Innovation Destination Hartford spoke with Scott Cleary, President and Chief Servant at SMC Partners, LLC, about his experiences with entrepreneurship and love of Hartford. Cleary and Marketing/HR Manager Patty Matthews shared news about SMC’s recent recognition by the Hartford Business Journal as the best small/medium place to work in Connecticut.
IDH: What sparked your entrepreneurial drive?
CLEARY: I spent 25 years at Andersen Consulting and ended up as a Senior Partner there with responsibility for the firm’s healthcare practice in North America. I worked with large teams doing big projects.
But I looked in the mirror one day after those 25 years and thought: It’s not as much fun as it used to be. I was becoming more of a bureaucrat, making decisions about policies and administrative things. And what I love is a project. Whether it’s building a stone wall in the backyard or doing a computer system design and implementation, like we do at SMC.
I love a project. I love that process where you start with an undefined requirement and—using some analytical thinking and some engineering logic—you turn that into a specification, build something, and then see the value that new system or new process brings to the people who are involved. You think: We did that. We did that as a team. We helped some people. And that feels good.
The other thing I missed was close contact with a team of trusted teammates. Mentoring is another thing I really thrive on and love to do. Mentoring and project work are what really challenge and fulfill me. And I wasn’t doing that as much. It was time for a change.
Talk about taking a leap! I left on Leap day, February 29, 2000, and boy did I leap—across the ocean to London to join a startup called e-Exchange.com. Bear Stearns was our quarterback. We built an online business-to-business exchange. We were planning to go public within the year and be worth a billion dollars on the first day of trading. What a different time! Of course that didn’t happen. The bubble burst in April 2000.
After that four-month gig in London I decided to go back to what I know, which is client work, project work, and team building. Along with three fellows I had worked with at Andersen Consulting and e-Exchange we started Telapath, a technology and management consulting company. We had no idea where we were headed or who our first client would be, but we had confidence in each other.
IDH: Was this the first iteration of SMC?
CLEARY: Yes. Telapath focused on project work, specifically Internet system development. We figured we would focus on healthcare because we knew some healthcare people, and healthcare is a big and complicated industry—or industries—with lots of need for improvement. The company grew to maybe 20 or so people and within two years we were acquired by TRC, a publicly traded environmental consulting company in Windsor, CT.
TRC understood consulting and projects. We became the information management division within the company. The idea was that they would pull us into their large accounts and we would do technology development there. It never happened. We grew organically in the healthcare realm, as a little division of TRC.
A few years into it, we said: What are we doing here in a company that isn’t really helping us grow? It’s a wonderful company, but it doesn’t have anything to do with our business. We realized we would have a better opportunity to thrive and build the culture we wanted to build outside of TRC. We had a very open, respectful transition to basically buy ourselves out of the company.
Of the 30 or so people who were with us at TRC, we only took seven people into SMC Partners. Those were the few who were up to the high-risk challenge of building a new company. Some clients at TRC came with us to the new company, which we launched in January 2007. The rest is history.
MATTHEWS: With regard to Scott’s entrepreneurial drive, he really took the best of everything he knew and created SMC. I don’t think there are a lot of people who have the guts like he does to handle the ups and the downs. And he is always thinking: It’s going to be successful. And then it is successful.
IDH: SMC’s mission is to “improve the health and social services environments.” How do you meet that goal?
CLEARY: We have a wonderful portfolio of clients that includes insurance companies, hospitals, physicians, and specialty provider practices, so we see the whole picture from the insurance piece to the delivery of care. And we see the tremendous opportunity to help pretty much all the players be more effective.
There’s a lot of opportunity for organizations to share data about their members or patients across different care settings appropriately, securely, and with permission. If people could see a more complete picture of their customers—their histories, their conditions, and their preferences—they could enhance the quality of care and eliminate inefficiencies. And there’s a big opportunity for process improvement, automation, and helping providers in particular demonstrate the quality care they deliver.
And how do you measure quality? You do it with data. That’s our business—information systems to collect the information to demonstrate results. We do our small part in helping the industry transform to a different model where providers are paid based on the results they deliver and the outcomes they achieve.
All of that change is monstrous and it’s great for a little speedboat company like SMC to go out and help people embrace that change and help them develop new capabilities to be effective in the long term.
