Wednesday, October 25, 2023

VACEOs Member Profile: Philip O’Connor

Thanks to Phil O’Connor, Managing Partner of SPARK Product Development, for answering our many questions!

©2023 Logan Whitton Photography, Inc.

Q: Tell us about your first job after college, and your professional journey.

A: I attended Radford University and majored in Political Science. I had grand plans to attend law school and become an attorney; the universe had other plans. My first job out of college was working for Checkered Flag Motor Car Company in Virginia Beach selling MINI Coopers. It was a wildly important and impactful opportunity to learn about myself, sales and how to overcome objections.

From there, I worked for SunTrust Bank in Norfolk and then Hampton before making my eventual move to Richmond, starting a job in recruiting with Aerotek. It was at Aerotek where I found my passion in working with engineers in the manufacturing industry. It was fascinating to work with engineers from undergrad to my father’s age. The most interesting part of the job was getting to visit all the manufacturing facilities in Central Virginia and getting a true understanding of just how critical the industry is to the region. While I get excited to drive around industrial parks near airports and guess what’s being made in all the warehouses (Oreos and hummus for example), my wife prefers that we just keep moving and find the nearest parking space so we can make our flight.

Q: Who inspired you to become an entrepreneur?

A: Often during my professional career I would look at the entrepreneurs I worked with and ask myself, “Why can’t I do that?”

But if I really think about it, it’s my mother and father. While my father worked a steady career with Dominion, his example of working hard to achieve professional success and the ability to support a family stuck with me. My mother, on the other hand, was always hustling and doing her own thing. She started a business hosting craft classes at our house for other parents and their children. When my sister and I were a little older, probably middle school, she started “Christal’s Home and Garden” cleaning people’s homes and doing landscaping. Most of her clients were in the neighborhood and that meant she could be home when we got off the bus. Her next role was being a landlord for a few rentals she picked up in the neighborhood.

My wife, Sara, grew up in a home where her parents were small business owners. We definitely had a number of discussions when considering going this route and she was the most supportive in terms of making the leap.

Q: Tell us about your journey to becoming a CEO.

A: Maybe I was delusional, but I always thought I’d own a business. My younger self would tell you it was “O’Connor and Associates”; I made tri-fold sales pamphlets and business cards I hung on my childhood bedroom door. My client list was pretty exclusive, including all the famous actors and athletes of that time.

It’s not linear and certainly not without successes and failures. I’ve attempted any number of “jobs” over the years; some where I was an individual contributor and others where I managed a staff and was responsible for handling a Board of Directors. While at VCU, I moved from managing a portfolio of Corporate clients (philanthropy, sponsorship, student engagement and continuing education) to running one of the institutionally-related Foundations, the VCU College of Engineering Foundation. My wife Sara and I both worked at VCU during that time and we began to consider relocating, finding another engineering college to support and her working at a university hospital or in student health. The pandemic had other plans; we decided to stay in Richmond.

Having nurtured a network in Richmond mostly in the engineering, manufacturing and tech space, I looked around at several companies whose work intrigued me and placed a few strategic phone calls. The one I really wanted, SPARK Product Development, was a longshot. They were, and still are, a small business. Most of the staff was billable, a true consulting firm, with minimal overhead; adding me as Business Relationship Manager would change that. I started discussions with the owners, comparing notes on what “could be” and we finally came to an agreement at the end of 2020. We agreed to me being an employee for a year while we determined if it made sense to buy into the company and ultimately move into a leadership role to set the vision and strategy for the next generation of the business. Early 2022 I joined Bruce and Bill as the third owner and at the end of 2022 we transitioned the role of Managing Partner from Bruce to me.

