Secrets of a Rainmaker

Canada’s Top Female Entrepreneur proves that you no longer need the hard sell to win big business

Written by Joanna Pachner

To understand what makes Shannon Rogers such a potent rainmaker—and why she’s earned the title of Canada’s Top Female Entrepreneur for the second time in four years—consider how she tackled one of the hardest sales for any company: a multinational bank. Rogers, president of digital-message-archiving firm Global Relay Communications Inc., had a service she was certain big banks could use. Highly-regulated industries—like banking and healthcare—are required to keep exceptional records. Her company could help banks store their e-mail, instant messages and texts. But to get them interested, she knew she’d need buy-in from their legal, IT, business, compliance and security departments, which tend to be large, geographically dispersed and not especially prone to talking with one another.

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The key, Rogers realized, was to serve as a communication conduit. Warren Roy, her partner at Global Relay, recalls her idea: “She said, ‘Let’s be subject-matter experts in those five areas. In talking with compliance, let’s explain what legal and tech people need.’” In short, she’d break down her prospects’ internal silos, then offer up a solution that spanned common concerns.
She was clearly on to something. You may not have heard of the Vancouver-based company she co-owns, but its clients now include 22 of the world’s 25 largest banks.

Since Rogers joined Global Relay in 2003, the vendor of cloud-based message-archiving and compliance services has grown from a tiny startup with revenues of $14,000 (those humble three zeros are not a typo) into a 350-person outfit with sales of more than $40 million. Aside from the giant banks, Global Relay serves 70% of U.S. hedge funds and almost half of the broker-dealer members of that country’s Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). And it was Rogers who persuaded most of those clients to entrust their data to her firm rather than such blue-chip rivals as Microsoft or IBM.

Those who are acquainted with Rogers call her “the closer.” She’s been known to sign up 70 clients a month; her record is 12 in one day. But Rogers has none of that golden-tongued power-broker vibe. A tall, elegant brunette, she is soft-spoken and easy with a smile. Her confidence is understated. She is personable and sincere; people like her. When asked about negotiating tactics or sales-pitch tips, she demurs. “I don’t think of it as a sales process,” she says. “We’re educating the customer.” Yet speak with her partners and clients, and certain themes emerge that help explain why the cutthroat world of big money sometimes responds to a softer sell.

The Expert

Global Relay’s growth spurt isn’t wholly due to Rogers’ persuasion skills. When Roy founded the firm in 1999, e-mail was a fairly new business tool; there wasn’t that much of it and no one worried about storing it. Starving for cash, the company pitched nearly every VC in Canada, to no avail. One said simply, “If this was a good idea, an American would have thought of it.”

Then came Enron, WorldCom and other accounting scandals. Arthur Andersen deleted its computer records, pleading ignorance. Regulators cracked down, imposing rules that required firms to preserve their electronic communications. Roy knew the major changes in the financial sector suddenly presented a rich market—one that was run by lawyers. “Just to talk to them, you have to have a legal team,” he says.

Rogers convinced GE—a 400,000-employee giant—to entrust its data to her four-person startup by taking a sales approach that was honest and curious instead of brash and aggressive.
GE explained its decision with a simple, ‘We liked you.’

It was around this time that Roy met Rogers while hiking the Grouse Grind trail on Vancouver’s North Shore. She was a corporate lawyer at a Tier 1 firm who found the white-shoe environment unsatisfying. “I liked the strategy side,” she says. “I wanted to be on the other side of the boardroom table.” Friendly chit-chat led to business talk, which led to a mutual realization that Rogers’ skills and Global Relay’s prospects were, in Roy’s words, “the world’s best fit.” Rogers agreed to partner with Roy shortly after.

Amid confusion about the new regulations, it fell to the legal pro to take on business development. One of the company’s first big breaks was landing General Electric Co., which called after Global Relay put an ad on Google. Roy laughs at the mismatch: GE had 400,000 employees; Global Relay had four. But Rogers’ ease in taking on GE’s 12,000-strong legal team proved the Canadian upstart was no amateur outfit. “They needed us to have a certain level of sophistication,” says Roy. “Shannon could provide that.”