IDH: Do you have a lot of competitors?
CLEARY: We compete with all kinds of companies, from solo practitioner consultants to huge companies that do this kind of work on a global scale, like Accenture, my old employer. There are many very good, strong companies out there…they just do not have our culture, our flexibility, or our nimble nature.
The large organizations in healthcare are probably not going to hire SMC to do a big, global information systems project. They’re probably going to hire larger firms that have resources across the globe. But, what we do have is an incredible amount of experience and capability for a small company. Pound for pound, we can compete with anyone, and even the largest companies can benefit from an SMC speedboat focused on their specific problems.
IDH: What would you say is the main differentiator? What makes your company unique?
CLEARY: If you look at a typical pyramid of a large firm you’re going to have some experienced folks, some middle-level folks, and a lot of junior-level folks. We have 55 employees. If you look at those people, there is a disproportionate number of senior folks who have done consulting work at large firms and have worked in healthcare and operations, so we really have a strong perspective on the industry. There’s a lot of knowledge between our ears collectively that we can use to teach new employees—and also bring to our clients.
And then what makes us really unique is the fact that we are so nimble. We are fast and effective in delivering value to clients.
It’s a game of sprints at SMC. So we’ll sprint for a client, we’ll sprint on a project, we’ll sprint to a deadline but then we don’t mind relaxing and enjoying and celebrating the success. We also celebrate our failures and mistakes in a very transparent, supportive way. It’s a safe environment for employees, and we learn together.
When we sprint for a client, we rapidly assemble the right team just in time to do the work the client expects to be done and deliver the value. And if we are not experienced or don’t think we can deliver the value the client is asking for, we will stand down and tell them that they would be better off hiring someone else who has that experience.
MATTHEWS: And I think it’s you, Scott. Because you’ve been in Hartford and are so well-known in the area, a lot of clients come back. I think we have projects because of you and who you are.
CLEARY: Thank you, Patty. But it’s also that we back it up, and that’s our team. We deliver that first project and build trust. Then other projects follow. We are so focused on ensuring that the value we deliver exceeds the fees we charge, and clients love to work with a company like that.
Our mission is to help clients grow, help people succeed—that’s our people but it’s also client people. And it’s the customers of our clients. What value do they expect from our clients and how can we help our clients deliver that value? We ask ourselves that question every day.
That’s the tremendous drive we have to deliver what we commit and also to develop those personal, trusting relationships.
IDH: Tell us about the type of work you’re doing.
CLEARY: We are a high-tech company. We do development of computer systems with the most modern software tools. So we develop mobile apps and web-based applications. The work we do at its core is usually technology-oriented, but we do many projects that are not technology oriented too, like process design or strategic planning.
A dream project for us starts with understanding what the client wants to accomplish and how their people want to perform in the future. We work arm in arm with them to define their process vision and then design and build the technology to enable that vision. The magic happens when our clients embrace the solution and deliver the results they want.
You could work for a technology company, report to your cube every day, be assigned to a system, and program for the rest of your life without having much context for that and not really seeing how what you do impacts people. At SMC, everybody is expected to understand the value we’re delivering. We work together. There’s no excuse for a business process person to say: I don’t understand that crazy technology. And there’s no excuse for a technology analyst to say: I don’t understand the business. At SMC, everyone has to learn.
MATTHEWS: I think what’s good about our size and who we are is we don’t have to go through a lot of red tape to learn new technology. If we’re not experts at something, we become experts because the team learns what they have to learn. We provide the training and what they need to learn and they become successful.
CLEARY: The message is, what they prove to themselves and what we help them prove: As a staff person, I can learn anything. I have the support.
And we can learn anything. So you don’t have to be an expert in the technology, what you have to be is an expert at learning. Really fast learning.
That learning culture is so important because again, with 55 people, what can we be expert at? Well, that’s what we can be expert at: Putting that high-performing team together, learning like crazy, focusing on the client, listening empathetically, and delivering—that’s what makes us special.
IDH: In terms of clients, how are you marketing and building a customer base?
CLEARY: It is really delivering value and earning repeat work at existing clients and then asking for and getting referrals from those happy client to others.
We are not going to put an ad in the Yellow Pages. We are very mindful that we can’t do too many projects and serve too many clients at the size we are. Of course we want to grow rapidly, but our strategy is to focus on those relatively few strategic partnerships with our clients—sustainable partnerships that can help us both grow over the long term.
