Knowledge Center

Return to Knowledge Center

Banking on KC – Jeanette Prenger of ECCO Select

publication image

Click here to listen now, or read the transcript below:


Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. On this episode, we welcome Jeanette Prenger, the President and CEO of ECCO Select. Thanks for joining us, Jeanette.

Jeanette Prenger:

It's so good to hear your voice, Kelly.

Kelly Scanlon:

25 years since you founded ECCO Select in a corner desk in your bedroom. That's phenomenal. 25 years later, you're still here, you're still growing. Congratulations.

Jeanette Prenger:

Thank you. I think about this time 25 years ago I was actually talking to guys that I had worked with at TWA. Not having a very good imagination, one of the guys who was working on my team, and we were putting a new technology in at Sprint, an intranet for a corporate repository, he came up with the idea and we were all discussing what the business model would be for finding people who understood technology, and then be able to do what we were doing, and that's modernize technology systems for these big companies with the big mainframes. And I'm thinking about what we were talking about at that time 25 years ago, within a month, both of them had decided to stay in their positions that they were at because of personal reasons, and I had already enrolled at Kauffman Foundation. So the worst case scenario was I would come out with a business plan and learn from that, but it ended up working out well.

Kelly Scanlon:

So you ended up being the sole founder of ECCO Select. Originally you were supposed to have two partners. That's incredible that you stuck with it.

Jeanette Prenger:

Well, we actually, the three of us incorporated on September 4th, 1995. I will never forget that date and like I said, within a month, they were like, "Well ..." It sounded like a great idea, but you know, they had their own reasons for [inaudible 00:01:57] you know, starting a new company, wanting to also, we were all fairly young, we were not even in our mid thirties yet. And you know, wanting to buy homes and things like that, and when you start a new business, you don't just get to go and continue life with kind of the security blanket that you think a corporation offers you.

Kelly Scanlon:

When you started this, did you imagine that it would grow to what it is now? And you've got offices in Washington, D.C, another headquarters there and the growth has been tremendous.

Jeanette Prenger:

We have over 300 people right now, nationwide. We deploy people to Canada, Mexico. We've had consultants in Europe. I am so proud of how we've grown and what we've done through this journey. But no, I would have never dreamt that we would be where we are today, but I always knew whatever I set out as a goal, that once I got close to it, I would raise the bar. And we have a mindset as part of culture that we always are constantly improving, and we raised that bar because it's that whole reach for the stars and grab the moon mentality. It's still great, even when you don't quite get to where you think you're going to be, or you have a little bit of a setback, you just keep trying to improve and be better.

Kelly Scanlon:

As you've grown, the company has changed and it's evolved. If you had to describe your company today, how would you do that? What would you tell them it is?

Jeanette Prenger:

Well, for somebody who doesn't really understand the business model of professional services or consulting, I would just make it really simple and say we do staffing of people with technology skills. Make it that simple. We provide people, but we do it in ways that when you recognize the name of Accenture or Deloitte or Ernst and Young, you understand that those are people with a lot of capabilities, a lot of bandwidth. And even though we're a smaller company, we're not global, we're not multinational multibillion dollar company, but what we are is a company that's able to find incredible talent to help our businesses meet their technology objectives.

Jeanette Prenger:

I was really fortunate and I always take a look at people who have a lot of advantages, and why do they have those advantages? A lot of times they have a point of reference or somebody who can help them get ahead. In my case, my father who had been an engineer in the Air force, got into technology in the late fifties, early sixties. And he got into technology when he was very, very young and from there was in a management position, which is how we ended up in Kansas City. When my father was an IT manager for TWA, headquartered in New York, they relocated their associates to Kansas City, Missouri. He was an IT manager and I remember him coming home, even as a little girl in second and third grade, he had key punch cards and the green and white bar paper. I think you probably remember those green and white barcodes, right?

Kelly Scanlon:

I do. I remember the punch cards.

Jeanette Prenger:

So we used punch cards For flashcards, we used the green and white bar paper to draw on, but I always knew what he did and I knew he actually wrote something that allowed computers to do processing. That's about the extent of what I knew, and when I was in college and my husband and I were dating, I really struggled with identifying with the major that I wanted to stick with, and my father talked to me about going into technology. He said it would always evolve, just like medicine, there would always be new things coming up. It was one place where it really wouldn't matter what your gender or your color was because you were working with computers. And because he had grown from being a software developer into management, he was able to break it down and say, "You can do this, it's like learning a language."

