Strategy and Growth: The Power of People and Putting Them First

By Jackie Paplaczyk

Wes Graham began his career in Washington D.C. serving a wide variety of clients and industries through the Strategy and Business Architecture group at Accenture. When relocating to Charlotte in 2006, Wes jumped into the Financial Services industry by joining Bank of America within Change Management and Strategic Planning, followed by Ally Bank as the Strategic Initiatives Executive. Before joining Summus Group in 2017, Wes rounded out his experience in the emerging FinTech space by serving as the Business Intelligence and Strategic Transformation Executive for Electronic Payments at Fiserv.

When reflecting on his 20-year-long career, Wes shared, “I have always enjoyed the challenge of diagnosing a problem, breaking it down and communicating a solution that can be consumed by any level of knowledge or experience within an organization. I try to do this with sincere empathy which I personally feel has played a great part in the success I have been fortunate to experience in my career. From my point of view, the connection to an individual is critical for any strategy to have a lasting impact.” 

Today within Summus Group, Wes splits his time between business development and corporate strategy. “I believe I am more of an advisor to the firm versus explicitly directing any one specific area. My experiences allow me to advise on how to best grow the company and improve how we interact with our clients. My goal is to empower people within the firm to make strategic decisions that help us collectively grow and lead a company built from the hearts and minds of our own team with client needs in mind.”

Relationships have played a large role in Wes’ career and in turn, play a big role in his position at Summus Group today. “I have been fortunate to have met people in my career who have changed my life. Those influences have shaped who I have become professionally and those individuals have given me so much more than I could have ever asked for.” When recognizing the many great relationships he has developed throughout his career, Wes said, “If I can be that person to someone else, by positively impacting their life the way the great leaders of my career have impacted mine, that is what is most rewarding to me.”

This month we sit down with Wes Graham to hear how people are at the center of Summus Group’s strategy and learn what is next for this growing company.

With 20 years at big companies, what led you to join Summus Group as its Leader of Strategy and Growth?

It was a combination of friends and relationships within the city, and ultimately the importance of my family that led to the decision to reduce travel and come home. My previous job put me on the road a lot and I was wanting to stay in Charlotte more. On a personal level, I needed to make more time for my family and I felt my kids were at an age where I didn’t want to miss another minute. This role was in line with what I value the most: family, relationships, culture and the outlook of a growing opportunity. A wise man once told me, “It only happens once. You don’t get a second chance at raising your kids.” He was and continues to be the smartest man I’ve ever known – my father.

I knew Summus Group well having worked with many of its employees, as well as utilizing them as a client for many years. I respected their approach to business and ethics in what can be a pretty ruthless world. I was at a crossroad of going small with something I could help build or going with something I always knew, which was a big company. For me, everything is about relationships. I don’t chase titles or money and I don’t care too much about the scope or scale of a job. What I care immensely about is the people I work with. I didn’t always know this about myself. It was from the leaders I admire most I learned this. 

You don’t get many chances in life to create something with a group of people so passionate, at every level, that is professionally meaningful and impactful. To me, Summus Group is so much better than just a job; it is a chance for me to be really proud of something in business that’s built on people’s common goals and values. I think Summus Group offers a lot of other things big companies simply can’t. I am extremely proud of Summus Group and what we are trying to do. We aren’t perfect, but it has been everything I wanted it to be: a once in a lifetime chance to build something I can leave a lasting impression on.

When talking strategy, especially for a startup, where do you begin?

I believe everything revolves around relationships and being nimble. If you think about the notion of starting a consulting firm, it may appear foolish as it is very much an established industry that is heavily relationship-based. At the onset, it is hard to be a differentiator; so how do you develop a strategy to compete in a market where the barriers to entry are monumental and scale is mandatory? The answer to me was not just in the business side of things; there is a human factor too. Because of this, we focus on offering practical, targeted services while investing in the human aspect over more traditional business-centric growth principles. If we’re in the human business, we must do everything we can to build the best team possible.

The question then became how do you humanize a largely inhuman product or service and how do you make it about genuinely helping someone solve their problems? Interestingly, it is very hard to do this inside a large company, which gives Summus Group an advantage in some sense. The strategy was not to come up with a list of products and services to become everything to everyone. We differentiate ourselves through people who have more heart and more soul invested in this company which transfers to their work for their clients.

Understanding our clients’ needs is the most important thing. My thought was and remains, treating our clients like a true partner is far better than treating them as just another assignment. If you seek out talent that genuinely wants to be a part of building something, you are able to work towards creating strategic partnerships. Both of these can be hard to find and create. However, these are things we are deeply committed to.

I think it is important as a new company to not only recognize what you identify as in the beginning, but over time as you begin to explore incremental product or service offerings. Our corporate strategy has been built around a number of things, notably around making our employees the best they can be and for our clients too. In order to ensure our investment in people stays true, we aligned over 30% of our strategic initiatives to the betterment of our team with a strong focus on areas such as recruiting, onboarding, ongoing training and general associate satisfaction. We accomplished 75% of our first 24-month plan in the first year, which was by no means a bunch of layups. It was truly a big accomplishment and laid the foundation for our ongoing strategic vision today.

