CEO ensures Castle Branch is an evolving enterprise
August 17, 2012By Jenny Callison
For Brett Martin, entrepreneurship is all about evolution. “Change is what happens. Evolution is what you choose to make happen,” said Martin, CEO of Wilmington-based Castle Branch.
Martin has kept his company on an evolutionary track since co-founding the company 16 years ago. That means that he and his management team, in addition to paying close attention to what Castle Branch is doing now, must constantly envision what’s next.
Thus, the company, which began as a provider of background checks and drug-testing services for businesses, has moved into related fields: investigative services, business and tenant screening and skill testing.
Martin’s entrepreneurial journey is reflected in the advice he gives students at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He has been closely involved there, especially with the Cameron School of Business, and he’s now the university’s Entrepreneur in Residence.
“I tell them to follow their dream and understand their dream,” he said. “I also tell them, ‘Pick a dream that fits you like a jacket – fits your capabilities, your financial resources, your skills. If you don’t, you’ll have a more difficult road.’”
“That’s my job: seeing that students don’t overreach,” he added. “If it’s too large, a dream can kill you.”
That’s not to say that those students – or any aspiring entrepreneur – should think small, Martin said.
“The dream that fits them today isn’t the dream that will fit them tomorrow,” he said. “They get smarter and they gather resources and experience.”
Martin has seen his own dreams evolve and expand. After finishing a master of fine arts degree in theatre from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he began working in political management, part of a cadre that researched their client candidates’ opponents. He observed the process by which the resulting data became aggregated and organized into usable information.
A few years later, when he and a business partner founded Castle Branch (the name drawn from their mothers’ maiden names), Martin applied his understanding of data gathering and organizing to a growing business need – doing screening of client companies’ potential employees.
The company was successful, both in terms of growth and employee satisfaction.
When Martin moved the company from Chapel Hill to Wilmington 11 years ago, almost all the staff chose to follow. He saw that as “an indicator that we were doing something right.”
Castle Branch continued to thrive in its new environment, growing from an enterprise of about 35 employees at the time of the move to nearly 300 now. The company’s workforce has a large number of UNCW graduates, most of whom started as interns.
Many of those former interns got to know Martin through his work with the Cameron school.
“At the Cameron school, I help students manage their goals and define their business plans. I typically know someone who knows someone who can help them fulfill their dreams,” he said.
“I have lunch with students 20-30 times a year, I speak at the school occasionally and I provide advice and mentorship. It’s a big part of my life,” he said. “One coach, one day can make the difference – telling a young person, ‘You’re pretty good.’”
That doesn’t mean that Martin hands out compliments wholesale.
“I’m tough on them,” he said. “Sometimes, I’ll talk to a student who has maybe three semesters of college under his belt, and he’s excited about starting a business and wants to drop out of college. I tell him to repeat: ‘I am a high school graduate’ and ask him how that feels.
“He’ll say, ‘It doesn’t feel so good.’ I remind him that being a high school graduate is just one step up from ‘I am a high school dropout.’ So many doors are closed to you if you don’t have a college degree. College education is the foundation on which to build a business.
“My motto that I drill into everyone is ‘Try, fail, try, fail, try, fail, succeed.’ It’s what you do next after failure that defines who you are,” Martin said. “‘Try, fail, quit’ is a dead end. I try to instill the idea that it’s okay to fail if you have a good idea. As an entrepreneur, your job is not to quit. As long as you’re in the game trying, you’re a successful entrepreneur.
“Will you marry the first person you ever dated?” Martin asks students. “People go through a selection process, like in dating. Your business plan is same thing. You need to find something that works.”
Martin said he hates it when people hold up ultra-successful entrepreneurs, such as Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, as models for students or first-time business startups to emulate.
“They should emulate a person whose first and second businesses failed and who perhaps succeeded on the third try,” he said.
Martin’s longevity in one company is unusual for entrepreneurs, who typically like the visioning, planning and launching phases of business, but who fret under day-to-day maintenance responsibilities. The ever-evolving nature of Castle Branch, however, means that Martin’s work is never routine and always future-directed. He admitted that there would come a point when it’s time for him to exit the company. Some businesses fold when their main spark plug departs, but Martin is not worried about Castle Branch’s long-term survival.
“The most exciting thing about that prospect is that the company will outlive me because of the structure we’ve built,” he said. “We’re always growing, evolving. And we’re doing more different things now than we ever imagined.”
Evolution of its expertise has led Castle Branch to what are now its core services: helping students in allied health fields become certified to work in hospitals as externs or employees.
“There are 20-30 documents that must be verified, certified and shared with the hospital in order for a student to be employable,” Martin said. “We keep them on track, remind them of what they still need to do to complete that list. Then we verify [completion], certify it and share that information with the hiring hospital. Currently, 47 percent of allied health students – technicians, technologists, nurses, doctors – go through us. We’re working with 4 million students at any one time.”
Castle Branch is expanding those services beyond U.S. borders, Martin said, adding that the company is hoping to have Canadian allied health students soon. It’s got its eye on the market in England and Australia as well – two countries that Martin says have a similar need to the one Castle Branch addresses in North America: managing data.
Given Martin’s philosophy and the company’s history, it’s a safe bet that, even as Castle Branch looks to take its existing services abroad, its leaders are asking, “What’s next?”