‘I Love Fear’

Gulf Coast Business Review   ENTREPRENEURS by Francis X. Gilpin | Associate Editor

Pamela A. Kauten recalls the moment she realized the newspaper help-wanted section was moving to the Internet.

Click to enlarge At her company’s first job fair in 1997, Peak Connections Inc. asked about 2,600 attendees if they surfed the Web for employment listings. About 66% responded that they did. “It was that day that I decided,” says Kauten. “I’m going after Monster.” Peak Connections’ job-search site, Florida CareerLINK.com, was ready for business.

Kauten has no desire to take over the world of online employer-employee matching, like Monster Worldwide Inc., which reported 2005 net income of $107 million on revenue of $987 million. She just wants Florida CareerLINK to be the first place that companies and workers from the Sunshine State go when they wish to fill or change jobs. “We need to keep that jobseeker right here in our own backyard, not let them go to Atlanta or Philly or wherever,” Kauten says.

With Florida’s unemployment rate at just 3.2%, Kauten thinks her Web site will be listing more online ads from Gulf Coast employers. “You have to teach employers to be proactive when it is so tight,” she says. “And it’s going to get worse.” Revenue for January and February at Peak Connections was 23% above what came in during the first two months of last year. The private company’s 2005 net margin was 13%, according to Kauten, better than Monster’s 11%.

Kauten has tried to contrast her regional focus with the global reach of her largest competitor. Florida CareerLINK’s promotional slogan is: “It’s not a monster, it’s local.” But, truth to be told, Kauten doesn’t find Monster.com very scary anymore. The feedback she gets from professionals indicates that CareerBuilder.com, an online helped-wanted site started by three newspaper companies to protect their classified advertising, is more popular in the Tampa Bay area than Monster.com.

Besides, not much can scare Kauten these days. She has survived business ups and downs in a few industries and a has begun to move on after a personal tragedy — the 2002 death of her husband, Neil N. Kauten.

Mary Kay calling
The 47-year-old Oldsmar resident came to Florida in the early 1980s because she was tired of being cooped up indoors with her infant son in Wisconsin for much of the year.

Settling initially in Sarasota, she began selling cosmetics for Mary Kay Inc. and discovered that she was a natural saleswoman. “I’m an aggressive female,” Kauten says, laughing. “I didn’t know it at the time.”

In 1986, Kauten quit a regional sales directorship at Mary Kay and started driving her pink automobile to her own cosmetics shop. She says her appearances on local cable television drove walk-in business to the shop, which was called Karisma with a K.

But her husband, Neil Kauten, was transferred to Pinellas County. Unhappily, Pam Kauten had to sell Karisma with a K. “My business is going good. I’ve got a reputation and an ego,” Kauten remembers telling her husband. “And you’re moving me into Tampa, where they drive too fast?”

Kauten, who has since become the proud owner of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, laughs hysterically at the memory. “I’m not kidding,” she says. “When I came up here, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t know if I can hang with them.’”

After selling uniforms for Cintas Corp., Kauten went to work for Jacor Communications Inc.’s Bay area radio operation before it was sold to Clear Channel Communications Inc. in 1999. Jacor didn’t want her selling radio ads. Her job was to find new revenue streams outside of broadcasting. It was an odd assignment, but that is where Kauten witnessed the potential of the recruitment industry. During 18 months with Jacor, Kauten developed a job-fair business for the radio chain. Before the ascent of Internet job boards, Jacor used the fairs to plug a telephone-based listings service.In a replay of her Mary Kay experience, Kauten got feeling entrepreneurial again. “I was only making a 10% commission,” she says. “Why not take the whole thing?”

Kauten formed Peak Connections with her husband in 1996. It was not an easy decision. Neil Kauten had taken seriously ill and needed a double-lung transplant.Yet she gave up a steady six-figure income for the uncertainty of running her own business. “That was real scary,” she says during a recent interview in her Clearwater office. “When I look back, I don’t know how I did it. So I don’t really stress on it.”

‘Give me a challenge’
After that first job fair pointed her toward the Internet, Kauten had to conquer a personal aversion to computers. “I was scared of the mouse,” she says. For Kauten, however, there is hidden joy in fright. “I love fear,” she confesses. “Give me a challenge. Tell me I can’t do it.”

Kauten convened her own personal focus group of business managers. Feeding them food and drinks at Tampa’s Centre Club, Kauten listened to their suggestions for a user-friendly, local online job site.

Florida CareerLINK debuted, appropriately, on Labor Day of 1997, incorporating many of her focus group’s suggestions. Her six employees originally worked at scattered locations around her house. Neil Kauten did the bookkeeping. Although they couldn’t afford Super Bowl commercials like Monster, Neil Kauten negotiated deals for billboard and bus stop bench ads around the bay. The Kautens expanded the concept to other cities, partnering with radio stations in those markets.

But Kauten admits she lost interest in Peak Connections after her husband’s 2002 death at the age of 45. “He was my mentor and my best friend,” says Kauten. Kauten bought the motorcycle and socialized more. “I had fun,” she says.

Her employees kept Peak Connections going. Then, one day, she felt it was time to get serious about work again. “All of a sudden, I got my real passion back for the company,” she says. “It was like I took a year off mentally.” Kauten learned how to use financial management software for business and took over the bookkeeping. She closed down the radio partnerships outside of the Tampa market. The loss of that revenue and the “jobless recovery” from the 2001 recession made for a few lean years at Peak Connections. But Kauten says her company returned to profitability last year.

In 2006, Kauten wants Florida CareerLINK to emphasize the Florida part more.The younger of Kauten’s two sons, Adam M. Kauten, is opening an office in Sarasota this month; she says the market is tighter there than in the Tampa area.

Tech firms shun local job boards
Peak Connections Inc. President Pamela A. Kauten has a beef with Tampa Bay area technology companies. They don’t use local Internet employment sites, including hers, to post job vacancies. Kauten is quite familiar with the laments of local tech entrepreneurs, who complain that they must do most of their hiring outside of the region. After all, Kauten serves on the board of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum.

But Kauten claims there are plenty of qualified engineers and software developers in the area. They’re just not seeking a job change. Surveys indicate only about 16% of the American workforce actively looks to switch jobs at any given time. Still, Americans stay at their jobs just an average of slightly longer than two years.

Employers in tight job markets have to cover all their bases. Identifying and going after passive jobseekers is the key, according to Kauten and many job recruiters. “The talent is out there, but they’re not looking,” she says. That means local tech companies should be using the locally promoted Web boards as well as national listing services such as Monster and CareerBuilder.

Like tech employers, Bay area hospitals used to avoid Kauten’s Florida CareerLINK. But she says most of the region’s hospitals now post their dozens of unfilled nursing shifts on the site. Michelle Bauer, former executive director of the Tech Forum, who now is a marketing consultant, says it is always cheaper to hire local engineers than move them across the country.“They don’t want to leave. It’s expensive to live in Mountain View,” says Bauer, whose clients include Kauten. “People need to have a little bit more faith in this market.”

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