Taking advantage of rural talent

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>Sales Beacon chief executive officer Cynthia Spraggs has been telecommuting for more than 20 years, including from Mount Everest.</p>
  • <p><em>(Sales Beacon logo)</em></p>

Sales Beacon, a Canadian virtual project management company serving information technology companies in the U.S., hopes to shine a light on what it sees as an untapped market of qualified, underemployed people in rural Nova Scotia. And it's hoping to draw more people into its expanding operations by offering them an attractive and flexible work environment.

Sales Beacon's chief executive officer Cynthia Spraggs said in an interview from Vancouver that there's "phenomenal talent" in rural areas. "It actually astonishes me that more companies don't take advantage of it," she said.

"Where else can you find thousands of over-educated, highly-motivated people in minimum job prospects?"

Lesek Demont, Sales Beacon's Chester-based director of sales, asked this while speaking at the Women's Business Enterprises (WBE) Canada Innovate and Ignite Conference in Toronto last September.

"If you want to stay in your community, you have to commute hours a day through Canadian winters to a crappy minimum-wage job working in vast cubicles where half the people have a new version of the flu. Our CEO thinks that this is squandering opportunity and talent and is fixated in pulling people out of this lifestyle," said Demont at the conference.

The company, which was launched in Nova Scotia under the name Mdina nearly a decade ago, assists managers of large sales operations.

"Our mission is to make these people more productive, so that they can focus on strategy, not on the details," Demont told the audience. "If you combine a passion to give rural women better opportunities, plus a mission to make our clients' work lives better, and more productive, and then you add that with a virtual location sales environment, you have Sales Beacon."

"And we're extremely good at it because we've done over 800 assignments since 2007, with an almost perfect success record," she added.

Sales Beacon manages sales and marketing programs "that move the needle for sales organizations." It's something it's able to do because its people are happy "that we've designed for them a virtual work environment based on their lives and not on ancient work structures," said Demont.

Spraggs, who owns the company, was working for Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose in 2011, running its program management office covering the company's sales force of 15,000 people, when she was offered a "golden handshake." She took it, and ended up buying the Nova Scotia-based project management company Mdina, a connection she made through Cisco.

"One thing you have to understand about me is I have been telecommuting, or working without an office, remotely, since 1994. I did my master's thesis on telecommuting. So for me, being location-independent, being able to earn money from anywhere has been a driving force. For me being in a corporate office with everybody is really not my cup of tea."

An extensive traveller, Spraggs takes her "office" with her to far flung areas of the world.

When she bought Mdina's shares five years ago, it had a team of about 10 workers across the country. Now there are 65, working throughout Canada, as well as in the U.S., Europe and Israel.

"The majority of them work out of rural Canada, and the majority of those are in the Maritimes," she said.

According to Spraggs, the company has enjoyed "really great support" from Nova Scotia Business Inc., which has assisted with getting consultants and training. "That really has been crucial to our success, because we have been able to access funds to hire people to help us in our expansion, and I think that is one of the key reasons why the company has basically doubled in size in the last two years," she said.

Sales Beacon's consultants receive training and mentoring in sales acceleration. The company works with client sales managers "to make sure they have everything they need to close the deal."

"If you can imagine the infrastructure required to run a large sales force, and all the programs from compensation to incentives, to launching new programs, to marketing projects - all those have to be run by somebody. Those are the types of projects that people call us to manage."

Spraggs says people in rural Canada are highly resourceful, especially in the Maritimes. "If they don't know something, they are very good at finding it out."

"I've always said if you can organize a surprise birthday party, you can be a successful project manager. If you can get five kids off to school and get their lunches and get them organized ... you can be a project manager. There are a lot of people that have innate project management skills that don't know they have it ... I love finding those kind of people."

A key requirement however, is good internet service. "You've got to have good bandwidth. If you don't, there's nothing we can do for you."

Project managers receive training and mentoring, while earning a wage. "It's about two years to build a full project manager" and they can expect to earn between $45,000 and $80,000 a year.

One of the challenges facing Sales Beacon is that not enough potential employees know about the opportunities it offers, says Spraggs. Last summer she renamed it from Mdina to something she felt was more reflective of its services, and she's in the throes of hiring a public relations company to get its message out.

Spraggs' plan is to make more people in Nova Scotia aware that Sales Beacon exists, "and that we are looking for bright, talented people in small communities who are interested in developing their careers."

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