by Ann M. Colford

Back in 1986, Julie Prafke believed she knew what business customers wanted in a temporary employment service, and she didn't see those services offered by the leading firms. So she struck out on her own, opening a one-woman independent agency in a market dominated by three national firms. Since those humble beginnings, Prafke's company, Humanix, has grown to three offices and 40 employees and has risen to a position of prominence in the local employment services market. In 1989, Humanix was sold to its employees through an employee stock ownership plan. The company was listed by Inc. magazine as one of the 500 fastest-growing privately held businesses in America in 1992; by 1998, Working Woman magazine named Humanix one of the 500 largest woman-owned businesses in America.

"When we started, we went out to the market and talked to businesses to see what they wanted," she explains. "The biggest complaint was that the people they were getting weren't always qualified. I said, 'What if I could supply you with consistently well-qualified people?' It wasn't hard to sell the benefit to businesses, so we immediately invested in high-quality testing equipment."

As a small business operator, Prafke says she had the advantage of changing course rapidly in response to shifting market demands. "Any local independent business offers a bigger variety of services and has more flexibility [than national branch offices] because you are the corporate office, and you can make decisions quickly. We can get started in a new niche in just 30 days. When you find out from a customer what they like and what they don't like, it's easy to adapt quickly."

Testing every potential worker who comes through the door just wasn't done by most temporary employment agencies in the mid-'80s when Humanix began the practice here in Spokane. "Now all the nationals do testing," Prafke says, "but they didn't do it then. Independents always lead the charge."

Another innovation undertaken by Humanix was the temp-to-hire practice, where a client company may hire a Humanix employee who has been a temporary worker there. Such a practice was expressly forbidden by the national firms at the time. "We immediately began to see the need for temp-to-hire," Prafke says. "It took the nationals five years to figure that out. We work for both the employer and the employee, and temp-to-hire benefits everyone. It immediately gave us credibility with employees."

Humanix began by supplying temporary office workers but quickly moved into light industrial services thanks to an early contract with Keytronics. Over the years, the company has added professional, contract, direct hire and payroll services to its offerings, along with computer software training, IT certification training, network services and soldering classes. Even though Humanix has grown tremendously since its inception, Prafke continues to keep in touch with her customers to learn what services they may need.

"I went to a local bank recently and said, 'What are some of things you need to do that you wish you didn't have to do?'" she says. "The answer was getting statements mailed out on a regular basis. We had been looking into bulk mail processing anyway, so we started doing it within two weeks' time."

In another instance, Prafke learned that her customers in the mortgage business were desperate for more mortgage processors to keep up with demand. "So we started training mortgage processors," she says.

The direct contact between customer and company president keeps Humanix a step ahead of the competition, Prafke asserts. "When you know how something should be done, you just set out to do it."

Publication date: 03/06/03