Leap of Faith: Crazy decision leads to a new life matching good jobs and good people
Story and Photos by Jillian Harman
The job market continues to provide challenges for those looking to hire and those seeking work. While there are many online resources, such as ZipRecruiter, Linkedin, and Indeed, the sea of applicants and positions is, at best, overwhelming and, at worse, ineffective or impractical. The pandemic made working at home a perk many are now unwilling to do without; however, critical infrastructure and manufacturing jobs require in-person operations. This fact has never been truer than in our local market, where the needs of light industrial companies exceed qualified applicants.
Staffing continues to be one of the fastest-growing industries and is a key tool for employers and job seekers. One, in particular, Express Employment Professionals, offers a unique business model that is proving successful. It is the leading staffing provider in the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. It provides a full range of employment solutions, including full-time, temporary, and part-time. Several offices serve our local region. Express Employment Professionals – Akron West, led by J. Isaac Wheeler, has found its niche and is experiencing rapid growth.
In 1983, Bill Stoller and Bob Funk, both seasoned personnel executives, founded a new agency with a different approach. Headquartered in Oklahoma City, Express Employment Professionals is a fully-franchised staffing company, meaning local offices are owned and operated by local people, which is the case with Wheeler. The company prides itself on measuring its success not only on profits but also on its ability to join good jobs, individuals, businesses, and communities together. Express’s long-term goal of putting a million people to work annually is at the heart of the company’s vision.
From an investment perspective, Express is a top-performing franchise opportunity. It is an Entrepreneur Franchise 500 company, was named one of Forbes’ Best Franchises to Buy, and is listed as one of Staffing Industry Analyst’s Largest Global Staffing Firms. Express was also named a 2022 top franchise and a top recession-proof franchise by Franchise Business Review.
J. Isaac Wheeler has been the principal owner of the Akron West office for two years. Wheeler’s college friend, Stephen Shields, was the first to make Wheeler aware of Express. Shields bought an office in Joplin, Missouri, in 1999. “I had always admired his success with the company and had an interest in working for him, but that never happened,” says Wheeler.
Bored with his federal job, Wheeler started exploring opportunities with Express a few years ago. Instead of creating a new franchise, Wheeler began looking for existing ones to purchase. Initially, Wheeler found an office in Branson, Missouri, just south of where he grew up in Springfield. While Wheeler liked the idea of moving back to his roots, the owner was not forthcoming with his financials, and Wheeler chose not to pursue it.
Next, Wheeler looked into several offices in Columbus, Ohio, but these sold quickly. Bill Thompson, a senior franchise sale executive for Express, alerted Wheeler to an opportunity in Akron. “The owner made a great offer that was less than the franchise fee and included the office space and equipment. And that’s what brought me to the area,” says Wheeler. Wheeler’s father, a successful business owner himself, partnered with his son and has a 20% stake in the company.
While the purchase deal was sound, the former owner had allowed the company’s client count to plummet to two. “We had to rebuild our base and reestablish ourselves, much like a startup,” says Wheeler. In the past two years, Wheeler has expanded more than tenfold in billable weekly hours.
Risk Worth Taking
Prior to purchasing Express, Wheeler had never been to Northeast Ohio and the Akron area. “The only thing crazier would have been to throw a dart at a map,” jokes Wheeler. “Looking back, I don’t know what I was thinking. If you were to ask me if I would do this today, I’d say no. Who chooses to move to a place where they have no friends or family, in a business they have no prior experience in, in the middle of a pandemic and a labor shortage? It was a pretty crazy decision,” Wheeler cajoles.
Wheeler’s prior experience includes a Project Manager and Senior Examiner position with the Federal Housing Finance Agency in McLean, VA; eight years in various positions with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in Dallas/Forth Worth, Wisconsin, and Washington DC offices; General Manager for Classic Trailer in Springfield, MO; and several managerial positions with IC Corporation in Oklahoma and Arkansas.
Wheeler has a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Drury University with minors in Biology and Global Studies, an MBA in International Business from Missouri State University, and additional training in leadership and banking from Southwest Graduate School of Banking.
