Friday , December 14, 2018


There’s the old saying, “Timing is everything,” but the folks at Bissell Hotels have proved that wrong on a couple of occasions, when the timing couldn’t have been worse.

H.C. “Smoky” Bissell and his team were putting the finishing touches on a new luxury hotel in their Ballantyne master planned community in southCharlotte. After years of planning and construction, the hotel was just weeks from opening. Then the world changed forever on September 11, 2001.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, hotels worldwide saw occupancy rates plunge as companies curtailed travel plans amid security concerns and an economic downturn. Although a very challenging time to launch a new hotel, just two weeks after 9/11 Ballantyne Resort opened for business as the first true luxury-class property in the Charlotte region.

Even before the events of 9/11, many had questioned the viability of a luxury class hotel in what was still a relatively new, emerging south Charlotte business park. But Bissell and his team had a crystal-clear vision of what Ballantyne would someday become, so despite the challenges and the risks, they were committed to moving ahead and making the project a success.

Today, The Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge is the flagship of the Bissell hotel portfolio in Ballantyne. Along with three sister properties—Courtyard by Marriott, Staybridge Suites, and the Aloft—Bissell now owns and manages nearly 600 hotel rooms providing a variety of service levels and price points for Ballantyne clients and visitors.


Joining the Bissell Family

Bissell Hotels is the hospitality division of The Bissell Companies, an organization specializing in commercial real estate development, office leasing, property management, real estate investments, and hotels. Bissell also has ancillary interests in golf, spa, and media businesses. The company is most noted for two of the Southeast’s most successful mixed-use communities—SouthPark and Ballantyne.

Leading Bissell Hotels is President and COO Joe Hallow. Born in Charlotte, but raised in eastern North Carolina, Hallow returned to his birthplace in the early 1990s as a sales manager for Lanier. Subsequently, he joined medical device manufacturer Boston Scientific and spent the next decade traveling the country in a variety of sales and management roles.

“Working for a Boston-based company, it was hard to stay connected locally and to get to know the city,” recalls Hallow. “I was a Charlotte guy on the weekends, but I was gone during the week.”

So when father-in-law Smoky Bissell invited him to join The Bissell Companies in 2003, he decided the time was right to get off the road and work for a Charlotte-based organization.

Hallow’s first six months or so with Bissell were spent evaluating the business and getting to know the team. But with the rapid growth and early success of Ballantyne came a realization that more vertical focus was needed on some of their assets.

“I certainly didn’t know how to check anybody into a hotel, but we made the decision that I would move into hospitality, and with the help of a great team, we began to evaluate our assets and our position in the market,” explains Hallow. “We wanted to make this a self-sustainable, thriving business unit within The Bissell Companies.”

When Hallow assumed leadership of the hotel team, Bissell was operating four lodging properties—three in Ballantyne, plus The Park Hotel at SouthPark. But in March 2006, they sold The Park to Marriott to help create capital for office expansion in Ballantyne.

“It was very tough for the Bissell family to divest The Park Hotel,” admits Hallow. “It had been a part of the family since the mid-1980s.”


Ballantyne’s Innkeeper

With 200 guest rooms, 14 suites, a 35-room Lodge retreat, a four-room Cottage, and 30,000 square feet of meeting space, The Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge is Bissell’s flagship luxury property. A part of Starwood’s The Luxury Collection and an AAA Four-Diamond award winner, the hotel focuses on the corporate group market, corporate travelers, and the social wedding market (the hotel has already booked a record 59 weddings for 2012).

The rustic Lodge retreat, which opened in 2002, focuses on hosting private groups, corporate team building, and corporate board meetings.

The Ballantyne Hotel is also home to Gallery Restaurant and The Spa at Ballantyne, both Forbes Four-Star recognized establishments. The Golf Club at Ballantyne is one of the top daily fee golf courses in the region and has been rated 4.5 stars by Golf Digest. Golf Magazine has also consistently rated Ballantyne’s Dana Rader Golf School as one of the top 25 schools in the nation.