Who is SPARK? What do we do? We’re a product design and development firm. We’re hired by other companies to come in and solve problems and develop new ideas – deliver solutions. We were part of the team who developed the Kobalt brand for Lowe’s and have several clients who have been with us for over 15+ years. We employ engineers and industrial designers and work mainly in the areas of consumer, medical and industrial products; the majority of our clients are mid-market and are B2B with their sales channels. That said, we’ve worked with a number of startups and inventors over the years and even support many of the research institutions here in Virginia. I’m honored to lead a 25+ year business with its roots in Henrico and I’m even more excited for the next 25 years.

Q: What to do read or listen to?

A: I have a number of them! As far as podcasts, some favorites of mine are The Pitch, How I Built This, Wisdom from the Top, Re:Thinking, Richmond Entrepreneur, That Will Never Work. I consume most of these as soon as they come out and share some of the ones I find most interesting or inspiring with friends and colleagues. Hearing these voices and their journeys in their personal and professional lives gives me time to consider what’s happening in my world and make thoughtful decisions. One of the more recent books I read was “The Ride of a Lifetime” by Bob Igor; can’t wait to see Volume 2 after getting back into the game. I just picked up Michael Lewis’ latest book, Going Infinite, which itself might be a cautionary tale of what not to do in leading a business.

Q: When you are not leading SPARK, what do you like to do?

A: We live in Church Hill in an old home from 1882. To know me is to know that our home is always under construction. We like to walk around the neighborhood and are suckers for a new Richmond restaurant (though my Alpha-Gal allergy puts a damper on the meats and cheeses).

Sara and I spend most weekends in Williamsburg. My folks still live in my childhood neighborhood and we enjoy sitting by the James River reading and just floating for hours in the water. The neighborhood is also just off of the Capital Trail and we can bike to a few places to eat or drink (if you do a century ride, look me up, maybe you can stop by to cool off). When it gets cold, there are plenty of fallen trees and branches that keep us warm by the bonfire.

During the F1 season you’ll find me watching qualifying sessions and waking up early to catch a race when it’s overseas.

Q: Tell us how you are involved in the community.

A: Education is central to the business and industry that I work in. Mentoring is also something near and dear to me after working with engineers for the majority of my career. I routinely mentor students at the VCU College of Engineering and help them with career exploration, resume reviews and interview preparation. Sara works at VCU Health and is a graduate of Brightpoint Community College’s Nursing program. We have supported a scholarship at Brightpoint and I also serve on the Brightpoint Community College Foundation Board. I’m Chair of the Institutional Advancement Committee and serve on the Executive Committee. Sara and I are also donors to the VMFA and support the Richmond Forum.

Posted by Scot McRoberts at 4:13 pm
Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Q&A with Lauren Sweeney, CEO of Dotted Line

Q: You are a native of Richmond and attended Randolph-Macon College. What is your favorite spot or activity in Richmond?

A: I love the river and some of the trails around Richmond, as I have recently gotten more into hiking. The close proximity to the mountains or beach also makes it easy to find things to do on the weekends. I believe Richmond is a great city to live in based on the market size – it’s easier to find a community and get around town than a larger city, and Richmond is large enough to offer a multitude of things to do.

Q: Who inspired you to become an entrepreneur?

A: I come from a family of small business owners. My grandfather owned a small oil and gas business in rural Virginia, and we were very close. Growing up, I saw and heard firsthand the power and impact of this engine of the economy. I also have an entrepreneurial spirit and love figuring out how to build new things.

Q: Please tell us about your journey to become a CEO.

A: My path was influenced by a combination of large corporate experience and early exposure to small business ownership. My first job out of college was at a Richmond-based Fortune 200 company, where I learned broader business knowledge and how important investments in learning and development are to building leaders. The first business I started was an e-commerce company that sold paper planners. As I evaluated my next move, I had a series of conversations with small business owners that revealed marketing challenges specific to their businesses. This was the genesis for Dotted Line. I started the agency in 2014, and we had our strongest year ever in 2021.

Q: What excites you most about your role as CEO?

