The seventh post in a series based on insights from the National Center for the Middle Market’s research initiatives, this article looks at the secret sauce for the fastest-growing middle market companies and explores how the recipe for success has changed (or not) over the past eight years.

When the Center completed its first exhaustive study of U.S. middle market businesses back in the fall of 2011, we found that 9% of mid-sized businesses grew at an annual rate of 10% or more during 2010 and 2011. At the time, these “Growth Champions,” as we dubbed them, were growing faster than the GDP by at least four times. Impressive, to say the least.

Since then, the U.S. economy, for the most part, has improved steadily, if slowly. And today, the middle market as a whole consistently outperforms larger and smaller businesses. The average rate of annual revenue growth in the middle market has fluctuated some over the years with a few notable dips and spikes. But overall, the market has shown persistent, healthy gains.

The Growth Champions, however, have truly come into their own, setting themselves apart from the pack by leaps and bounds. Between the first quarter of 2012 and the last quarter of 2016, the top quintile of middle market companies boasted average annual growth of a whopping 24.5% compared to 9.7% for the second quintile and 6.5% for the middle market as a whole during the five-year period.

The question is this: to achieve such stunning rates of success, have the Growth Champions changed their tune? Or have they continued to do what they do best, getting better all the time and realizing synergies that further compound their growth and set their performance on fire?

Interestingly, it appears to be the latter. While there are more Growth Champions growing at much faster rates today than in 2010/2011, they appear to mostly be growing by exploiting the same key characteristics and capabilities that were important eight years ago. And, even more interesting, those capabilities appear to enhance and ignite each other, possibly accelerating growth even more. Here’s a look at some specifics:

Market expansion remains the key to growth.

In the Center’s 2012 Blueprint for Growth report, which first outlined the characteristics of Growth Champions, we found that the fastest growing firms were much more likely to believe in the importance of strengthening existing customer relationships and acquiring new customers, and that they placed greater weight on increasing the effectiveness of their salesforce than their slow-growing peers. In our recent report, The DNA of Middle Market Growth, we learned that market expansion (selling more to existing customers and acquiring new ones) is indeed the most important management-controlled factor in the growth equation. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of companies growing at 30%+ per year consider themselves very adept at entering new geographies. Then and now, the fastest-growers have also been much more willing to look outside the U.S. to find buyers for their wares.

Marketing and communication help fuel expansion.

If expansion is growth, then the onus for that expansion cannot rest solely on the shoulders of the sales team. Yes, the data support the need for great salespeople. But reaching new customers in new places takes marketing prowess, too. Back in 2012, we found that Growth Champion executives were 23% more likely than their counterparts to view marketing and communications as a key contributor to growth. Growth leaders still have a marketing edge: 67% say their marketing is first class. That number drops to 50% for slower-growing firms.

You still have to put it on paper.

A formal middle market growth strategy process was critical then and remains critical now. In fact, one subset of rapid growers uncovered in our recent DNA report relies primarily on a formal growth strategy (not expansion) to drive growth. And for all others, formal middle market growth strategy directly contributes to or causes the expansion that drives growth. The fastest-growing companies have more than an annual budget: they have well-documented, long-term growth plans that likely set forth the details on how and where they will expand.

Investment in innovation pays dividends.

Investing in innovation related to both products and services and business processes has always set Growth Champions apart. At the beginning of the decade and now, the companies that grow fastest prioritize ‘new’ and ‘better’ in what they have to offer, and in how they go about offering it. As with formal growth strategy, investment and innovation connect directly to expansion. In other words, companies that wish to find new customers in new places need to be committed to developing new ways to attract their attention.

Talent matters.

The Growth Champions of 2012 were hiring, even when other firms weren’t. Back then, the annual average employment growth rate for the middle market was just 1.5% (Q1 2012). Today, it has reached nearly 7%, according to the Middle Market Indicator. This suggests that the ability to recruit and attract the best talent is even more important now since competition for those people is much stiffer than it was eight years ago. As a result, today’s growth leaders are not just good at recruiting; they have found ways to develop people from within. The 30%+ growers are streets ahead of others in career pathing, training, and developing their people. These talent capabilities (attracting and retaining staff and developing people from within) both connect to formal growth strategy, which in turn, drives expansion and growth.

Stay the course. Advance on the continuum.

In our earliest research, the Center set forth the idea that growth is a continuum: As companies begin to take on the Growth Champion characteristics and attitudes, they gradually ascend a ladder to accelerated growth. Our newest middle market strategies research supports this notion and provides further evidence that the growth factors impact and influence each other. What’s the lesson here? If you’re looking to grow, focus on the capabilities that the best of the best have always done well. Because when you become better in one area, it drives the others, adding more fuel to your growth pursuits.