In 1983, Jim Hempleman had an idea: a software tool that could access, manipulate, and reformat data quickly and efficiently using business analysts instead of programmers. He invested $10,000 that year and purchased an IBM PC-XT, the first PC with a hard disk. Hempleman used that computer to build a prototype of his vision.
Hempleman essentially bet his career on the PC that year. He had been working as a technology consultant for several years and had seen the rapid evolution in the power of computers. He saw that trend again in the PC, and it would likely come faster than prior cycles. Of course, history would prove him correct.
The prototype Hempleman built was successful, and it gave him the confidence that the PC would be the go-to computer platform of the future. Over the next years, he worked to realize his vision.
In 1985, Hempleman founded Premier International, the Chicago-based software and consulting firm where he is still CEO today. “From the beginning, we focused on PC-based development,” Hempleman explains. “It was obvious to me that the PC was the platform of the future, and each innovation that came along gave me more confidence.”
Jim Hempleman’s drive for ethical behavior doesn’t stop with his business, Premier International. He’s also the cofounder, along with his wife Dune, of LifeLessonNetwork.org. The nonprofit foundation is dedicated to helping grow ethics, values, and motivation in children.
Life Lessons was born out of a part-time babysitting assignment. The Hemplemans began to babysit an infant, Sarah, in 1989, and they became so close that they say that they became like a second set of parents to the girl. They began to take Sarah on vacations and would make cards for her with advice, which they called life lessons.
The Hemplemans have expanded the advice they provided Sarah throughout the years and made it available to everyone. The organization’s website offers sample Life Lessons, broken out by age group, from prekindergarten all the way through college and the early years in the workforce. There is also a code of ethics for children, as well as other techniques and advice for special times, such as graduation. Everything on the website is offered entirely free of charge and is nonsectarian.
“I truly hope that the Life Lesson techniques do some good,” Hempleman says. “If one child improves one element of their behavior as a result of Life Lessons, then the process has been successful. If each of us presents life lessons to just one child, together we might make a big difference.”
To fund the development of the data management product, Hempleman leveraged the infrastructure software from the prototype to build PC-based software products for large consulting firms. “Their software products were able to get to market much more quickly, and the contracts gave me ownership of enhancements to the infrastructure software that they funded,” Hempleman explains. He then reinvested the company’s profits over several years until the first version of the Premier International’s Applaud software was released in 1988; the company currently uses version 7.1 to deliver data migration solutions.
Although Premier International began as a software firm, most of Hempleman’s career has involved technology consulting. It is no surprise, then, that in 1995 he decided to build a consulting group within his company, and that is where he has spent the majority of his time over the past twenty years. From its beginning, Hempleman built the consulting group by essentially only hiring new grads— employees he believed would be less likely to job-hop—as is so prevalent in technology positions.
The move has paid off. The company’s six top consultants were hired out of college and have been with the company for an average tenure of eighteen years. In fact, the first consultant was hired into the consulting group twenty-two years ago and is still with the company today. “That tenure translates to experience,” Hempleman says. “We are told we are the best in the business, and that warms my heart.”
One of the reasons Premier International employees stay with the company is that Hempleman created a career path for college grads with clear, attainable goals at several levels, where employees are rewarded financially for not only their own growth but also for growing others’ skills, qualities, and ethics. “Over many years, we have documented the skills and qualities that make a great consultant in our business,” Hempleman says. “The skills and qualities are divided into twelve categories that I call the Twelve Arts of Consulting and then cross-divided into the five levels in our firm: associate consultant, senior consultant, manager, senior manager, and finally principal.” At each level and within each “art,” there are specific skills and qualities that are expected. The document is used as the organization’s annual performance appraisal form. “We clearly communicate the ways we expect the team to grow and keep them focused and responsible for that 100 percent of the time,” Hempleman says.
He also believed that new grads would be less likely to have picked up bad ethics habits from previous employers and would be easier to keep on an ethical path. As he started the consulting team, he created a code of ethics, which includes five principles: be honest and forthright in everything you do; always focus on the clients’ best interest; do the best job possible; remain humble; and never violate the clients’ confidence.
“Some organizations publish a code of ethics but don’t necessarily live by the rules,” Hempleman explains. “We not only live by the rules, but to be promoted to the next level, team members must verbally inspire others to follow the code.”
In fact, Hempleman finds the code is essential to the company’s success. “Over 95 percent of our business is generated from repeat business or from a direct referral by someone who has worked with us before,” he says. “I have no doubt that our code of ethics is the single most important reason for our long-term success, and that fact makes me very proud.” In fact, despite all that he has accomplished in business, including eleven issued patents, the company’s code of ethics is Hempleman’s passion and largest source of pride.
Now, he will get to see how strong his ethics legacy is, as someone else will be driving it. Hempleman recently promoted himself to CEO and named one of his earliest hires as company president. “I am certain our new president will continue to lead the company to the same high ethics,” Hempleman says. “He’s having a good time spreading his wings and taking off, flying with a great opportunity. I think he’ll do a fantastic job for us.”