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Ryan Carfley: Taking hits and making plays

Ryan Carfley - UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School - Executive MBA ProgramAfter graduating from Carolina, Ryan Carfley (MBA ’16) traded in his cleats for a clipboard. The former Tar Heel football player joined Rutgers University as an assistant football coach, eager to help turn around the struggling Division I program. A phone call from his father brought him back to North Carolina to help with his family’s newly acquired business. He couldn’t have imagined the series of events that would unfold.

At 25 years old and with no business experience, Carfley found himself at the helm of a company more than $1 million in debt and on the brink of bankruptcy.

Against all odds and through two recessions, Carfley – who received Triangle Business Journal’s (TBJ) 40-Under-40 Leadership Award in 2015 – has led his company, Personify, through an incredible transformation.

Here’s how he did it, in his own words.

On Sept. 10, 2001, my father leveraged his retirement savings to acquire a very small boutique consulting firm in Cary, North Carolina.

Less than 24 hours later, the planes hit the twin towers.

My 9/11 was unique in that it had a double impact on my life. I experienced the shock of seeing the world change in an instant. But I also got a call from my mother, who said, “I think we just lost everything.” The business was in real trouble, though it was mild in comparison to what many others suffered that day.

When my father – a seasoned executive – called and asked if I’d be willing to come and help out, I agreed. My heart was in coaching, but I figured it would be short-term. Plus, it was an opportunity to work with my childhood idol.

About six months after I returned home, my father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a very rare form of blood cancer. He fought a valiant fight but lost his battle within 18 months.

So at the age of 25, I took over a company that was knocking on bankruptcy’s door. We met with an attorney who told me, “You’re not bankrupt. You’re almost bankrupt. You’re broke. I think you’ve got maybe 30 days.”

I just put my head down and kept going. In high school and college, I wasn’t the most gifted athlete, but I outworked the people I played with. When I took over the company, I wasn’t going to get off that treadmill – I was just going to keep going. I had to figure out a way to provide for my family and my mother. It had to work. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you have no other option.

Teamwork and culture

The two events that had the greatest impacts on shaping my business approach were playing football at UNC and coaching at Rutgers.

As a player, you’re basically judged every day because you’re competing for positions. The following day you’re breaking down film or being evaluated in real time. It’s pretty high pressure, which prepares you for the business world.

As a coach, I worked directly for then-Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano, who was able to turn around the worst football program in Division 1 athletics. I watched him turn his vision for Rutgers football into a reality. He communicated a vision and pushed it out across the organization. Even with limited resources and without great players, his energy was contagious.

Competing at a really high level at UNC taught me that if you surround yourself with great people – which both Coach Brown and Coach Schiano did – and you expect a lot, you get a lot back. And that’s what we’ve done at Personify.

When you play on a sports team, you come to understand the value of culture and diversity. When the pressure and the commitment levels are ratcheted up really high, you have things like camaraderie and commitment that are baked in to carry you through. We tried to re-create this at Personify. We had an opportunity to rewrite who we were going to be, and we knew this worked. Our struggles during the first five years are what solidified our culture – it was born there. We felt that if we did the right thing with the right people for long enough, it was going to work. There was a period of time we couldn’t make payroll, and everybody knew that.

Every single mistake we made was a lesson – we just kept learning and learning and learning. We have saying here, which was born in that time: Win or learn.

A hail Mary

By 2006, the business started to stabilize. But within a year, the economy was falling apart. I remember sitting outside of my building talking to someone about how frustrated I was with the price of gas. Oil companies were capitalizing on the fact that they had a needed resource, which enabled them to drive prices up. The person I was talking to looked at me and said, “Ryan, isn’t that what you do? You find great candidates, determine when a company has a significant need and charge companies a premium to hire them.” And I thought, “My god, that’s exactly what we do.”

At the onset of the recession, people flooded the employment market. If you posted a position online, you easily got 3,000 applicants. I saw that if we could shift our business model to operate as an extension of our clients – by transforming the flood of applicants into a pool of candidates or talent community – we would quickly become a partner instead of a supplier.

We shifted our model and began to offer a service that captured the available talent in the market and stored it inside client-owned databases for future use. We also built a system that tracked the toll gates – incremental steps in the hiring process – ranging from wanting to create a position to an employee’s first day on the job. Essentially, our platform tracks the time differentials between when a candidate’s application is submitted to the time you conduct interviews and generate an offer. When you’ve got a company that hires 3,000 people a year, a five-to-seven day shift in the hiring process can cost – or save – millions.

We also began providing our clients with insights relevant to the applicant pool. For example, we’d say, “Are you aware that 70 percent of your hires who commute 40 miles or more to work only last 13 months? Are you sure you want to hire people who live that far away?”

The power of relationships

We really listen to our customers. It’s common for us to fly in four or five senior executives from our largest client and spend two days with them. During that time, we’ll say, “Tell us exactly what you want – if you had a perfect relationship, tell us what that would look like. We don’t know if we can do it yet or not, but tell us.” We get lot of inspiration for our new products from these interactions.

Next steps

When I took over the business, my street credibility was pretty good – but my formal training was non-existent. When you come up in a business in survival mode, it’s hard to be a strategic thinker when you’ve been trying to figure out how to make payroll for most of your career.

When we moved out of survival mode and into enterprise mode, I knew I needed more skills and tools. The business has expanded to a point where, out of necessity, I got my MBA. Being the CEO of a two-person organization versus an 80-person organization is vastly different.

I’m focused on becoming a better executive and business leader. I’m truly here to learn and round out my skill set. Now that I’m in the nuts and bolts of the Executive MBA program, I’m looking at things from a global perspective.  The knowledge I’ve learned in the macroeconomics course, paired with the strategy coursework we’re learning, is incredibly beneficial.

Hard work pays off

We’ve grown the business 30 percent every year – straight through the teeth of Great Recession – on the backs of the lessons we learned in 2001. At our lowest point, the company had just two had just two employees. Now, we employ 80 people and operate in 22 countries. In 2010 and 2011, Personify was named the fastest growing privately held executive search firm in the U.S. We’ve also been ranked No. 1 executive search firm in the Triangle by TBJ three years in a row and named one of the 50 best companies to work in the Triangle. And, Personify was named to the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S.

During the company’s downturn, I got really good advice from somebody who said, “Ryan, the one thing you need to know is that it can continue to get worse and it will eventually bottom out. When you hit the bottom – whenever that point is – and push back up, the sense of resolve you get will carry you forward in every decision you make.”

I think that advice is what’s given us the courage to take some of these really big risks we’ve taken in the business, because I know how bad it can really get – and we made it out.