Staffing Industry Spotlight: David Ballew, Founder and CEO of Nimble Global

In this insightful interview on Ascen's Staffing Industry Spotlight Series, David Ballew shares with Mickey Pelletier the contingent workforce and staffing industry's evolution and future trajectory. From David's unexpected entry into the field to his journey of reinvention with Nimble Global, readers are treated to a wealth of firsthand experiences and invaluable insights, including David's extensive history in staffing and contingent workforce management, from his humble beginnings at Kelly Services to his pivotal role in shaping the MSP landscape at MSX International. David provides a deeper understanding of the critical role compliance plays in contingent workforce management, along with the challenges and opportunities it presents. From the impact of AI and technology to the shifting dynamics of staffing agencies and direct sourcing, the interview paints a vivid picture of the industry's dynamic landscape as David reveals his vision for the industry's future and the exciting possibilities. With anecdotes, expert analysis, and candid reflections, David's journey offers an optimistic point of view about the future of contingent workforce management.
June 30, 2024

Mickey Pelletier Hey David, thanks for taking the time to sit down with me and do this interview. To kick things off, could you introduce yourself and share a bit about your role?

David Ballew Who am I? So, David Ballew, pronounced like Baloo bear – the Disney character. I live in the UK, and have been for 13 years. I was brought over because of a change in position with the company I was with before. I lead Nimble Global today and we've been in business a little over five years.

But what does that mean? So, we’re headquartered in London and our projects have now touched over 90 countries, 91 – to be specific, and that’s ranging from contingent workforce consultancy through to compliance. I’ve been around for 30-plus years in this business, so I've seen a lot of the evolution of where we've come from, and hopefully where we're going.

Mickey I want to hear a little bit more about that. Tell me about your history in the staffing and the contingent workforce space. Have you always been doing staffing and contingent workforce, or did you get into that later in your career?

David Contingent workforce was a second career. Excellent question really because my original career was completely nonrelated. It was on the creative side, and I fell into this business really by accident.

I had left Detroit and my parents had called and said, “Hey, do you think it's a good time to maybe get back into business again?” I said sure but hadn't set an alarm clock for three years.

My mother said, “Why don't you get a temp job to get yourself back into the swing of things?”

So, I ended up at Kelly Services World Headquarters in Troy, MI, doing a data entry job for $8.50 an hour. It was a two-week assignment. I finished in less than 3 days. Funny enough, I’m still in contact with my original manager that I reported to, all these years later. But she said, “No, you can't be finished.” I was.

From there, they had me on another project, and one thing led to another, and I had been there for several weeks, which turned into several months, and I was really loving the business. Kelly said, “Would you like to work for us full-time?” I agreed and relocated to Chicago. One thing led to another, and then I eventually ended up on a very small team of people, 3 of us, that created the MSP, which is now Kelly OCG, The MSP business for Kelly Services – our very first MSP was Kraft Foods in Northfield, IL. We had about 350 IT contractors and we were using Excel spreadsheets and access databases to manage them, so we’ve come a long way.

Mickey So that was your first step into the contingent workforce and staffing space. Building on that, where did you go from there before you ended up starting Nimble?


I was with Kelly for six years then with MSX International for the next 18 years. MSX, was originally a company called GRI – Geometric Results. It was a subsidiary owned by Ford Motor Company. That was the very first MSP in the world and the very first VMS technology, which at the time was called PeopleNet.

So, Ford created the MSP concept as well as the VMS technology to support a need that they had that wasn't being met by the market. MSX acquired GRI from Ford and formalized that as a business unit within the MSX umbrella. Then I came along in 2000 and was there until 2018. And then we were acquired, and redundancies followed. I was part of that redundancy. During this period, I got married, my mother was at the end of her cancer journey, and I went back to the USA to spend this time with her. Everything always works out for a reason, right? I think sometimes we just don't know why, but my future was excellent.

I got a phone call from a former supplier who said, “Hey, I've won an MSP project. Can you help me? I've only worked in staffing.”

That led to a project, and that sparked my passion again. I really enjoyed it, and I was like, you know what, let's do some more of this. So, I helped them out a few more times, and then one thing led to another, and I decided to formalize and open a consulting firm for the contingent workforce space. So that's how it all happened. I was back.