Wheeler points out that his prior work experience has helped him understand the needs of small and medium-sized businesses as well as relate to larger and public sector organizations. “I’ve worked in small business with my father, private industry, Fortune 500, and the public sector,” Wheeler says.
His travels nationally and aboard have given Wheeler exposure to diverse people and cultures, allowing him to connect to a wide range of applicants. “Some of our competitors will often place anyone to fill a position,” says Wheeler. “Being able to relate to people with different backgrounds and having the desire to help them is key. It’s important to us that we put people in positions they want to stay in and succeed in rather than merely filling an order. That doesn’t help applicants or our business clients. Our goal is to get to know the associate better before placing them in an assignment. That’s what makes Express different.”
Wheeler works closely with local businesses to understand their workforce needs and provide the most qualified candidates in commercial, administrative, and professional positions. However, the company’s bread and butter are temp-to-hire and light industrial opportunities, including skilled trades, welders, forklift drivers, CNC operators, and CNC machinists. “Skilled trades are hot right now. If I had a dozen machinists, I could place all of them this week,” Wheeler says. As a full-service staffing provider, Express offers evaluation hire, direct hire, temporary and contract staffing, professional search, and HR services.
“My goal is to be a trusted HR resource for small and medium-sized businesses in my community. Because we live and work in the Akron community, we have a vested interest in our city and want to help the people and businesses of Akron and surrounding areas thrive and grow together,” says Wheeler.
While Express Akron West has a dedicated territory—the western half of the lower two-thirds of Summit County—the company has clients across the entire Greater Akron region. “Because the Eastern territory is still open, we operate in Copley, Bath, Fairlawn, Akron, Cuyahoga Falls, Stow, Tallmadge, Green, New Franklin, Clinton, as well as Kent and Ravenna in Portage County,” Wheeler says.
Wheeler also points out that his office works closely with the other Express locations in Twinsburg, Wadsworth, and Canton. “While we’re all independently owned, we support each other’s efforts,” says Wheeler.
Express Akron West’s primary location is a 1,300-square-foot office in Fairlawn. It features a computer lab for online applications and skills testing, including basic computer skills, typing, and apartment maintenance. “Skills testing is included in our fees when working with client companies,” says Wheeler.
In 2022, Wheeler opened a satellite office in the Gateway, the Cuyahoga Falls Chamber’s shared workspace. “The opening of the Gateway aligned with our growth. It made sense to have another place to meet with business clients. The Gateway was ideal cost- and location-wise,” says Wheeler.
The Current Job Market
While the pandemic brought the labor shortages to light, Wheeler notes the shortage was on the horizon. “At some point, the volume of people retiring was going to affect the job market. The pandemic just accelerated that,” says Wheeler.
On the plus side, Wheeler sees many retirees returning to the workforce. “About 30% have boomeranged backed out of boredom,” Wheeler says. “Many are interested in doing things that differ from their past job experiences or use different skill sets. Also, they often don’t require as much income as they did when they were younger.”
COVID may have subsided from its peak, but people are still getting sick and missing work. Wheeler points out that when companies find good people, they will implement policies and precautions to retain them. “Businesses don’t want to lose good workers. So they either provide sick leave or follow recommended precautions to allow employees to continue or return to work.”
Running his own business is new for Wheeler. Assisting him in his efforts is his ever-growing staff, which now totals four. “In the beginning, we had our own staffing issues and a lot of shuffling. But now we have a solid team of professionals,” says Wheeler.
Recent hire Jessica (“Jess”) Quick has more than six years of Human Resources and staffing experience. She serves as Business Development Manager.
Michael Cordova, Business Manager, brings more than 15 years of experience in telemarketing and B2B marketing. Cordova primarily handles Express’s inside sales.
Ronnie Montiere, Front Office Coordinator, has been with Express the longest at 18 months. “She holds it all together for us,” says Wheeler.
