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CultureNov 05, 2020

My Credera Story: Justin Bell

Justin Bell and Sarah Barber

Everyone has a story—a story that has been influenced by experiences, community, and people. Our stories shape who we are and who we are becoming. We want to celebrate all of the unique stories and different experiences that have shaped our people and build the fabric of our firm. With that in mind, we’re excited to introduce you to leaders across all levels at Credera and their unique stories and perspectives through a blog series called My Credera Story. This week you’ll get to know Justin Bell, Credera CEO and president.

justin’s story

This past July marked the 20-year anniversary of the start of my career. It’s been an interesting, challenging, and mostly charmed journey. As I’ve been reflecting on all that’s happened over the past 20 years, I wanted to capture some memories and lessons learned so I can remember them later, share with my children when they start their careers, and because (I hope) they will be valuable to you in some way, too.

the early days

Most of the important parts of my career journey happened after I came to Credera, but there are a few important memories from those four pre-Credera years. The beginning of my career is a bit of an early-20s blur, involving trying to figure out what it really meant to be a “professional.”

I grew up in Tulsa, Okla., and went to school at Oklahoma State. My first professional job was an internship at Arthur Andersen in the Advanced Technology Group within Business Consulting. This job brought me to Dallas and was a fun experience, but I ended up declining my full-time offer at the end of the summer. At that time, the company felt too big for me and the quality of the work wasn’t challenging enough. It didn’t help that I was staffed in San Antonio, Texas, in July, had to wear a suit every day, and was tasked with walking half a mile outside to go get “special coffee” for some of the senior people on the team.

One valuable leadership lesson I learned from that summer was the importance of giving young professionals real work and helping them to see the purpose in their work. I’ve carried that lesson with me since that summer.

After graduation, I stuck with consulting and accepted a short-lived offer from Luminant Worldwide. Luminant was a merger of eight different boutique consulting firms with very different cultures and too much overhead. That, coupled with the burst of the dot-com and the recession that followed Sept. 11, 2001, was more than Luminant could handle. They started laying employees off, went bankrupt, and were eventually acquired by a company called Lante.

a few early lessons learned

Even though this wasn’t the start I expected, I’m still extremely grateful for the opportunity to begin my career this way. In these two years at Luminant, my main memories and takeaways were:

  • First client ever: I worked on the American Airlines account for most of my time at Luminant and it was an incredible experience, both because the work was very challenging and transformational (before that became the buzzword that it is today) and because I was part of an amazing team. I grew close with my first professional mentor, Chris Romack, who showed me the value of mentorship and helped me survive when I was at a loss of what to do. Two of my partners at Credera, and I believe, two of the best technology leaders on the planet, were on that team (Jason Goth and Cody Case). A close friend and the CEO of Broadleaf Commerce, Brian Polster, was on that team, and so were many others that I consider friends and respect immensely (Jeff Reid, John Shields, Terry Acosta, Kelly Tisdell, Jeff Fischer, Aaron Coleman, Daniel Henry and many more).

    • My takeaway: Associate yourself with great people. You’ll learn a ton and that matters more than anything else in your career or life.

  • Solo project: I had a trial by fire season when a senior principal left the firm after he and I started a new project together. They weren’t able to backfill him, so I did the project alone. I was completely overwhelmed and didn’t sleep much, but it became a very formative experience because it gave me confidence that I could figure things out. It also gave me a lot of opportunities to interact with senior level clients that I otherwise wouldn’t have.

    • My takeaway: Put yourself in the fire often.

  • What not to do: I learned a lot about what not to do as a leader. Luminant was an interesting company with a lot of very talented people, but it was poorly run. Employees often over-promised and under-delivered, didn’t communicate to their teams in transparent ways, and struggled with operational efficiency.

    • My takeaway: It is always better to communicate transparently to a client or your team, even when the news is bad. This builds trust and the truth is often better than what people make up in their own heads.

After Luminant’s bankruptcy and acquisition, I transitioned over to a contractor role at Lante and then, briefly, took a job at American Airlines. After I started, a colleague at American Airlines left to work at a small consulting firm called Credera.

my credera story

I wasn’t looking for a new job, but I knew I didn't want to stay at American Airlines long term. I wanted a smaller, more agile environment. I ended up interviewing at Credera on my 26th birthday. I had originally taken the day off work to go play golf with a friend. That morning, I was putting on my suit and my wife said “Why are you putting on a suit? I thought you were going to play golf?” I told her not to worry, I was just going to do a “practice interview” so I’d be more prepared for “real interviews” later.