Jeanette Prenger:

And when we came to the United States, when I was almost five, I already knew several languages because we'd lived in Portugal and Spain. And so to me, it was like, "Oh, it's learning a language, not a big deal." It wasn't exactly as fun as when [inaudible 00:06:22] and I first started it, and I was the third woman to declare it as a major at Warrensburg when in 1979, I started school there. So it was not something most women even thought of, but because my father was in that field, that's the reason I was able to at least try it out. I did not think I would enjoy it, but as I got more involved and really understood how the building blocks, the foundation, my Assembler class was done in key punch cards. I mean, Assembler is zeros and ones, it's a binary language. And to talk to an operating system, this was not easy. This was not easy, it wasn't sexy, I was in the computer lab till three in the morning, which is when it closed and right back at six in the morning, so it was a very different time. But even back then, my father was able to get me interested in it because he said we were going to have flexibility, someday you'd be able to work from home. Isn't that funny that now, almost 40 years [crosstalk 00:07:23]

Kelly Scanlon:

It is, how prescient he was.

Jeanette Prenger:

But you know, there was so much you could do from home because there was a lot of planning that you could do in advance, and so it worked out really well as far as doing something that was meaningful, I really enjoyed my career prior to starting ECCO Select. I enjoyed writing programs, I enjoyed building systems, I enjoyed working with people who had business needs in digging into it and making sure it met all the objectives and getting everybody together and then working with my teams to make sure that it was translated correctly, because you can have great technical people that can make things very complicated, then they're not very user friendly.

Jeanette Prenger:

So I really enjoyed being able to do both the technical side and the business side and I felt like when this idea was brought to me, I was like, "This can work. I can do this. I know a lot of people." And remember, this is pre LinkedIn, pre Monster, pre Google finding out information. It was the networks that you knew, the relationships that you had for both business and for finding people who'd be interested in looking for a new opportunity.

Kelly Scanlon:

What has been your secret weapon, that X factor that has allowed ECCO Select to succeed at the level that it has? You said yourself that it surpassed your wildest dreams from when you first started, but what has it been that's allowed you to do that?

Jeanette Prenger:

Well, I think it's that constant drive to reach a goal, raise the bar and then take a look at what else. So, the business model is a simple business model, but what we do now is very complex, given the projects we're on, the multi year contracts that we are providing services for Department of Defense and United States Department of Agriculture, these multi-year modernization projects are very complicated, and those are the things that drive me. And I know that our culture thrives on being able to do more. Doing more also has allowed us success and growth that is part of being able to master some of the things that are more complicated than just providing a person for one need.

Kelly Scanlon:

You've lived through a number of national and global events that have put other companies out of business. I mean, we all know them, 9/11, the Great Recession. Right now we're in the middle of Corona, and then you've also had some internal struggles and some of those played out rather publicly. So what have you learned about leading through a crisis?

Jeanette Prenger:

Well, at the end of the day, I know that we can find superior talent. I also know that our clients recognize that. It's one of the reasons we were able to survive 9/11. It's one of the reasons while during the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 bought around a similar economic environment, we were growing because of these successful partnerships. And I also believe that it's because we have relationships internally and externally that allow us to gain strength from challenges. I had a very public dispute with a couple of executives that I brought in to help grow our company and it did not cast us in a very good light, and yet, because we had such a loyal customer and associate base, we not only overcame those conditions, but it helped set the stage for exponential growth.

Jeanette Prenger:

Our customer relationships really allowed us to keep the doors open, but I think they also recognize how committed we are to excellence. We are always talking about the white glove service that we provide, not only our customers, but also our associates. We want an experience that allows people an opportunity to see what can be and I also believe that it's our resilience and the way we have bounced back from challenges, some of them totally beyond our control, like 9/11 and of course this pandemic, but it's the way you bounce back from those imperfect situations that shows a company's character. And I think that our ability to persevere in the face of adversity is truly a testament to the commitment that we've given to core organization philosophies, the culture that we have, and the values that we instill.

Kelly Scanlon:

Part of ECCO Select's growth has involved bringing family members into the business. And how has their participation bolstered the company? How has it strengthened the culture?

