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Value Added: She placed herself on a path to profit

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Helen Stefan Moreau was 22 years old and two months into her job at a Washington staffing firm when her boss sat her down.

“I like you, and I think you are great,” Moreau recalls her boss saying at the life-changing meeting in 1989. “You have great potential, but it’s been two months and you haven’t had a deal. I can’t afford you under these circumstances.”

Moreau’s boss changed her compensation from an $18,000 annual salary with small incentive bonuses to zero salary but up to a 50 percent commission on each job candidate she placed.

It was higher risk, but Moreau could make a lot more money — up to $2,500 for every candidate she placed in a job — if she could close her deals.

“It was a healthy dose of fear that gave me legitimate skin in the game,” said Moreau. “Later that week, I had two deals and never looked back.”

She was soon earning $2,000 a week. Six months later, Moreau quit to start her own placement firm at McPherson Square in Washington.

Moreau’s story reflects the powerful incentive of making money. Like it or not — whether you call it the American Dream, advancement, getting ahead or greed — cash drives many of us.

Twenty-two years after striking out on her own, Moreau’s Midtown Group in downtown Washington has grown into a firm with 24 full-time employees and more than 300 part-timers, with an office in Chicago. Midtown just completed its most lucrative quarter ever and is on track to gross $15 million this year. That’s about 50 percent above last year.

At 45, the entrepreneur, with her pastry chef husband and two kids, live in a sprawling Chevy Chase McMansion. She throws a mean Christmas party, rents suites at Verizon Center, and rewards top employees with cruises, lavish trips to the Caribbean, and Las Vegas bashes (where she and 12 stars were headed last week).

She has turned down several offers to buy her company.

Moreau’s employees, known as recruiters, find qualified candidates to fill various jobs, whether it be an assistant to actress Linda Carter (Wonder Woman) or a lawyer at Kirkland & Ellis. Other clients include the White House, U.S. House of Representatives, Smithsonian, Library of Congress, National Geographic and McKinsey & Co.

It doesn’t sound sexy, but this is high-pressure, high-reward work where stars earn $250,000 a year.

A successful recruiter makes dozens of calls a day to employers and has a deep bench of qualified job candidates to offer. To keep their rosters fresh, recruiters constantly troll social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to look for talent.

Midtown is built on two revenue streams: Its direct hire division finds and places candidates for all kinds of jobs. Its “temp” division fills temporary slots that can be as short as a day or as long as a year.

Direct hires make up about 10 percent of revenue and represent the high-risk, high-payoff portion of the business. A search to fill a lawyer’s slot at a top D.C. firm may take three months, but it could also yield a $50,000 fee (about 15 to 25 percent of the salary for the position being filled), which is shared between Midtown and its employee, depending on each employee’s agreement.

The rest of Midtown’s revenue comes from the contracting, or temporary, work. Midtown may charge the government $75 an hour for an employee. The company then might pay its employee $45 for that hour, keeping the rest for overhead and profit.

Top contracting jobs requiring a high-level security clearance can earn Midtown $125 an hour, some of which goes to the contract employee and some to Midtown.

Midtown got a boost last year when it won a piece of a $35 million deal with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide contract employees over the next five years.

A trick to Midtown’s success is keeping those part-timers in their temporary jobs and out of the unemployment line. For example, if a federal agency lays off the contract employees, Midtown could be on the hook for paying that employee’s weekly unemployment check, which could be up to $369 a week for 26 weeks.

“You can lose your entire profit made on the contract if an employee picks up the unemployment for the entire six months,” Moreau said.

The way to avoid that is to have multi-skilled, motivated employees who can seamlessly transition from one job to another.

Moreau grew up in leafy Westport, Conn., the daughter of the town’s police chief. She attended the University of Florida, where she studied public relations and business.

She moved to the Washington area after graduation to live with her mother and stepfather in Rockville. When the congressman she was working for left office, she walked into a job placement office at 17th and I streets NW in downtown Washington to find a new gig.

But instead of placing her in a job, the employment agency hired her.

After the talking to by the boss, she caught on fire.

“I would work after hours and on weekends, speaking with candidates from home and meeting for lunches and coffees,” she said. “I would make hash marks on a piece of paper and make over 100 calls a day.”

For every 100 calls to employers, she would get four interviews for her job candidates. Then she almost always placed at least one of the four in a job.

“The numbers work like a science,” she said.

Midtown started in September 1989 and finished the next year with $170,000 in revenue. Revenue crawled along at a 10 percent growth rate, until a key hire persuaded Moreau to jump into the temporary employment business.

“That was our ‘aha’ moment,” she said. The temp work took off, and revenue grew to $13 million in 2008. The income dropped 20 percent during the recession, but it has rebounded, largely because of the growth in the local legal industry and the new contract job with HHS.

The company, which has no debt, should earn several million in profit this year, some of which will go to Moreau. The rest will cover operations, new hires, technology purchases and working capital. Midtown pays for health care, and it offers a 401k retirement plan and profit sharing of up to 4 percent of salary.

Before we ended our conversation, I had to ask Moreau one more thing: Where did you get the guts as a 23-year-old to start your own business?

Her dad.

“He was the youngest chief of police in the state of Connecticut, and he taught me early on that embracing leadership at a young age was not to be feared, but embraced.”

Follow me on Twitter @addedvalueth.

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