In hindsight, I’m incredibly grateful I took that “practice” interview.

At that time, Credera was very small. We had one or two clients and about 10 employees, but I became very intrigued by the vision that our past CEO, Rob Borrego, had for the firm. From my interview, I could feel the energy and passion he had for building something great. His vision was to build a firm where the quality of the people and the work would always be more important than the size of the company. He also wanted to build a firm where people actually cared about each other.

I came home from the interview and told my wife, “I think my plans have changed.”

I’ve now been at Credera for 16 years as we’ve gone from those 10 employees in Dallas to over 600 professionals with offices in Dallas, Houston, Denver, New York, Chicago, London, Leeds, and Manchester. During my time here, I’ve gone from a 26-year-old manager to having the fortune of being the CEO of this incredible company that’s full of great people.

a few lessons learned at credera

I’m extremely thankful for my experience at Credera. I’ve learned a lot about leadership that has been valuable professionally, but more importantly, in my family and other aspects of life. As I reflect on my time here, I want to share some of the most noteworthy parts of the journey:

  • First project: One of my first projects at Credera was building a technology solution for Neiman Marcus. Neiman Marcus is a great company, and especially at that time reflected a really important milestone for Credera as a highly recognized and respected client brand. But, Credera didn’t have the talent base we do today and we had committed to a really aggressive timeline, small budget, and a complex set of requirements. We worked really hard, long hours for about nine months, but ultimately delivered on our commitments to the client. We didn’t make any money on the project, but it helped us make payroll, we gained valuable experience, and ended with a very well-known and respected client we could reference.

    • My takeaway: Sometimes you have to do the hard and dirty work to get to better successes later.

  • Blockbuster special projects: Some past colleagues from American Airlines had taken roles at Blockbuster leading the Blockbuster Online business. They engaged us to do “Java exception handling refactoring” (yes, every bit as sexy of a project as it sounds). While we worked on that, I would attend the weekly Blockbuster Online leadership team meeting to report progress on our initiative. In one of those meetings, a new startup (RedBox) was mentioned, but there was no specific action items for anyone. After the meeting, I told the client that ran the online business that I could do some quick research and put a point of view together on what RedBox was and what, if anything, I felt like Blockbuster needed to do about it. I did that work in the evenings and didn’t bill them for it. That work and a couple of other “special projects” like it helped to shift our relationship to a lot more strategic, expanded our team and got me out of doing Java exception handling refactoring.

    • My takeaway: Oftentimes, the most impactful work isn’t in the statement of work. We should, of course, complete everything in the statement of work with excellence, but always look for other opportunities to add value. That’s what clients remember.

  • Fading giants: The most strategic project we did with Blockbuster was what we ended up calling “Straight to Living Room.” It was essentially what Netflix became as they transitioned to a streaming service beyond DVD by mail. We worked on the initial strategy for this and were then working on plans to start bringing it to life when there was a CEO change at Blockbuster. Coincidentally, on the CEO’s first day on the job, he happened to walk into a conference room where we were meeting. We introduced ourselves and he asked what we were working on. I told him and he said something like, “Do you ever get the feeling that we’ve got a really nice house and yes, it needs some repairs, but instead you guys are in the yard building a tree house?” I replied, “No, I have not had that feeling. I think the old house is falling down and we’re trying to build a new place to sleep.” He said goodbye and walked out of the room. I knew at that moment that our time at Blockbuster was limited. That project got canceled and Blockbuster shifted their focus to reinvigorating the stores through better merchandising and creating a bit of a Starbucks-like experience. It obviously didn’t work and we all know the end of that story. It was really hard on Credera in the short-term, as Blockbuster was one of our two big clients, but one of the best things for us in the mid to long term. As Blockbuster started heading into bankruptcy, their very talented online team was distributed to many other companies. Our relationships and reputations with them helped us to build new relationships with many other clients and continues to help more than 10 years later.

    • My takeaway: As a leader, be open minded and don’t dismiss new ideas. Even more importantly, there is incredible value in building your reputation and then maintaining it for the long term.