The hotel opened in 2001 without a major global affiliation, making it difficult to sell to corporate travel offices in places like New York and Atlanta.

“They had no idea who we were,” concedes Hallow. “But we needed these larger feeder market travelers to help make The Ballantyne Hotel a sustainable asset.”

So Hallow’s first order of business was to make sure quality and service levels were equal to what these travelers experienced at other luxury hotels. Next, they needed a connection to a broader worldwide marketing organization, and Starwood’s The Luxury Collection seemed like the perfect fit.

“Our target travelers were staying in New York or San Francisco the night before, so there could be no drop off when they arrived in Charlotte,” Hallow continues. “And with Starwood, we liked that we would be in a collection of unique hotels like The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona; San Francisco’s Palace Hotel; and Hotel Danieli in Venice, Italy.”

Originally called Ballantyne Resort, the hotel has now been rebranded as The Ballantyne Hotel & Lodge.

“Clearly 2008 and 2009 were challenging years for most businesses,” explains Hallow. “There were quite a few of our larger customers that could no longer meet at resorts, so if ‘resort’ was in our name, it became a challenge in that environment. But while that triggered the change, we had actually discussed making the move as early as 2005 or 2006 when we first affiliated with Starwood. They always felt ‘hotel’ might fit better with the markets we serve.”

Bissell owns and operates all of its hotels under franchise agreements with the hotel brands, and each property is targeted at market segments that complement the Ballantyne area. The first hotel in Bissell’s Ballantyne collection was the 90-room Courtyard by Marriott, which opened in 1998. The Courtyard caters to the business traveler, the weekend traveler, and the overnight wedding market.

The Staybridge Suites opened in early 2001 and targets the extended stay traveler with its 118 studio, one bedroom, and two bedroom suites.

The newest hotel in Ballantyne is the Aloft, a 136-room LEED-certified property with a youthful, modern, and energetic ambiance that opened in November 2009.

“If the worst time to open a hotel was two weeks after 9/11, maybe the second worst time to open a hotel would be the fall of 2009,” laughs Hallow. “The Aloft struggled out of the gate and didn’t approach the pro-forma that was built for it in 2006-2007. But it quickly became financially sustainable after that first year, and this year it has really exploded. So far, 2012 looks like a really robust year for the entire portfolio and our 12-month backlog looks much more promising today than it did a year ago or a year and a half ago.”

As Ballantyne grows, so will the need for more hotel rooms. A recent rezoning will allow over one million additional square feet of office space, 600 residential units, and 200 more hotel rooms. It is important to Bissell to stay ahead of the market, ensuring that Ballantyne has adequate hotel capacity.

“We have already started evaluating what hospitality product will be next for Ballantyne,” says Hallow. “We’re a live, work, stay, play concept out here. If our tenants have guests coming to Ballantyne and they have to stay five or 10 miles down the road, that is probably not a good thing for us.”

Though Bissell’s core business is development, Hallow and his team have turned Bissell Hotels into a major player in the Charlotte hospitality business.

“Joe has demonstrated great leadership and tenacity during one of the most challenging economies in history,” says company founder Smoky Bissell. “His energy is such that sometimes many who work side by side with him do things that they never thought themselves capable of achieving. Joe has truly elevated our hotel portfolio, and I can’t wait to see what’s next for us in hospitality.”


Selling Charlotte

Hallow has a unique perspective on the state of the tourism industry inCharlotte as the chairman of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA). The CRVA is responsible for marketing Charlotte as a tourism destination and managing Charlotte’s public assembly facilities—Time Warner Cable Arena, Charlotte Convention Center, NASCAR Hall of Fame, Bojangles’ Coliseum, and Ovens Auditorium. The CRVA CEO is Tom Murray, a 30-year veteran of the hotel and hospitality business who came on board last December.

After struggling through some lean years during the recession, Hallow says the Charlotte hospitality industry seems to be on the mend.

