Brent Vander Waal, currently president and chief operating officer of ITA Group, will become president and CEO of the company effective Sept. 1. He succeeds Tom Mahoney, who is retiring after 32 years with ITA Group. Vander Waal, who has worked at ITA Group for more than 20 years, began his career in public accounting with Ernst & Young in Greater Des Moines, before joining ITA Group. After learning the travel incentive business from the financial side, he has spent the latter half of his career with ITA Group working with clients and team members. In the past two years, the employee-owned company has broadened its expertise with acquisitions of Boston-based market research and strategy firm Chadwick Martin Bailey and Hartmann Studios, a full-service experiential design and production studio with offices in San Francisco and Atlanta. Earlier this year, ITA Group was recognized among the Best Workplaces in Consulting and Professional Services by Fortune magazine and Great Place to Work.


How did your early training as a CPA help build your career?

I’m a pretty strategic guy. I always liked the tax consulting work and the strategy around taxes, how to maximize the benefit for our clients. So I learned how to be consultative and add value for our clients, which are things that I still talk about today here at ITA Group. My work experience here started in the financial area. So the first part of my career was a very financial operational support role, where I really gained a good understanding of how ITA Group made money, how our departments interacted with each other, just all the inner workings of the company. One thing that I’ve always enjoyed and gained a good understanding around is the culture. We’re an employee-owned company, which creates a unique culture here. And so between the first part of my career understanding the financial side and the second half with the people side — both our clients and our team members — and having a great understanding of our culture, that sets me up well to be able lead the company. 


What have been some of the biggest changes you’ve seen over two decades?

Probably [the biggest changes have been] around technology and data. How technology is used in our solutions for clients is much different than what it was 20 years ago, and even five or 10 years ago. Regarding data — everybody wants a positive [return on investment] on their program. Now, it’s not good enough just to say that people are happy, or that their gut feels that it was a good program, or that people are smiling. We need data-driven recommendations and data-driven ROI at the end of the program to show the results of our programs.


How has ITA Group’s client composition changed over the years?

Today, we have a much more diverse group of clients. Ten or 15 years ago, we would have had a couple clients that would have been over 10% of our business; now we’re much more diversified. So from a risk standpoint, we’ve minimized our risk on any one client, which is great. We’ve also made two acquisitions in the last two years. They were both very strategic acquisitions, meaning they added to our capabilities and our services. Both of those acquisitions also added to the diversity of our client base. 


Do travel incentives remain the core of ITA Group’s business?

We are more diversified than what we were 15 years ago, but the event and travel incentive business are still about 60% of our total product mix. Employee experience programs — recognition and years of service, employee engagement and communication programs around culture — are a growing part of our product portfolio. Outside of travel [incentives], more platform and catalog program incentives are a large piece of our business. 


Do you travel a lot in your role?

I would say two or three times a month I’m traveling, and each trip is three or four days each time. And that can be to a client. It could be just [traveling] to a regional office to see team members, it could be for an event. I enjoy that part — I enjoy the people side of it. I enjoy getting in front of clients, for sure. Whether it’s a prospect or an existing client, I enjoy working with them to hear what their business challenges are and how we might be able to help them. Again, it’s all about bringing value to them and their business challenges. And then also just getting out and being with our team members too. That’s one of the things I look forward to in the new role is just spending more time with our employee-owners. 


With the proliferation of apps by startups and other companies, is ITA Group seeing more competition?

There are more technology startup companies that are in our space; the competition is very fragmented. There are a lot of big players, and then just a lot of local, regional, smaller players as well. The cost of entry is still pretty high, though, between the technology and in particular being compliant with data security issues makes it a little bit hard for a company to come in. 


What comes to mind as trends or growth areas for ITA Group in the next few years?

Attracting, developing and retaining people — the war for talent — is an issue every company is dealing with right now. And being able to provide solutions to help them with their their employee engagement initiatives, which is way beyond just peer-to-peer recognition. There’s a lot more in that space that can be done to increase employee engagement, which then increases productivity. 


What really motivates you and keeps you going?

Being an employee-owned company, there’s a unique responsibility as a leader in building the financial stability for all of our employee-owners. So wanting to continue to grow and build that financial stability for all of our employee-owners is a huge driver. And I have what I would call the servant leadership type of leadership style. I like to work with people, kind of roll up my sleeves, whether that’s with clients or team members. I would say there’s a component of always trying to develop expertise within all of our team members. When we show up as an expert, we’re going to bring more value to our clients and then that just increases job satisfaction.


What do you enjoy doing for fun?

I still shoot hoops in the driveway, so a little bit of basketball. I enjoy any kind of game, whether it’s bocce ball or bags at a tailgate party, anything like that. And I enjoy watching sports. I also enjoy traveling with family. Our favorite destination would have to be Bora Bora. My wife and I have been there several times. And I’m a golfer, and I’ve played in both Scotland and Ireland, which was fun as well.