  • Retreats: Some of my favorite professional (or really any) memories have spawned from some of the partner team retreats we’ve taken over the years. Each year, we take a retreat (or two) as a partner team to get away together, deepen relationships, and work on the business. The most important things to come from those are the camaraderie and relationships. Some of that is through team building activities like the life journey mapping exercise we did together in 2019, but a lot of it comes in the ad hoc and after hours fun. For example, many times a Farkle loss on the partner trip turned into fun for the whole company when the punishment had to be paid out at the next Fireside Chat (our all-hands meetings). We still laugh about some of these moments that happened nearly 10 years ago and continue to build more of these memories together.

    • My takeaway: Never underestimate the importance of true, trusted relationships and remember that fun can and should be a part of how you build those.

  • The acquisition: In the Summer of 2018, we finalized a deal to sell a majority stake of Credera to Omnicom. It had been a long and challenging selling process, but one that I am incredibly thankful for. Thankful both because I learned a tremendous amount during those nine months, but also because I was excited about our outcome and new home for the firm. It was a rollercoaster process, with many highs and lows and moments when it looked like the whole thing might fall apart.

    • My takeaway: See new challenges as learning opportunities. It might not always seem that way at the beginning, but in the rearview mirror it usually looks that way.

  • The pandemic: I think we can all agree that 2020 has been an unusual and very challenging year. We’ve had a global pandemic health crisis with the associated global economic meltdown. Then we experienced the massive social movement and unrest, triggered by George Floyd’s murder, but based on long-term racial inequality, racism, and injustice. Throughout all of that, I’ve been extremely proud of the people of Credera. We’ve rallied around each other, cared for one another and sought unity when the rest of the world is so divisive. Through our Credera Listens series, we sought to learn and develop empathy by listening to panels of leaders who have a different background and experience than us. We’ve used our creativity and entrepreneurial spirit to drive new business when some of our existing clients had to pull back in the spring. For my part, I’ve tried (and am still trying) to lead with transparency, authenticity, and humility and to keep calm and composed. I believe when we look back five years from now, we’ll note this season as one of the best and most important for re-codifying Credera’s culture and a key part of the exciting journey ahead.

    • My takeaway: Leaders have to be transparent and unite, not divide. We’re all better off getting to know people with different experiences, races, genders, and backgrounds than ourselves. If we do that, we find that we have way more in common than we are different, and we can work to make real progress together.

  • The expansion: We reached an exciting milestone this summer with the acquisition of DMW Group in the UK. They are a great company, with excellent leadership, a remarkably talented team, and a strong culture. This marks Credera’s first expansion outside of the United States and a huge milestone in our collective journey to be a “global, boutique” consulting firm. It was also our first ever acquisition and a pretty big bet. The fit so far is even better than I expected and has made me even more optimistic about our future than I was before.

    • My takeaway: You have to have courage to make some big bets along the way instead of sticking to the status quo.

  • The rebrand: It happened just a month ago in mid-August 2020. We launched Credera’s rebrand (changes to our logo, color palette, core messaging, website, powerpoint decks, etc.) and it was a huge success. You can check out this blog post to find out more about the rebrand. Not only am I thrilled about the new brand, but the team did such a great job getting the whole company involved in the relaunch through fun cameo appearances throughout the week and then great videos announcing the changes. That same week, we also hosted another Credera Listens panel with incredible panelists on race, racism, anti-racism, and allyship. The team also taught a training course around unconscious bias and how to make sure we are being fair throughout the interview process. It was exceptionally well done and thoughtful. At the end of that week, as I was preparing my weekly video update for the company, I had an overwhelming sense of pride and joy for what we are building and for the great people of Credera.

    • My takeaway: A company can do amazing things when it assembles a team of talented professionals who really care about each other and making the company a little bit better every day.

looking to the future  

There are so many stories I could tell: lessons I’ve learned, how I’ve grown as a leader and person, and a thanks to those that have invested in me along the way. Those will have to wait for another time.

As I shift my attention to the next 20 years though, my main priorities are to create similarly great experiences for the next generation of Credera team members. If we can do that, we’ll not only develop incredible leaders, but also fulfill our mission to make an extraordinary impact on our clients’ businesses, our people’s lives, and the communities where we live.

Thank you for allowing me to share my Credera story (so far). I’m extremely thankful for all of the great people at Credera. They make my job fun and extraordinarily rewarding.

working at credera

At Credera, we have a culture that values the many unique perspectives, backgrounds, and histories that our employees represent. If you’re interested in a career at Credera and beginning your journey, please visit our careers page.

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