“We were gaining inches through 2010 and 2011, but in 2012, we’ve gone vertical,” he says with confidence. “Our occupancy rates are up considerably, but our average daily rate still lags that of the other large markets we compete with. We have grown so fast, but the larger markets had a major head start in the development of higher-end lodging properties.”

“Our primary competitors for conventions used to be more third-tier cities,” explains Hallow. “But today, we’re competing with more first- and second-tier cities like Boston, Atlanta, and Baltimore.”

Hallow attributes Charlotte’s elevation to three primary factors: rapid population growth combined with a culture that accepts newcomers and encourages them to become engaged in the community; strong leadership shown by the banks and other Charlotte business and civic leaders who made amenities like Time Warner Cable Arena, the Convention Center, and the NASCAR Hall of Fame a priority; and the connection that our airport and US Airways has given us to the rest of the nation and the world.

Major events like the Wells Fargo Championship, the CIAA Basketball Tournament, the Belk Bowl, the recent NRA Convention, and the Democratic National Convention are also important engines for the tourism and hospitality business in Charlotte.

“Those types of events don’t just help our businesses thrive; in many cases they help our businesses survive,” says Hallow. “We do not have the transient base of travel in this city that Atlanta has, so we need to embrace major events.”

The Democratic National Convention (DNC) is an example of how success in hosting major events breeds more success.

“You don’t just go from the kind of conventions we had in the early 1990s and all of a sudden get a DNC,” says Hallow. “You’ve got to show a pattern of success and deliver a quality experience. The DNC is a huge win, but now we must be successful with that event to win even more opportunities.”

He says hotels and motels throughout the Charlotte region are booked solid for the Convention, with some impact extending as far away as Columbia andGreensboro.


The Next Level

Whether it is ensuring that guests are greeted with a smile when they check into a Bissell hotel, or helping to chase the next big tourism event for the Charlotte region, Hallow is always looking to take things to the next level.

“In hospitality, having a quality product is great, but it is secondary to delivering an exceptional experience for our guests; and that comes from our people,” he explains. “If you make a great first impression in the first 15 minutes after the guest arrives, you have a great chance at getting them to come back or give you a referral. We’re very fortunate to have top quality general managers in all of our hotels to help make that happen.”

For the city of Charlotte, Hallow says the key to competing at the next level is teamwork between the hospitality industry, other business leaders, and elected officials.

“We don’t have a mountain range or breaking waves like some of our competitors do,” he concludes. “So we win when we work together. With the leadership of this team now, I think we can begin taking it to an entirely different level. It’s fun to be in this city and to get work with so many great people.”

For five days in early September, the eyes of the world will turn to Charlotte as the 2012 Democratic National Convention comes to town. It’s perhaps the most significant national event to ever come to the Queen City, with over 35,000 delegates, government officials, celebrities, media, and demonstrators expected during the week of Labor Day.

With all of this attention comes a host of challenges, not the least of which is providing for public safety and convention security. Thousands of demonstrators are expected, and as the nominating convention for a sitting president and vice president, the DNC will require an even larger security apparatus than the Republican Convention being held the week before in Tampa.

The point man for security is Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney D. Monroe. For the last three and a half years under Chief Monroe’s leadership, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) has seen crime rates fall to their lowest levels in decades. Now with the DNC coming to town, Chief Monroe has a whole new responsibility before him—ensuring a safe and trouble-free convention.


Accountability and Community Involvement

A native of the Washington, D.C., area, Chief Monroe is a 34-year veteran of law enforcement. After becoming a police officer in 1979, he served for 21 years with the D.C. police force before moving on to become the chief of police in Macon, Ga. In February 2005 he was named chief in Richmond, Va., where he served until he was appointed chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in June 2008.

