Prospering Aerotek keeps its profile low; Future Ravens owner Bisciotti quietly runs $2.5 billion empire; Riding the staffing boom; Phenomenal growth brings praise, but also detractors, suit; Employment services

THE BALTIMORE SUN

From their industrial-park office buildings, with views of the highways and exit ramps around Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Stephen J. Bisciotti and his partners presided last year over a $2.5 billion empire.

And no one seemed to notice.

Wall Street didn't care, because Bisciotti's companies are privately owned, not publicly traded.

The Forbes 500 didn't notice either, even though Bisciotti's enterprise could have ranked among the 50 largest private companies in the United States. Some of Baltimore's most potent business leaders had never heard of Bisciotti or his employment services firm, Aerotek Inc., until the Baltimore Ravens said last week that Bisciotti will assume ownership of the team in 2004 for $600 million.

Aerotek's relative anonymity is deliberate. Bisciotti has "worked pretty hard at it over the years," he said in an interview last Sunday. He has since declined requests for interviews to discuss his businesses in further detail.

But in interviews with acquaintances and competitors, and after reviews of public records and company literature, a picture emerges that paints Aerotek both as an entrepreneurial triumph and a corporate opportunist.

Within its industry, Aerotek is a phenomenon -- growing 100 percent a year, spanning the continent, earning respect and even awe from competitors, and affording its top executives a lifestyle of fabulous wealth.

And to its critics, Aerotek is a monument to the exploitation of corporate greed. It exists and thrives because of the modern boardroom addiction to downsizing, outsourcing and otherwise hiring fewer employees and paying them less.

"They have to be the biggest company in the industry that no one knows anything about," said Larry Hooper, editorial director of Staffing Industry Report, a trade publication in Los Altos, Calif.

"They're very quiet," Hooper added. "It took us years just to get them to give us revenue figures."

Aerotek is a staffing company -- similar to a temp agency, but much more. Instead of providing companies with secretaries and data-entry clerks, it finds engineers, scientists, telecommunications experts and other skilled workers, and places them in temporary jobs.

The firm boasts 4,000 clients, including such blue-chip companies as AT&T; Corp., American Express Co., Boeing Co. and Coca-Cola Co., according to company literature.

While the strong economy and low unemployment can create a smaller market for staffing companies, the industry has exploded in the United States. It generated an estimated $72 billion in revenue last year, according to the American Staffing Association, a trade organization in Alexandria, Va.

When foreign markets are considered, temporary staffing has become a $150 billion industry.

As a private company, Aerotek doesn't have to disclose its financial performance. But several sources suggest that the company has ballooned into an industry giant since Bisciotti and partner James C. Davis founded it in 1983 -- in a basement, by one account.

Staffing Industry Report said Aerotek collected $894 million in revenue last year.

But to competitors, Aerotek is more than one company -- it is a collection of at least five similar corporate entities, all with essentially the same management, business structure and mission.

Companies such as TEKsystems Inc., Onsite Engineering and Management Inc., Maxim Group Inc. and Maxim Healthcare Services Inc. share common office space with Aerotek, and each reportedly handles more than $100 million in business.

Bisciotti's role in each company is unclear -- he serves as an officer or registered agent for some, and has no formal connection to others.

But the roots of each company can be traced back to Aerotek. Combined, they posted more than $2.5 billion in 1998 revenue, according to various sources -- about the amount of business that Aerotek claims in its recruitment literature.

That would rank Aerotek and its related companies 46th on the Forbes 500 list of the country's largest private companies -- just ahead of Perdue Farms. The Aerotek-related companies collect more than twice the annual revenue of Baltimore's Legg Mason Inc.

Aerotek and the other companies place employees in positions ranging from nuclear engineers to cable installers. It has divisions specializing in computer programming, automobile manufacturing, environmental engineering and marketing.

The companies have at least 110 offices across the country, employ 9,000 or more administrative workers and have expanded into Canada and Europe.