The newest team member, Tonya Gooch, is Employment Specialist; however, her background is in telemarketing. “While Tonya doesn’t have prior staffing experience, she has learned quickly and has no problem phoning clients and applicants, which helps us tremendously,” says Wheeler.
A Culture of Caring
Express and its franchise locations also give back to their local communities through numerous volunteer and financial efforts. The company considers community involvement important. Being a good neighbor, serving others, and impacting their communities positively is key for Express.
The company’s corporate giving program reflects its vision to help as many businesses and people as possible. Organizations that benefit children, education, medical research, the community, and the arts are the company’s primary focus. Express’s Brand It Blue Initiative serves and partners with nonprofit organizations in more than 800 locations in the United States, Canada, and South Africa.
As part of his own community efforts, Wheeler and his team regularly volunteer with the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank. In addition, Wheeler serves on the Fairlawn Area Chamber’s board as Membership Chair. Wheeler is also an active member of several business organizations, including the Cuyahoga Falls, Copley, and Fairlawn Area Chambers, and National Sales and Marketing Executives (NSME), from which he received the 2022 Accent on Excellence Award.
Ready for Growth
After two years of dealing with the pandemic and job market fluctuations, Wheeler feels poised for growth in 2023. “I see it as a big year for us,” says Wheeler. “We’re working on expanding into the public and nonprofit sectors.”
Part of his strategy includes promoting Express’s eLearning program, ExpressLearn, a free online resource with a variety of courses designed to build skills. “We’ve seen a surge of retirees returning to the job market looking for positions in new fields. ExpressLearn is a great way for our associates to improve and grow their skills, making them more attractive to employers,” Wheeler says.
The demand for skilled tradespeople continues to be high. Wheeler encourages those looking for quality positions to consider these opportunities. “Many clients are willing to accept apprentices who can learn on the job and grow into valuable assets,” says Wheeler. “The volume of jobs and interest in this market led us to create a skilled trades recruiting desk focused on these positions.”
Despite the risks and huge leap of faith, Wheeler has grown fond of Akron. “Akron is a lot like where I grew up,” says Wheeler. “It’s a smaller city. It’s brought me back to the Midwest. I’ve lived in many different places in my life: Tulsa, Oklahoma; Dallas; Wisconsin; Virginia; Chicago; Jacksonville, Florida; Irvine, California. I went to school in England and did part of my graduate studies in China. I’ve been very transient and not afraid to move. But I plan to stay in the Akron area for some time. The business and community are important to me.”
Wheeler continues to enjoy traveling to Virginia and DC, but living here has provided some advantages. “Living in the valley between Cuyahoga Falls and Fairlawn is ideal. I’m near the trails and the National Park. And geographically, Northeast Ohio puts me close to the East Coast as well as Chicago, Columbus, and Louisville. I have friends there and family in Cincinnati and southeast Indiana. So, it’s very accessible to other places. Driving-wise, you can hit so many places within a five-hour radius. I love it,” says Wheeler.
Stan Hywet is a local favorite of Wheeler’s. “I have been a Contributing Member for two years,” says Wheeler. “I love the architecture, opulence, and how it doesn’t feel gaudy. It feels homey.”
Wheeler’s other pastime is watching The Discovery and History Channels. “I love docuseries,” says Wheeler. “One thing that should be a constant in everyone’s life is learning. That’s really important.”
Wheeler looks forward to experiencing more of what Akron and the surrounding areas offer. He is confident that his decision to risk starting a new business in an unfamiliar industry in an unfamiliar city has been worthwhile.
“While I love traveling, I’ve always been a mid-Westerner at heart. And Akron is my home now. I’m happy to settle here and build my business,” says Wheeler. “The people and the business community have been fantastic. I feel supported and part of the local community.”
Express Employment Professionals – Akron West
J. Isaac Wheeler
- Permanent Placement
- Evaluation Hire
- Professional Searches
- Office Services
- Skilled Trades
- Light Industrial
66 S. Miller Road, Suite 201
Fairlawn, OH 44333
111 Stow Ave, Suite 200
Cuyahoga Falls, OH 44221