Mickey I like that! I want to go back a little there in your history – it's interesting, there's a rich history in the automotive industry around the early days of the MSP and in the VMS. You cited that with Ford and there is other work with GM as well, and things that we're going in the Detroit metropolitan area, and I think there's certainly a lot of the companies that got early starts there in the MSP and VMS space. That's really cool to hear you talk about that.

You also talked about how you came back into the industry, and you started Nimble Global. Tell me a little bit more about what Nimble Global is now that you've formalized it after realizing you were going to go out on your own.

David Well, we started as a consultancy firm in the MSP/VMS space and then probably 9 to 12 months ago, I made the decision to move into the compliance area, and it was really a self-evaluation. You know you have to ask yourself, are we doing the right thing? Are we addressing the right problems in our world of contingent workforce management? I saw a huge gap which is compliance. Everybody talks about compliance.

I say people play compliance, but do people actually do compliance? That's left to be challenged. Significantly challenged in today's world.

So, in VMS and MSPs, there are tick boxes, there are workflows that support compliance. But really, when you get into the nitty-gritty of what compliance is both from a tech and a services perspective, there are many, many gaps behind the scenes.

Mickey We talked about compliance, but what does that really mean and what is Nimble looking at when you evaluate the compliance of some of these operations?

David Yeah, it started with where you would probably think it would, which was worker classification, and everybody talks worker classification.

Mickey That's sort of the go-to when you think of compliance within contingent workforce, but there's more to it than that.

David Yeah, there is. Well, we have 81 different categories for compliance that are audit-related. Obviously, that number will change depending on the jurisdiction. So where are we in the world, and what country we’re in? Some countries allow certain audits, some do not, but overall, there are 81 different categories that we audit against.

So, when I hear the industry talking compliance related to freelancers and independent contractors, you know, plug in the word you want to choose, I tend to smile because I think, wow, that's a very small, but important part, of the bigger picture. Consider things like contractor onboarding forms, supplier onboarding forms, supplier certificates of insurance – which there's a gap in the industry and this is what we found. The people behind the scenes who are managing the workflow and responsible for maintaining compliance and auditing for compliance, in most cases, have not had the appropriate training.

For example, when they open a certificate of insurance for a supplier, they really don't know what they're looking at. They may be able to do a match, so maybe they’ll see limit of 5,000,000 – do they have 5,000,000 on the on the certificate? Yes, they do. OK, great, they're compliant, not realizing that the policy number is actually a Binder.

And that is not a policy number at all, so this is where things fall through the cracks. Unfortunately, this is where things really start to spark up a financial risk, and quite frankly, reputational risk, which is sometimes more important than the financial risk. The last thing you want is to be on the front page of the New York Times because something's happened in the business and someone failed to do their job appropriately, often at no fault of their own

Mickey I want to interject really quickly. You're talking about policy numbers, and you mentioned a Binder – what is that?

David In the insurance world, binders are equivalent to a quote and is only valid for a short period of time – it’s not an actual policy number.

Mickey Wow, that's fascinating. You're able to help companies root that out to make sure that this isn't just a quote, this is a set up policy that will protect you.

David Correct. But if you don't know what to look for, the certificate of insurance appears to be compliant because you see it's got a number with some letters and think - OK, that must be a policy. Well, actually, no, it's not a policy that's a binder. That's just one example of what to look for.

But then you end up in situations where you have smaller suppliers, who quite frankly, it either doesn't make good business sense to go out and purchase a policy at the limit required, or perhaps the level of insurance coverage required doesn’t really match up to the level of risk.

Maybe they only have two people sitting in a finance department - it just doesn't make sense. So there needs to be some level of adjudication and corrective action where you can go out and have those intelligent conversations based on what does the business require and why – what is the real level of risk and what is the client’s tolerance to risk? And then what are we willing to accept?

This is where the industry often falls short. It becomes, “Here's your contract. Take it or leave it. These are the requirements. Take it or leave it.” And the real world doesn't operate that way. That's not how business is conducted globally. So there needs to be some level of reasonable discussion when you do look at: What are we trying to achieve here with specific compliance related matters?

Oftentimes it falls back to the supplier contract, which rolls up to the Master Services Agreement between the MSP and the client. But most clients, if you get past the MSP and have the conversation with the client who ultimately would be signing off on that adjudication rule - most clients are very reasonable and happy to sign off, and then we execute a contract amendment or an addendum, whichever is required.

