From the time he graduated from business school until he was 28, Tim Jenkins was an outstanding company man. Every day, he'd put on a dark...
From the time he graduated from business school until he was 28, Tim Jenkins was an outstanding company man. Every day, he’d put on a dark suit with a white shirt and tie. He worked punishing hours. The newlywed traveled constantly. He saw his wife too rarely.
But when his employer, Andersen Consulting, sent him on a two-year assignment out of town, Jenkins slammed the brakes on his career.
“This just wasn’t the life I wanted to live,” says Jenkins, now 40.
Now he doesn’t have to. Nor do the rest of the 185 employees at Point B Solutions Group, a Seattle consulting firm Jenkins founded 10 years ago with two other refugees from Andersen, which later became Accenture.
Point B Solutions Group
Consulting and project leadership — they get clients from Point A to Point B
Virtual offices: Seattle, Portland, Phoenix and Denver
Revenues: $32 million in 2004; $40 million projected for 2005
Growth rate: About 20 percent a year
Distinction: No offices, no job titles, no fixed schedules
Unofficial slogan: Life is as important as work.
Employees: 185, most of whom work out of clients’ offices or their homes.
Clients: Microsoft, Experience Music Project, Premera Blue Cross
Favorite meeting place: Starbucks
Source: Point B Solutions Group
Point B has no physical headquarters, no rigid work hours, no formal job titles and, unusual for a consulting firm, little travel. More significant, employees are encouraged — no, required — to have a life outside of work. “My first priority isn’t the firm,” says Jenkins, who works out of a small office near the Edmonds ferry terminal. To illustrate this, Jenkins mentions that right now, at 4:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, he’s just returned from a two-day vacation in the mountains with his family.
This is heresy by most corporate standards, even more so for business consultants, a conservative field dominated by such firms as Deloitte Consulting and McKinsey and Co.
Casual Fridays never quite caught on in the consulting profession, and neither did “work-life balance,” a concept that crept into public consciousness in the mid-’80s.
In many large firms, consultants are still expected to work 60-hour weeks, often spending hours off in hotel rooms far from their families.
In rejecting the standard management model, Point B redefines the nature of the profession and shows it’s possible to build a thriving business without sacrificing a personal life.
Walking the talk
Companies often claim to value their employees’ personal lives, then they pile on more work than can be accomplished in a 40-hour week. Point B manages to walk the talk by weaving its values into its very practices.
• Hiring for fit. The company rejected one candidate — a smart, experienced self-starter — because she told interviewers she liked to spend her spare time working. “I thought to myself,” co-founder Tim Jenkins recalled, “there’s no way she’s going to fit in with our firm.”
• Rewarding accordingly. Associates get paid for the hours they bill to clients, a variable that allows them to take time off without guilt, or to add on hours if money is tight. They also get bonuses for their contribution to the firm and to their teammates.
• Reinforcing the values. In one of the frequent firm-sponsored gatherings, employees spend part of the meeting talking about life outside of work. An internal Web site, “Living Our Lives,” allows employees to post photos of their vacations or notices of volunteer opportunities.
• Modeling behavior. Jenkins often leaves at 3:30 p.m. when he’s coaching one of his daughter’s teams. Consultant Nancy Miller remembers an early conversation with Jenkins.
“If I call, and you happen to be on the Stairmaster,” he told her, “don’t worry because maybe I am, too.”
— Shirleen Holt
Different conceptJenkins conceived of Point B along with co-founders Darran Littlefield and Jim Hodge, both of whom came from Accenture’s Bay Area office. They set out to create a different kind of consulting company: one that emphasized results over face time, one without unproductive office politics, one that didn’t burn out its best people by forcing them to be on the road four weeks a month or in the office well past dinner.
Jennings didn’t want the work schedule of his father, a trauma surgeon.
“He came out of a generation where you had to work 80 to 100 hours a week. If you couldn’t get to your kids’ sports games, well that’s just what you had to give up.”
But the founders also wanted to build a company, a goal that taxes even the most driven entrepreneurs.
Without a central office (they wanted to conserve money), layers of management and the other externals that hold together a workplace, they’d need a self-propelled, self-policing organization.
They called it a “peer-oriented culture.”
“We had no idea what that meant,” Jenkins confesses. “We just agreed that that was what we were going to do.”
It means that all the employees are responsible for ensuring the company runs smoothly and the clients get the service they’re paying for.