If you look at most of our clients—and maybe our core business comes from only a dozen or so—we’ve been there for multiple years doing one project after another. We should be so lucky that every client in the world wants to hire us to do something, but we are not known. That’s the challenge. Our strategy is to build a strong brand, one client at a time, and we think that will lead to more work in more places.
As we grow organically, as we serve more and more clients and bring more of those strategic clients on board, all of a sudden we are going to have a critical mass and I think the ability to really rapidly expand beyond this geography, and with technology products, even globally.
MATTHEWS: We don’t market ourselves in the traditional sense, like with advertising. We were recently named number one of the best places to work in Connecticut by the Hartford Business Journal. Our clients hear that and I think it goes a long way. Our presence in Hartford and just being involved in the community, that goes a long way too.
IDH: What is it about SMC that makes it the best place to work?
CLEARY: It starts with our team. It starts with our vision, our molecule, which you can see in our logo. There are four elements to our molecule, which is our DNA, our culture.
Number one on top is Nurtured Families. Number two is Fulfilled Teammates. Number three is Successful Clients. Number four is Servant Leaders.
So, starting with number four, we expect that everybody is here to serve our teammates. And that’s things like washing the dishes in the sink, but it’s also helping them to learn, nurturing them through a difficult project, or teaching them something they don’t know. And my title is Chief Servant. So my job is to be sure that my teammates get the resources and help they need to be successful and fulfilled.
Back to number one in the molecule, Nurtured Families. Whatever your family is—it could be a traditional family, it could be you and your pet, or your closest friends. They are number one. If you need to take time for family, you don’t need permission, you just go. Because we know that you will make up the work. That’s where the trust starts. It’s a flexible schedule and we trust that you will get your work done. But family is first.
Regarding Fulfilled Teammates, the work has to be meaningful. Our business is to assemble teams that can work together and learn together and do meaningful work to help our clients. If we are hired to build a computer system, that system is actually helping people do a more effective job, like delivering better patient care. We see that impact, and it means a lot to us. So meaningful work is a big deal.
Successful Clients are actually number three in the hierarchy, because how can you go do good work for a client if you’re not in balance in the first two elements? If you don’t think the work is meaningful, you don’t feel you’re being respected, and you don’t feel you have enough trust to be able to go take care of your family, then how are you going to be effective delivering for a client?
IDH: You mentioned marketing and branding as a challenge. Any additional hurdles?
CLEARY: It’s a very difficult business, this project business we’re in. I once had a client tell me he thinks this is the most difficult business on the planet because you do these projects, you assemble a team, you run like crazy, you generate billable hours and revenue, and then the project ends and you have nothing. You need another project. That’s where personal relationships and demonstrated delivery open the next door.
IDH: How is SMC working to improve economic growth in Connecticut?
CLEARY: If you think about our business, it’s really kind of simple. You generate demand for project work and then you’ve got to fill the demand. How do you do that? Well, with people, which means you have to recruit.
We need to be able to attract the best and the brightest and those who culturally fit with our DNA, that molecule Patty and I described. So we go to places like the University of Connecticut, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Lafayette College—where my son, Zach went. Patty and I talk to folks who might be thinking they’re going to Boston or Manhattan to get a job with a global investment bank.
We have found that young folks right out of school who could definitely get a job at many other places will come to Hartford. And they come because of SMC. But when we show them West Hartford, the new apartments downtown, and some of the surrounding towns, and emphasize that you are two hours from mountains, the open ocean, and world-class cities, they say: Wow, this is a great place.
MATTHEWS: We also show them who we are. Because we’re the best place to work, people here like each other. There’s a lot of socializing outside of work, which makes it a lot better to come and work here. For young people who aren’t from Connecticut, they have an instant network.
IDH: Let’s talk about Hartford. Why Hartford? Why are you located here?
CLEARY: I was born and raised in East Hartford. I have an emotional attachment to Hartford. I’ve worked here for 40 years, and trust me, people and companies here are as smart and creative as anywhere. We can leverage our collective knowledge and technology and we can make Hartford an innovation center. We can bring the city back and then some.
Learn more about the SMC Partners mission and molecule at http://smcpartners.com.