In the three and a half years Monroe has been in Charlotte, crime has dropped by over 30 percent to the lowest rate in more than 20 years. The improvement is across the board, with all categories —homicide, robbery, rape, auto theft, larceny, aggravated assault, arson, and burglary—showing significant decreases. By comparison, other large cities have seen decreases in the 4 to 8 percent range. CMPD also boasts an 88 percent closure rate on homicides, compared to a national average closure of only about 50 percent.

Chief Monroe credits the improvements to a more accountable organization, new technology, and a concerted effort to get local communities involved as the eyes of the police force.

“When I first came to Charlotte, I attended a number of neighborhood meetings where the same themes kept repeating themselves,” he recalls. “People felt they didn’t see enough police officers and they believed we had strayed from a focus on property crimes.

“While violent crimes often get the most attention, the most common crimes are the ones that affect people’s homes, business, and vehicles. I wanted to bring more focus to those crimes and get more personnel back onto the streets,” the Chief continues. “We looked at every assignment in the department, did a lot of restructuring, and were able to put 100 officers back into the community.”

Monroe points out that key to managing crime is being able to measure it. “You have to know where and when it is occurring and who is committing the crime,” he explains. “So we created a robust crime analysis capability so we could get in front of crime rather than just responding to it.”

The department now has a predictive crime analysis system utilizing up to seven years of crime data that allows police to pinpoint locations, times and even weather conditions where crime is most likely to occur. Resources are then be deployed to the right places at the right times.

Monroe also wanted a greater sense of accountability at the community level. “Police officers work shifts, so once your shift is over you tend to forget about what has gone on until you come back in,” admits the Chief. “But we wanted somebody to be responsible for every piece of real estate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

To accomplish this, Monroe created 39 response areas and designated a Response Area Commander for each. Each commander is like a mini-police chief and is responsible for his geographic area 24/7. Weekly review meetings and monthly planning sessions ensure that everyone stays results-oriented.

This community-based approach has allowed CMPD to engage the local communities and solve cases more successfully, something Monroe credits for the high closure rate on homicides. “No case happens in isolation; somebody knows something,” he says. “If you can gain the community’s confidence they will come forward with information, knowing that you’re going to act on it and get that person off the street.”

Communities also must become more involved themselves. “If you are a community that comes home, pulls into the garage, shuts the door, and then gets back in the car the next morning, you’re going to have problems,” he suggests. “But if you know who lives in your community, who belongs and who doesn’t belong, and you call the police when you see suspicious activity—that is a community where a criminal can’t come in and arbitrarily prey. Someone is going to say, ‘You don’t belong here.’”


Ensuring a Safe Convention

When Charlotte was chosen as the site for the 2012 Democratic Convention, some questioned whether a city with little experience hosting large national events could effectively manage the high level of security required. Chief Monroe says that’s not an issue for Charlotte.

“As soon as the announcement was made in February 2011, we began reaching out,” he explains. “We reached out to other agencies and to our counterparts in the cities that have hosted a convention recently. There are plenty of blueprints across the country to help us position ourselves to handle just about anything that comes about.”

One of the first orders of business was establishing an executive steering committee to oversee security led by CMPD and the Secret Service. Other participants include the FBI, the Fire Department, FEMA, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the State of N.C., and many more. There are also 21 subcommittees covering everything from air support, to civil disturbances, to logistics, and dignitary protection.

As the DNC host city, Charlotte is receiving a $50 million federal grant to defray the cost of convention security. The money is being used for equipment and technology purchases and will also fund several hundred additional police officers traveling from around the state and nation to supplement CMPD’s existing force.

“We’ll have officers from Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and many others,” says the Chief. “You’ll see a national flavor to law enforcement inCharlotte.” The state legislature provided CMPD a one-time waiver to allow out-of-state officers to be temporarily sworn as North Carolina Peace Officers. Additional resources from the Capitol Police, governors’ details, and the Secret Service will supplement the force.

The grant also funded the department’s $1.7 million command center that was completed late last year. The new center will operate 24/7 during the convention and will house representatives from all of the local, state and federal agencies involved in convention security. A wall of video screens provides access to hundreds of video surveillance cameras and the center is equipped with a sophisticated communications system, allowing resources to be monitored and dispatched directly from the command center.

