InfoMart, a global provider of background screening and identity verification services, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. InfoMart has a reputation for first-to-market products that proactively push the screening industry's compliance, process, and technological standards. The Cumberland area-based company introduced the industry's first-to-market mobile onboarding and identity screening platform three years ago, a tool that other companies have just begun to develop while InfoMart pushes into new emerging markets. Anticipating the importance of data control, InfoMart developed the industry's first self-sovereign screening platform. InfoMart also introduced a nationwide criminal reporting network of 3,000 counties in the early '90s and the first system to allow electronic background check submissions.
In addition to consistently ranking as one of the top ten background screening providers, InfoMart is also the largest diverse-owned company in background checks.
Tammy Cohen, founder and chief visionary officer of InfoMart and 2019's most influential woman in background screening, recently spoke with CBJ Editor Katy Ruth Camp about how she started the company 30 years ago and the future of one of Cobb's most innovative companies.
Q: Congrats on 30 years. That's quite a mark.
A: Thank you! Yes, it’s just very interesting to think about how long you have you been involved in the community. I was like 25. I am one of the older ones now, but I still have that mindset that I'm still not in the older generation.
Q: Tell me a little about yourself and your life before Infomart.
A: I mostly grew up in New Orleans and before that, my family was from Oklahoma and my father was in the oil business and so he got transferred to New Orleans. And so it's exciting because, five or six years ago, I went to go get a second home. Then I decided, you know what, I want to go back to new Orleans instead of getting a beach house or mountain house. So now I have a house here right where I grew up like in the center of town. I went to a number of different colleges because I was in radio and TV and, back then, it was before table. I was originally the weather girl and then I became the first female news director for the University of Texas. I started moving to other schools because I was paying my way through college, doing voiceovers for Anheuser Busch and made my way to Dallas. I was an administrative assistant and it was the coolest job ever because the guy that I worked for, one was the former CFO of Pillsbury, that he was very big business. He had gone to MIT. And then the other guy that his partner was actually the youngest, multimillionaire and Dallas, and he was in the papers all the time. And I was his admin. So I learned a lot between them as far as how to run a business and build your business. From there, I moved to Atlanta and worked in Atlanta as an admin.
Q: What led you to Atlanta? You just got another job?
A; Yes. My sister was actually here and I was just ready for change. Dallas at the time was really big with real estate. There was lots of money and it was just a fast, fast pace. And I was just ready to slow it down a little bit. I was only 25, but I was just ready for change. So my sister was in Atlanta, so I came and I moved and lived with her and worked as a secretary.
Q: So where did the idea of InfoMart come from? Obviously, your career had led you a couple of different ways before that.
A: When I was working for this one company, we had this employee that sort of took advantage of us and our boss was like, there has to be a way to back to find out who these people really are before you hire them. So I did all the research and came back and it was expensive. It was around $150 per person. But because I'd worked in real estate, I knew that criminal records, the public records, those were free and because I'd worked a little bit in banking, I knew that credit reports could be accessed for less than a dollar. At that time, what I was doing was called executive administration and I did admin work for lots of single guys - coordinating their schedules, getting their clothes at the dry cleaners, and, back then, there were really no computers, so I was manually doing their checks and balancing their checkbooks. So when I quit my job, I just decided that I would go ahead and give looking into background checks as a business a try.
Q: That first year you started in 1989, was it just you or how many employees did you have?
A: I got on the phone because I was like, I don't have any money to make this work. I had one paycheck on the back end. So I started calling different people to see how I could make this work. Then, to call 411, we'd have to pay a dollar. It was very expensive to call directory assistance. Eventually, I found a guy and he said, you know, I had this idea to do this business and I don't like it. It was very manual, as you could imagine. At that time, people would fax in an employment applications that were 10 pages long. He said, "If you come and get this wall of phone books that I have, I'll give you these two accounts I have. I called my dad and I'm like, you get a truck tomorrow. We're leaving early and picking up all this wall of telephone books. After that, my first account that I landed was Atlantic Gaslight. Then I hired Amy Philip as a new apprentice. She would work at Chick-Fil-A in the morning making biscuits and then come to InfoMart after work and work for me. In about three months into it, I added my boyfriend at the time, who ended up being my ex-husband. So it really was just me then the three of us, in the beginning.
Q: How many employees do you have now?
A: We have around 170, but then we work with about 1,500 contractors annually. In the early days, your database based off of going through the cards at courthouses and you would call courthouses and get the criminal information over the phone. Well, the courthouses were getting tired of doing this for more background checks, so companies were coming into me. I sent out these flyers to all the courthouses and said, "Hey, you want to date some money on your lunch break? Give me a call." So we set up all these searchers at all these courthouses throughout the United States and some of them I still work with. And so I have one of the largest criminal networks of people to do background checks. So that all sort of started in the very early day. Part of what we do now is that we go to these people, we have an application, they basically sign in when they're at the courthouse and they do the searches and then send the information back to us. But the industry has changed. Before, it was the more employees you had, the bigger you are as a company but, in this day and age, the less employees you have means the more automated you are. So recently a workforce magazine put out their top 10 or their top 20 background screening companies and InfoMart fell into the top 10 largest companies. So we compete with the very highest in the industry.
Q: Was there a moment or a client or a milestone during the development of InfoMart that made you think, "This is really something special that's going to work?"
