Summus Group in Atlanta: Establishing a Presence in a Competitive Market

By Jackie Paplaczyk

Rickie Robertson has always had an itch to do something entrepreneurial. When studying at the University of Alabama, Rickie co-founded a tech startup backed by funding. When reflecting on this first taste of entrepreneurship, Rickie said, “Despite failing, I learned a lot of valuable lessons and I would do it all over again. It taught me the importance of execution and going for speed over perfection, which coincidentally is one of the most important aspects of my role today.”

Despite the fate of his first venture, Rickie’s enthusiasm and desire to continue taking risks did not waiver. In line with Rickie’s entrepreneurial spirit, he joined Summus Group in 2015 as one of its first full-time associates. For much of Rickie’s time at Summus Group, there has only been an office in Charlotte. But today, Rickie is a Senior Principal leading the charge of expanding Summus Group to the Atlanta market.

Rickie attributes his role in leading this expansion to simply taking action and being willing to lead . “I learned you need a plan and you must build trust, but once these are established, if you raise your hand at this company, you will be empowered to lead.” After a few years at Summus Group, Rickie raised his hand to open Summus Group’s second office. “It is really hard to open an office in a new city,” Rickie said. But fast forward to today and you will find Summus Group at the WeWork in Buckhead Atlanta.

A coworking space as an office has been successful for Summus Group, but not necessarily in the ways which were anticipated. “The coworking space has been very refreshing for our industry. It can be challenging to differentiate yourself in consulting, but the office space you work in helps create your culture which is what sets you apart. There is a lot of great energy which stems from all of the driven people with an entrepreneurial spirit here.”

This month we sit down with Rickie Robertson to hear how it was decided to open another office and what’s next for Summus Group in the Atlanta area.

What were you doing before joining Summus Group in 2015?

After gaining exposure to investment banking and capital markets through a college internship in New York, I decided to pursue a career in the banking world. I started out in the capital markets and equities space as a financial analyst which turned out to not be quite what I expected – I was essentially a spreadsheet junkie. After three years in this role, I started to consider getting my MBA, mainly because I had no idea what I wanted to do next.

I realized I have always had a knack for solving problems and driving change, so I began exploring the consulting side of the industry. At this time, I had a few offers, mostly from larger consulting firms and a few private equity shops. One offer, however, was from Ally Financial when it was still a private company. This offer was for a consulting role within their Internal Consulting Group. As a 25-year-old, I saw two opportunities – I could go to a larger consulting firm, travel, and get a lot of experience, or I could consult through an internal position by helping a single organization execute their roadmap to start a bank and eventually go public. I decided to pursue the latter.

During my five years at Ally, I was a part of many projects which led to the company going public in 2014. I gained invaluable experience across the gamet of consulting – everything from selling off assets, performing necessary due diligence and building out the structure needed to stand up a bank. Once Ally went public, the rush of building a company died down and a lot of the great talent moved on to new ventures. I too still had an itch to start my own company, but I recognized I did not have any good ideas or trustworthy business partners.

I went back to the drawing board and began looking into an MBA while interviewing with consulting firms. It was during this time I heard about a guy named Bill Sanders who had recently started a company and already had a major client in town. I had met him a time or two before, so I decided to reach out. After multiple cold calls to Bill and connecting with Greg McNamara, another early employee of Summus Group, Bill entertained my outreach and agreed to meet with me. We had dinner at McCormick & Schmick’s in Uptown Charlotte where we sat and talked for hours, ultimately shutting down the place.

During this initial conversation, I heard Bill’s plan for the company and more importantly, why he wanted to do it. I wanted to understand who he was as a person because I want to be in business with someone who has strong character and integrity. That was six years ago and here we are now. I never went back to get my MBA and I have never looked back.

You started your career with Summus Group in its early days when its only office was in Charlotte. How was it decided to open another office?

We always knew there was another city in Summus Group’s future. We thought we would expand maybe after three to five years, but about two years in, we were already growing faster than we had expected. It was also known I did not plan to stay in Charlotte forever, so at that point, we asked ourselves, ‘What is holding us back from expanding today?’ When we realized there was nothing holding us back but ourselves, Bill said, “You got this. I trust you.”

