Friday, September 9, 2022

When it comes to the business process outsourcing industry, Tom Cardella can talk the talk and walk the walk.

As a college student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Cardella started on the ground floor — on the phone — of a local contact center and worked his way up. He was elevated to account manager, then moved to Iowa to head the operations for a Chicago-based company called APAC Teleservices. On Fridays and Saturdays, Cardella studied in the Executive MBA program at the University of Iowa, where he wrote a business plan for Access Direct, a company he started in 1995.

Between his first and second years of pursuing his MBA, Cardella visited Paul Heath, regional director of the University of Iowa Small Business Development Center.

“I was 30 years old, I walked into Paul Heath’s office, I had shorts and a T-shirt on, and I didn’t know what to expect or what to ask for,” Cardella said. “I had this idea, I knew the industry, but I didn’t understand the financial aspects.”

Heath spent significant time working with Cardella in the summer of 1993 — in Heath’s office and in Cardella’s home.

“If it wasn’t for Paul, I don’t know that we would be having this conversation today,” said Cardella, who still uses a variation of those financial spreadsheets 30 years later.

Five years after its inception, Access Direct was ranked No. 8 on Inc. 500 list of fastest growing companies. Cardella sold the company in 2000 to IAC, and after a couple professional stops, decided, “At the end of the day, I like running my own show.”

In 2007, Cardella founded TLC Associates that is now in nine locations in the United States. TLC Associates is a certified veteran-owned business that has expanded outside the United States to the Philippines, India, and the Dominican Republic.

“We compete well against large publicly traded companies because we’re not publicly traded. We’re closely held so we have the level of experience, but clients don’t have to jump through hoops like they have to with the other companies,” Cardella said. “We can make decisions more quickly and we are much more likely to execute at a higher level for the client.”

TLC Associates goes into communities where its competitors would have difficulty being successful. TLC has been in Cedar Rapids for 27 years, Marshalltown 25 years, and Keokuk 22 years.

“We go into communities and we make ourselves part of the community,” Cardella said. “We’re sponsoring Little League teams and soccer teams, charities, and other civic functions. We go in to be part of the community and what happens is, people stay with us for a long period of time.”

A certified veteran-owned business, TLC Associates operates in a hub-and-spoke model. In Iowa, Cedar Rapids is the hub, El Paso is the hub in the southwest region. Cardella is looking to expand in the southeast, but with a rapidly-changing industry, he does not intend on opening more brick-and-mortar locations. The demand for off-shore call centers is also increasing. TLC is looking into creating centers in El Salvador and Colombia.  

Cardella has received the 2022 Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year Award in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Honors. The University of Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center will recognize him Sept. 9 at Old Capitol Museum.