Jack Creighton doesn't play golf. That's why, for retirement, the 73-year old corporate veteran says he prefers the boardroom to the clubhouse...

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Jack Creighton doesn’t play golf. That’s why, for retirement, the 73-year old corporate veteran says he prefers the boardroom to the clubhouse.

After having stewarded three Fortune 500 firms the past decade, Creighton is rolling up his sleeves again, this time to lend his experience and his Rolodex to a rapidly growing startup.

He’s the new chairman of Intrepid Learning Solutions, which develops employee-training tools and services for giant corporations like the ones he used to run.

Out of an office in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, Intrepid has been on the frontlines of a silent revolution in the way companies train employees.

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Founded in 1999 with 19 employees, the company has expanded to a staff of 158, half of them added this year.

Its three most important clients, each signed to broad-reaching, multiyear contracts, are Autodesk, Boeing and Microsoft.

Traditionally, employee training at most big companies was relegated to a small unit off in the wings, somewhere between the human-resources and marketing departments. But with the advent of the digital economy, industry titans have had to become as nimble as their startup competitors when it comes to rolling out products and responding to shifts in technology.

That turbulence has made training a critical function for companies such as software vendor Autodesk, which depends on independent resellers, one step removed from management’s oversight, for 90 percent of its revenue.

“People are the prime factor in a company’s success,” says Creighton, who brings to the role of corporate-leadership icon a soft-spoken manner and a flair for plaid flannel that Jack Welch could only dream of. “Too many CEO’s neglect the needs of their employees; that disconnect is what causes companies to fall short of their goals,” he says.

Creighton’s insight, like his outspoken views on CEO pay (it’s too high) and corporate governance (not strong enough), were forged over more than a half-century among the top ranks of some of the world’s biggest companies.

From 1991 to 1996, he served as CEO and president of Weyerhaeuser. In 1998 he joined UAL (parent of United Airlines) as a director and briefly, during the period leading up to its 2002 bankruptcy, interim CEO and chairman.

This year, before retiring as vice chairman of Unocal, he helped oversee the California oil company’s $17 billion sale to Chevron.

Even before attracting the well-connected Creighton, Intrepid had been growing quickly.

According to founder and CEO Christopher Hedrick, revenue has doubled each of the past two years and will easily exceed $10 million this year. The privately held firm doesn’t release earnings information.

Training outsourced

Driving growth is a 40 percent annual growth in the training outsourcing business.

According to market research firm IDC, by 2009 outsourced training is expected to grow to 13 percent of the $51 billion training-services market, from the current 5 percent.

Companies like IBM, Raytheon and consulting firms Accenture have awakened to the huge potential of this niche market.

They focus their energies on specific industries they know well, like aerospace in the case of Raytheon, or selling add-on training services to existing clients.

Intrepid’s strength, says Hedrick, is that its core business is training.

“We don’t have to be rocket scientists to know how to train them,” he says, referring to an instruction manual the company prepared for real-life rocket scientists at Boeing.

Intrepid also has “recruited some of the brightest talent in the training industry; people with a real track record at big companies,” says Doug Harward, founder and CEO of North Carolina-based TrainingOutsourcing.com, a Web site about the training outsourcing business.

Executives at Intrepid say the company customizes Web-based and other training materials that save money and effectively communicate management’s vision.

Take the example of MSN. A boom in online advertising spurred a massive expansion of Microsoft’s Internet portal this past year, and its sales force doubled in size over the past year.

Keeping those employees all on the same page was the thankless task of a few, overworked in-house trainers who addressed specific needs as they cropped up.

MSN project

Intrepid developed, for the first time, a comprehensive program that begins with a two-day orientation and is reinforced by certification for MSN salespeople on specific skills like presentation, product knowledge and negotiating.

“They provided a disciplined, end-to-end training program that we were too overwhelmed to even see the need for,” says Stephen Kim, MSN’s marketing director.

Intrepid’s business pitch, made last spring, wasn’t the cheapest, but Kim says he was impressed with the company’s deep knowledge of MSN’s strategy and the promise of a long-term, flexible partnership.

“After a thorough analysis, it was obvious that the return on investment of developing this expertise internally wasn’t worth dedicating our resources to,” he said.

As chairman, Creighton says he’ll help Hedrick, who served as technology policy adviser to former Gov. Gary Locke, oversee Intrepid’s expansion outside the Northwest.

His involvement is more than symbolic.

As a director of Madrona Venture Group, Intrepid’s biggest shareholder, he’s also an investor.

Currently, the company has sales representatives in 12 states and an office in Boston.

“It’s a David and Goliath scenario,” says Harwood. “They’re winning a lot of deals, and its bigger competitors are taking notice.”

Josh Goodman: 206-464-3347 or jgoodman@seattletimes.com