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CultureMay 03, 2017

Two Guys Walk Onto A Bus

Amber Wang

“Please forgive me for not responding sooner. Happy to discuss this topic with you.”

“Happy to do that. Looking forward to getting to know you.”

I read these short replies in my inbox with surprise then delight. Both the CEO and the co-founder of our 260-person, rapidly growing consulting firm each just granted me an hour of their week to interview them and discuss how Credera came to be.

Credera was cultivated over the years by the shared vision of CEO Rob Borrego and co-founder Matt Levy. When I deliberated post-graduation options last year, I was drawn to the unique nature of this consulting firm, one that seemed to have struck a special balance between family and business, entrepreneurialism and excellence, process and results. I was naturally curious of its origins. Credera is still a relatively close-knit group, but I joined 18 years after its founding, so there’s a bit of distance between me and the firm’s roots. Newer Crederians might also want to learn more about the firm’s beginnings – so I shot Matt and Rob an email.

Soon enough, I found myself sitting across from each of them –  in Rob’s office where he’s usually the one asking the questions and in Matt’s as I’m catching him between client calls. I’m dropped into very different stories, one on the fast track to big firm prestige, the other in a small, boutique firm often thinking back to a memory of a man raking leaves and shoveling gravel (we will get to that momentarily).

Rob had prestigious opportunities lined up after graduating from the University of Texas that were only offered to a handful. Electing to pursue consulting, Rob soon felt affirmed that this was his craft. “I’m a better management consultant than a CEO”, he jokes. He was a high-performing consultant, excelling at Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC) and Booz Allen & Hamilton before co-founding his first company Tactica in 1996 with three colleagues from Booz Allen & Hamilton. In 2001, they sold Tactica, then a 200-person firm in three cities with $40 million in revenue, to Hitachi and became part of Hitachi Consulting. By this time however, Rob had already been thinking about something different. Having not taken a break since graduation, he was working demanding hours and traveling considerably. Additionally, Hitachi began struggling with its three new acquisitions, including Tactica. Combined with the “dot com crash”, Hitachi’s business and culture were only deteriorating – Rob was counting the days left on his earn-out before he would take a year off to travel and spend time with his family.

During this countdown, however, another opportunity had begun to brew, whether Rob was aware of it or not. Before Tactica was sold, a church acquaintance had connected Rob to two guys who wanted some business advice. Matt and Ty were two young Texas Tech alums seeking Rob’s advice on how to get their new, inexperienced consulting firm off the ground. Two months after meeting, they asked Rob to join their firm after his earn-out. “I looked at them and said, ‘Why would I ever want to do that’”, Rob recalls fondly.

Matt Levy was a junior at Texas Tech when he decided to work at Kanakuk, a Christian summer camp. He had just converted to Christianity in college and thought the camp suitably combined his love of sports with his new faith by “working with kids who were growing up and wanted someone to invest in them”. He was not expecting to learn the most important leadership lesson of his life – one that would guide everything he did after that summer. The two weeks before the first campers show up to the program, the counselors work to clean the entire camp in preparation. During these weeks, Matt found himself next to the organization’s CEO, Joe White. “All of a sudden, he was beside me shoveling gravel, raking leaves, moving railroad ties… and I was half his age, and he was doing more work than I was at a brisker pace, and I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’” Matt noted how Joe took time to meet with others just to encourage them and see how he could help them, investing in people he didn’t even know yet. Matt decided then that he was witnessing true leadership, “serving and caring for your people from a humble position”, an example he was determined to try to emulate the rest of his life. That’s how he found himself questioning his career position a few years later at a boutique consulting firm under leadership he couldn’t get excited about.

While many entrepreneurial endeavors spring from a specific external need or challenge, such as a new product or business model, Matt decided he would start a company because he was working for people he did not feel compelled to become. So when the firm suddenly fired him without providing a reason, he said his thanks, and his wife Amy reacted that evening with, “Great, it’s time to start the company”. The couple was 24 years old at the time. Matt bought a computer and folding desk off of eBay the very next day. Though he knew he could generate business opportunities from his past few years of experience, Matt knew he needed other people. After successfully generating three accounts in 30 days, Matt persuaded a friend from PwC to join him, and the fledgling company of two was in business.

At this point in my conversation with Matt, I interrupt him with a definitively first-job-out-of-school “Okay but how, how did you just start a company”. Responding with a clarity of vision and voice, Matt shares the many times he was on his knees in his living room ruminating on his utter lack of experience and praying to God to help him figure it all out. He eventually came upon Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, where Collins illustrates the importance of getting the right people on the bus in the right seats and the wrong people off the bus. With this in mind, Matt defined his own strengths and weaknesses and then the type of people he needed to get onto this bus …

“I have no intention of joining your firm.”

“Would you at least pray about it?”

“No I don’t want to pray about it, I already decided!”

