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Curion CEO Sean Bisceglia talks entrepreneurship with Crain’s – Crain’s Chicago Business

Sean Bisceglia doesn’t have the skill set that most would think of as a sure-fire pathway to success. He isn’t an engineer or lawyer or scientist. Not even a crackerjack salesman. A native of Pittsburgh, he has an ordinary undergraduate degree in communications from the College of Wooster in Ohio and started his business career as an advertising account executive in Chicago, overseeing the Alberto VO5 shampoo line, an unlikely assignment considering Bisceglia’s baldness. 

What Bisceglia is really good at is running companies, all of them youthful and some rescued from near-failure, then impulsively dumping his investment to move on to something else. Nearly every enterprise he’s touched has been a success, propelled by his organizational capabilities in marketing and hiring the right talent and merging with competitors to double and quadruple sales in just a few years. Maybe every private company hoping to grow needs somebody exactly like him. 

The current Bisceglia project is Curion in Deerfield, where he serves as CEO of a business that tests new products in front of consumers in such categories as health and beauty aids and home care. His clients include 65 companies from the Fortune 500. When he arrived two years ago Curion had annual revenues of $23 million and employed 98 people. The pandemic notwithstanding, today the company employs 325 and figures to hit $50 million in revenues for the full year. 

This time, the majority owner is Chicago-based Monroe Capital, which hatched Curion by merging two troubled market research firms, Tragon out of California and Q out of New Jersey, back in 2017. Monroe brought in Bisceglia to take a look, and he immediately saw the problem. 

“The business was run by scientists—researchers with PhDs and masters who knew food and not a lot else,” says Bisceglia, 57. “They had no salespeople or marketing. I knew what we had to do to light this company on fire.”

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So he hired a sales staff to call on the Fortune 500. Then he got Monroe to cough up the money needed to buy out a rival in Atlanta a year ago and also to expand the testing network beyond Deerfield, which hosted 25,000 consumers on-site last year, to cities like New York, Dallas and San Francisco. He’s even persuaded consumer-product giants like Kraft and Pepsi to allow Curion to come on board and run testing at their corporate campuses. He’s also expanded the product universe to include durables for the first time, testing things like vacuums and gas grills, and has even started a new division testing fast-food for restaurant clients. 

In the past Bisceglia has left companies when they got close to 400 employees, a time when the highly-personal culture he cultivates commonly has begun to balloon beyond control. This time he may hang around longer. “I stay with the company until it’s the right time to move on. I’m not the guy to take a company public. That’s a different exec,” he says. 

By now, he has the formula nearly down pat. In his mid-20s Bisceglia left Grey Advertising and the VO5 account to buy a Rosemont ad agency close to bankruptcy that he renamed TFA (for Totally Focused Approach). He was there seven years, finding new clients like Compaq Computer and Motorola and growing his staff from 20 people and $55 million in billings to 170 people and $200 million in billings before he sold out to Leo Burnett in 1998. In his seven years there revenues increased from $6.5 million to $30 million. 

After the sale Bisceglia stayed with Burnett for two years before deciding, “I really am an entrepreneur who needs to have control. I could not operate within the bureaucracy of a much bigger company, even one as fine as Leo Burnett.”

So he took a year off and then partnered with William Blair Capital Partners to acquire a staffing firm called CPRI in Barrington. He was there three years and quadrupled revenues from $5 million to $22 million after persuading big clients that it was OK to rely on temporary workers in critical departments like marketing. 

Sometime after that Bisceglia embarked on his only pure start-up, a company called TalentDrive that aggregated the job-seeking resumes collected by Monster and other job search destinations into a single online resource. That eventually merged into a Chicago firm, also headed by Bisceglia, called Scout Exchange that helped connect employers like Bank of America online with headhunters around the U.S. 

Bisceglia moves on “when I’ve built something too big and it’s time for me to leave.” He might be a candidate to go to work for a private equity house looking for corporate investment opportunities, but even that’s too institutional for him. Instead, he keeps looking for the next Big Idea. “I talk to advisors and analysts and even reporters and ask them what they see. What is the next new area that will be important?” Bisceglia says. “No matter what, I always need a project to be working on.”

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