Sandra Oliver[2]

Sandra Oliver runs that most unusual species of small business: a mostly virtual but fast-growing professional services firm with lots of big clients outside Canada, almost all of who found her. What makes Impact-Coaches Inc.—which ranked 47th on the Chatelaine/PROFIT Women’s 100 for 2014—even more distinctive is that Oliver delivers the sort of service one would think requires plenty of face-time with clients. After all, she and the coaching professional who work for her sign on with large companies that are looking to provide key personnel with “structured mentoring” to help them manage an upwardly mobile career.

While some coaching services are aimed at employees who need remedial help, the bulk of Oliver’s clients want insights on how to accelerate the development of senior managers. And those individuals, many of whom are in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, tend to be very busy: “They’d rather work virtually,” she says, noting that often Impact’s coaches only travel to meet with their clients once or twice a year.

Oliver came at the coaching business from a place of personal knowledge. An HR manager, she wasn’t thrilled with her professional circumstances, and decided not to return to her firm after her second maternity leave.

What she did like about her job, however, was coaching employees. So in 2003, Oliver decided she’d try to design a coaching program, reckoning that this kind of career guidance was important for athletes so it should be helpful for young MBAs learning how to navigate the workplace.

Oliver began with a few clients directed her way from a long-time mentor; she was busy, but still delivering the service on a part-time basis. “I thought, this is going to be a fly-by-night thing…It was just me, and I thought that would be enough.”

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But as word of the service spread, Oliver realized she’d have to take on more coaches to handle the volume of business. Today, she has a network of 16 coaches recruited from a range of sectors, and located in cities across Canada. They operate independently, in that the company doesn’t have much of a bricks-and-mortar presence besides a small administrative office. “I manage them as a team, but it’s very, very virtual.”

Oliver soon found herself confronting a structural problem: A coaching assignment for an individual is typically a one-time gig, lasts for about six months, and brings in $5,000 to $10,000. Absent a steady stream of repeat-business revenue, growth came either from recruiting new coaching subjects within a given company or finding new corporate clients.  “It’s a tough business to be successful.”

To generate a more sustainable base, Oliver decided to focus on a handful of professional services sectors—law, accounting, and financial services—and also look to the U.S. With accounting in particular, she’d built up client relationships with some of the so-called Big Four accounting firms. Oliver approached them about finding potential coaching opportunities in their U.S. operations.

“They knew me,” she says, noting that these contacts arranged introductions with “a handful of really senior people in executive development programs” with the Big Four firms. The U.S. assignments started to flow almost immediately. And those clients have brought others: “All of those people [we coached] have helped us grow as they move forward.” Indeed, Impact doesn’t actively market or cold call in the U.S. because there’s still plenty of momentum from those Big Four channels.

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With U.S. clients located mainly on the coasts and in Chicago, Oliver says she tries, not always successfully, to “align the geographies” with the locations of her own coaches, so as to minimize time-zone glitches and travel times.

To date, however, Impact hasn’t recruited U.S.-based coaches to serve its burgeoning roster of U.S. clients, although Oliver won’t rule out such a step. She says she hasn’t encountered resistance from potential clients because the company is Canadian. “I don’t think our clients really care where we sit.”

But Oliver points out that it has become increasingly difficult to obtain work permits to go down to the U.S. to deal with clients. What’s more, as the coaching industry evolves from delivering psychological or remedial counselling to providing career-development advice, Oliver knows that some of her U.S. competitors have taken advantage of their proximity, and the ability to deliver regular face-to-face service.

Yet she’s decided against actively marketing Impact outside North America, even though she’s had occasional assignments in the U.K., Australia, Latin America and even Russia. Instead, she’s staying focused on consolidating the company’s reputation for business coaching and “structured mentoring.”

“Word of mouth seems to work for us,” Oliver reflects. “Our clients move, and take us with them.”

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