"It is a great company. I think it is one of Baltimore's great success stories," said Matthew V. Roswell, principal in equity research at Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc., the brokerage subsidiary of Legg Mason Inc. "On the field level and operations level, they are one of the best. You ask -- who the top competitors are -- and Aerotek is usually one of the first names mentioned."

Roswell has been to Aerotek's Hanover headquarters and spoken with its executives about the company's business and performance. But they are guarded around outsiders, especially when they are analysts who follow the industry and report their findings to investors.

"I represent a danger to them," he said.

The company's unwavering determination to keep quiet means it is concentrating on doing business, Roswell said.

"I think it is focusing on the day-to-day business," he said. "It [Aerotek] will probably stay under a lot of people's radar screens. I wouldn't be surprised if that is what Steve and everybody wants."

But perhaps like any business of its size, Aerotek has its detractors as well -- and among them is a large group of current and former employees.

A class action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in California last year accuses Aerotek and its related operations of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act by underpaying entry-level workers.

The case alleges that Aerotek denied overtime pay to its recruiters -- who find and evaluate the temporary workers that the company places. Recruiters are an integral component of the business, routinely work 60-hour weeks, according to the lawsuit, and are paid "roughly the same as lifeguards," said Nicholas Connon, a Los Angeles attorney handling the case. The lawsuit asks $66 million in unpaid wages.

"The entry-level people they've really been used," said Connon, who acknowledges his stake in the "substantial" attorney fee sought in the case. "The people at the top they've benefited tremendously."

Bisciotti, 39, certainly has reaped some rewards from Aerotek's growth.

He owns about 40 percent of Aerotek, he said. His net worth is unknown, but his businesses have provided him with the means to buy a 49 percent stake in the Ravens for $275 million, with plans to pay another $325 million to take full ownership in 2004.

He and his wife, Renee, and their two sons live in a $1.9 million Anne Arundel County home, according to state assessment records. Over the past five years, state records show the Bisciottis owning or leasing at least seven vehicles, including a Jaguar XJ12, a Ferrari 328GTS, a Mercedes-Benz S320 and two Chevrolet Suburbans. They also owned a 46-foot powerboat.

Despite his wealth and success, Bisciotti remains somewhat of an unknown, and his move to buy the Ravens has baffled some prominent Baltimoreans.

Edwin F. Hale Sr., chairman of First Mariner Bancorp and owner of the Baltimore Blast professional indoor soccer team, was so surprised to learn of Bisciotti's plans that he called friends in Anne Arundel County to find out more about the man.

"Some didn't know him at all," said Hale, a Baltimore native. "The ones who knew him spoke very highly of him."

But Bisciotti is not so much a mystery in Anne Arundel County. He is a member of Chartwell Country Club in Severna Park, where he plays golf. He is a boater and a sports fan.

"You see him around all of the time," said a friend. "He will stop and talk to everybody. He is well-known in the area."

Bisciotti occasionally stops in Gunning's Restaurant, across the street from Aerotek headquarters.

"I sure compliment them," said owner Edward Gunning Jr., who said his business has grown along with Aerotek's. "The gentleman over there is doing one hell of a job," Gunning said. "It seems like it is mushrooming. They come in to eat and they seem so content."

Friends doubt that Bisciotti will be changed by owning a National Football League franchise. He is a natural competitor, they say, and well-poised for the financial and emotional rigors of professional football.

But the Ravens might already have changed one thing about Bisciotti, they say.

"He has lost his low profile for certain," said a neighborhood acquaintance who did not want to be named. "He is no longer anonymous."

Aerotek at a glance

Founded: 1983 by partners Stephen J. Bisciotti and James C. Davis

Headquarters: Hanover, Md.

Employees: 4,500

Locations: 110 offices in 37 states

1998 revenue: $894 million*

Related companies, with annual revenue in millions: *

TEKsystems Inc. , $602

Maxim Group Inc., $529

Onsite Engineering and Management Inc., $374

Maxim Healthcare Services Inc., $119

NSI Home Health Services Inc., $17

*Estimates based on reports from Dun & Bradstreet Inc. and the industry trade journal Staffing Industry Report.

Staff researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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