It was 1996, and Michael Bontrager was feeling inadequate at a business conference in New Orleans.
He had been chatting with a client when the client’s investment banker joined in and began inviting the client to ritzy golf and hunting outings.
Bontrager, who had founded Chatham Financial five years prior, hadn’t invited the client to anything.
But a moment of clarity came when the investment banker left, and his client told him, “I wouldn’t trust that guy as far as I could throw him.”
Bontrager’s Kennett Square financial strategies and technology firm isn’t just about its products, he realized.
“What are we selling?” he asked about 20 Zip Code Wilmington students visiting Chatham this week. “Trust. The word gets way overused, but I think it’s the right word.”
To paraphrase author Stephen Covey, Bontrager said embodying these principles has helped Chatham become a global enterprise:
- Have integrity. “Do the right thing when no one’s looking,” Bontrager said.
- Be a team player. “We don’t want a lot of standalone superstars who do their own thing.”
- Be capable. “You need to have potential for the future, potential to grow. Are you curious? Do you have grit, tenacity and determination?”
- Deliver results. “You’ve got to deliver something tangible and valuable.”
But Bontrager wasn’t done with lists for success. He also talked about his company’s five purposes:
- To make the markets safer, fairer and more transparent.
- To treat clients as partners and work toward mutual success.
- To improve aspects of work and home life for “Chathamites,” the word he uses for his employees.
- To use knowledge of foreign trade to help the community and parts of the world in need.
- To make an honest profit.
Those lists have served Bontrager well.
The company, whose business model revolves around financial derivatives, started with him and his dog and now employs more than 400 people. Chatham now has locations in Denver, London, Krakow, Singapore and Melbourne, along with 35 employees in Costa Rica, Peru and Argentina. Its hub, however, remains in picturesque Kennett Square on a converted horse farm. Bontrager picked that location, he said, because his wife wanted to live there.
And Chatham’s sizeable tech department, which is moving to a completely re-done space in the Kennett Square complex Monday, is looking to double in the next few years, said Tim Savery, a member of Chatham’s Analytics & Information team.
That’s probably music to Zip Code students’ ears — they listened with rapt attention to the effervescent Bontrager and enjoyed pairing up with tech employees afterward — but they’ll have to work for it. Landing that first web dev job is what Zip Code is all about.
Savery admitted the selection process can be choosy, which echoed his CEO’s words to the group earlier: “I can’t teach someone excellent to be trustworthy, but I can teach someone trustworthy to be excellent.”