From the Archives: What Earned Rogers the No. 1 Spot on the 2011 W100

The Navigator

That early win showed Rogers that when dealing with corporate giants, you have to become adept at navigating through bureaucratic mazes to find key decision-makers.

“You can’t just walk into a bank and get the business,” explains Roy. “You might have a meeting every couple of months and phone calls every few days.” This is all Rogers’ turf. Early on, she and Roy decided to split executive duties based on their complementary strengths: He’s the 20-year IT veteran who oversees the technical side; she’s the customer-facing business and operations head.

Rogers’ skill at getting in the door is enhanced by her ability to build on deals. Look to one of Global Relay’s biggest coups: winning a contract with Thomson Reuters by stepping in when the information giant got into a legal fight with its previous message-archiving vendor. The real boon was that the deal introduced Thomson’s more than 250 financial-sector clients to Global Relay’s technology. Rogers wasted no time in picking up the phone: “It was a great reminder to always be prepared to move on little notice,” she says.

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The Listener

Rogers’ lack of arrogance is essential to her success in getting prospects to return her calls. Massive financial institutions tend to be wary of small foreign suppliers, especially when dealing with a critical asset like data. So Rogers positions Global Relay—and herself—as a fount of niche knowledge about the complexities of privacy and financial regulations. “That’s where my particular expertise comes in,” she says. “I do a lot of listening and then a lot of educating.”

Listening, as any good salesperson knows, is an essential skill in the game, and Rogers has a knack for it. Her approach is best summed up as, “Tell us what you need.” Back when Global Relay was first planning its sales strategy, Rogers gained priceless information simply by phoning FINRA and asking a few questions about its rules. The response she got was surprisingly warm. It taught her the value of curiosity. “When you’re trying to figure out a new market, don’t be afraid to ask the experts,” she says.

Rogers particularly excels at honing in on prospects’ true, often unspoken, concerns, says Bryan Young, Global Relay’s vice-president of sales. She does that partly by being very candid, as transparency helps clients gain confidence. That was crucial in signing up GE in the early days. “We didn’t pretend that we were bigger than we were,” Rogers says. “They taught us and we taught them.” She recently asked a GE contact why the company chose Global Relay back then. The answer? “We liked you. We knew you’d work with us.”

Read: More Success Stories, Great Advice and Proven Tips from the 2014 W100

The Negotiator

It’s important to stress that in Rogers’ case, likability does not equate with weakness: She is a masterful negotiator. That’s because she knows—and respects—the needs of those on the other side of the table, says Young. “Shannon is able to stand up appropriately and frame things so they appear in the best interests of everyone.” She also knows when to pick her battles; she’ll explain the rationale for every point in an agreement, but if only three are really important to her, she’s willing to give up the others.

Henry Yip recalls Rogers’ patient persistence four years ago when the global bank he works for was selecting a vendor to archive its data. “She would come back to the table and say, ‘What would it take to make it work?’” says Yip. “And she told us that she would personally make sure that [the technology] worked. I don’t hear that a lot from CEO types.” Global Relay won, and has since expanded the bank’s business.

Vignettes like these help explain why the struggling firm Rogers joined in 2003 is now such an unqualified success. Global Relay today services more than 20,000 clients in 90 countries. Investors call regularly.

Global Relay’s intent is to reach $100 million in sales by the end of 2017. Getting there will require building up its big bank business; upselling is going to be vital. But Rogers is quietly confident the lofty goal is attainable. As she herself says: “I’m good at opening the doors and at closing the deals.”

Click Here to See the 2014 W100 Ranking In Full

2014 PROFIT/Chatelaine W100 logo

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Learn the business-building secrets of Canada’s Top Female Entrepreneurs and other inspiring businesswomen at the 2014 W100 Idea Exchange on Wednesday, November 26th.
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Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com