As a testament to our commitment towards continuous improvement, we brought in a third-party to facilitate workshops to help us better understand how to mature our human capital as we highly value culture and its importance to our associates’ experience. We have heavily invested in and driven change based on feedback we have received from our associates; the idea being, every person after a feedback point will have a better experience than that individual prior to sharing that feedback. There hasn’t been one minute of one day since the inception of this company that our people weren’t a part of our core strategy. We are not afraid to change or pivot and always strive to be nimble so we can continue to make a positive impact.

Since joining the team in 2017, what strategic decisions do you believe have played an integral role in getting Summus Group to where it is today?

The strategy of Summus Group is built around three core beliefs: Don’t get too big too fast, don’t try to be everything to everyone and put people first, whether that is our clients or associates. These guiding principles have set the tone and shaped the firm as these concepts are woven into our strategic roadmap.

We have always targeted new clients with products or services we felt were industry leading, as well as with executives in charge of shaping their firm’s direction whom we deeply respect. Summus Group had a strong Financial Services focus at the onset. We then expanded into FinTech and Investment Services which was a logical step and has shaped the path of the firm from both a core competency and talent perspective. These decisions related to the industries we have chosen to focus on have been integral to defining Summus Group and have strengthened the experience within the firm around areas such as mergers and acquisitions, risk and regulatory and technology.

Building off the vertical and industry framework, I think Summus Group has done a good job of trying to pace itself in terms of growth. The firm doesn’t carry debt, nor are we influenced by private external funding. When you have that level of freedom and flexibility, you can pursue steady growth and foster associate satisfaction.

While calculated, we are still rapidly expanding and with great industry reputation. In both 2017 and 2018, Summus Group was recognized as a Fast 50 firm by Charlotte Business Journal, one of America’s Fastest Growing Public Companies by Inc. 5000 and one of the fastest growing firms in the world by Consulting Magazine. Best Workplaces by Inc. Magazine and Best Places to Work by Charlotte Business Journal were also added to this list in 2018. To have associate satisfaction remain high while achieving these growth awards is a testament to our plan towards sustainability as we have achieved great growth numbers without compromising the importance of our associates’ happiness.

Staying true to ourselves and to the purpose of the firm are principles that existed before I got here. It is okay to be an emerging company and take on big work, but we do not compromise our beliefs for an easier decision or for more ‘quick’ revenue. I believe this is a good strategy from a long-term perspective and when you look at our history and track record, we have a pretty good batting average on delivering successful results during this growth curve.

Summus Group has grown 858% within the last five years. What has been key to Summus Group growing sustainably?

Nine out of ten companies fail to achieve sustainable growth, so it is clearly a challenge most never overcome. We have been fortunate to see a tremendous amount of growth when you look at percentage growth year-over-year. First and foremost, we have a lot of really great clients and work with really strong leaders within those companies. When you take a closer look, you will see we are pretty good at correcting when we get off the path and this is because we strive to remain true to our values.

The firm is defined by the people who work here, and the quality of the people help exponentialize growth. It is not just about aptitude, but also attitude and the mindset of working for what has transitioned from a startup into an emerging company. We try not to look at things in quarters and years; we look at them in days and months which keeps us sharp and driven.

I believe we have a clear identity and vision and are honest about it, both with our clients and our associates. We want to hire the best people who have great problem-solving, communication and presentation skills, and offer our clients the best solution at a fair price. To be honest, it’s not that complicated. Hire great people, work with great clients and do what you say you’re going to do.

As an emerging company in Charlotte and Atlanta, what’s next for Summus Group?

For services startups, growth and expansion must occur; they are not optional. Scale is necessary to mitigate the usual challenges of the consulting industry. And while scale mitigates a lot of challenges, it can create pitfalls if you are not careful.

While being mindful of the growth paradox, scalability for our firm is the focus in 2019. I believe we have the skills, intelligence and aptitude in our talent today to apply what we currently do to other industries while also making a deeper penetration in our existing clients by expanding our service offerings.

We’ve invested in our business development, recruiting, and overall leadership to attract some of the best minds in the industry. We are honest and genuine in wanting to make this the best consulting firm in the Mid-Atlantic. A lot of people might say this; we mean it.

I measure success in terms of others not only knowing who Summus Group is but wanting to work with or for us. We are already seeing the metrics trending very favorably when it comes to brand recognition and selection. Broadening our reach through market and industry expansion is how we can continue to attract top talent which ultimately makes the biggest impact to our clients.

I believe we have done the things we need to do to continue scaling, specifically investing a great amount of thought capital into scalability. When you think about our competitors, we swim in waters that are pretty tough. But we have hired competitive talent who are staying true to themselves, operating at high levels and are deployed in situations in which they will be successful. The experiences of our people are critical to what we are trying to accomplish.