sale, the Cotelligent team wanted everything run tighter in the new Atlanta office and the response of Larry Parker, Tricia’s boss, was to promote her to the manager over sales and recruiting. Dempsey was now 30 years old. “I don’t think I was very good at it to begin with,” she says. “At the time, I had no concept of coaches or business mentors, so I learned by trial and error.” She did go to her father and asked him for everything he had on managing sales people – tracking, performance evaluations – and moved forward. “It was a little like sausage making,” she says. “It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.”

Cotelligent had actually bought three staffing companies in Atlanta. These were placed together but not integrated, so Dempsey also had that challenge to face. She instituted cultural and operational changes to get everyone moving in the same direction. “I asked everyone to sit down together and define a process to work together. I got commitment,” she says, “and once this was done, the results were exponential.” New clients were brought in and sales to existing clients increased. “I was very proud of what we accomplished because the team was so visibly proud of what they had done. It was one of the best examples of team work that I have ever seen,” she says.

After taking time off to have a baby in 2002, Dempsey returned to a company that had just been purchased by a larger player in the IT staffing business and did not like what she saw. The atmosphere was predatory instead of collaborative, she felt, and the larger company was too bureaucratic – often at the cost of client satisfaction.  After a lot of thought, Dempsey formed Preferred Career Resources with her old boss, Larry Parker, and his son, Tony. Parker provided the initial funding of $40,000 and the company was launched.
Although the aftermath of 9/11 made for a challenging business environment, Dempsey sold like crazy and in a short while was accounting for 97% of company revenue. Although gratifying, the strain of carrying the company almost entirely by herself was beginning to tell. “I had several meetings and conversations with both Larry and Tony and told them that somebody needed to step up – that I couldn’t keep carrying the load by myself – but little changed. Actually, nothing changed,” she says. So the pressure continued. Larry Parker had started her in the staffing business and Tony was his son – didn’t that count for something? I’ll just have to keep working harder she told herself. Hours and days and weeks became a blur between a newborn baby and an ultra-heavy work load. Taking a break was unthinkable and who needed a break anyway?

It was at this point that Tricia Dempsey says she learned to always be grateful, no matter how hard things are, because things can always be worse. Her “worse” came in October of 2002 when she was told that she had breast cancer. “It was a shock, but I knew I had to keep going,” she says, ”so I kept working.” You know you are a busy person when chemotherapy becomes just one more thing to do but the problem with chemotherapy is that it takes a lot more out of you than the time needed to receive treatment. Chemotherapy makes you feel bad - it makes you sick - it makes you bald. “There I was,” she says, “bald as a cue ball, sick, tired and still selling and running the company.” She felt that she had little choice. Her talks with her business partners had yielded no results and she began to ask herself why they weren’t helping. Why weren’t they helping - why weren't they helping? ”I had never felt so low in my life and I wondered if I could keep going,” she says.

Finally, just before completing her chemotherapy, Dempsey analyzed her financial situation. She had $20,000 in cash and another $80,000 available from various credit cards. At the lowest, darkest moment of her life - just taking a shower was still a struggle -  she decided to bet on herself. It was an epiphany. “I remember it was night,” she says, “and I remember feeling relief as soon as I made the decision. It was like a weight had been lifted.” After her first good night’s sleep in a long time, she drove to the office the next morning and announced her decision - she was resigning. “I couldn’t beat cancer and beat what I was going through with the guys at the same time,” she says, “so I finally had to choose between me and my family on one hand or the guys on the other.” Even though leaving the people that she had worked with for so many years felt like a divorce, Dempsey felt excitement in starting fresh with a clean slate.
Agile Resources was incorporated by Dempsey in April of 2003. She started doing permanent placements immediately and needed everything. “I needed a website, I needed a payroll system - everything had to be done from scratch, but I was in charge and I got to make the decisions -do things my way. It was empowering,” she says. Dempsey made 10 contract placements quite soon and the company was off to the races.

Since founding the company 10 years ago, Dempsey and Agile have recorded a number of accomplishments: Agile made the INC 5000 three years in a row, which is extremely hard to do, because the year over year growth has to be phenomenal to make the list in consecutive years. In 2012, Agile was named the 3rd fastest growing staffing company in the US by Staffing Industry Analyst magazine. And Dempsey has continued to work hard, training herself to become the CEO that she believes anyone working with her deserves to have. Today, Dempsey’s company is poised to jump to the next level. Although multiple dozens of people work for Dempsey today, she appreciates - as do many of her business friends - that she has built a platform for strong growth which can accommodate a company many times larger that the one she has today. Industry veteran Rob Holder, employee number twelveof staffing giant Tek Systems, was recently hired by Dempsey to help do just that. “We have big plans,” she says.  “Rob and I share a congruent value system that serves as a strong foundation for our partnership,” Tricia remarks.  “We have built a high level of trust and that combined with our experiences and past success makes for a great combination!”

Long known in the Atlanta business community for her service work, Dempsey and Agile started Agile on the Green in 2004, the Atlanta technology community’s premiere golf charity that has raised over $250,000 for the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Her work continues as she takes over leadership of Women in Technology this year. In many ways she still tries to take care of as many people as possible, but is much more judicious about how far she goes in taking care of others. “I had the power to change by business situation 10 years ago when I was fighting breast cancer,” she says, “but I was slow to accept this out of a misplaced sense of loyalty. When I finally accepted that I had both the responsibility AND the authority to pilot my own ship, everything started to fall into place.”


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