A: I’ve learned that Dotted Line’s potential rests on the strength of its people. Growing our team members and leaders is one of my most important jobs as the CEO. At Dotted Line, we focus on developing leaders that our agency will need not only today, but five years from now. We also are at a transformational moment, as the agency just debuted on the Inc. 5000 list of the nation’s fastest-growing private companies. Our momentum and growth are continuing in 2022.

Q: How are you promoting leadership development at Dotted Line?

A: We make a significant investment in our people. For 2022, we launched a year-long Leadership Development program that’s designed to build confident, team-based leaders. This investment – which is rare for both a marketing firm and for an organization of our size – ensures that team members have the shared skills and background to grow into future roles with Dotted Line and beyond. The program is open to everyone at the agency, not just those in existing management roles, because I believe everyone needs fundamental leadership skills – like influencing and having difficult conversations – to be effective in their jobs. We also dedicate a percentage of our budget to coaching, skills-based learning and mentoring opportunities.

Q: Are there any national/business authors that you follow? What is it about them or their message that resonates with you?

A: I’m a big fan of Dave Ramsey. His book and coaching program EntreLeadership has been an exceptional resource for me as a small business owner. Dave focuses on how to be a great leader and grow a successful small business. I have participated in many of his conferences and coaching events over the years.

I am also a big fan of Jesse Itzler, a serial entrepreneur. Jesse leads with high levels of passion and excellence and believes that the more you experience in life, the more you have to give. Jesse encourages people to have one big, impossible goal each year. This is something that stretches you and has a lasting effect on you all year. This year, I’m participating in an ultra-endurance event called 29029 Everesting. We have 36 hours to reach 29029 feet – the equivalent height of Mt. Everest. It’s quite the challenge, and I am looking forward to experiencing something this transformational.

Q: You are very involved in the community, including the National Association of Women Business Owners and being on the board of directors for the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. How has your work with these organizations impacted you as a CEO?

A: Meeting, learning from, and networking other leaders has been formative to me as a business owner and CEO. As a young entrepreneur, I’m learning and leading at the same time. Outside guidance and expertise has been essential.

Q: You joined VACEOs in the height of the pandemic in 2020, what part of your membership has helped you grow the most as a leader?

A: I have loved getting to know and having the support of my roundtable members. Many of our businesses are similar in size, and we have similar aspirational goals. I am learning from them, and the support as a small business owner has been incredibly helpful.

Posted by Scot McRoberts at 1:42 pm
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Thursday, July 14, 2022

Making the World a Better Place – One Job Seeker At a Time

Member Spotlight: Glenn Diersen, Founder and President of Summit Human Capital

Virginia Born and Bred

Glenn Diersen was born in Virginia and grew up in Richmond’s West End. His parents, traditional baby boomers, modeled an example of finding a good company to work for, working hard, and then retiring from that same company.

But Glenn had different ideas.

Born with what he describes as “entrepreneurial blood” flowing through his veins, Glenn was only 14 when he started his first company painting houses. By the time he graduated from High School in 2009, he had started a second business and had his eye on one day starting a third.

School and Next Steps

After graduating from James Madison University in 2013, with dual degrees in Business Administration and International Business and Spanish, Glenn headed to Spain for approximately a year to polish his international business acumen and achieve his dream of becoming fluent in Spanish. He was successful in both.

On returning to the U.S., Glenn went to work for The Select Group in Washington, D.C., where he spent the next several years learning all he could about the technology recruiting industry, particularly as it relates to the government and staffing contracts.

After successfully building a new, $200 million vertical sales division at The Select Group, Glenn felt the pull to start out on his own. With his future wife, Nina Ildari, by his side, in 2018 he left D.C., returned to Richmond, and together they founded Summit Human Capital where he now serves as founder and president, and Nina is CEO.

Growing Summit Human Capital

Summit Human Capital is a global technology workforce solutions company which Inc. Magazine recently ranked number one as the fastest growing firm in the Mid-Atlantic region. A newly designated Women Owned Small Business (WOSB), they have two offices, one in Richmond and the other in Northern, Virginia. The company employs over 200 work associates in the U.S. and in India and is on track to double in size within the next year.