So, everything is documented, everything is buttoned down, and at the end of the day, when we go back to doing audits, guess what? Everything's compliant because, the client has approved. This is also a significant benefit for the MSP. Why? The MSP is mitigating the transfer of risk triggered by the supplier’s contract requirements.

Mickey Interesting because the contingent workforce industry is such a niche industry itself. And then you go into very small areas such as compliance, which obviously is very crucial – you cited why it really matters, but it almost becomes an afterthought in an industry that is sometimes considered an afterthought itself. So, you definitely found a niche focus.

I love talking to you because you've been doing this a little over five years, right, with Nimble, and it's taking you a while to land on compliance being one of your core focuses. What other items were you focusing on at Nimble prior to compliance?

David When we started off, we were a generalist consultancy firm, and when you're a startup, you go after everything and anything you can find in order to generate revenue. So hence, we were looking for projects that were contingent workforce related across the whole spectrum of services. As time progressed, and I think it's a natural sort of amalgamation of what you end up with, but it's always going to be dynamic.

So yes, we are 90% compliance at this point in our business as far as the revenue is concerned, that is our primary focus. Will that be our focus five years from now, maybe not? With artificial intelligence kicking in and technology taking things to the level that it is and will continue to do, that innovation will most likely drive our focus down another path.

But the beauty of having the name “Nimble,” we will continue to be nimble. We will pivot as we need to, depending on what's happening, not just in the contingent workforce world, but in the IT world. That's the beauty of being nimble.

Mickey The name represents the focus or maybe the ability to focus on what's needed at the time. Very nimble, very agile. I love that. You talk about the dynamics of the industry and obviously going back to your days at Kelly, how have you seen the industry change since you joined it?

David Sometimes I smile because when talent pools came along, which wasn't that long ago, I remember thinking: OK, in the late 90s, early 2000s, we had contractor catalogs, which were very similar to what a talent pool is today. And there were similar challenges back then, I.E., keeping contractor data refreshed, right? And the industry still has issues with talent pools and keeping contractor data fresh. So, it was kind of funny when talent pools rolled around and it was all the rage. That's all everybody could talk about, hence we've moved on to AI, but for a while there, it was talent pools.

I do remember thinking: look, 20-something years ago, we had this concept. We're just rehashing it. You do see over time, if you've been around long enough, you do see things being, what I call rehashed, in the market. Now, can they come back differently? Sure, different, better technology has evolved, and that's fantastic. Similar to the VMS world, I remember there being no VMS tools.

I've watched that evolution take place, and each technology subsector within our contingent workforce space, like VMS versus direct sourcing versus the talent pool, etc., has its own specific journey. Some have done an absolutely bang-out job keeping up with intelligence and innovation, and others, quite frankly, have lacked on that innovation side.

Mickey The industry's funny because it's very cyclical. Ideas of that have been around, we recycle those, and we dress them up a little bit with maybe a newer technology or a new advance in methodology. But things kind of come full circle. Not that we're doing the same thing. We're doing very similar practices, but we're doing them better, more efficiently.  Now, we brand them differently, and they catch on. I think that's a fascinating component of the industry, and obviously, you're observing the same as well.

We talked about how you've seen the industry change. If you were to put on your Nostradamus predictor hat, where do you think the industry will be in the next 5 to 10 years, and what do you think will change from here?

David I am so excited. You have no idea how excited I am about this. Just the changes we've seen in the last two years with the introduction of AI. And is it truly AI? That's probably a whole other conversation that we could have. Is it more automation than AI? It's probably more algorithm-driven than what I would consider to be true AI, but that's again another conversation. I think where we're going as a continuation of the automation, I think that the trajectory of that evolution is going at light speed.

It's kind of funny, I'm really dating myself there, but flashback to some of those old TV programs – Lost in Space or Star Trek, the original series. You think, wow, where we are now, and how the power of your mobile phone is more than the technology that was on the Apollo, that went out to space.

So, you think, where are we going with all this? I think the industry is going to continue to reinvent itself. I think direct sourcing is going to continue, especially after COVID, and now we have a completely different world where people are working globally remotely. But then you've got cross-border challenges, which factors back into compliance.

