When the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, the offices of American Express marketers Peggy McHale and Sandi Webster were right across the street. The two executives survived the day, but not the corporate culling that followed after the financial markets tanked.
They dusted themselves off, and with generous severance packages in tow, set their sights on building their own outsourced marketing firm. Eight years later, Consultants 2 Go enlists an army of more than 400 senior-level contractors, mostly women, who handle varied assignments in industries ranging from financial services and telecoms to pharmaceuticals. Sales are projected to reach roughly $3 million this year.
"I don't see this abating," said McHale, 52, pointing to a growing trend toward greater acceptance of flexible work arrangements to fulfill high-level corporate projects. "I think firms are reluctant to add permanent staff. I think we're in a real shift."
The women don't dwell on the Sept. 11 attacks, but recognize it made their dream of starting a business seem less of a gamble. McHale was in her offices when the attacks occurred and saw the mayhem first-hand. Webster was on a bus headed downtown, which was forced to turn back.
"There are risks in life and then there are risks," said McHale, who escaped Manhattan by hopping on a ferry to Jersey City. "What was the worst that could happen? If it didn't work out I'd have to go out and find a job."
To get the ball rolling, McHale and Webster, who knew each other from corporate projects they had worked on together, took advantage of Amex's outsourcing program, which included workshops on entrepreneurship. Both products of what McHale described as modest upbringings, they built their business conservatively, originally working out of their homes, using savings and lines of credit when needed.
In the beginning, the fact that McHale is white and Webster is black was offputting for some clients. Last year McHale and Webster self-published a book covering that topic, as well as practical tips for entrepreneurs considering hanging out their own shingle: "Black and White Strike Gold."
"People found it very strange that we could be partners," said Webster, 48, who was raised in Brooklyn by Jamaican parents, and has retained a Caribbean accent. "We never even thought about it until they brought it up."
The book contains a forward by Nell Merlino, organizer of the Make Mine a Million $ Business contest, an ongoing competition for women-owned companies. C2G was a New York finalist in 2006; the firm's sales topped $1 million that year.
It wasn't all smooth sailing. The owners acknowledge the move out of a sheltered corporate life took some getting used to.
"When you're in a large corporation at the management level, you're used to having a team of people do things for you," said Webster, who handles the operations and human resources ends of the business, while McHale manages sales and finance. Both women continue to spend time on consulting projects.
"In a small business you are the support staff," Webster said. "It can be a rude awakening. You have to be prepared for that."
Last year was a difficult one, as C2G experienced some losses. To adjust, the firm adhered closely to its own outsourcing model and tightly controlled costs. It has made an unlikely home at a low-cost incubator for tech startups at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, where some of the fledgling companies have become clients, helping the firm to diversify.
"Everyone who works for us is a consultant," said Webster, adding C2G uses independent contractors for its own sales, recruiting and IT services.
Among the ranks of the firm's marketing pros are many former corporate vice presidents and directors, some with Ivy League degrees who have also worked at big-name consultancies like Bain and McKinsey.
"We're much more affordable," said McHale, noting they frequently beat those old-line firms on price.
Some C2G consultants even compete against each other, interviewing for the same project. Contractors such as Annette Giordano, a former full-time corporate marketing executive and mother of two, said the flexibility of controlling her schedule makes it unlikely she will return to a traditional job any time soon.
"This is really an opportunity for me to craft my own destiny and not have to sit behind a desk in a building," Giordano said.
Even with their successes, McHale and Webster, who frequently speak on panels about entrepreneurship, conceded the glass ceiling has not completely been shattered. In one instance, they lost a job to a rival who spent time wooing a would-be customer all day on the golf course. Webster responded by picking up clubs and learning the game.
"Sometimes you have to level the playing field," she said. "You go out and do what you have to do."