“We’ll be able to communicate with all of our partners and we will have a very robust group of decision-makers so we can get decisions made or resources assigned,” explains Chief Monroe. “We will have those resources right at our fingertips.”

CMPD will purchase an undisclosed number of surveillance cameras, but existing cameras will play a major role in giving the command center its eyes. “We have hundreds of private cameras already in uptown,” explains Chief Monroe. “Technology is evolving so we’re focusing on trying to tie into those existing cameras and in some cases to even be able to control the cameras. We already have the ability to monitor CDOT, CATS and government building cameras, so now we’re just trying to tie all of that together.”

Unlike most political conventions, DNC 2012 will use three separate major venues—Time Warner Cable Arena, Bank of America Stadium, and Charlotte Motor Speedway. Security needs will inevitably cause disruptions near each venue, but through a combination of one-on-one meetings and a variety of community forums, Monroe’s team has been listening to concerns and keeping nearby businesses informed.

“Things are going to be different,” says Monroe. “Streets are going to be closed, some areas are going to have limited access, and people may have to go through security checkpoints to get to certain places.” The highest level of security will be for the venues themselves, continuing on out to perimeters for pedestrians and perimeters for vehicles. No specific details are being released until much closer to the convention.


Accommodating Peaceful Expression

Political conventions always attract a variety of demonstrators, and the Charlotte DNC 2012 will be no exception. Whether it is a small group wanting to stand on a street corner with signs or a group of thousands hoping to hold a more formal parade, Chief Monroe says the security team wants to accommodate all peaceful expression.

“Other than the secure perimeters established for each of the venues, every other part of the city is open for individuals to express their First Amendment rights,” he explains. “They can’t block the thoroughfares and they can’t block the sidewalks, but other than that, it’s an open environment.”

Larger groups will be able to schedule formal parades to present their point of view, and CMPD has already received at least 25 or 30 inquiries from such groups. They will soon be asked to register for specific dates/times.

“We’ll close the streets down for a specific route and we’ll provide them with a speaker’s platform so they can get up there and talk about whatever it is they want to talk about,” Monroe says.

The security team is preparing for groups of all sizes with new training on handling crowds and civil disturbances. “It may take one approach to handle a group of 500 people who just want to peacefully stand and hold signs,” explainsMonroe. “It may take a very different strategy for a group of people who might want to try to do something a little more aggressive. In either case, we’re going to try to give the people the opportunity to express themselves, but we’ll also expect them to abide by the law and do things in a manner that does not cause harm or disruption to the convention.”

The Bank of America shareholders meeting last month attracted several hundred protesters to uptown, giving CMPD a preview of what to expect during the convention. The meeting was designated an “extraordinary event” under a new city statute enacted for the DNC, giving police expanded authority to ban certain items and search bags as needed. Protest groups such as Occupy Charlotte also say they plan to increase their visibility in the months leading up to the convention.


More Work to Do

Despite his success over the last three and a half years and the short-term focus on the DNC 2012, Chief Monroe believes more can be done to reduce crime.

“We need to do a better job expediting trials and we need more district attorneys, more judges, and more courtrooms to hold offenders accountable,” he says. “We need more police officers on the street and we need to do a better job with drug treatment because a lot of crimes still revolve around drugs. We also need more positive opportunities for our young people to counter the negative things they get involved with—drugs, gangs and guns. We have to continue to find ways to reach them.”

As each day brings it closer, Chief Monroe feels the scrutiny on the department and the mechanisms in place to ensure that Charlotte hosts a safe and orderly Democratic National Convention.

“I’m very comfortable that we have taken the necessary steps to be prepared,” he concludes. “There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, but I’m confident we’ll be ready to handle whatever comes our way.”

When Harry Shapiro came to Charlotte from New York City two years ago, he was looking for a new home for his tattoo and biker magazine Skin & Ink—some place that would have a big-city entertainment feel like you can find in the Big Apple. The Queen City soared on his list of prospects when he walked into the NC Music Factory.

