CEO takes technical writing company coast to coast

Published: May 4, 2006
Bill Bittar | Fairfield Minuteman

A CitiGroup executive called in Vital Computer Services to document his systems after his department failed an audit in 1981. And he told the Manhattan consulting firm he would not pay them if he failed his next audit. Vital’s vice president was skittish about working on a project without any guarantee of a profit, and wanted to back out. But while he saw the potential risk, his second-year consultant saw an opportunity.

Antoinette Allocca, who now lives in Easton, leaned on the executive’s promise to hire Vital to document all of the systems in his department if he passed the audit with their help. The potential reward would be great, be cause CitiGroup could become a lucrative client. And Allocca also banked on the executive’s desperation over what a second failed audit would mean to his job status.

Allocca went to her company’s president and said, “What if I show you what we can do?”

She made a presentation with John Lieberman, a “superstar” technical writer, and got the green light from her boss. And after completing their jobs….

“We passed the module to the auditor and he said. “This is the best piece of documentation that I have seen in my career,” Allocca recalled proudly while sitting in the living room of her Easton home on Friday afternoon.

It was this kind of forward thinking that propelled Allocca’s own company, Essential Data Corporation to become the biggest player in the technical writing field years later. With a Stamford headquarters and a new office sprouting up every week, Essential Data is well on it way to becoming a national company.

Essential Data Corp. is capitalizing on the growing need for companies to provide accurate documentation of procedures, systems, and programs for their employees and outside auditors.

“Clients are desperate for our services,” Allocca said. “Documentation allows their systems to be more efficient and profitable.”

Allocca founded Essential Data in 1987 when the company produced $1 million in sales. Three years later sales grew to $20 million before peaking at $25 million in 2000.

Profits dropped steadily during the recession, but Allocca prepared her company for a massive expansion effort once the harsh economic times passed. Now Essential Data is back on track, and Allocca projects $30 million in sales by the end of this year.

And most of the expansion has taken place from her home office. Essential Data now has satellite managers in New York, New Jersey, California (the Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and Orange County), Arizona, Illinois, Minnesota, Washington, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. She expects to have 50 offices by 2007.

Antoinette’s transformation

In 1988, Allocca married Mark Greenspan, who also worked at Vital and is now chief operating officer at Essential Data, and she became pregnant with their first child, Simone. By that time, Allocca was the top sales producer at Vital and was elevated to partner – but, professionally, she felt unfulfilled.

For one thing, Allocca’s promotion did not include as increase in her salary. “It dawned on me: “I’m doing all the work and they are keeping most of the profits,” she said of her two partners. “Even though my income was a quarter of a million dollars, it was a quarter of what they were earning off of me.”

Allocca quit her job and devoted her time to her new company, Essential Data, and in 1995 she took a course at the Women’s Business Development Center to learn how to grow her business.

“They made some suggestions to me about hiring people who are experienced, so I hired someone from the Senior Placement Center if Stamford, which finds jobs for people age 55 and up.”

Allocca salaries that were higher than the industry standard. Within six months, Allocca said her new employees earned a six-figure income.

“After this guy took off, I put in an ad and I had guys that were ex Wall Streeters who wanted to work for me,” Allocca said.

Allocca had discovered an opportunity. By hiring older employees who fell victim to massive layoffs during the era of corporate downsizing, she benefited from wisdom gained through years of experience.

Essential Data had shared office space in Stamford but now Allocca was able to mover her company into a large eight-desk office within the building.

“I interviewed a guy with an MBA from Villanova,” she said “and I thought, “He’ll never take this job. We’re a little company.”

But Allocca was surprised when the prospective job candidate called her from his cell phone. “He said, ‘I though about it on the way to the car and realized I should have pounced on this.’ I hired him. Now I had two guys.”

The economy picked up in 1996 and Allocca filled up all eight desks, before relocating to an office with 14 desks at 45 Church Street – which she promptly filled up with a hungry staff.

From sea to shining…..

Essential Data was riding high in the ‘90’s, but it was no immune to the economic downturn in the national economy. By the year 2000, profits steadily dropped and some of Allocca’s older executives, whose annual earnings had climbed to a high of $500,000 started to retire.

“Now I found myself not going to the office in Stamford,” Allocca said. “I was more energized. I could see the whole picture.”

Allocca promoted recruiter, Tom Walsh, to company vice president and started to work from home. While taking walks and reflecting on her past experiences, Allocca remembered a conversion she had had with a former employee over coffee, which reminded her of her original plans for Essential Data.

“She said, ‘What’s your vision of this company?” Allocca recalled. “And I said, ‘I wanted to be a leader in technical writing and be a nationwide consulting company.

After 9/11 tragedy, American’s way of life, including the way the do business, changed forever. Seeing the World Trade Center’s twin towers crumble to the ground forced companies to plan more for unexpected disasters – and an opportunity for technical writers emerged.

Companies now had to devise disaster plans in the event of another attack. That, coupled with state and federal regulations, as well as corporate planning and programs, caused a dramatic increase in demand for written documentation.

Allocca initially assigned each one of her salespeople a state, but the effort failed. She realized she had to have people on the ground and had to become more involved in the hiring process.

Allocca wanted to expand without constantly flying out of state, so she hired satellite managers who opened home offices in other states. Managers communicate with her, the technical writer and their clients via satellite phone system installed in her house.

John Dolan, who opened an office in Boston six months ago, already had Fidelity Investments and State Street Bank as clients. Dolan said joining Essential Data is alike opening a franchise for free.

“It gives you a feeling of ownership of what you do,” he said.

Striking a balance

By having a home office, Dolan said he is able to spend more quality time with his wife Suzanne and their two young children, Bridgette and Peter, when he’s not pounding the pavement and working the phones for new clients in Boston.

Working form home has also make Allocca’s family closer.

Greenspan said he does not miss the long commute he used to take from northern Stamford to New York every day. And, Allocca added, she now has more energy when she is home.

“I’ve become a very involved father because of this,” Greenspan said, “because I don’t have to commuter four hours a day.”

Allocca and Greenspan built their dream home in Easton and moved into it in 2003. Their daughter Simone, who is now 17, is enrolled in a boarding school, and their daughter Judy, 15 is as well. Allocca said their son Joey, who goes to Helen Keller Middle School in town, and their youngest daughter Olivia, 8, a Samuel Staples Elementary School third grader, are always happy to see their parents when they come home from school – adding there is no shortage of hugs.

Greenspan is proud of his wife’s success with Essential Data.

“She’s a genius,” Greenspan said. “She is. She has incredible foresight and strategic ability. She’s a very persuasive, inspirational leader.”

Allocca said her husband has supported her business venture every step of the way, adding, “It’s a big difference when you have a spouse who says, “I believe in you.”

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