When it comes to acquisitions, Joyce Bell is a pro. She has a knack for joining companies poised for serious growth and helping build them up. Eventually, many of these companies have become part of something bigger. Bell doesn’t set out to get these companies acquired -- she simply makes a point of choosing to work in environments that create products of immense value. When other companies recognize that work, it’s a bittersweet transition for Bell.
“You’re very proud and very sad because you helped a company grow up, and now you have empty nest syndrome,” Bell said. “But I’m proud of the fact that multiple companies that I’ve been with have been acquired because means that someone found additional value in it. The product we built lives on.”
Bell, now the Chief Financial Officer at PrismHR, considers herself a builder. Throughout her career, that drive to create has pushed her to manage each company’s resources in a way that prioritizes growth and scale.
“I’m attracted to companies that are looking for problem solvers and people who will bring the company to the next stage of growth,” she said.
Bell began her career in public accounting at Ernst & Young, where she immersed herself in client services for a diverse array of companies but wanted to do more in terms of implementing solutions. She joined Boston Communications Group, a startup that marketed swipe phones to livery services and taxis, then moved to Cellular One to help the company expand its distribution channels. The company was eventually acquired by Southwestern Bell and then AT&T, and Bell moved on to Thompson Financial.
“Thompson was a large company with a real entrepreneurial focus,” she said. Bell managed a portfolio of companies at various stages of growth and did what she could for each one, whether it meant implementing systems or getting investors to sponsor international growth. No matter what, though, the customer came first.
When she was ready to make another career move, Bell made sure it was a big one. She dove into the world of Internet startups, beginning with Be Free, Inc., a tiny marketing company that was ready to go public and for which she hired the entire finance team. At first, Bell had wondered if making such a drastic career change would hold her back. Instead, the move opened up a new world.
Be Free survived the collapse of the tech bubble thanks to how much it had raised during its IPO, surviving enough to be acquired, too. Bell then joined Compete, a predictive analytics company that had 21 other employees. She was responsible for supporting funding rounds, determining vertical markets, and building the company’s management strategies. When that company was sold, so was her next employer, ClickSquared. Through a series of acquisitions, ClickSquared is now part of Verizon.
“At the time it was very exciting to help build it and to see how customers were shifting how they spend marketing dollars,” Bell said. “People were trying to determine where their advertising would be most effective, and a lot of it was online.”
With this insight, Bell came onboard at Brand Networks, which focuses on social media marketing, and then became the CFO at PrismHR.
“What I've learned is that I love problem-solving, and what's interesting is, no matter the size of the company, there are always new challenges and problems to solve,” she said of her career path. “Your competitive landscape is always changing, so it’s always causing you to ask whether you’re using best practices, what to do to implement them, and how to make sure the client is getting what they need.”
At PrismHR, Bell’s latest challenge is, of course, helping the company scale. Prism HR is the leading software for HR service providers, supporting their hiring, onboarding, reporting benefits, payroll, and admin processes in one convenient, end-to-end platform. The company is in the midst of its latest growth phase, and Bell is working to further develop in-house processes to make them as effective as possible by evaluating various metrics and identifying opportunities. Bell is also interested in using insight gained from how clients use PrismHR’s software to make it more efficient. Whether it’s an interface update or consolidating reports so that clients have a one-stop shop for their information, Bell is constantly on the lookout for ways to accelerate client growth.
“On the personal side, one of my objectives is to learn as much as I can,” Bell said. “I’m new and submerging myself so that I can get up to speed and make an impact as soon as possible.”
Quick Q(uestions) and A(dvice)
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
For me, nature is very inspirational. I love skiing, bicycling, hiking, playing tennis, and doing yoga. I also think continuous learning is something that is just a gift in our lives and there are so many technologies makes that possible, so I listen to a lot of books on Audible. I love spending time with my family and friends as well. I’m also involved in two finance organizations and the YMCA. There's the CFO Leadership Council, which I've been a part of since its inception. I am really proud of what we do because I think it gives back to the finance community and helps people develop their skills and their network. The second finance organization is called the FEI, and I'm on the academic relations committee, where we give scholarships to college juniors that are majoring in finance, accounting, or economics. I always feel proud of the students -- if this is our next generation, we're in good hands. Then I’m on the Huntington YMCA board. We serve about seven different communities, and we are doing a lot with healthy living and social responsibility. We also do a lot with seniors and bringing them together with younger people for classes. There's a value in having the multi-generational connection there.
How do you manage stress?
I don’t consider myself a very high-stress person. I tend to be someone who takes it all in stride. My approach usually is to craft a plan of action and understand what is mission critical and who can help me get this done. I really focus on what needs to get done. Yoga and mindfulness help a lot with that. I listen to this podcast called 10% Happier, and every week they interview a meditation expert, so I feel like I’m always learning tips and techniques about keeping life in perspective from that. Meditation encourages you to create stillness in your life, so that’s something I’m trying to learn.
If you're a coffee drinker, how many cups of coffee do you drink in a day?
Believe it or not. I'm not a coffee drinker. It's been years since I've had coffee, but my choice is hot water. I love the warmth of it and I find it relaxing, so I drink hot water throughout the day. When I switched to it, someone said to me one day, “Are you exhausted? Because you're just pouring hot water, and you're a coffee drinker.” Well, not anymore! Fast forward years later, an old colleague and I met up for lunch. I hadn't seen him in forever, and when I ordered a cup of hot water, he said, “That stuck? And you ask for it in public?”
What’s one of your favorite places in the Boston area?
I enjoy bicycling, and there are a couple of streets that I bike in Lincoln and Lexington that really invigorate me. I find that when you’re bicycling, you see things that you wouldn't if you were driving or even if you were walking. You'll see wild turkeys and other birds, and I feel so fortunate that we have such beauty so close to the city. It always makes me grateful.
What do you consider one of your greatest accomplishments?
I believe deeply in developing people and connecting others. When the tech bubble burst and I was on the job market again, there were hundreds of people out searching. I remember feeling like I couldn’t call old connections because I hadn’t talked to them in years – I was always so focused on my deliverable that I hadn’t prioritized the networking side. People were happy to reconnect, but I promised myself that in the future I would make time to cultivate those relationships and also to help other people develop in their career. I’ll offer them my time and perspective and introductions if they can be of value. Now I'm watching them do that again with others. I love the fact that we’ve learned and helped one another grow, and I’m proud of that.
How does where you are now compared to where you saw yourself 10 years ago?
I think I’ve always wanted to be in a place where I could contribute. Every company needs something different, so I would say I’ve always had that passion to help create growth, and I’m in the right place now. Entrepreneurial companies have always appealed to me because they have that chance to innovate and try new things and refine after seeing the impact of each action.
What’s your advice for recent college graduates?
I would ask them to find their passion and spend time figuring out what they want to pursue. And it may be stating the obvious, but always act with integrity and treat other people the way you want to be treated. If you do that, you will always feel like you’re making a positive contribution. When I think of what’s valuable in work, especially as a newcomer in your career, it’s important to develop your critical thinking skills and an independent point of view. You tend to think that everyone else knows better when you’re just starting out because you're just absorbing and learning, but you need to develop an informed perspective. You have to learn a lot, be curious, and be open. When you have an independent point of view, you become a go-to person because people will know you’ve given that opinion thought. Invest in continuous learning.