But I think direct sourcing will continue to evolve and become more and more. And with that are going to be significant changes in the AOR and EOR industry - huge, huge, huge change is already happening. Again, compliance is a very big part of that.

I think there will also be a diminished reliance on staffing agencies, the suppliers, within the ecosystem. I think the use of suppliers will continue to go down unless staffing agencies are able to really market and position themselves as perhaps highly specialized in whatever the latest and greatest happens to be.

I think of skills today, and Africa being the hotbed of AI talent. But you ask a lot of people, where would you go for AI talent? Most people would not say Africa, but that is where the talent sits today, and that's backed by data.

So, there are a lot of things happening in our industry, and I don't know where it will go. I wish I were Nostradamus because I'd be buying a lot of stock if I were, but yeah, I'm excited. I can't wait to see what happens in our industry, just for the next 12 to 18 months.

Mickey You cited so many interesting things here. From AI to Africa to direct sourcing and the way suppliers and agencies may be diminishing until they can change their trajectory and their own scope and come in with niche services. I think that's such an interesting space and there's a lot to unpack there.

One last thing I wanted to ask you; you talked about reinvention. You started Nimble, which was going independent. You started much later in your career, at a time when you could have retired, I think that's interesting for people that may be thinking about either retiring or reinventing themselves and starting fresh, starting new. What advice do you have to anybody that may be going down a similar path and looking to go out on their own? Because I think your story shows that at any age, any point in your career, you can do that.

David Yes, I'm a firm believer in fresh starts. The driver for me to retirement was not wanting to enter back into that corporate structure. My experience at the end was very negative. That necessarily wasn't the company, but it was people that drove that negative experience. Fortunately, I was able to begin consulting and be independent from a financial perspective, whereas I do understand a lot of people perhaps are in different situations.

The excitement came when I got that phone call from a prior supplier who said: “I need your help.”

That was based on their experience with me several years prior to that, so it was sort of like a punch in the arm to say, “Hey, you know your stuff, don't doubt yourself and maybe you can reenter the market from a different position.” And so that's what I did. I decided to do that independently, not having to rely or be dependent upon a corporate structure and certain people involved in it.

That was really the ethos of Nimble, which is: real people, real action, real innovation. Now that “real action,” the one in the middle, used to be, up until about a year ago, was, “real feelings.” So, “real people, real feelings, real innovation,” and that was the driver. My experience of how I exited the corporate world was the driver behind the ethos behind Nimble today, and has since moved from, “feelings,” to, “action.” I think they are still directly connected cause how you feel is going to impact how you act.

I cannot stress enough the importance of people. You know, we're in the people business. That's what we're in; and ethics and how you treat people? I've said this before, and you know I've been quoted on this: empathy. Empathy is not something you just decide one day to turn it on or turn it off. You either have it or you don't.

Unfortunately, there are many leaders in the industry who do not have certain levels of empathy. So really good leaders will bring on people who do have that empathy to balance out the team at the C-Suite or the executive level. But there are some that don't have that level of awareness and therefore do not take those actions. That’s the difference between an executive and a leader.

The beauty of owning a company without having investors is that I decide who we do business with and who we do not do business with. We have walked away from business opportunities purely for that reason. There have been third party partners that I've chosen not to do business with for that reason, so I encourage people to look internally, and if you have these strengths, go for it.

What's the worst going to happen? You end up back in the corporate world at some point if that's the worst case. But then you decide who you're going to work for, and with the awareness that you now have, you're going to make a different decision as to which company, and which business culture, you decide you want to work for.

And that's the benefit of the current labor market. The options are endless now that we've got a global economy and people can choose where they want to live, where they want to work -- it's an incredible opportunity for people today. The younger people, the younger generations coming up, have no idea how fortunate they truly are in today's world. It's a great place to be.

Mickey I think that's a really good perspective and good advice of things for people to think about as they consider what they want to do with their corporate jobs or possibly going independent. Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with me and answer all these questions and learn a little bit more about yourself and what you do.

David Thank you for asking. I really appreciate it.


Book a meeting with Ascen


Get in touch, and we will get right back to you. Our team is ready to advice you on the right ways to start, and grow...

Email us

Thank you! Your submission has been received and you will hear from us shortly.
Something went wrong while submitting the form. Please try again.
Calendly solution pending...