John Shrader’s pivot from public school principal to corporate sales executive began in 2000 when a family friend, Frank Russell, recruited him to become the first regional sales manager for his training/education software company, GeoLearning Inc. Shrader went on to work for SumTotal Systems, the predecessor company formed after GeoLearning was acquired by a private equity group. Now, Shrader is using his experience in sales management and working in private-equity-owned companies to oversee sales for BirddogHR, which has landed on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies for four consecutive years. He most recently was general manager and executive vice president of Penn Foster Inc., a Pennsylvania-based online course provider where he led a successful restructuring of a business unit. He’s had years when he’s logged 250,000-miles-plus of international air travel for sales trips to Asia, Europe and South America. Photos he’s taken on vacation trips to destinations like Montenegro and France adorn his office at BirddogHR’s Urbandale headquarters. With over 250 employees and more than 8,000 clients, BirddogHR currently offers a suite of 15 human resource management modules. In August, the company received a growth equity investment from private equity firm Providence Strategic Growth, and this fall began integrating with two other operating companies —  ExakTime and InfinityHR — under the Arcoro brand. 

Was it a connection in the HR software world that led you to BirddogHR? 
The CEO, Todd Skokan, and I have known each other for about 17 years. He and I go back to what originally brought me to Des Moines, which was GeoLearning — another small company that grew into a really nice-sized company and I think really brought a true [software as a service] company to Des Moines. … Throughout my time away [working for SumTotal and Penn Foster], I stayed in touch with Todd. Right about that time, private equity was coming in here, and the opportunity was there for me to come in and really help [BirddogHR] grow. He has taken this company to great success in the past five years, with four consecutive years on the Inc. 5000, which is a remarkable testament to his leadership. 

What’s your goal for your first year? 
My goal in this first year is that whatever we do, to make it predictable, scalable and repeatable. So that when we’re doing things, we’re not just doing one-offs, but we’re finding ways to improve the entire [client] organization. And in the industry that we’re in — software as a service — if we add a new feature into the system, I want to be a feature that benefits many clients, not just one. …. And I want to use good data metrics to understand how the business runs.

How has BirddogHR’s client base expanded? 
Diversification is big. We want to make sure we don’t have single points of failure. … We have been in a notoriously high-consequence, high-compliance industry [construction] and we have now been branching out into other industries as well, including health care, restaurants, retail and solar/electrical manufacturing-aligned professions. That diversification has also allowed us to work our way into new verticals and find good success. 

What kinds of additional software modules has the company developed?  
The applicant tracking system was our core — that’s where we started more 20-plus years ago. That is a system that automates and helps speed up the process of finding talent. … Now we have an onboarding system. Whereas before you’d have all these papers you’d sit and sign, now it’s all in an automated process. And through the learning management system, I can now set up your goals for the year. And that’s aligned with a performance management system that allows you to set your goals based on your development plans. And a third component to that is succession planning — based on the input [managers] are getting … to make some key workforce decisions. 

What size companies does BirddogHR work with? 
We’re in the SMB [small to medium business market] — [small] employers that are zero to 750 employees and [medium] employers with 750 to 3,000 — that just need some software with a service component to it that’s going to help make their workforce decisions easier. 

So the plan is to integrate three companies under one brand, Arcoro? 
Correct. And as we continue to look at it, other companies may come into the fold as well. One of the big [emerging areas] is artificial intelligence, and how do I use that to best understand and anticipate my workforce? The other big one is mobile — how much more can I be doing on my mobile phone or tablet? As we are looking at different types of technology, we’re always looking to see what else is out there to enhance and grow the platform. 

In what area does BirddogHR anticipate the fastest growth? 
I would say it’s in the full suite of products. Rather than kind of piecemealing, it’s creating — they laugh at me, but I term them “happy meals” — the full suite is actually where we’re seeing the biggest growth. Customers don’t want to buy one piece here and there, they want to buy the whole suite with one company to work with and be done. 
What are your biggest challenges? 
One will be how to continue to have profitable growth … That we’ve got good growth and that operationally we’re able to balance that. The other is bringing together the cultures of [the three operating companies] and how to bring all of those pieces together. The third is around our clients — making sure that our existing clients are seeing the full impact and value of our entire suite of solutions that we have. And that for our new clients, we are making this an easy buying decision and easy to do business with us. 

What do you enjoy most about this position? 
I love working with people who I can learn something from, and hopefully they can learn a little something from me. As we always have new challenges that come up every day, how do we solve those? And how we solve those together is gratifying to me. 

You’re obviously competitive. How do you compete outside the office? 
I am. I enjoy doing triathlons — I enjoy the diversification of the swim, run and bike. And travel — I like to find ways to continue to grow and to experience new cultures and new folks. And I enjoy my time with my kids. My son is a [high school] senior and my daughter is a sophomore at the University of Iowa. I’m happy because my son is committed to the University of Iowa, so they’re both going to be Hawkeyes. 

Personal goals? 
One of my goals is to get to all 50 states. I have Vermont and Mississippi left. I just turned 50, so I figure that in my 50th year I need to get to all 50. I’ve got six continents down — I just haven’t been to Antarctica.