Bill already had Atlanta in the back of his mind as it was gaining the reputation of a top FinTech city. It also made a lot of sense because we already had a client here; I was traveling to Atlanta almost every week. And logistically speaking, it is much easier to open a second office nearby in a familiar city.

Initially, I was relying on Bill to tell me what to do, but he let me run with everything. If I needed assistance, he has always been there, but he fully entrusted me to move to Atlanta, find an office space and begin making connections. I think that says a lot about him as both a person and a leader and how he empowers people within the company.

On a personal level, planting roots in a new city can be very challenging. On top of that, how do you go about standing up a new office and establishing a presence for Summus Group in a competitive market like Atlanta?

It didn’t take long for me to realize how large and segmented Atlanta is. I naively thought I would have a much larger and more built-in network here. With Financial Services as the backbone of Charlotte, there are a few degrees of separation, especially in our industry. In Charlotte, I may not know you, but I likely know someone who knows you. In Atlanta, this is not the case. Atlanta is over twice the size of Charlotte – home to 18 Fortune 500 companies across various industries with two top universities in the heart of the city – so building a network in Atlanta takes time.

Given Atlanta’s size, we want to engrain ourselves in the city and position ourselves to give back. One of the first things we did in Atlanta was establish a partnership with the top universities in the city and their MBA programs. Fostering these relationships has been invaluable. Now when we attend networking events, people come up to us already knowing who we are and have many times shared how refreshing they find Summus Group’s overall approach to the industry.

Next, we set out to establish relationships with non-profit organizations which support causes we care about. We now have partnerships with two local non-profits, one of which I currently serve as a board member. This has provided another great avenue for meeting like-minded professionals in Atlanta.

Lastly, working out of a coworking space has allowed us to more easily connect with other companies in the area. WeWork proactively introduces us to other companies whether they are recruiting, looking for new opportunities or simply share similar objectives and common interests.

You can’t just move to a city and put a billboard up saying you are there. I believe you have to take more of a grassroots approach to get involved in the city itself. There is no fast way to do it – it is slow and steady. It has been about one year since opening up this office and we have already seen benefits from each of these efforts.

Since moving, what has been your favorite part about living in Atlanta?

I lived in Charlotte for five years and when I lived there, I found myself going to the same places, doing the same things and seeing the same people. Since then, Charlotte has seen a lot of growth and I think it is a great place to be, but when I was there, I personally didn’t feel it had the diversity I was looking for. Atlanta is not as small as Charlotte, but it also is not New York City; it is somewhere in between which I believe gives you the opportunity to be a big fish in a small pond.

I also like that there is a lot of diversity in the work here – it is not just Financial Services. We can hire someone who has conceptually done the same thing in another industry and have confidence they will be successful. There are also two top 25 MBA programs here in Atlanta. I believe this and an overall more diverse workforce gives us access to a lot of top talent.

Atlanta being a much larger city also provides the variety I was looking for on a personal level. There is a neighborhood for everyone. I love the artsy culture of the neighborhood I live in, as well as the metropolitan area in which our office is located. Most importantly, being here with my now wife and our dog, Winnifred, is truly the best part about moving to Atlanta.

What is next for Summus Group in Atlanta?

The goal is to replicate what we have in Charlotte. Given the size of the market, I want to grow Atlanta to be larger than our current Charlotte market – call it friendly competition. With the amount of talent and companies in Atlanta, there is no reason we can’t build our largest office yet.

Along with continued growth, I want to see Summus Group continue to get more involved in the city. We not only aspire to be viewed as a successful company here in Atlanta, but one that is a center stone to the city because of the impact we make from being involved and giving back to the community.

Editor’s Note: Curious to hear more about this Bill Sanders guy? Check out the April Edition of Sit Down with Summus – A Rapidly Growing Business: How It Started and the Lessons Learned Along the Way – to learn more about Bill and how Summus Group came to be.