An interview with long-time business and community leader looking back over three decades
By Andrew Harris
When Voni Walker founded Walker Business Services in 1992, Wellsville and the world were much different. She started the firm on her front porch and in 2021, Walker Business Services has 650 employees across five counties with three office locations. We asked her about that journey and the key to both her personal and business success.
AH: This is a pretty amazing story and congratulations on your accomplishments. So what is the “secret sauce?”
Voni: This business is where it is today because of my perseverance to succeed and all the employees who have worked at client sites and as staff in the three offices past and present. Our clients continue to support us and give us great opportunities. I have learned so much from all of them and appreciate everything they brought to the company.
AH: My memory of you, and I think most people, is of the successful small-town businesswoman. What can you tell us about your life before starting WBS that shaped you into a 30-year success story?
Voni: When my husband, Bob who is also from Wellsville, and I moved to Boulder, Colorado in 1981 where we lived for 10 years, I worked for three different high-tech companies. I had many roles but started in a secretarial role and eventually left each one to better myself. I ended up in Human Resources as a Sr Recruiter for a fast-growing high-tech company, EXABYTE, who manufactured helical backup tape technology. A group of men left a larger company Storage Technology and started this company. It was a start-up company filled with “entrepreneurial spirit”. Exabyte was forward thinking at promoting and hiring women in lead, management and even Vice President roles. In my first year at this company, I received an award for hiring over 200 employees that year and this is where my confidence was solidified. My boss, the executive staff and all management respected and allowed me to do my job and listened to my suggestions and gave credit where credit was due. I was so very proud to say I worked at this company.
AH: What was the genesis, the first spark of WBS?
Voni: We decided to move back to Wellsville in 1991 so my husband could take over his father’s insurance agency in Fillmore, New York. I had been working long hours and traveling to recruit college engineers, so this move was very agreeable to me. I decided to take time to focus on my twin seven-year-old daughters, volunteer in their school and remodel our home.
After one year, I needed more so I thought I would look for a job going through a temporary employment agency. The closest one was in Olean; New York and all jobs were in Olean making minimum wage. As a recruiter in Boulder, I worked with all temporary agencies there, so I knew how they operated. I decided to put feelers out and see if I could start my own staffing company. We had a home computer, so I advertised for secretarial/clerical applicants in our local Daily Reporter. When I found a few qualified applicants, I had them come to my home on the front porch to interview. I then contacted companies in our area stating I was starting this business and had applicants for temporary assignments if they were interested. That is when I filled my first two positions. Thanks to Embser and Woltag and CE Air Preheater for taking a chance on me. I then rented office space in the Richardson and Stout building because I couldn’t interview people at my home any longer.
Nancy Hart was my first employee working part-time with the ability to bring her infant son to work with her until he was able to walk. This was definitely forward thinking in 1992.
I was so excited at the end of 1992 I had 8 temporary employees. At the end of 2021 we employed over 650 employees at many different clients throughout Allegany, Steuben, Cattaraugus, Potter and McKean counties.
AH: Three decades ago, the world wasn’t the same place culturally or socially. As a business and community leader, what has changed the most, the one thing that stands out over the thirty years?
Voni: How we do business has changed the most. Thirty years ago, we didn’t have email or texting. How we dressed was important and we would dress down on Friday. If we wanted to talk to someone we called and made an appointment or dropped by their office and visited face to face if they had time. There wasn’t internet or websites to fill out applications. Applicants had to visit our office to complete an application or to say they were interested in a job. We advertised in newspapers and phone books and today we have Facebook, websites and indeed.
As a temporary staffing company you have to have a great deal of experience and knowledge of human resources and payroll processing. There are many laws and regulations that are dictated to businesses such as ours and you have to be on top of all of them so you are not fined or put out of business. The government isn’t forgiving. The simpler laws of 30 years ago are so much more complicated now especially since we do business in two different states.
AH: In 1992, attempting to break the “glass ceiling” was a much more difficult task. How did you break that barrier? How did you keep breaking that ceiling? (Because we all know it is multi-paned glass ceiling between startup and CEO of regional corporation in business for thirty years.)
Voni: Yes, the proverbial glass ceiling. I don’t know if I have broken that ceiling/barrier, but I sure have come close. I don’t mean any disrespect to any male in our area, but Wellsville in 1992 was definitely a “Good ol Boy” network. Fortunately for me I worked with ALL MEN in my recruitment position in Boulder. I hired engineers for Exabyte and back then those positions were mostly made up of men, so I was not intimidated at all. In fact, one man in Wellsville told me not to sign a year lease on my office because he didn’t think this business was going to last a year. Well, he didn’t know me well enough, because that is all I needed to hear to make sure this business lasted a year and longer. I joined every organization possible to make myself and my business known. I was on the Wellsville Chamber Board for 12 years (the first few years I was the only woman on that board), I belonged to a women’s business organization, County boards etc. I volunteered for many committees on these boards as I believed that was the best way to prove I was there to stay.