“This is it,” he said. “This is the spot!”

That instant emotional response is common among prospective tenants looking at the Charlottevenue for the first time. As a result, NC Music Factory office space is fully sold out, and its entertainment space attracts big-name tenants like The Fillmore, Wet Willie’s and Butter NC (run by the same innovators who made them sensations in New Yorkand Las Vegas).

At 210,000 square feet, with another 20,000 under construction, NC Music Factory boasts Butter NC, a high-end nightclub that attracts high-spending celebrities, Small Bar, a dive bar where folks can wear flip-flops and buy $1.50 beers, and Halo, a hip and happening nightspot with an edgy atmosphere.

For lunch and dinner, visitors choose from Osso, a lusciously designed Italian restaurant, The Saloon with down-home pub eatery, VBGB Beer Garden with 30 craft beers and brats, or locally inspired fare at Bask where the Johnson & Wales-trained chef offers a constantly changing menu. There is even Mattie’s Diner, an original New Jersey 24-hour diner relocated to the NC Music Factory.

Combined with live entertainment venues including The Fillmore, TWC Uptown Amphitheatre, and the Comedy Zone, plus Silver Hammer Studios housed across the street, the district delivers a powerful multi-purpose punch with something for everyone.

Filming of parts of The Hunger Games and hosting an episode of The Bachelorette barely make a ripple in the constant flurry of activity at the Factory, which includes the comings and goings of NW School of the Arts students (many of whom also apprentice in Richard Lazes’ onsite art gallery), nightlife and after work special events around the Fountain Plaza, and practice jams by any of the property’s several band tenants.

NC Music Factory represents yet another success for developers Noah Lazes and his father Richard Lazes. The two have been 50/50 partners in a long string of entertainment and restaurant ventures around the world. The NC Music Factory concept was founded on principles derived from their work in other highly successful entertainment districts including the French Quarter in New Orleans and Miami’s South Beach.

“What these districts have in common,” says Noah, “is they are a little off the beaten path, not in the center of the city but just slightly off-center, often right up against an inner belt. Usually they’re in older buildings with ground level access and some outdoor space—the more outdoor space the better.”

The off-center location allows for easier access and parking and attracts a wider array of traffic. Older buildings provide an ambience that is impossible to recreate in new construction. Ground level access encourages foot traffic and also keeps CAM (common area maintenance) charges low for tenants, removing the need for expensive common equipment like escalators and elevators.

The formula translates to a venue that attracts movie stars, athletes and other celebrities from around the world who think, as Harry Shapiro did when he saw the NC Music Factory, “This is it!”


Humble Beginnings

Originally from Long Island, N.Y., Richard Lazes was living in a modest area of West Virginia at the time of Noah’s birth, working as a carpenter, remodeling kitchens to make ends meet.

“I learned the value of hard work,” says Richard, who discovered he a natural knack for solving problems in inventive ways. “I was diligent and disciplined and learned that not every project is a success, but if you stay in there and you believe in it, you can make it a success.”

Those qualities, combined with ambition and a wide-ranging mind, eventually led him to New Orleans where he began taking gigs as a concert promoter and then broadened to other promotional endeavors. His demonstrated success brought new business opportunities. So, when a friend approached him with a design for a digital oil pipe thread gauge, he immediately recognized its potential and promoted it to oil companies, quickly building a highly successful and profitable business around it.

The thread gauge success opened more doors for Richard in the oil industry, where he continued to invent and market new products, developing over a dozen patented products including AutoBoom, an oil containment device used in 45 countries for cleanup efforts after ocean oil spills. His knack for developing profitable partnerships multiplied the benefits of his efforts.

The income from Richard’s entrepreneurial efforts allowed him to continue pursuing other opportunities that interested him. In addition to concert promotions, Richard has become an accomplished artist with a body of sculpture and other art forms shown in galleries all over the United States.

