Spokane Journal of Business

Elea Sprinkle: Leading Bureau’s Business Boom

Organization’s budget, staff, Web traffic are up

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-—Katie Ross
Elea Sprinkle, 34-year-old president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau here, with her dog and office mascot Teensy, says she hopes to add more office locations throughout the region. She became the local organization’s top executive in March 2012.

Elea Sprinkle, president and CEO of the Spokane-based Better Business Bureau of Eastern Washington, North Idaho, and Montana, says the organization has experienced significant growth in multiple areas in the last few years.

“Everything is up,” she says.

The Better Business Bureau, which is located in a 4,000-square-foot space the organization on the second story of the Jefferson Auto Loft Building, at 152 S. Jefferson downtown, has seen a revenue increase since Sprinkle took office, she says. From 2012 to 2014, Sprinkle says, the organization’s revenue has increased to $1.5 million from $1.2 million.

Sprinkle attributes the growth to an increase in the number of businesses accredited by the organization. Accreditation requires an annual or monthly fee, she says. 

“We’ve basically increased our retention and added more accredited businesses in our region,” she says. 

Sprinkle says the organization’s website traffic was up 45 percent in 2013 from 2012, along with its total business inquiries, which were 728,000 last year, up from 610,000 in 2012. A business inquiry, Sprinkle says, involves a user looking up a business on the bureau’s website, checking a company’s reviews, or searching for an accredited business within a specific inquiry.

“We’re a reporting agency, which means that, similar to Angie’s List or Yelp, people use our site to figure out who the reputable companies are,” she says. “Our ultimate goal is to lower business complaints because (consumers) have checked with us first.”

The Better Business Bureau, which employs 26 people here, also has expanded its services to businesses, Sprinkle says. 

“We’ve just done a lot of growth,” she says. “We’ve expanded our services to accredited businesses and (grown) our company culture. Also, serving a region that big with 26 people is an accomplishment … we help keep consumers from spending their money on businesses that don’t have good practices, and promote good businesses. We also have a very enthusiastic leadership team and a lot of good ideas come out of it.”

Sprinkle attributes the organization’s overall growth partly to the economic recovery, and partly to its increased offerings to businesses and consumers in the region.

“The programs we’re offering are much more robust than the offerings in previous years,” she says. 

The bureau here is affiliated with the Arlington, Va.-based Council of the Better Business Bureau, Sprinkle says, which also serves as the central networking hub for Better Business Bureaus in Canada. The national office sets the guidelines for all of the Better Business Bureaus, she says, but the 112 Better Business Bureau offices operate independently. 

Sprinkle, who is 34 years old, says she moved to Spokane with her family when she was in the ninth grade. Prior to that, her family lived all over the country, because her father was in the Secret Service, she says. Sprinkle graduated from Mead High School and attended Eastern Washington University, where she graduated in 2003 with a degree in business administration with a triple concentration in human resources, marketing, and general management. 

Sprinkle began working for Bank of America in 2001, while still at Eastern, she says. She stayed with the bank after graduation until she accepted a vice president of operations position at the Better Business Bureau in 2007. 

“I kind of had a hand in everything,” she says. One of her major projects was launching the organization’s communications department, she says. Sprinkle switched to the role of vice president of communications and marketing in 2011, and remained there until March 2012, when she accepted the position of president and CEO.  

Sprinkle succeeded Jan Quintrall, who left the bureau to become the director of business and developer services for the city of Spokane. Quintrall says that she and the board of directors at the organization decided to find and groom a replacement for her prior to hiring Sprinkle. 

“My board of directors said, ‘Jan, if you get hit by a bus and have to have your spleen removed, there’s no one in line to step up and replace you,’” Quintrall says. “They knew I was getting to an age where I’d either be retiring or moving on to a bigger business bureau, so we decided it was time to hire someone and groom them.”

Quintrall says she overheard a Realtor discussing his client, Sprinkle, and her work at Bank of America at a meeting, and asked the agent for Sprinkle’s contact information. 

“She and I had breakfast a few days later, and I knew instantly that this was the kind of youthful leadership the BBB needed,” she says.

