News Column

Charlotte-based Torrent Consulting keeps its focus on people, and profits

August 5, 2014

By Linly Lin, The Charlotte Observer



Aug. 05--In the southeast African nation of Malawi, people can start a business, such as selling chickens, for $50 to $100. But they don't have that money to get started.

Charlotte resident Daniel McCollum spent a year in Malawi teaching villagers how they can obtain money through microloans. By the time McCollum left Africa in 2010, the villagers he taught knew how to initiate a business proposal and manage finances.

It was rewarding for McCollum to see how commerce helped villagers turn their lives around and provide for their families. His experiences in Malawi also left him with a lasting question: What if the purpose of a business were more than just the bottom line?

McCollum was already contemplating his own consulting startup, tapping skills he learned as a former Bank of America and Accenture employee. He wanted a hybrid model that captured the concept of social entrepreneurship, and, just as importantly, would be profitable so it could be self sustaining.

With those goals in mind, McCollum launched Torrent Consulting in 2012, now housed in an office at Packard Place, the uptown entrepreneurial hub. Co-founder Phil Brabbs, who joined one year later, describes it as "a company with the blue-chip mentality of Wall Street but with the heart of Mother Teresa."

To boost its bottom line, McCollum and Brabbs decided to specialize in customer relationship management consulting, which involves helping other businesses improve their interactions with customers. Torrent helps clients work within Salesforce.com, a cloud-based platform that allows businesses to digitize their entire sales process -- from tracking emails, to organizing customer leads, to crafting spreadsheets and presentations.

Companies of all sizes, even small ones, are increasingly looking for digital ways to track these business interactions to boost efficiency, according to Tim Beyers, an analyst with The Motley Fool.

Beyers said Salesforce has emerged as one of the bigger players on the market, competing with similar tools including Nemesis by Oracle and Dynamics by Microsoft.

It's a business focus that has not only fueled Torrent's growth, but its philanthropic goals, too: The company sets aside 10 percent of its profits to support social entrepreneurs and provide consulting services to these operations.

Finding their 'Purple Cow'

Salesforce, which launched its global company 15 years ago in San Francisco, says its digital platform can now be found in a range of companies -- from novel startups to large corporations. Forbes ranked Salesforce No. 1 this year on its list of the world's most innovative companies.

Torrent, which says it is adding its 100th client soon, is one of the only Salesforce implementation providers in Charlotte, according to the technology company.

Adopting this focus as its core business in 2013 has made all the difference for Torrent, McCollum said. When he first launched his startup, he focused on providing consulting services for social entrepreneurs looking to solve community issues. But he quickly realized that "you can't make a living with that."

Seeking out a more lucrative specialty, McCollum and partner Brabbs talked about being distinctive. McCollum drew inspiration from the book "Purple Cow," which notes that the difference between a remarkable business and an invisible one lies in whether the company has a focus.

"Instead of creating a product that sells at Walmart," McCollum recalls saying, they "should create a product that can be sold at a boutique shop."

Having had positive results working with clients on Salesforce, McCollum and Brabbs decided last summer to be an implementation provider.

Since then, Torrent grew from two to 25 team members in Charlotte, Michigan and Missouri, adding clients in these regions.

"... People starting thinking about us" when it came time to growing their business, McCollum said.

Taking up community causes

Torrent also pursues its other cause of doing greater good through its company. In June, it hired Tony Santoro as its first social entrepreneur.

Santoro runs Enderly Coffee, based in the Enderly Park neighborhood about three miles northwest of uptown.

A former teacher with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Santoro started his coffee-bean roaster business as a hobby two years ago. From his warehouse on Freedom Drive, he handles importing, roasting, grinding and delivering online orders to customers. Santoro donates a portion of his profits to a neighborhood ministry that provides community meals, youth retreats and support to area schools, as well as other projects.

But McCollum, who knew Santoro as a fellow member at Watershed Church, encouraged him to further pursue his coffee business -- and to look harder at what his bottom line could be, instead of focusing on "just the fears and risks," Santoro said.

Now, Torrent is serving as a business incubator of sorts for Enderly Coffee. Santoro says McCollum advises him on using Salesforce to break down sales numbers and draft business prospects. The goal is for Enderly Coffee to become independent under its new business model in 18 months.

Santoro works 32 hours a week as an operational analyst at Torrent's Packard Place headquarters. He quit his teaching job in June to accommodate the shift in his business focus -- and now has more time for Enderly Coffee than before. "It keeps me on task," Santoro says.

Brabbs says neither of two existing business worlds satisfied Torrent: corporations that are good in profit model, and nonprofits carrying missional purposes.

"We merge them together," Brabbs said, "and take the best world."

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(c)2014 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

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Source: Charlotte Observer (NC)


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