No titles hereNo one holds an official title, not even the three founders. Jenkins may lead a team on one project, then report to someone else on another project, which may involve a corporate restructuring or a product launch.
Because Point B doesn’t have an administrative staff, consultants do double or triple duty in public relations, human resources, event planning or the myriad other administrative jobs.
Like many service firms, employees are paid for the hours they bill to clients and receive bonuses, which can exceed their income from billings, based on softer features: How well do employees work as a team? Are they a steward for the firm? Do they put other people first?
Although the firm’s emphasis on work/life balance isn’t its only novelty, it is one of the most significant, both in policy and in practice.
Jenkins, or another employee who has volunteered as a mentor, will often sit down with an employee to map out the person’s professional and personal goals. If a young father, for example, says he wants to volunteer at his daughter’s school once a week, he can carve out that time on the schedule.
It means he’ll be unavailable to the client during that time, but to Jenkins the accommodation pays off in the long run.
“If you want to attract and get a commitment from highly skilled professionals, you can’t just demand it of them,” Jenkins said. “There’s a social bargain here. If we create an environment that takes care of them, they will take care of the customer.”
While companies provide benefits such as flexible hours, child-care subsidies or paid time off, that doesn’t mean they’re family friendly.
Nearly half the workers (45 percent) surveyed by the Family and Work Institute in 2002 said their jobs interfered with their home lives. In 1977, the figure was 34 percent.
Indeed, the gap between corporate politics and real-life practice led to one widely circulated joke in the late 1990s: “We offer flexible schedules — employees can work any 18-hour shift they want.”
Nancy Miller, an avid outdoorswoman, understands this well. She moved to the Northwest for its famous quality of life.
But as a PricewaterhouseCoopers consultant, she was rarely within sight of a snow-peaked mountain. Instead, she’d find herself waking up at the end of the week in a hotel room. Her annual overtime reached 900 hours.
In late 2000, she was prepared to quit consulting altogether when Jeff Worthington, Point B’s recruiter, took her to lunch and explained the firm’s business model.
She’d need to work at least 20 hours a week to be eligible for health benefits, but other than that, she’d be paid for whatever hours she chose to work.
Miller, 40, now works an average 40-hour week in Portland. In October, she took five weeks off, unpaid, to climb Ama Dablam, a 22,500-foot mountain in Nepal.
There is a tradeoff for such freedom.
If employees don’t work, they don’t get paid. Point B does not offer paid vacations, holiday or sick pay.
And the firm’s decentralized offices lack some of the conveniences of a typical workplace.
“We don’t have office administration, we don’t have a full-time HR department,” Miller said. “We don’t have an infrastructure so when your laptop breaks someone comes out and fixes it,” she said.
For Miller, that’s a small price to pay for the opportunity to go rock climbing in California for a month, a trip she’s planning for now.
“Because you’re not getting paid, you don’t feel guilty about taking time off.”
Running a business in which employees have no set hours, no sharply defined job duties, no direct supervision, has its risks. Employees could take advantage of the freedom, billing for work not accomplished.
Point B manages the risks through a system of checks and balances, including the way it hires and pays.
The job demands leadership, initiative and intelligence, Jenkins says, and the firm isn’t in the business of training raw recruits who need to be monitored.
“We hire people who have certainly proven themselves,” Jenkins said.
Employees who don’t pull their weight have to answer to their team leader, who has a say in their bonus, and indirectly when it comes to future projects.
“If you wanted to go to another client, and that team didn’t want you, you won’t be as billable as you want to be,” Jenkins said.
Jill Going, a 37-year-old consultant who has taken on the role of Point B’s culture director, makes sure employees talk with each other.
There are monthly afterwork gatherings where employees talk about work. (February’s topic was “going native” — what happens when a consultant stays with a client too long).
There is a quarterly firmwide meeting; bimonthly breakfast “focus groups,” where employees are asked to weigh in on a business or internal matter.
Going, a mother of three, does this while working part time out of her home office in Seattle.
Despite his iconoclastic approach to business, Jenkins always figured that Point B would eventually get an office.
Yet as the years went by, and startups moved from garages to fancy lofts to the dot-com graveyard, the consultants at Point B were still printing out invoices from their laptops and holding client meetings at Starbucks.
The founders had a choice: They could put in longer hours to pay for the office lease, the furniture and the receptionist. Or they could spend that time volunteering, traveling or coaching their children’s games.
Jenkins, the hardworking doctor’s son, chose the latter.
Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or firstname.lastname@example.org