Episode 62: Fast-Growth Company Drives Fast-Track Location Search…AML RightSource’s Path to BuffaloSeptember 18, 2019
Among fast-growing companies, AML Rightsource is in a category all by itself. Over the past five years, this Cleveland-based company has grown from 35 employees to 950. Their latest expansion took them to Buffalo, New York, where the company will open an 11,000-square-foot office with plans to hire 100 people. True to the company’s fast-moving mentality, the site selection process happened at hyper-speed…in just 10 weeks. To get the full story, we spoke with Frank Ewing, the 38-year-old CEO of AML RightSource, and Alan Rosenhoch, Director of Business Development with Invest Buffalo Niagara.
Patience Fairbrother (DCI): Since launching “The Project” in 2017, we’ve interviewed a lot of fast-growth companies. But AML RightSource is in a category all by itself.
Andy Levine (DCI): Over the past five years, this Cleveland-based company went from 35 employees to 950 employees. These guys know how to grow.
Patience: AML RightSource has grown in Cleveland with multiple locations. They have also set-up new facilities in Phoenix, Arizona and Mississauga, Ontario.
Andy: But their latest expansion brought them to Buffalo, New York, a city that the company’s CEO was surprisingly familiar with.
Andy: So welcome to episode 62 of “The Project: Inside Corporate Location Decisions.” I’m Andy Levine of Development Counsellors International.
Patience: And I’m Patience Fairbrother, also with DCI and Andy’s co-host of “The Project.”
This week we bring you the story of AML RightSource and their decision to open an 11,000 square foot office with plans to hire 100 people. Andy, you did the interviews on this one. Set this up for us.
Andy: This search took place at hyper-speed. From the start of the search to the actual ribbon cutting/opening of the new office, the process took about ten weeks.
We’re going to start our story with Frank Ewing, a thirty-eight year-old, hard-charging CEO of AML RightSource.
Andy: Let’s start off, if you can just give me a little bit of background on your company, and kind of the elevator speech on what you do.
Frank Ewing (AML RightSource): So the company actually started in 2004 in Cleveland, Ohio, as an off-shoot and as a result of the passage of the USA Patriot Act, and after 9/11 when the kind of financial regulators realized that there were some significant and serious holes for terrorist financing and other ill-gotten gains to pass through the U.S. financial system then.
And the idea behind it was, in 2004, “Hey, you know, there’s megabanks out there who can obviously afford to construct large compliance departments to, you know, report financial crime. But what’s the First National Bank of Hastings, Nebraska, going to do?” And an idea was born.
What we’re doing is we’re working as part of either in a total outsourced or a co-sourced fashion with financial institutions and non-bank financial institutions, payments companies, money service businesses, e-commerce platforms, to help them identify, monitor and report potentially suspicious transactions.
Andy: Frank Ewing was actually the first employee of the company back in 2004. And the company sort of sputtered along through the financial crisis of 2008.
Frank actually left the company but came back – this time as one of its owners – in 2013.
And that is when the hyper-growth began.
Frank: Within 3 years, we were from 35 employees to 350. In 2017, we took a growth investment from Clarion Capital Partners, a private equity group out of New York City. Some of our management team, including myself, stayed on and I was elevated to CEO, and some of the other fellows went their own way.
And we continued to invest in the company from a people, process and technology perspective. It’s significantly grown the book of business. And as I sit here today talking to you, we’re roughly 950 employees in 5 offices. So that’s Cleveland, Ohio, Hudson, Ohio, Buffalo, New York, Mississauga, Ontario, and Phoenix, Arizona.
And we really love what we do. And we provide a pretty meaningful service to our financial services clients.
Andy: Let’s start at the beginning of your site selection process. Help me understand what drove the decision.
Frank: While we love being headquartered in Northeast Ohio, that, you know, at some point, you have to think about talent pool. And at some point, you need to just think about kind of contingency locations and things like that.
And so, what we did was we engaged a third party, and we gave them a whole host of criteria to sort through. And just to give you a handful of the, you know, access to colleges and university, median starting salary, commute times, those type of things. After they gyrated our criteria a little bit through their models, they came up with about 20 to 25 site locations.
And it turns out that this study showed a lot of those locations being, you know, good possibilities for us. But when we saw that Buffalo was number four or five on the list and kind of from the point-scoring differential was…the differences between five and one were, you know, very, very minute, we knew that Buffalo probably made the most sense for us. I have a long history with the city of Buffalo and was able to really put my finger on the pulse here a little bit more, too because, you know, the fact of the matter is you can have as many fancy spreadsheets and third-party vendors help you do a site location, but there’s things you can’t track in a spreadsheet.