“My eclectic career is rather unusual,” admits Richard, “But in general, business is business and you follow the same principles regardless.”

Those business principles formed a significant portion of the upbringing he offered his son Noah, who recalls keenly how open his father was about risk, reward and the financial ins and outs of business. As a result, Noah was imbued from a young age with a strong sense of what it takes to be successful.

When Noah began looking at colleges, his first thought was that he would become a civil engineer. He was good at math, had a bit of his father’s knack for invention, and it seemed like a logical path. Among his choices was UNC Charlotte, where he met with the Engineering School’s Dean Smith.

Smith asked a question that would change Noah’s life—and initiate his lifelong commitment to Charlotte: “Tell me something,” Smith said, “Do you really want to be an engineer? Or is there something else that you would rather be doing?”

Noah admitted that he wanted to be an entrepreneur like his father. Smith encouraged him to think about his college plan in that light. “Charlotte’s going to be a real city,” he said. “If you want to be where the entrepreneurial spirit and energy is, Charlotte’s the place for you.”


Coming of Age

Noah worked in the food and beverage industry throughout his tenure at UNC Charlotte. In his senior year, when the Charlotte Chamber turned Tryon Streetinto a weekend-long entertainment district called “The Street of Champions,” Noah took his savings with a matching investment from father, and opened a temporary version of the well-loved Fat Tuesday Restaurant that had closed down the previous year.

The Street of Champions weekend was an “out of the ballpark” success for Noah, whose Fat Tuesday venue grossed more than all the other venues combined.

The success was so great that the Fat Tuesday franchisor asked him to re-open the permanent venue in the restaurant’s old location. The deal called for a $100,000 investment, a fraction of what it would cost to start a restaurant from scratch, and just the amount Noah and Richard had in hand after the successful Street of Champions weekend. Thanks to the minimal investment, Fat Tuesday was soon profitable for Noah and Richard.

Basking in the enormous success of Fat Tuesday, Noah and Richard rolled their earnings into a new venture at City Fair in 1993. He was about to learn the most significant lesson of entrepreneurialism: failure. He converted the food court into a concert hall at night, with a temporary stage, lighting trusses, sound system, and roll-down murals to cover the food vendor stalls.

He called it World Mardi Gras and booked an entire year of big-name music acts out of New Orleans. The venue costs were low, only $375 a night, thanks to Noah’s inventive use of the space, and with their only significant investment in the bands, Noah figured he would be multiplying their money in no time.

But World Mardi Gras taught Noah a hard lesson—how it feels to lose $10,000 in a single night and, know that you will be losing another $10,000 week after week for the rest of the year. Turns out that Noah was ahead of the times.

“Charlotte was not a sophisticated music market at that point,” he explains. “Night after night people came to the door saying, ‘The Radiators? Who’s that?’ ‘The Neville Brothers? Never heard of them.’ And no one wanted to pay $10 a head for a band they’d never heard of.”

Noah turned to his father partly for sympathy and partly for advice, and distinctly recalls Richard’s unexpected response: “I’ll give you every dollar you’ve got in the deal—every dollar—if you want to go take your shot at being an engineer and working for somebody else.”

“Or,” continued his father, “you can honor your commitments, play the rest of these out, and then figure out how to make it work. Business ain’t easy. Nobody ever said it was easy.”

So Noah played out the year, and figured out the music that the Charlottemarket was willing to pay for—taking his cue from the bands that were getting played on the local radio stations. Noah booked a new year of acts, and with his low overhead, it did not take long to turn it around and become profitable.

World Mardi Gras had another lesson in hand for Noah: The rewards of sticking with it. Richard had trained Noah to constantly seek beneficial partnership opportunities because “50 percent of $20 is a heck of a lot more than 100 percent of $5.” Partnership is a big part of every Lazes project, and, as it turned out, one of their biggest partnership opportunities arose out of the World Mardi Gras adventure.


