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Personnel touch: HR consulting firm continues creating successful workplaces

Betty Dillard It was the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, in 1989 when Whit Smith received a call to come in to work. He knew it wouldn’t be good news and there would be little to be thankful about. He was right. As a senior vice president and director of employee relations at Texas American Bancshares Inc. in Fort Worth, he was responsible for hiring and firing employees. After a steady, dedicated career in the banking industry as a personnel and employment director, now he was the one being laid off. “I had an idea in the back of my mind of what I wanted to do,” said Smith, 66, and a Fort Worth native.

He went home to break the news to his wife, Gretchen Smith. A certified public accountant and an internal auditor, she was a senior vice president and manager at Team Bank. She also had put in about a decade at Texas American Bank as a senior veep and manager. “I just burst into tears,” she recalled. “I asked him what we were going to do and he said, ‘I know exactly what I’m going to do. I’m going to start my own business. It’s what I’ve wanted to do.’ Then I cried even more.” The couple quickly drew up a business plan and pro forma financial statement and launched consulting firm WhitneySmith Co., which provides human resources services, solutions, and forms and products to clients. Consulting assistance includes the areas of employee relations, audits/investigations, recruitment, compensation, benefits, safety, training, employment-related expert witness and workers’ compensation issues.

Whit Smith serves as an expert witness and consulting expert on matters relating to Title VII discrimination, age, disability, sexual harassment, mitigation, recruitment practices, policy issues and tort claims involving negligent hiring, negligent retention and wrongful termination. As vice president, Gretchen Smith is the firm’s chief financial officer. Both are licensed as private investigators by the Private Security Bureau through the Texas Department of Public Safety. Whit says starting a family-owned HR consulting company was the perfect solution to their personal employment problem. “I really enjoyed HR and I wanted to stay with that because it was what I knew. It was a continuation of what I’d been doing,” he said. “You never know what issue might come up. It’s always fun here because we never know what problem or issue we’ll be working on next. We’ve seen just about everything. We’ve seen people at their best and at their worst. It’s a laboratory of human behavior in many respects.”

WhitneySmith initially offered four core services that Whit says are the basic needs of any business – employee relations, recruitment, compensation and benefits. “Those four services have set us apart,” he said. The company’s first client was Southwest Bank, which is still a client. One of the first big assignments was a compensation project with Bank of Commerce.

“I didn’t know how I was going to do it because we didn’t have anyone with compensation experience,” Whit said. By happenstance, Cheryl Lopez called him. A vice president in HR at Texas American Bancshares, Lopez was ready to leave after 14 years there. “I started in the internal audit department. The biggest part of my career was in commercial lending,” Lopez said. She has been a vice president at WhitneySmith since March 1990 and is also a licensed private investigator. Among other duties, Lopez handles the firm’s annual local salary survey, another employment tool not offered by WhitneySmith’s competitors. Fast forward 25 years. WhitneySmith Co. now employs 14 people and provides human resources assistance to more than 3,300 companies across the United States and Canada. “We really thought this business would be exclusively to banks because that’s what we knew. But our client base quickly became multifaceted,” said Whit Smith.

Industries they serve run the gamut: commercial banking, health care, energy, insurance, advertising/public relations, municipalities, manufacturing, telecommunications, education, hospitality, transportation, entertainment, legal, aerospace, retail, construction, technology, real estate, automotive, food service and nonprofit organizations. “Today, it’s easy to claim we’re in just about every industry that’s out there,” Whit Smith said. Gretchen Smith attributes the company’s growth and success to word of mouth advertising and referrals. “One of the reasons I think we’ve really expanded from the beginning into other industries is because we are so involved in the community. Back then all the banks were involved in the community. Not so today. That networking really helped us to grow,” she said. An HR consultant and vice president at WhitneySmith for 17 years, Steve Peglar says the firm has always been low key and more referral-based. “Now we’re growing our brand recognition through social media, through blogs and online postings,” Peglar said. “It’s something that sets us apart from other human resources consulting firms. There aren’t a lot of people who do what we do. People think they can go on the Internet and find HR information but it won’t be accurate. Our information is always accurate.” Peglar, another licensed PI and a certified administrator of employee performance surveys, opinions and evaluations, says the family-owned firm’s services go beyond human resources.

“We consult on basically how to run a business. We take more of a strategic business approach on taking care of people. We get into organizational culture, design and change. We help with all of that,” Peglar said. “We don’t tell them what they have to do,” Gretchen Smith said. “We help them understand the best practices and help them implement the policies, whether that’s culture change or training or team building. We offer them a common sense approach to mitigate their risk but still work through those gray areas to find the best solution for both the employer and employee.” The Smiths said one thing they’re looking to do as the firm begins its next quarter century is to volunteer more of their time as a team to local charities. The couple has served numerous nonprofits over the years and encourage their employees to give back as much as they can. WhitneySmith is presently expanding its efforts to nonprofits, offering more strategic planning for boards, board assessment surveys, and board policy development and implementation. “Giving back to the less fortunate is really important to us,” Whit Smith said. “At the end of the day this is really a people business. We’re dealing with human beings who are seeking help and are dealing with people at their worst and best. We want to try to get all of them to their best.”  

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Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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