MN: Since its inception, your company has provided advisory services to more than 150 clients. How many employees and clients did Conley Consulting Group have when it was founded, and what steps do you take to effectively manage your company’s growth?
DC: When I decided to start my own business, I notified my partners, and together we informed my current clients that I was planning to leave the old firm. My senior partner gave each client a choice on how they wanted their business handled. Happily, all of my clients opted to come with my new firm, so I started with a book of business.
Shortly after I founded the business, I hired an assistant to help with research and billing. By the time we got up to three employees, my daughter strongly suggested getting all those people out of the house. She was right, and I found great office space, but admittedly, it was really hard to sign that lease and make such a big commitment three days after the 9/11 tragedy.
I am glad I took that risk; actually I would say all of the risks I have taken have helped me and CCG to grow in unimaginable ways, and I don’t regret any of them. Getting the new space was a great stepping stone to expanding the client list and my personnel. In a consulting firm, your product is your advice, so your employees are your best assets and employee recruitment and retention is an important part of my business. In the Bay Area, there are lots of talented people, but many of them are drawn to the tech industry. A seven year climb to partnership—which was typical when I started working—seems out of synch to young talent who have grown up in a very different world.
MN: What was the biggest challenge you faced as a business owner? How did you overcome this challenge?
DC: The economy in the last few years has hit the real estate marketplace hard. The state’s decision last year to eliminate Redevelopment, the main tool for funding both economic development and affordable housing in California, is a real change in how our business will be done in the future. It is our greatest challenge to date, and like the rest of the industry and our clients, we are still working through it.
MN: Real estate is a male dominated industry. What advice would you give to women business owners who are working to succeed in real estate and other male dominated industries?
DC: The real estate industry is male-dominated, but interestingly, more than half of the consulting firms are lead by women, and many of the senior professionals are women. We are advisors to a male dominated industry. It is actually a bit of a marketing advantage. While some of our male competitors like to impress clients with arrogant promises, we are more likely to step down from the precipice of ego and leave the client feeling more knowledgeable because of our work. We count our work a success if it advances our clients’ careers. Because it often does, clients come back to us again and again.
MN: When did you realize that you had a viable business and what did you do to celebrate this milestone?
DC: After we reached our third year, we celebrated with a staff lunch and gifts of the (then) new iPods, and then we got right back to work!
MN: Is the real estate industry cyclical, offering vast opportunities for growth for several years only to drop off for three or more years? If so, how do you manage through the slow growth periods?
DC: Real estate development and the deals we work on are definitely subject to business cycles. Interestingly, though, in our business, economic redevelopment work tends to increase during recessions, so they tend to balance out. Our clients pay more attention to growing their economies and ask for more economic development assignments when the market is down.