On Assignment: These Temps Don't Type, But They're Handy In The Lab

Hardly a typical turnaround artist, H. Tom Buelter didn't build his career by roaming from one ailing company to the next. Instead, he spent six years at Kelly Services Inc., the temp agency. He eventually rose through the ranks to become chief operating officer of Kelly's home-care division. That was exactly the kind of steady, predictable record that Sierra Ventures, a venture capital group, was looking for when it hired Buelter to run On Assignment Inc. in 1989.

Founded by a couple of chemists, the Canoga Park (Calif.) company started out in 1985, providing scientists on a temporary basis to companies that needed skilled staff for short-term projects. The concept worked fine when it was first put into practice. The problem was that On Assignment kept expanding into new areas, such as consulting and recruiting. Costs soared, and so did losses. In 1989, the red ink amounted to $1.5 million on sales of just $7 million.

Buelter, now 52, quickly got On Assignment back on track. He closed down the consulting and recruiting businesses. Then he went to work finding new customers for the temp business. He didn't have to look far. By 1990, many companies already had downsized--and many jumped at the chance to hire temps to perform some of the functions of their laid-off staff. That same year, On Assignment turned profitable again.

Nowadays, the company has 27 offices, stretching from Seattle to Miami. Its client list includes such corporate heavyweights as Hewlett-Packard, Exxon, and Johnson & Johnson. Analyst Kevin Clark of Advest Inc. estimates 1993 earnings will rise 39%, to $2.5 million, as revenues climb 17%, to $38.1 million. That kind of performance helped earn On Assignment the No.22 spot on this year's Hot Growth list.

LABEL TRUTHS. To serve its clients, On Assignment looks for chemists and biologists who have worked at least two years in a lab. The company has a temporary work force of more than 1,000 scientists at its disposal. Many are involved in product testing. At food companies, for instance, temps are involved in isolating ingredients to verify that new federal labeling laws are met.

While he intends to stick with On Assignment's temp-agency formula, Buelter says he wants to expand into such areas as health care and legal services--possibly later this year. "It's a very exciting strategy," says Buelter. He argues that a temporary lawyer can handle such legal matters as contract work and small lawsuits--and do it far less expensively than either a staff attorney or outside counsel. In this era of corporate cost-cutting, Buelter hopes to make that a powerful selling point.

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