Glenn and his wife founded the company with the understanding that traditional job hunting can be a daunting process. To change that narrative, they developed a program to transform the experience from daunting to rich, rewarding and fulfilling for all parties involved – the job seekers themselves and the companies who hire them.

One of the ways Summit Human Capital is successful in doing this is by going the extra mile upfront to help clients identify their short- and long-term career ambitions in addition to their skill sets. At the end of the day, Summit Human Capital does not just help people find jobs. It helps people find jobs that align with their unique talents and goals – the kinds of jobs that have the power to change their lives and the lives of their families – the kinds of jobs that have the power to make the world a better place, one job seeker at a time.

Energy, Vision and Passion

When you speak with Glenn, it becomes immediately clear that he is a high-energy guy, who knows exactly what he wants in life, and has a well thought out plan to get there. He doesn’t leave anything to chance. And even seemingly small details have been thought about by him and leveraged to help him achieve his goals.

For example, Glenn signs each of his communications with the distinct salutation “With Gratitude, Glenn.” Under his photo is a favorite quote by Napoleon Hill: “Your only limitation is the one you set up in your own mind.” And it’s from this unique space of gratitude and limitless possibility that Glenn surrounds himself, both literally and figuratively, and approaches each day.

Covid’s Impact On Business

Glenn is very clear that the pain and suffering COVID has caused all over the world is catastrophic and that his heart goes out to all those who have been hurt by this modern-day plague.

With that said, he adds that a silver lining of the pandemic is that it has dramatically sped up the adaptation of working remotely and the creation of hybrid work environments. Both of which he feels will make society better – and are here to stay.


Like many leaders, Glenn admits that at times it is lonely at the top of an organization. It can feel isolating. For him, the roundtable format has been a god send because it has given him a tribe of trusted peers to support him and help him grow.

His advice to those who are curious about VACEOs but have not joined is simple and straight forward…Don’t wait. Join today. Invest in yourself.

Posted by Scot McRoberts at 2:11 pm
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Wednesday, May 11, 2022

HR Strategies for Employee Retention

Three Simple Ways To Keep Your Workforce, Happy, Healthy and Engaged

The pandemic workplace dynamics have led to unprecedented quit rates and a labor shortage. As a result, employees have more employment options and power, and keeping good people in place now requires more than just “work” and “pay.” To navigate this challenging landscape, business owners need to focus on what they can control. Here are three steps to invest in your employees’ well-being to build engagement and keep your workforce!

1. Conduct Stay Interviews

Stay Interviews are a great way to develop your employees and drive strategic change. These structured conversations between supervisors and employees are designed to learn about employees’ strengths and areas of interest. Employees at every level should participate in a stay interview to be effective and successful. Having these conversations at the start of the new year is a great way to engage the workforce and gather feedback. Based on the outcome of these interviews, implement measurable changes and evaluate them throughout the year. Quantifying the changes helps drive success. This can be accomplished by defining key metrics along with strong communications. Be consistent and plan to keep this process alive every new year.

To help get this process started, below are questions for managers to consider asking their direct reports. Structure these conversations as an opportunity for you and the interviewee to learn and grow.

Question 1: How can I improve my management style?

Remember, people tend to leave managers, not jobs. Embrace this question with an open mind and be prepared to receive constructive criticism.

Questions 2: What do you like about your job; what do you not like?

These questions will provide insight into the individual’s strengths since people typically enjoy doing what they are best at. Revising their job responsibilities to include more of what they like will help improve performance, thus fostering retention.

Question 3: What are your short and long-term goals? And how can our organization help support them?

Good talent leaves if they don’t see a clear path to career advancement. Leave this conversation with a clearly defined developmental plan and how the business can support the individual to achieve their goals.

