Charlotte headhunters sell their story with a rotary phone – and a chocolate lab

You’ve heard it all before: Every business should have a story.

Here’s a tip: It helps if it involves a dog, or two.

Case in point: Jeremy Gnozzo’s Charlotte-based headhunting firm, Search Solution Group, now has its name, logo and slogan flashing on a digital billboard at the EpiCentre in uptown.

The 39-year-old Gnozzo, who founded the company 12 years ago while living with his parents in Buffalo, N.Y., said he never thought he would see his company’s name above an office door, much less on a billboard.

Angelique Morabito, his communications director, gets the kudos for getting it there. Unbeknownst to her boss, Morabito entered the company in Charlotte Business Resources’ first Success Stories: Billboard Giveaway contest, which drew 34 entrants. The business with the most compelling story would win one month of free advertising on a scrolling digital billboard.

With a star-studded cast comprising Tanner, Gnozzo’s chocolate Labrador, and Lacie, the office Shih Tzu/bichon, Morabito told the tale of the company’s humble beginnings and measurable growth in a video from Tanner’s perspective.

As Tanner will tell you, the start was pretty rough as Gnozzo used a rotary-dial telephone and Yellow Pages to make cold calls. In the nearly three-minute video that features a male voice-over speaking for Tanner, Morabito leads viewers on a tour of Search Solution Group from Tanner’s point of view (think naps, treats and walks outside).

Morabito also submitted a printed application to tell the company’s story in full. But it was the video that drew all the attention.

“The creativity in the video was compelling,” said Noelle De Atley, an entrepreneur and part of the business advisory committee that chose the contest winner. “They took a lot of time in selling their business.”

In order for any company to sell its story successfully, it has to be genuine, factual, easy to understand and everywhere – from the website to hand-held brochures, said Sheri Bridges, a marketing professor at Wake Forest University.

“You cannot just say it, but you (have) to deliver on it,” she said.

Gnozzo’s story

It’s safe to say Search Solution Group’s past was not as luxurious as the modern furniture now housed in its office outside uptown on South Tryon Street.

In 2002, Gnozzo worked as a recruiter in Baltimore, “having the time of my life,” he said, until he learned his mother had been diagnosed with cancer. He quit his job, left Baltimore and returned to Buffalo to care for his parents.

A job search ensued. He landed an interview with a local recruiting firm. Things looked promising until he asked the interviewer how the company handles dissatisfied clients. They didn’t care, the interviewer told him, because they were the only recruiting firm in town. Gnozzo left in disbelief and decided he could do better.

A month after creating his own firm – using an outdated computer monitor, rotary phone, the Yellow Pages and Tanner as his business partner – Gnozzo made his first placement: A woman hired as a bookkeeper for $35,000 a year.

After his mother died, he moved to Charlotte and bought a house that he turned into a new headquarters. In 2008, he opened his first office and made his first hire.

“I failed miserably ... I hired all the wrong people,” Gnozzo said. “It was a great experience in learning what not to do.”

He cleaned house, closed his office and went back to working from home. He opened another office in 2010 and made his first good hire a year later.

Now, Gnozzo’s office has glass-enclosed conference rooms and dogs roaming the halls. Free sodas, bottled water and apple juice are in the fridge. Gnozzo said his expenses exceed $700,000 a year, and his revenues have more than tripled in the past three years. He has 14 employees and nine interns in offices in Charlotte and Buffalo.

The firm’s clients, he said, are multimillion-dollar companies searching for senior-level talent in jobs that include human resources, accounting, supply-chain operations, manufacturing and engineering.

Not too shabby for a headhunter who once worked 10-hour days from a kitchen table.

“I was desperate and passionate. The coolest thing for me now is to look up and see that we have our name on the wall outside,” Gnozzo said. “It’s really emotional.”

Merry (marketing) Christmas

When it comes to telling the company story, Gnozzo gives the nod to Morabito, the brainchild behind the winning contest entry.

Morabito said her goal was to catch the judges by surprise. While brainstorming ideas, Lacie ran beside her. Cue the light bulb. Why not tell the story from Tanner’s perspective?

“Tanner has seen the entire story grow,” said Morabito, who spent a day crouching on the floor, filming what Tanner sees at the office each day. ( Click here to see the video)

“It was all about the dog,” De Atley said, jokingly. “They had a family history.”

Until Dec. 31, Search Solution Group’s brand will hang above Fleming’s steakhouse, across from the Omni Hotel and BB&T.

“It’s the ultimate marketing Christmas present,” Morabito said.