Eighteen months after their first conversation about Credera, Rob, Matt, and Ty were wrapping up a multi-week project that was intended to test their working compatibilities and determine if Rob would join Credera after his earn-out with Hitachi. As the soundbites suggest, Rob remained far from convinced after the engagement (“It was so hard”). Now the first to admit his pride at the time, Rob believed they couldn’t afford him, and that they didn’t have the background or skills to accomplish the goals he envisioned. Nevertheless, Matt persisted and asked what it would take for him to get on the “bus” with them. In the months leading up to this point, key individuals in Rob’s life – his wife, best friend, and pastor – had each expressed to Rob that they believed he should seriously consider joining Credera. With their suggestions in mind, Rob presented to Matt his own Gideon’s fleece test consisting of three demands regarding compensation, company ownership, and governance. Matt agreed to every condition. Within a week, Rob and a close colleague and friend (now Credera CFO, David Dobat) left Hitachi and joined Credera. “David and I came in and laughed so hard because if we didn’t, we would’ve cried”, Rob reminisces, reflecting on the state of Credera when they officially joined. The next few years, they “prayed like it all depended on God, worked like it all depended on us.”

From a company perspective, the first year was expectedly difficult. The firm’s goals were to make payroll, “keep the lights on”, and improve “our people engine”. Thirteen of the original fourteen employees, including Matt’s co-founder, left the firm as Rob quickly defined Credera’s high standards to stay on the bus. From a people perspective, it would take several more years for Rob and Matt to learn to trust each other as coworkers and as true friends. Rob describes the relational mistrust as brutal on top of the demands of building the company, causing countless sleepless nights and a frequent need for spiritual mediation (from Kyle Kaigler, a Credera board member and their trusted friend) to draw the strength, patience, empathy, and forgiveness to keep the company together. It was a journey that “would take a whole other book to write”, but one that they completed and look back on with gratitude. Rob and Matt can be night and day, but they share the same core values derived from their faith that blend seamlessly across personal and professional lives: humility, integrity, and doing one’s best to put others before oneself (as imperfect as it may look sometimes). They had found these values missing from their respective past professional worlds. These values ultimately brought and kept them together. As an agnostic, progressive millennial, I find Rob and Matt’s grounded faith refreshing and humbling. I see clarity in purpose, sense of self, and infallible grit that inspire me to live out these values, values that are universal and do not require a common biblical narrative to embody.

At this point in my conversation with Rob, he has pulled out his half-framed glasses and flipped to a blank page in his notebook, excitedly drawing out stick-figure visuals to help narrate his story. His frames and animation soften his presence, providing an amusing juxtaposition against the usual professionalism and intensity that he maintains even during casual conversation. It’s a brief but interesting moment where I feel like I can see him as the family-oriented father and businessman Credera has uniquely allowed him to become. This is the mini Gideon fleece test for anyone questioning where they are in their lives – do you get these moments of excitement when you think about why you’re doing what you do? Do you become this engaged when you talk about what matters? I ask him how New Hire Rob has changed since joining Credera thirteen years ago, and how he sees himself continuing to grow at the top of the totem pole. “I’ve become more empathetic,” Rob begins, “[I’m] very intense as you can tell, very driven as you can tell, very passionate… and that personality type can be very motivating for certain people, and very demotivating for others.” He has learned to be an “easier” and “better” person to be around, “not so intense, not so driven, not so prideful”, who has grown in his ability to lead others. Having stepped down as President just a few months ago, Rob points out that “for the first time in thirteen years, I’m not Chairman, CEO, and President… as a Type-A-driven-control-freak-perfectionist, I’m learning to let go [by delegating] significant responsibility and authority to [Credera’s current President] Justin Bell.” He’s also making a point to enjoy the journey, not just look forward to the destination, to “stop and enjoy the people God has brought here – encourage them, bless them, honor them, have fun with them.”

Matt has similarly ramped down intensity and is focusing on continuing his personal growth in three ways: serving the company, supporting and advocating his wife Amy’s work, and being a resource to young leaders who want to build or create their own Credera in the future. Like a true lifelong learner, he continues to read two hours everyday, citing biographies as a personal favorite (“I know people think they’re boring, but I love them”) and highly recommending Eric Metaxas’ biographical works. When I bring up my intent to read Team of Rivals about Abraham Lincoln, I note that with his lanky height and sincerity, Matt exudes a stately humility that I imagine Uncle Abe would’ve had.

Matt and Rob have created a unique company. Credera continues to grow and learn as a firm. With that comes inevitable growing pains and challenges, but grounding everything during this journey is the original vision this company was built upon. Two individuals of different backgrounds, experiences, and personalities pushed together through challenges to build a sanctuary of care and opportunity. It is a privilege to be here, and the very fact that I was able to hear the story in their own words and share it is a testament to the kind of community this place is. And since I had the chance to, I didn’t let Rob off easy. I asked one last question – would he have joined Credera if it were one of his many offers after graduating? After some contemplation, he answers, “I would like to think so, but I don’t know.” He notes that his younger self did not have the same values, and he recognizes the importance of brand and prestige to young graduates, having thought that way himself before. Rob points out that in his particular case, he needed his experience at PwC, Booz Allen & Hamilton, and Tactica to inform how he would think about the building of Credera. To future Crederians however, especially young graduates, he encourages them to consider the type of growth, lifestyle, and opportunities they want. In our model, Credera invests in you – if you work hard, live out the culture and values, aspire to do more and be better, “watch how fast and how many opportunities you will have [to] advance and lead … build a practice, build an office, build a new service line … you’ll have all those opportunities here without waiting the years and years at other places.”  This is the story of how Credera was built, and I personally can’t wait to write Credera’s next chapter with these guys.