When Bill Stoller and Bob Funk bought Acme Personnel Services in 1983, it was a modest recruitment agency that had operated out of the city of Spokane, Washington, near the Canadian border, for some 30 years.
Today they’re still running the company, which was renamed Express Employment Professionals. After decades of impressive growth, Stoller and Funk celebrated the company’s 40th anniversary in 2023, with just under 900 franchisees across five countries and a target of US$5.5 billion in revenue by 2025 firmly in its sights.
The duo’s extraordinary rise to become legendary figures in the North American recruitment industry is a textbook example of a growth mindset, clear corporate values and the ability to inspire those around you to be as excited as you are about helping the best candidates find their dream jobs.
“What’s always set us apart is having local franchisees, so decisions are made by someone who cares about the people there.”
But two particular insights they had from the get-go have driven much of their incredible success.
The first was that businesses thrive when they have owners who really knows the area in which they operate. That led them to begin franchising their brand, carefully selecting managers whose values aligned with theirs.
The second was understanding that the pursuit of raw profits should always be secondary to becoming trusted members of the community.
“What’s always set us apart is having local franchisees, so decisions are made by someone who cares about the people there,” Stoller tells The CEO Magazine from his Oklahoma City office. “When they enter a new market, they have the needs of the community in mind.
“I try to visit our franchise locations quarterly and I’m just amazed at the relationships they have. That’s what we teach new franchisees to do as well – get involved, follow your numbers and work hard. And over time, you’ll become a valued member of the business community.”
It’s a canny insight, as a recent trend in the recruitment sector is around employee wellbeing, diversity and inclusion and enhanced candidate experience, things that Stoller and Funk had a pretty good grasp of 40 years ago when they set up their first franchise office.
“Our reputation for valuing local owners precedes us.”
“Our reputation for valuing local owners precedes us,” Stoller says. “And we have a heck of a support staff at our international headquarters whose goal is to help franchisees reach that next person to put them in a job.”
It’s clearly working, as franchise owners average just over US$1 million in sales during their first year alone. That grows to US$4.2m by their fifth year and US$7.1m after that, with around 600 successful placements made per year.
Express Employment Professionals now employs over half a million people across the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Express Employment Professionals has been ranked by Entrepreneur as the top global franchisor in the United States for 12 consecutive years, and rated ‘world class’ for the past 15 years by the Franchise Research Institute. Forbes included it on its 2022 list of America’s Best Large Employers, and it has won dozens of other prestigious accolades.
The business is a leading operator in a booming sector. In 2022, the size of the employment and recruiting agency market in the United States expanded by 9.7 percent to US$46.6 billion, way ahead of pre-pandemic levels.
Globally, the industry is projected to be worth US$1.8 trillion by the end of the decade, much of the growth driven by the financial services and technology industries.
“We built a company that’s sustainable – when you’ve been around over 40 years, you know you’ve done something correct.”
And that’s despite the challenging trading conditions of the past five years.
“We built a company that’s sustainable – when you’ve been around over 40 years, you know you’ve done something correct,” Stoller says with a smile. “Right from the start, we had a proper foundation that was built to last.
“Our franchisees, too, are very resilient and have been attacking the economic uncertainty head on. They’re so creative in coming up with new ideas based on the needs of their own marketplace. They’re very proactive, which you have to be when you don’t know if the economy’s going up or down.”
Their success is evident in how franchisees performed last year. Despite 2022 being a banner year, nearly half still managed to grow their businesses further in 2023. “We provide them with the resources and knowledge they need to implement new programs and be nimble in adjusting to changing circumstances,” Stoller says.
Perhaps the biggest change in the company’s history has been its digital transformation, a process that began four years ago and has placed Express Employment Professionals at the cutting edge of recruitment technology.
“We’re about to switch to the cloud, which will give us a whole new front office system. What we consider our middle office is where we’ll be strongly focused to see what new kinds of data we can provide to our franchisees and how we can use AI to reduce the number of processes it takes to find the best candidate for a client.”
With the ongoing success of Express Employment Professionals, it’s no wonder that Stoller’s plans for the future of the company include growth in new areas.
“We have almost 900 franchise locations, and we’re going to increase that number,” Stoller says. “We’re also going to increase the number of employment markets we cover, as diversity is essential for sustained growth.
“We’re not in Europe and that is likely to be the next place we’d go, as it’s a big market. And then possibly, since we have Australian operations, we’d look at Asia as well, as our Australia CEO has an international franchising background and can utilize his expertise to lead our expansion efforts there.”
Stoller is also advancing the technology and optimizing efficiencies at the headquarters to improve the support given to the franchisee offices.
“Machine learning and automation are great tool for more sophisticated and streamlined matching, assessing and screening,” he notes. “Big data analytics is an area we’re prioritizing. We call it business intelligence and we’ve been using it to come up with great ways for the franchisees to look at themselves and work out what they can do to improve, while always prioritizing the personal aspect of candidate placement.
“Then there’s the use of chatbots and virtual assistants. That’s really what a lot of the AI is going to be: someone sitting next to you who’s really not sitting there, but is going to allow you to get things done much more quickly.”
Express Employment Professionals also has online marketplaces connecting its offices with employers and job seekers. Other tools include skill assessment platforms, learning and development programs, diversity and inclusion procedures and software for regulatory compliance.
“But you know, Express is still about the people. That’s where we excel because we understand our customers and always have a human connection with everyone we work with.”
“We understand our customers and always have a human connection with everyone we work with.”
This emphasis on people is based on empathy first, Stoller acknowledges.
“Many, many times, our corporate team members have traveled to visit a franchise office during a time of need to offer a helping hand. Whether they’ve had a death in the family or just need some extra support, our team members have a servant’s heart and take the time to go out and help the members of our franchise family without hesitation,” he explains.
“That’s what’s so fulfilling and it shows who we are and who we want to be.
“We put franchisees first, which is very important to us. We’ll overcome anything as long as we have people in mind. When we look to the future, it’ll still be about continuing to do what we do best – helping people find great jobs and companies find great people.”