MIAMI, Oct. 2012 – In 2008, Gustavo Pena and Eugene Holzer, two of the top bank recruiters for large staffing firms in Miami, decided they had had enough of the corporate environment and would partner to form a new staffing firm.
The same day Holzer received the new venture’s certificate of incorporation in the mail, Lehman Brothers dissolved and the nation’s financial system teetered toward collapse. Thousands in the financial industry – Pena’s and Holzer’s area of expertise – were put out of work in the years to come.
Despite the suboptimal timing of its beginning, their firm, Ascendo Resources, has grown nicely over the past four years. The company, which started in Pena and Holzer’s homes, now has 20 employees and offices in Coral Gables, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and New York. After doing $3 million in revenue in 2011, Ascendo is on pace to hit $5 million this year.
“If you can make it now, you can make it at any time,” Pena said. “At first, they were telling us, ‘Why should I pay you a fee to hire someone when I just fired 20 people?’ Companies went too far in firing, so they had to hire temps.”
Pena knows a lot about overcoming difficult times. The son of a prominent newspaper owner, he was an attorney in Venezuela, but his family left the country after President Hugo Chavez made life extremely difficult for the media company.
Looking for a new start in the U.S., Pena was hired by Robert Half and joined Holzer’s team. Pena said Robert Half put him in the financial services recruitment field because no one else there was very successful.
Holzer went on to join Mergis Group. But they were disillusioned working at big companies.
“I was more afraid of my co-workers at Robert Half than the people outside,” Pena said. “They are very competitive internally.”
At Ascendo, the recruiters are not allowed to steal clients from each other, and they will often cover for a co-worker, with no commission, to place a client when the co-worker is unavailable, Holzer said. About 80 percent of its business is banking, with the remainder in human resources and information technology. Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money laundering compliance are its biggest areas of demand.
A senior officer in the BSA compliance department of a local bank said Ascendo helped it hire temporary workers to conduct a review of previous transactions stemming back a few years. Ascendo found experienced people for the job, the senior officer said.
Many banks are beefing up their BSA compliance staffing to comply with enforcement actions or to stay out of trouble.
Pena said 30 percent of the people the company puts in temporary positions get hired full time.
“When we started out, a lot of people were losing their jobs and their houses,” Pena said. “They appreciated that we were able to help them find work.”
Even in a job market where open positions often attract hundreds of resumes, Ascendo sells its services on the basis of saving time for the human resources department and finding the most qualified candidates. One of its major initial challenges was that many big corporations would not work with Ascendo because it was so small and so new. It took Pena and Holzer years to land some clients, so they started with community banks and worked their way up.
Ascendo also has 50 people serving as consultants in areas such as accounting, compliance, IT, auditing, treasury and logistics.
The job market isn’t a bleak as some people make it out to be, Holzer said.