Over the past six years, I have purchased my two competing Temporary Staffing companies. Staffing Plus in Olean and Bradford and MM Temps in Bradford, PA. I am now the only staffing company in the area and am very proud of these acquisitions.
AH: While you built your business you were a working mom of twin daughters; star student athletes and I bet you didn’t miss too many games! What is the secret sauce for balancing work and family?
Voni: I was a working mom with terrific daughters and equally terrific husband!! I worked many nights, after the girls went to bed, and weekends while Bob was home to make sure they got what they needed. One thing when starting your own business is most of the time the money you make goes right back into the business. It was almost two years before I was able to take a paycheck out of the business. It was the support of Bob that enabled me to continue financially until that first paycheck came.
I volunteered as their basketball coach until middle school and was at every sporting, school event unless I was too sick, which wasn’t often. To me that was more important than any glass ceiling. I felt so lucky to have my own business so I could call my own shots (other than what the government dictated) and be where I needed to be when I needed to be there. I may have been late to a few events, but I was always there. For me balancing work and family was having great support from my family. When you are with your family, really engage with them which is hard to do sometimes especially if you have had a rough day. There were difficult times, but we all pulled together and made it work.
It is a rule when you work for me at Walker Business and Staffing, if your child or grandchild has an event at school, daycare, church during work hours you must go if you want. I never want an employee to feel their job is in jeopardy because they have to take time off during the day for their family.
Unfortunately, both girls have taken different career paths and had no interest in taking over the business.
AH: The core of your business is finding your clients a quality workforce. When you started in 1992, the Wellsville economy employed thousands more than today. How does a human resource firm thrive through a collapse of the local labor market?
Voni: When I started the business I took great pleasure in helping applicants find the right job for them. That feeling still exists today, even though I do not do the placements, when someone says your office helped me find a great job and I love it.
Yes, there was a very large workforce in 1992, but temporary employment agencies were also very important to those businesses to fill short/long term needs. It took several years for my business to really take hold. I knew I needed to expand so I opened an office in Olean, New York. It was there Dresser in Olean gave us our first break. Then my brother and Bob had open office space in their insurance office in Bradford, PA so we opened an office there for a short time. It wasn’t until 2012 we really got business in Bradford, PA from larger manufacturers.
It is because of us being an independent staffing agency with billing flexibility and listening to our client’s needs and placing the most accurate fit is why we still are surviving in the collapse of the local labor market. We place for a variety of different companies, we place office/clerical, retail, accounting, light industrial laborers and any other type of business we feel is safe and viable.
Our business is about giving applicants an alternative to try a position before committing and for the client to feel the same.
AH: Your first WBS office was still “pre-internet,” faxing was still fancy. That change occurred rapidly over your career. Can you explain how technology has helped grow WBS?
Voni: Oh my!!! Yes, it did change rapidly, and I had to understand and know computers and how to set them up and utilize them in the business. The fax machine was my best friend.
My first computer was a Gateway with MSDOS and Word Perfect and LOTUS 123. It was our home computer which then became the business computer. The monitor weighed a ton, and the tower weighed the same. Today the tower is the size of a note pad, and you can hook several monitors into one tower. Today we use cloud-based Microsoft 365 with Word and Excel which is so efficient.
From 1992 to 1999 all client orders and placements were kept on LOTUS 123 spreadsheets; payroll was processed manually and there were file cabinets full of paper. In 1999 we were introduced to a staffing software package COATS that put everything in one software package. Now everything is automated. The applicant enters the office to apply and once hired at a client site all hours are noted and paychecks are processed.
I knew basic bookkeeping from college courses, but I didn’t know how to keep financials for a business. I cannot emphasis enough how much Tom Brown helped me understand financials in my business. Without him I don’t know where I would be because when you are dealing with not only financials but the IRS and New York State governments, you have to know what you are doing, reports and payroll withholdings. He was a tremendous support to me and my business.
We have laser printers (black, white, and colored), instead of dot matrix printers; we scan our documents and email them instead of faxing. The phone rings less because more people are sending emails and texts.
Technology has changed rapidly over the years, and I feel very fortunate I was able to ride the ride. I have learned so much and continue to learn.
AH: Wellsville has also changed dramatically since 1992. Where do you think Wellsville will be in another thirty years? What should we be focusing on today but with an eye on 2052?
Voni: I think Wellsville should focus on keeping our main street viable and active. I love how there are two new businesses on Main Street, both women owned. I want Wellsville to be more accepting of larger businesses coming to town too. Small businesses are the backbone of towns, but we need larger ones too. CHANGE AND COMPETITION is good, it makes us all better and to put our best foot forward. Without competition and change we remain stagnant, and our main street will die.
AH: Hardest question last. Name just one thing that has made you call Wellsville home for your family and business.
Raising our daughters in Wellsville was wonderful. They became who they are today because we brought them back and gave them a small-town environment to grow. We have so many great friends and family in Wellsville and surrounding areas that is why we stay.
You can connect with Voni and Walker Business anytime, just visit WalkerServices.com!!