2. Invest in a Wellness Program

A wellness program is an initiative provided to employees to encourage a healthier lifestyle. The bonus is that improving an employee’s well-being positively impacts productivity, engagement, company loyalty and helps reduce health care costs. In addition, it can be used as a recruiting tool. Here is a list of cost-effective wellness programs that can easily be integrated into your organization.

  • Wellness Challenge

Encourage team members to engage in workouts and to drink more water. Have them keep track of their accomplishments to win health-related prizes at the end of the month.Yoga/Meditation Classes

Offer lunchtime breaks that include 15-30 minute yoga or mediation classes. Classes can be found on Youtube!

  • Healthy snacks and lunch options

To advocate healthy eating, offer healthy snacks such as nuts, dried fruit, or fresh fruit in the breakroom.

  • Offer flexible work hours

The 9:00 to 5:00 day is a thing of the past. Allow your team members to set their hours.

  • Advocate for employees to take their vacation

Taking time off to recharge promotes productivity! Encourage your employees to take all their vacation days and do not encourage rolling over days or paying them out.

  • Say “thank you” and provide feedback

Showing appreciation makes one feel valued and helps people stay motivated.

  • Smoking cessation programs

Supporting smokers to quit their habit will help success rates! Fewer smokers will not only reduce healthcare costs but also improve productivity.

3. Review your rewards and compensation programs

In this competitive job market, it is critical to go beyond just salary to retain and attract talent. By building enticing compensation packages (packages that creatively combine the total value of base pay, benefits, rewards, and other perks into your business strategy), you can distinguish yourself as an “employer of choice.” While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, it is essential to evaluate the below offerings to ensure you are competitive and aligned with your market and industry.

  • Base compensation

You want your employees’ salaries to be equal to or more than the industry standard for a specific job title in that location.

  • Employee Bonus Programs

Giving incentives allows you to reward your  top performers. Here are the five most popular rewards programs: annual incentives, spot bonuses, referral bonuses, signing bonuses, and profit-sharing plans.

  • Non-monetary rewards

Employees put a lot of value into their quality of life. Here are examples of non-monetary rewards: flexible schedule, an extra day off, time for volunteer work, training and/or mentoring programs.

  • Benefits and Retirement

Research shows that a competitive benefits plan can play a vital role in attracting and retaining skilled workers. This plan should include:  healthcare, retirement savings and planning, paid time off, paid parental leave, flexible work schedule, and professional and career development.

  • Recognition and Promotions

Create a culture of recognition. A critical piece to the success of this initiative is regularly promoting your programs to make them appealing to your employees.

Remember, a more engaged workforce isn’t just a loyal workforce; it’s a more productive one. Building and retaining a great team is key to your company’s long-term growth and success. In an economy where workers have the upper hand, it is more important now than ever to incorporate employee retention strategies into your business plan.

The Author, Beth Williams of Warren Whitney

Beth Williams, Director of Human Resources at Warren Whitney, has worked in human resource management for more than 25 years with experience that spans many diverse industries, including energy, financial services, banking, legal services, pharmaceuticals, IT, and non-profit. She provides a full range of HR consulting services and strategic solutions, which are customized for each client and provide a clear direction to company goals and objectives. Beth has worked with many of her clients on a long-term basis, serving in interim HR director roles for several small and large businesses around Virginia.

About Warren Whitney

Warren Whitney’s HR team works with business leaders to strategically evaluate the best path forward. Their work includes in-depth compensation and benefits analysis, organizational structure and planning, as well as talent management.

About Virginia Council of CEOs (VACEOs)

Virginia Council of CEOs (VACEOs) is a nonprofit organization connecting CEOs for learning and growth. Formed more than 20 years ago, member benefits include placement in a peer roundtable group and access to a thought leader network, and a robust program of events for learning and growth. This is not a networking group, but rather a group of CEO peers who are invested in the success of each member. To qualify for membership CEOs must run a business with $1M+ revenue and 5+FTEs. Learn more at

Posted by Scot McRoberts at 10:09 am
Friday, March 4, 2022

5 Questions Every CEO Should Ask their Banker

five key questions

As business leaders, it is imperative to have an inner circle of advisors you trust. In addition to a CFO, you often seek advice from attorneys, CPAs, and insurance agents to name a few. Adding a local banker to your list who lives and works in your market is smart and strategic.