Jeanette Prenger:

I think when you are an associate at ECCO Select, you truly feel like you're part of a family. My husband works in the business, both of our sons work in the business. Our oldest son is the Chief Operating Officer, he's part of the succession plan. He's done a great job in hiring a team and producing a template for exponential growth. They have really hit it out of the ballpark the last couple of years and I'm so proud of the way our family members work together Monday through Friday, but how we also come together on the weekend. And I say that because we do the same thing in the office. We work hard during the week with our associates that we take the time to make sure we know each other, know each other's families, be able to understand what their challenges might be, especially now with COVID, and be able to celebrate successes and also be able to be there for each other when there are times that may not be so enjoyable. We suffer losses as a family and we also do that with our associates. We pull together and we have fun either doing something because of our business objectives or because we're doing it for the community.

Kelly Scanlon:

You have really accomplished something being able to be in business with your family for that many years, because that really is a fine balancing act. You must have your roles laid out in a way that everybody knows what they're supposed to do and everybody respects one another. And you can, as I always say, have Thanksgiving dinner together still.

Jeanette Prenger:

Yes. And you know, I know that's a hard balance, especially if you have more than one child. The more children you have, I've got to imagine it becomes much more difficult. I'm very fortunate that both of my sons like doing different things and that they were agreeable as to where they thought they could be productive. So, that's worked out really well. I know my husband wants to retire, he keeps trying to get fired. I just can't see him spending all his days at the golf course. And he's been, you know, he was a baseball player in college and he's basically been my pinch hitter ever since I hired him a couple of years after I started the company. He was a billable consultant, he knows what it's like to be at the client's side. He worked in technology.

Jeanette Prenger:

Interesting story, he changed careers into IT from finance seven years after I started working, and has never looked back. He never thought he would work for me. When I started my business planning he goes, "What are you going to do if this doesn't work out?" And I said, "I'll just go back to corporate." And he goes, "Well, I'll never work for you, we can't have both working on a startup." And two years later he was a billable consultant. But it's worked out really well because we know where our strengths are, we play to those strengths and we all have unique strengths that we're not competing with each other.

Kelly Scanlon:

The other thing that I'm hearing you say in there, although you're not saying it directly, is that you communicate with each other a lot. Especially, I heard that when you were talking about your two sons and knowing what their interests are, a lot of times that kind of communication doesn't take place in a family business.

Jeanette Prenger:

I've been very, very fortunate that my sons came into the business as we were growing, and that really allowed us an opportunity that had they wanted to come into the business earlier, those opportunities may not have been there. Had they waited too long, we may have had people that were more experienced. And we have brought in obviously really experienced professionals in areas that they're in right now, but what's happened is they have been able to grow with the business, not unlike myself. I wasn't even 35 years old when I started the business, and, you know, Kelly, when you're an entrepreneur, you wear all these different hats. And they were able to see me wear different hats, they were able to come into the business at a time when we were still fairly small and be able to grow with the business.

Kelly Scanlon:

Has there been anything about ECCO Select's story that has surprised you, other than your husband coming to work? That surprised him too.

Jeanette Prenger:

You know, a couple of years ago, we bought a commercial building, two story, it's almost 20,000 square feet. And when we brought our internal team in to view where their new headquarters were going to be, I had so many positive comments about our commitment to this company as a legacy company, multi generational. And it made people feel really good that we had roots. We had place now and it was actually our own building and I'M really proud of that. And I'm so proud of the number of people who have been with us for more than a decade. It's been a true Testament I believe to our ability as we've grown, to allow them to professionally develop themselves and also grow with us.

Kelly Scanlon:

You talked about legacy. You have spent so much time creating community, advocating for various causes. You're very passionate about that and a lot of the work that you've done in that area will become part of your legacy. I mean, your organizations are so diverse, they run the gamut from Missouri Tourism Commission to the Economic Advisory Committee to the Federal Reserve, but you also have the American Royal, the U S Hispanic Chamber. I mean, they're just a lot of different lives that you've touched, a lot of different causes that you had an impact on. Again, that's just a handful of them. Why is your community and your advocacy work so important to you?

Jeanette Prenger:

There's a couple of reasons, but probably the main one is that life is short, and I want to do as much as possible in the time I have. So, I don't have children living at home, I have a lot of energy, I have a great support system with my husband and I manage a lot of different things. What do they say? "If you want something done, ask a busy person."

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes.

Jeanette Prenger:

And I think I thrive on that. I enjoy doing a lot of things and I enjoy doing a lot of different things, and it's not just one cause. I mean, I fundraise and volunteer for things that impact and touch the lives of children, or research for diseases that we're trying to conquer. And entrepreneur's, economic development. I'm in tourism now because I absolutely love Kansas City. I was born in Portugal, we lived on the East Coast, but Kansas City is home. And I want other people to come visit us, I think we have a lot to offer. So I get involved with things because I believe in the mission and I want to make that organization hopefully a better one by being involved with it and touching more people.

