Alumni Spotlight: Alex Riley, Finding Success on a Unique Path

Alex Riley describes his career path as “unique.” During his time at The University of Michigan, he spent his summers working for his parents’ grocery store, The Chelsea Market, as well as a demolition company owned by a high school friend. This meant he never had a traditional college internship acquiring work experience in the fields typical of his IOE and Mathematical Sciences majors.

“Many people would consider this a recipe for failure, but looking back this was one of the best decisions I ever made,” he says. “Solving everyday business problems with limited resources reinforced my ability to be creative and resourceful.  I learned what it was like to run my own business, and I developed a further respect for entrepreneurs.”

alex rileyHe and Patrick Beal, the friend he worked demolition with, were constantly dreaming up business ideas. In June 2010, they had an idea that would change and grow to become the MeritHall that exists today. Eventually, Alex recruited Paul Kaser, an Economics and German major from U of M, to help.

“Patrick and I had been working on a project in Detroit where we needed to find skilled labor.  After pursuing several avenues with no success, we realized that contractors needed a better way to connect with workers.  Our idea was to create a web-based platform (a hybrid of LinkedIn and Angie’s List) where contractors could find and hire screened workers that possessed the necessary skills to complete their projects,” Alex explains.

MeritHall started its first staffing project in Atlanta, Georgia during Alex’s senior year spring break. The group recruited, screened, and sourced employees for the demolition of a large hotel.  Paul and Alex returned to Michigan to run the business from afar while Patrick managed the labor back in Atlanta.  The Tuesday after Alex graduated from U of M, he and Paul opened the first MeritHall office in downtown Detroit. At that point, MeritHall took a different turn than originally planned but Alex and the rest of the group found a way to make it work.

“To this day we never finished developing our web-based network of contractors and construction workers like we originally intended,” he says. “This was my first failure as an entrepreneur.  We kept pushing forward with the business that we had evolved into: a staffing company.  We did everything we could to survive.  We decided to let our clients and our environment dictate what kind of company we would become.”

MeritHall today isn’t what he planned at the start but it is a success story. They began staffing general labor and skilled trades in construction.  In 2012, MeritHall expanded into landscaping and snow removal staffing.  In winter of 2014, they launched their materials division, helping their snow contractors acquire competitively priced bulk salt.  In 2015 they launched a consulting division.

In 2015, MeritHall was included on the INC 500, a list of America’s Fastest Growing Private Companies, and also appeared in Entrepreneur 360, a list of the Best Entrepreneurial Companies in America.  The organization was also invited to the Youth Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization of successful entrepreneurs under 40. Alex himself was recognized as 2015 Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the Michigan District Office of the Small Business Administration.

“This award provides validation to the last four years and it serves as a testament to the strength of our team,” he says. “MeritHall would not be where it is today without the efforts of our team.”

Alex says his favorite memory was meeting his wife Sarah Barjum (U of M ‘10), the night before the Michigan v Ohio State football game in 2007.  The two were married in Honduras in September of 2015. His classes and professors in IOE were also memorable.

“My two favorite instructors of all-time are Amy Cohn and Katta Murty.  I developed a passion for Operations Research in Professor Cohn’s IOE 310 class.  Professor Murty pushed me to never give up on myself. I fell behind in IOE 612 due to a series of illnesses my senior year.  Professor Murty never gave up on me and I ultimately managed to get caught up.  612 ended up being my favorite class I ever took at U of M,” he remembers.

Alex appreciates the broad career possibilities available to IOE majors and says his IOE education allows him to assess opportunities from a different perspective, giving him an advantage in his business. He encourages current IOE students to pursue a multi-disciplinary approach to their education. He also has some advice based on his own experience.

To current IOE students he’d like to say, “It’s okay to fail as long as you learn from your mistakes.  As a U of M student – especially an engineering student – you’re under constant pressure to perform both academically and socially.  At the end of the day, always remember that there are a lot of things that aren’t under your control, and you’ll likely face some kind of adversity throughout your time here.  It doesn’t matter if you fail, what matters is how you respond.”