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Conversation with A CEO's Next Guest: Dave Dunkel, Chairman and CEO of Kforce

Dave Dunkel

TAMPA (March 1, 2018) -- Dave Dunkel took his first gutsy leap in 1982 when he convinced his father, a founding member of the then Romac & Associates staffing company, to let him open an office in Tampa. It turned out to be a smart move.

Now, 36 years later, Dunkel is chairman and CEO of Kforce, a staffing services and solutions provider based in Tampa that grew out of Romac. His company is among the nation's leaders in the business of high-end human capital, employing more than 26,000 leased-out workers annually.

After leaving a lucrative career in public accounting with Coopers & Lybrand in Boston and opening a Romac office in Tampa, he was off and running. In 1995, Kforce (an abbreviation for "knowledge force") went public and experienced incredible growth, from about $46 million in revenues then, to $746 million in 1999. All seemed right in the world, except for the emergence of this little thing called the Internet.

In the mid-1990s, Dunkel was a typical baby boomer executive, cruising along working a business model set up by his father. Dunkel played guitar in an Allman Brothers/Led Zeppelin cover band and on his desk sat a photograph of the Three Stooges when he noticed the game was changing.

Job seekers were moving to online bulletin boards, bypassing his face-to-face business.

Dunkel saw the opportunities the new technology offered, but was unsure whether to dive in head first or to maintain the course set by his father.  After months of research, he realized that he had to jump in and make a "bet-the-company" move to completely restructure the way everything worked. It turned out to be a pretty good bet.

Kforce reported total revenues of $1.36 billion in 2017, an increase of nearly 3 percent over the $1.32 billion revenues for the previous year. Net income for the year was $33.3 million, or $1.30 per share, which represent increases of 1.6 percent and 4.0 percent, respectively, compared to 2016.

"We are confident in the structure and strength of our organization," Dunkel said in a statement announcing the earnings, "and believe that we are well positioned in 2018 to capitalize on significant market opportunities that exist."

How Dunkel navigated the new technology to emerge near the top of the heap in the staffing world is among the topics to be discussed at the Conversation with a CEO, sponsored by the University of South Florida's Muma College of Business. The event takes place at 8:30 a.m., April 4, in the Center for Advanced Medical Learning Simulation, 124 S. Franklin St., in downtown Tampa. To register for the event, click here.

"I said the Internet will never change the fact that people will always be at the core of recruitment," Dunkel said. "I was right about the people side, but at the time, I was wrong about the web."

Back in the 1990s, he launched a study on the business phenomenon, which said the Internet, indeed, was here to stay and was the wave of the future in the staffing industry.

He and his executive staff got together to figure out what to do. The result: his company would be the first old-time staffing business to embrace the Internet way of things. Romac was gone. Kforce was formed and Dunkel, who holds a bachelor's degree in accounting and an MBA in Finance, both from Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, has been the guiding force since.

The goal of the business remained the same: to match workers with employers. In the mid-1990s, as the need for tech-savvy workers ballooned, most staffing companies were blindsided by the coming tech wave and didn't know exactly how to place this new breed of computer-savvy worker, who became irked that the placement process was too slow.

"Back in 'the good old days,' staffing companies were highly manual operations," Dunkel said. "Our core recruiters and salespeople wrote out daily planners and call sheets manually. Many recruiters' databases were 3-by-5 cards with candidates' names and profiles. The back-of-the-house support also was manual and highly cumbersome.

"The placement process itself often took weeks as it was cumbersome to schedule interviews and shuffle résumés back and forth," he said. "The introduction of the fax machine seemed like a miracle as email was just in its infancy, and cell phones looked right out of "Get Smart" and were the size of a shoe."

The first adjustment was simple. According to a study, nearly half of respondents in a survey said that they seldom heard back from anyone when they emailed résumés to staffing companies. A third of the respondents said there was no good way to follow up with a business.

That was the opening: using the Internet to improve the way customers connected to potential employers. Changing the mindset of old-line recruiters also was a task for Dunkel. They had to become advocates for customers. With these obstacles yet to be overcome, Dunkel squirmed a bit at the beginning. Stock prices dropped, revenue was lost, but in the end, the move proved fruitful and Kforce began to reap the benefits of being the first staffing company to successfully utilize the Internet.

Within 18 months of the change, most of the traditional staffing firms announced similar Internet strategies.

Now, Kforce is among the staffing companies leading the pack on profits.

"Kforce is very excited today about being on the leading edge of leveraging many of the tools now available to provide an even better experience for our candidates, clients and consultants," he said. "AI (artificial intelligence) and BI (business intelligence) are allowing us to look at efficiencies that were previously unimaginable. In addition, technology itself is now integral to how our clients interact with their customers requiring them to remain up-to-date to remain competitive."

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