Patience: So Frank did have a personal connection to Buffalo. He received his law degree from the University of Buffalo. And he worked in the region for a number of years – actually after he left AML RightSource.
Andy: So once you got this back from the consultants, you sort of looked at these, and when Buffalo was high on the list, it sounds like that…you really started focusing in on, “Can we make Buffalo work?” Am I hearing you correctly?
Frank: Well, you know, to me, it jumped off the page.
Frank: Because I have a lot of familiarity with the city. There is something, you know, even though we are growing, and we have a very deep kind of blue-chip client base, there is still something about it. As a CEO, I like to be able to know that I can get in my car, and in three to four hours, I can be in front of my people.
Frank: You know, to me, that’s extremely important. And so, there are a handful of what I call cities in the top 10 of that list that, like Buffalo, had that same appeal. And then, you know, really it was who wants to do business with us? And, you know, when we got hooked up with Invest Buffalo Niagara, it really codified everything that I knew to be true about, you know, why my inclination was Buffalo was the right place to do business.
Andy: So I just want to go back to Ohio for a moment because a lot of companies would’ve looked at this and said, “Well, why don’t we just continue to grow in Cleveland?
Frank: You know, that was certainly one of the things that went into it, right, which is, you know, look, like I said, Northeast Ohio is fantastic. But we have the upwards of 500 to 600, you know, full-time employees there right now. And it’s something you do worry about, tapping out the market. And, you know, given the fact that we’re in a full-employment environment, it’s a very competitive environment, you know, you have to start to think about different locations, not just from, you know, are we going to tap out the market here but from a kind of a business continuity and risk perspective.
Patience: AML RightSource was introduced to the team at Invest Buffalo Niagara. And he connected with Alan Rosenhoch, Director of Business Development.
Alan Rosenhoch (Invest Buffalo Niagara): So, AML RightSource was first introduced to me by a local company. Somebody who I’ve known for a lot of years. He works at a local private equity firm. And he actually had a personal relationship with Frank and they were talking and Frank indicated to him that there was some interest in establishing an operation in Buffalo. Buffalo was being considered among several other regions. And it was really off to the races from there. We hit the gas pedal and didn’t really slow down for the next two months.
Andy: Tell me about that first meeting with him when he was in Buffalo to look at opportunities in Buffalo. What was that first meeting like?
Alan: It was a lot of fun. He’s a really interesting guy. We met at a Starbucks and we sat down. We kind of got to know each other pretty quickly. We had some mutual friends in common, but really it was understanding what AML RightSource was and what their immediate need was and how they were evaluating cities and regions. And so we met, we talked a lot. And then toured some options, they were working with a local real estate broker as well. So, it was really giving him a lot of background information about different neighborhoods and opportunities to recruit top talent and how the incentive programs could work.
Andy: When you left after that half of day, what kind of feeling did you have about the likelihood of this project?
Alan: After the first day spent with Frank, I had a very optimistic feeling. Oftentimes as an economic developer, you walk away first wondering, “Can this company pull off the project at all? Do they have the financing? What hurdles are there going to be for them to make a decision and execute on it?” And then second, “What are our chances?” So, I walked away with very high confidence that they had what was necessary to execute.
Andy: Candidly, Frank didn’t have much experience working with an economic development group before. And he was surprised at the different services they could offer a growing company.
Frank: I remember hanging up with Alan and feeling, “This group really wants to help us along.” But the cynic in me, I called the guy back, and I was, like, “How much is all this? You know, what do you need from us to do all the things that you said you’re going to do to help us figure out, one, if this is the right place and two, execute our launch strategy?”
He’s like, “There’s no charge. This is absolutely free.” He’s like, “I might ask you to do a podcast for me every once in a while or…”
Andy: This is the big payoff right here.
Frank: That’s it. That’s right or, you know, “I’m happy to come and do a picture on your website.” But, you know, that was really it. And, again, you know, to me that was extremely friendly. And I’ll tell you, you know, they followed through on everything that they were going to do. You know, we found space really quickly. We marketed. We, you know, forged relationships with the colleges and universities, with the business community. And, you know, the team at Invest Buffalo Niagara were there every step of the way.
Andy: So this project moved with a great deal of speed. You first visited Buffalo and, you know, met with Invest Buffalo Niagara in January 2019. And then, the decision was announced March 15th. What was driving the timeline and the speed of this timeline?
Frank: Well, there were two things. One, I would have done it four weeks faster, if they’d let me. We do everything fast. And, you know, one of the competitive advantages of our company is that, you know, we are very entrepreneurial in the way that we approach the market. And so, speed is our friend. And so, when we see opportunities, we strike. And that’s how you get from 35 to 950 within 5 years.