A: After 30 years of so many milestones there's one that came to my mind when you said that. Early on, we didn't have any money and I was eight months pregnant and we went to New York and meet with Philip Morris and they signed the contract right there. And that was a huge national account. And as we came down and out of the building, it was one of the main streets in New York and we had $30 in our pockets. It was such a big milestone because we were like, okay we, you know, we really struggle right now but we are gonna make it. We are gonna make it.
Q: What changes have you seen in your industry since you started 30 years ago? I'm sure now, with everything so automated and the advent of the internet, it's quite significantly changed how you do your business.
A: Oh yeah. Early on, we were considered high class because we used computers and most people didn't use computers. They would use fax machines but we knew how to work with word processors and spreadsheets. But if we wanted to pull a credit report in a grinding record, we'd have to go to terminals. So we'd have to retype the same person over and over and over. We did a class project at Southern Poly and what came of that was we were the first to market a client-facing application that exchanged a packet of information. So we were the first to come out with the automation for the industry. We put out the first application where you can actually use basically like stuffing to spring and start the whole background check process. And we're using artificial intelligence in the application. And now we're working on our block chain, which is gonna be an enormous change in the industry compared to what we've been using as far as databases throughout the past 30 years. So it's sort of interesting to see everything from the very first day when something was electronic to now where everything is digital.
Q: In your 30 years, have you been in Cobb the entire time?
A: Yes. I was just talking to Rob Garcia the other day because our first office was in the office building that was directly across the street from Johnson Ferry Baptist Church and my office window looked straight out onto the steeple. And every day knew when the bells would ring. It would be this like reminder of, okay, I'm being taken care of here. I have favor, I just gotta keep going. His bank was literally at the next corner across from us. But that's where we started and then through the years, we had different locations. And the building we're in right now, we've probably been there for 15 years or so and then went longer.
Q: What has made you stay in Cobb? What about Cobb has made you want to stay here rather than grow into another city or move?
A: Cobb is my family now. I would never think of leaving Cobb. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the people and the (Cobb) chamber and all the people in the community through the years who have helped us. Our first award and my first real award was the small business of the year award at the Cobb chamber. It was so exciting and so many of the people that helped us build the company were there. Everybody from Linda Coker and Judy Manning and Dr. (Betty) Siegel and just so many people, they and other ladies from Chamber of Commerce would tell me, don't wear that, wear this or, let me introduce you to this person and make sure you follow up with a card...They really taught me how to be a business person and taught me how much the community is important to the growth of my organization and my family.
Q: It sounds like you had a lot of great female mentors coming up. Obviously, we've made strides, but there's still far fewer female CEOs than there are males CEOs. Are you seeing a change any or did you have any particular challenges building the company just by being female?
A: Oh yes, definitely. I ran into some challenges, for sure, but not as much in Cobb. Cobb is always going to be a little more forward thinking and women leadership is respected and the men are very enlightened, supportive people. So I think I had that benefit, but I tell people that you know, it's going to happen no matter what area you're in. You're going to have these challenges and you can't focus on it. You have to keep moving ahead. So it has been challenging through the years, especially being in a security business in a male-dominated industry, but in those situations that you just handle them and keep moving forward.
Q: What motivated you to keep going? Was it just something instilled in you growing up or this kind of fire that you just have in you?
A: I loved business and my stepfather was an entrepreneur and my real father was an entrepreneur. When I was in high school, I was the head cheerleader and the principal got complaints because they said I was running cheerleading like it was a business. When we were raising money, I had a folder I carried with me. So I think I just always really loved that idea of running my own business. But, through the years, it becomes about the people at InfoMart and making them successful. I love seeing people that didn't come from much buy a home, get a new car, make more money than they ever thought they would make. So at InfoMart, we are very much into our culture and keeping our employees engaged. It is so dear to me that people learn and that they're constantly growing, constantly learning. The best thing you can ever do is to learn. I'm happy if you better job someplace else because you learned something. InfoMart is continuously wanting our employees to grow professionally, personally, whatever it might be. I feel very much that I am their steward. I am responsible for every single one of those people in their success.
Q: Many people, once they reach around 30 years, they retire. Do you have any plans for retirement, or do you want to be there another 30 years? What are your plans for the future?
A: I actually am enjoying InfoMart right now more than I ever have and, really, it's because my team is so strong. About five years ago, (Chief Operating Officer) Adam Townsend and I were talking and said, you know, we're really happy. This is moving smoothly, but is this just what we want or do we want to really be at the top? And we decided that we really had a lot of energy and we had so much experience that we really wanted to go all the way. So we started investing in a lot of innovation. We looked around globally and did a search and hired Marco Piovesan as our CEO. And he's actually one of the 100 global influencers and in identity. We had just been pushing, pushing. So when we did job titles, it was like, well, all of you guys are chief operating officer or that sort of thing and I don't want to be president. So I was like, y'all decide what that might be. So they came back and said you're our chief visionary officer, which I love because now I get to reinvent the industry and that's what we've been doing. And so I'm so excited. I can't imagine retiring at all right now.
Q: I wonder if it's true for you, that when you build a company up to where it is now, you can take a little bit of a breather. I'm sure there were so many late nights and long hours to build this thing from the ground up for many years.
A: I've always had a good team behind me. I do work a lot of hours, but I'm the kind of person that I really enjoy working those hours and I've used those hours to build InfoMart. I can't even explain how unbelievable the scene is an InfoMart. In our industry, our technology and our team are highly regarded and it just gives me the opportunity to constantly think about building InfoMart to be something new because everybody else knows what they're doing.