Kelly Scanlon:

You mentioned Kansas City, that this is home, that you came here from Portugal via New York. As far as your business goes though, has there been any advantage about being based in Kansas City as opposed to on the coast?

Jeanette Prenger:

Well, I personally think there's a huge advantage. One, is we can keep our overhead down when we're competing with companies that are based on the coasts. The other advantage is that I have never had an issue flying anywhere, because we're centrally located. North, South, East, West, you need a meeting, I have a request to go visit a client, I don't have an issue going. I've heard competitors or other businesses, "Oh, you know, I'm in D C and I've got to go all the way to Los Angeles." Or, "I'm in Florida and I've got to go to Minneapolis." I don't have that complaint at all, and that's one of the reasons I love Kansas City. We're also really down to earth. I find the people here are just warm and willing to help.

Kelly Scanlon:

When you think back over the last 25 years, and I know you've still got many more in your future, but the last 25 years, what's been your most satisfying moment?

Jeanette Prenger:

I think the most satisfying moment was when both of our sons came to me and they both had already talked to each other about the business. And they came to me saying that they had wanted to sit down and talk about what their future could be in working at ECCO Select. That made me really proud. It made me feel like I did something right, because it's not too often that kids want to follow in your footsteps. At least they won't admit it until they're older.

Kelly Scanlon:

That had to be very heartwarming. I mean, you obviously did something right there. What is your call to action to business owners who are listening right now who want to grow their business? Especially right now, we were in such a time of uncertainty. What's critical to achieving growth, no matter what industry you're in, no matter what's being thrown at you in terms of the economy or any other situation. What's critical to growing that successful business?

Jeanette Prenger:

Well, just like a great recipe, you have to have really good ingredients, right? So, surrounding yourself with really bright people. I feel like the reason ECCO Select is so successful are the type of people that we've been able to attract. They've got great experiences and successes on their own, they're very smart and they're committed to growth, their personal growth and the growth of the company. We've also been very financially responsible and you can't sit there and spend more than you make. You have to really take a look at how you're going to grow and how you're going to fund your growth and be really smart because of times like these, cash is king. So, making sure that you're financially astute.

Jeanette Prenger:

I talked about having really great associates, hiring the best. As you make more money, you're able to hire better people, and that's where that old terminology, I guess, was coined, "It takes money to make money."

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes.

Jeanette Prenger:

But you also have to be really smart about your investments and your ROI. And of course, if the market changes and you're offering a product or a service that isn't as valuable, pivot. Take a look at where the money is being spent and does that fit into your wheelhouse? Even though I say we're doing the same thing now as we did 25 years ago, modernizing technology systems, we're doing it in a totally different manner in much more complex ways than I ever dreamt back in those days. So grow and do those things, look at the trends and make sure that you're able to keep up with them.

Kelly Scanlon:

What's next for ECCO Select? 25 years, 25 really good successful years, where do you go from here?

Jeanette Prenger:

Well, you know, I mentioned earlier, we like to continue to raise the bar, we're going to continue to raise the bar. We've put together infrastructure that allows us to continue to grow and not just organic your every year growth, but exponential growth. I believe we probably have an acquisition or two up our sleeve at some point. We've been able to grow organically, but if we really want to conquer some different markets and maybe some other types of competencies, acquisition would be a faster way for us to be able to do that.

Jeanette Prenger:

We're very excited about the future. Technology keeps evolving. What I did 25 years ago was set out to be able to offer great technology talent and be able to modernize legacy systems. 25 years later, we're still doing the same thing.

Kelly Scanlon:

Thank you so much for everything that you do from a philanthropic standpoint, from a civic standpoint, all of your volunteer efforts. We appreciate all of that too, Jeanette.

Jeanette Prenger:

Thanks so much, Kelly. It was great talking to you.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, President of Country Club Bank. Congratulations to Jeanette Prenger and her team on the 25th anniversary of ECCO Select. Thank you, Jeanette, for visiting with us this week to share your entrepreneurial journey and your insights into growing a successful company. Starting a business isn't an easy task. Achieving 25 years of consistent ongoing growth is even more challenging. As a family owned business, Country Club Bank knows firsthand the commitment, fortitude, and resilience it takes to navigate the ups and downs of business ownership. As you grow your business, remember we're here to help you lead it to success.

Joe Close:

Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas city. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.