Of course, a banker will discuss your business finances and help you gain access to capital. A trusted banker also has vast knowledge of the market, is up to date on the latest business deals and happenings and can share a wide network of contacts to help your business grow. With a community bank, decisions are made locally and often, much quicker, than at larger national financial institutions.

I would encourage any business leader to ask these questions of their current or prospective banker.

1. Is now a good time to expand my business?

Your banker should walk through different scenarios with you. What is the current demand for your products or services? Are customers requesting a new product line? Do you have customer support to grow? Are you growing so fast that you can hardly manage current business? Do you see an unprecedented opportunity that is exciting and difficult to pass up? Is your overall industry growing and is the opportunity ripe?

2. What precautions should I put in place to help my business with the concern of inflation and a potential recession?

Dollar moving up. Money finance growth chart graph stock market

Your banker understands that the effect of inflation on small to medium-sized businesses may seem somewhat insignificant in the short term; however, it can quickly have an impact on your bottom line. Reduced purchasing power means that businesses will sell less and potentially lower profits. Lower profits mean a decreased ability to grow or invest in the business itself. Credit control can help offset inflation. Your banker may direct you to increase savings and reduce unnecessary expenditures.

3. Can you offer my business options outside of traditional banking?

A community banker should detail any new technology and additional services they offer. Such services can help you cut costs and be more efficient. There are multiple treasury management solutions that can efficiently help you manage your business budget, improve cash flow, protect against fraud, and reduce processing delays. Definitely inquire about remote and mobile deposit, ACH and wire management systems that will save you time and money.

4. Can you help me with supply chain issues?

Your local banker can tell you about certain lending tools it can recommend to offset this rising challenge. Supply chain financing can support the trade relationships of middle market companies as a way to help stabilize supply chains and improve working capital.

5. How can you support my growth plans?

A trusted banker should understand your business and industry. He or she can assist in reviewing financial forecasting and projections. Ask about cash flow analysis and tips to gain financial efficiencies. Moreover, your banker should be a good sounding board and offer advice.

I believe if you focus on building a positive relationship with an experienced community banker, your business will succeed and grow.

Too many leaders navigate the financial arena with little personalized support. Sadly, 20% of companies fail within the first two years, according to Forbes. While opening a new business can be exciting and is more popular than ever, getting sound banking advice at the start, or even years after launch, can propel your business forward and help you serve your customers far into the future. I believe if you focus on building a positive relationship with an experienced community banker, your business will succeed and grow.

About the Author & Blue Ridge Bank

Chris Layne, market president at Blue Ridge Bank is a professional who primarily works with closely-held and non-profit organizations in and throughout the Richmond Metro region. If you have any questions for Chris. please feel free to reach out to him at 804-518-2625 or

Blue Ridge Bank is a Virginia bank with a national reputation, Blue Ridge Bank is all about business. Our team exudes an enterprising spirit in each local market so we can best serve our business clients. We provide a wide range of financial services including retail and commercial banking, private banking and wealth management, mortgage lending, and government-guaranteed lending. 

About Virginia Council of CEOs (VACEOs)

Virginia Council of CEOs (VACEOs) is a nonprofit organization connecting CEOs for learning and growth. Formed more than 20 years ago, member benefits include placement in a peer roundtable group and access to a thought leader network, and a robust program of events for learning and growth. This is not a networking group, but rather a group of CEO peers who are invested in the success of each member. To qualify for membership CEOs must run a business with $1M+ revenue and 5+FTEs. Learn more at

Posted by Scot McRoberts at 10:55 am