Addition by Subtraction

The Kirwin Group finds that redefining success can lead to a more fulfilling and rewarding career systems’ culture

Founder Meghan Kirwin got her first taste of entrepreneurship at age 12.
Founder Meghan Kirwin got her first taste of entrepreneurship at age 12.

Many entrepreneurs can point to a dramatic event that triggered the founding of an independent business. But Meghan Kirwin, founder and principal of the Kirwin Group, a Guelph, Ontario-based provider of HR services, just did what came naturally.

“My mother comes from a long line of entrepreneurs,” she says. “Several of her relatives were family doctors in New England.” And after Kirwin’s family immigrated to Canada, her mom started a mail-order business from their house, and it quickly grew into a successful retail business.

Kirwin became involved with the business at the age of 12, and got her first tastes of “the joys and the heartbreaks, the passion and the uncertainty that goes along with running your own business,” she says.

While completing her MBA specialization in management and organizational behaviour at Wilfrid Laurier University, she learned of a new program that appealed to her inner entrepreneur.

“I’d had an idea for a business, and when I heard about the Schlegel Centre for Entrepreneurship at Wilfrid Laurier University, I approached Steve Farlow, the executive director of the centre, to learn more about it,” she says.

Farlow was impressed with her concept and her passion, and invited her to be the first student in the Start-A-Business program.

Over the course of three months, the centre helped her develop a comprehensive assessment of her planned business, including goal setting, market research, concept evaluation and optimization, and detailed planning of marketing, operations, structure, cash needs, and sources of finance. The Centre Incubator also provided access to legal services, financial services, and sales training/coaching. Additionally, Kirwin received a course credit towards the completion of her MBA.

“It was an incredible experience, and a rewarding one,” she recalls. “My concepts and plans were constructively challenged by panels of experts. That compelled me to refine and improve them. Instead of just starting a business and learning through experience, I was well prepared before I graduated,” Kirwin says.

So well prepared, in fact, that Kirwin launched her business (and even had a paying client) upon her graduation in 2004.

Today, the Kirwin Group offers an array of HR services to fast-growth companies. The services include recruitment, policies and procedures, compensation, performance management, talent development, recognition, leadership, and employee training and coaching, as well as HR planning, audits, and employee feedback.

Kirwin Group’s Milestones

2004: First business to emerge from the Schlegel Centre for Entrepreneurship’s Start-A-Business program

2004–2005: The Kirwin Group far exceeds its own first-year projections as it provides HR services to other entrepreneurs

2004–2008: Company experiences double-digit growth each year (20–40% annually)

2007–2008: Kirwin Group doubles in size

2010: Meghan Kirwin shrinks the company; smaller size frees her to concentrate on client service

2010–2013: Kirwin Group continues to grow about 10% annually

For many companies, acquiring new clients is tough enough on its own, but Kirwin raises the stakes through selectivity. “We specialize in helping businesses to build or repair their culture,” she explains. “I will sit with entrepreneurs and ask them many questions, just to see if they are truly committed to change and growth. If I sense that they are not committed, I let them know we are not a good fit for their needs.”

Being selective about the clients the Kirwin Group works with seems counterintuitive, but the strategy has paid off handsomely. During its first four years, the Kirwin Group grew between 20 and 40 percent annually, and doubled its size from 2007 to 2008.

But that success came with a price. “Our team had grown, and the business was thriving, but I didn’t feel fulfilled,” Kirwin recalls. “I actually hired a coach to help me find the cause of my dissatisfaction.”

And that finding led to Kirwin’s toughest decision: downsizing.

“Success in our economy is defined as ‘constant growth.’ But as the Kirwin Group got bigger, I found myself spending more and more time working on the business, and less time doing what I love—working with clients,” she says.

Kirwin faced an unpalatable choice: bring in partners or add another administrative layer to the business among them.

Instead, she redefined her concept of success. “It’s more important to me to follow my passion than to expand for the sake of expansion,” she says.

And so she had to downsize the company by 30 percent in 2010.

However, now she’s able to spend 80 percent of her time interacting with clients, while offering her self-described team of “amazing professionals” support when needed. And the Kirwin Group continues to grow, but at a more-manageable 10 percent per year. Kirwin feels fulfilled, excited by the impact her organization has on its clients, and open to what the future holds.

“I’ve learned that when you’re facing adversity, you need to stay true to yourself,” she says. “If you can stay energized by the things that are going well, shift your perspective, and always stay true to yourself, you can overcome any challenge.”