Now, as CEO, Sprinkle’s responsibilities include leading the strategic growth plan for the organization, networking with local community leaders, overseeing staff, and budgeting. She also is a member of Greater Spokane Incorporated’s Small Business Council, the Mayor’s Small Business Advisory Group, Executive Women International, and Partners Advancing Character Education, among other organizations. 

In her free time, Sprinkle enjoys backpacking, exercising, and spending time with her two young children. 

“Bodybuilding, exercising, and weightlifting—those are my hobbies,” she says. “That and raising kids.”

One of the challenges facing this outlet of the Better Business Bureau, Sprinkle says, is the large region it covers, encompassing Eastern Washington, North Idaho, and all of Montana. The Spokane office is the only physical location for the region, Sprinkle says. 

Within its region, the organization is in charge of reviewing businesses for accreditation; giving informational presentations; educating businesses about emerging trends, such as search engine optimization; and handling the review process of businesses that apply to become accredited. The Bureau also handles complaints that arise about any of the roughly 80,000 businesses in the region, Sprinkle says. 

As of mid-June, the organization had 2,496 accredited businesses in its region, she says. That was up from 2,391 businesses at the end of last year. Once a business becomes accredited, it still has to maintain the standards set forth by the organization, she says. 

After a business applies to be accredited by the bureau, it must go through a vigorous vetting process, Sprinkle says. This includes confirming that the businesses is using good practices, is advertising itself honestly, represents itself and its products honestly, is transparent, guards privacy, and is responsive to its customers. 

“It’s then given to our board for final approval,” Sprinkle says. 

Accredited businesses also pay an annual or monthly fee, which varies depending on how many employees and locations a business has, Sprinkle says. She estimates about 80 percent of the businesses in this region fall in the small business range of $495 to $575 annually. A larger business with many employees and multiple locations, such as a large bank, could pay upwards of $10,000 annually, she says. 

Sprinkle says that a large number of businesses who apply for accreditation don’t pass the vetting process. 

“We turn quite a bit away, actually,” she says. 

As an example, Sprinkle says that until recently, Montana was less strict on some licensing requirements. When the licensing changed, some older businesses didn’t know they needed to get a new or updated license in order to meet the standards, she says. In that case, the Better Business Bureau would put the application on hold until the business renewed or updated its license, she says. 

Sprinkle says that one achievement she’s particularly proud of is the implementation of the bureau’s presentations program, which it usually offers to businesses for free. The bureau’s presentations cover a range of topics, she says, such as fraud and scam protection, investing, business ethics, and customer service. 

“The majority of them are free,” she says. “If a business requests a more tailored workshop, we charge a small fee.”

The organization gives presentations to students and other consumers in addition to business, Sprinkle says. 

Looking ahead, she says her next big goal is to open more bureau offices throughout the region.

“As much as people like online and digital, they like that too,” she says.

The state of Montana offers the Better Business Bureau the most opportunity for growth, Sprinkle says, because the organization has only had a presence there for the last decade, whereas it’s been operating in the Spokane area for a century. 

Increasing the organization’s online presence is another goal and challenge as a way to attract the younger generation, which also is a goal for the company, she says. 

“One of our challenges is to grab the attention … of the age demographic that spends 90 percent of their day on their phones,” Sprinkle says. The bureau networks with business groups that cater to a younger demographic, such as the Spokane Young Professionals, Sprinkle says. 

However, most businesses these days are owned by the more mature set, she says. 

“The current group of business owners isn’t in that (age) group,” she says. 

For businesses that are looking to foster and grow their young professionals, Sprinkle puts a heavy emphasis on business ethics and mentorship. 

“It’s not as black and white as it used to be; I really think it’s that focus on ethics in a digital world, where it’s so easy to cross that line,” she says. “They have so much access to information; they really need to be taught about crossing the line.”

Sprinkle also champions mentorship as a tool in developing young professionals, saying she’s had professional mentors who helped guide her on her career path. 

For her own future, Sprinkle says she wants to remain at the bureau to finish what she’s started.

“I fall between the generation that stays at a job 30 years and one that stays five years,” she says. “I want to stay around to support growth until it’s sustainable on its own … I love working with people and building organizations.”

Katie Ross
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Reporter Katie Ross covers manufacturing, hospitality, and government at the Journal of Business. An outdoor enthusiast and snowboard fanatic, Katie is a recent graduate of Gonzaga University.  

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