Patience: Invest Buffalo Niagara’s Alan Rosenhoch echoed the speed of the project.
Alan: It’s without a doubt the fastest I’ve seen. And that speaks to the analysis that was done before the connection with Frank was made. But their speed to execution was in decision making and commitment to it. They trusted their analysis and moved forward and it’s proving to be a really great decision.
Patience: Andy asked Frank about the incentives discussion.
Andy: So I just want to go back to the incentives. How important were the incentives in your final decision? And did New York State offer a particularly strong incentive package?
Frank : Yeah. It was very robust. It was fair, you know, and it was extremely fair. It was, “Hey…” I’ll call it a put up or shut up deal, right, where, you know, Empire State Development came in. They said, “Here’s $1.2 million in fully refundable tax credits paid over 10 years based upon the number of employees that you say you’re going to bring. So if you do what you say you’re going to do, then you’ll reap some reward for that.”
Andy: So if you had to sum up, I don’t know, the top three reasons why you chose Buffalo, what are the things that come right to the top of the page, would you say?
Frank: I’d say, the business-friendly environment would be one. I’d say, two, is the access to smart, hardworking talent. And then, I’d say, three, geography. You know, what’s on the maps certainly was a factor for us as well, especially given our latest expansion project into Ontario. So those are the top three.
Andy: You’re sort of between your Cleveland office and your Mississauga office.
Frank: That’s right. And for us, we didn’t move into Canada by accident. You know, that was always kind of on the roadmap. And so, you know, we weren’t ever ready to announce that to anybody until we were up doing business there. But, again, if you’re putting the pieces of the puzzle together to be able to connect that line from Cleveland, through Buffalo, to Ontario, operationally and strategically, it made a lot of sense.
Patience: We’ll close today’s episode on a personal note from Frank Ewing.
Andy: So this is a little bit more of a personal question, and if you can answer it, great. If you can’t, that’s understandable. But In the middle of your site selection process, I understand you and your wife had a baby. I’m just curious. Did you name the baby Buffalo?
Frank: You know, my wife’s the Buffalo gal. And I’m sure that if she had…no, she wouldn’t. She would say that was, like, probably passé, that we would never do anything like that. We named her Clara.
Frank: Yeah. That’s our baby’s name.
Andy: Was that kind of a stressful thing to be going through a big business decision as well as a big life change?
Frank: I will tell you that the last five years has been nothing but stress, a lot of it positive. You know, we started this company. You know, we went back and kind of reformed this company and in 2014. You know, when you’re a 35-person entrepreneurial shop, and you’re not taking a paycheck, and, you know, you’re eating into your savings, and looking around, and hoping you’re going to make payroll. And then, you know, AR comes in on the right time.
And then, you know, we were married. And then, we had a baby. And the company is exploding. And we moved across the coast. And, you know, we kept growing and growing. We did the private equity deal. We had another baby. We opened another couple offices. So the last five years or so has been an absolute whirlwind, but I really wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.
Patience: In their incentives discussion with the State of New York, AML RightSource committed to creating 100 jobs over a five year period. And in their first six months in Buffalo, they have already created over 70 new jobs.
Patience: So Andy, you did the interviews with both Frank and Alan. What were your big takeaways from the discussions?
Andy: Two things really stuck out to me on the AML RightSource story.
AML RightSource started this location search from a data perspective. They hired Jones Lang Lasalle to do the analysis for them. But when the data showed Buffalo – a city that Frank Ewing knew well and had a personal connection to – it switched to focus on “Can we make Buffalo work?”
The second thing was the ability of Invest Buffalo Niagara ability to move with speed. They quickly grasped the culture of the company. And they ran alongside AML RightSource – matching their speed.
Patience: It sounds like talent was the overall driver for the company’s move.
Andy: No doubt about it. AML RightSource loves their corporate headquarters in Cleveland. But there was concern about maxing out the talent pool there. And there was a concern about putting all of their eggs in one basket from a business continuity perspective.
Patience: Great win for Buffalo and Invest Buffalo Niagara.
Patience: So that is a wrap on episode 62 of The Project: Inside Corporate Location Decisions.
Andy: Our sincere thanks to Frank Ewing of AML RightSource and Alan Rosenhoch of Invest Buffalo Niagara.
Patience: We also want to thank Sarah Larsen and Greg Pokriki, also of Invest Buffalo Niagara, for setting up all of these interviews.
Andy: The Project is sponsored by DCI. We are the leader in marketing places and have served over 450 cities, states, regions and countries. You can learn more about us at aboutdci.com.
Patience: We hope you will keep listening, there are many more projects to come.