Entertaining Adventures

Noah explains that executives at Simon, the S&P 100 company that is the world’s largest real estate company, developers of Mall of the Americas and also SouthPark Mall, had seen the World Mardi Gras and were fascinated by his inventive use of the space.

They asked if he could do something similar for a new project they had in mind—they wanted a live music venue and food court in a new mall inIndianapolis called Circle Center.

After that successful completion, they offered him an opportunity to own and operate five entertainment venues and 50,000 square feet in another new mall with very minimal capital investment.

Noah credits that deal, and the Lazes partners’ ability to keep Simon happy, with jump-starting their rise to prominence in the food, beverage and entertainment industry. With Simon on their roster of satisfied landlords, nearly everyone wanted their services, and were paying for the privilege. Their various operating entities are referred to as ARK Group (yes, Noah’s choice!) and operate out of Charlotte.

The father and son team and other partners in ARK Group have been involved in numerous ventures including deals with celebrities like Prince, who shut down his nightclubs in South Beach allowing the Lazes partners to scoop them up and re-open them; Michael Waltrip, who had the Lazes partners help him build the huge interactive NASCAR shop in Cornelius; and big entertainment names like Live Nation and HBO.


NC Music Factory

“Working with Noah is a challenge,” admits Richard. “He’s fastidious, detail-oriented, and sometimes we bump heads. Nevertheless, the good outweighs the bad. We also share common goals and inspiration, and what distinguishes us from a lot of other developers is that we are long-term goal-oriented.”

Long-term goal orientation was critical for Richard and Noah when, in 2000, they purchased a large tract of land just inside the I-277 loop. A dilapidated old textile mill on the vacant property had once employed a few hundred people. The hardwood floors and exposed pipes were long abandoned and access to the sprawling building was limited by crisscrossing railroads and private property lines.

Twelve years and millions in investment later, the same complex—NC Music Factory—employs over a thousand people and entertains many thousands more, while also paying taxes on its estimated value of several tens of millions of dollars.

But when ARK Group purchased it, many people had a hard time believing the transformation could be possible. Walking through the undeveloped basement area (designated for the Mega Club LABEL to open in late summer), it’s easy to see why. The damp smell of hundred-year-old must infuses the air, gritty gravel crunches on the bare concrete floor, and ugly metal posts break the space into a hundred dreary sections. Five years ago, the entire property looked this way.

The building itself wasn’t even the biggest challenge. In order to make the Factory viable, it would need to be accessible from Graham Street, right off I-277. That access required negotiation with every stakeholder in the surrounding area: the city, county and federal governments; Norfolk Southern and CSX railroads; Arthur Daniel Midland (whose historic building would require demolition); Duke Power; and five private property owners. It was six years in the works.

Once the road was complete and construction crews moved in, rehab proceeded at a swift pace. The NC Music Factory debuted with a big bash concert in June 2009.

All venues in the Factory are constantly improved and upgraded, and new space renovated to grow the footprint. A covered patio is under construction for The Saloon, and LABEL in the once-dank basement will soon be transformed into a marquee venue never experienced before in Charlotte with lights, sound and video rivaling the best operations in major A markets.

Construction crews currently are hollowing out the floor and removing pillars to clear room for the two-story, 16,000 square foot nightclub that will feature a 28-foot-wide video wall and elevated performance stage.


Not Yet Finished

Throughout their careers, Noah and Richard have seen the poshest spots in the biggest cities. Both are convinced thatCharlotte is “The spot.” Richard describesCharlotte as a “city on the cusp of greatness,” and both men have faith in—and commitment to—its growing arts and business environment.

The NC Music Factory entertainment district with restaurants, pubs and clubs; a 2,000 capacity indoor live music venue and 5,000 seat outdoor amphitheater; office rentals and residential condominiums; as well as studios, parking and the 1930s Mattie’s Diner, is situated on approximately nine acres of what Noah and Richard are marketing as Uptown Village.

The property still has another 21 acres available for development inside the inner loop of Charlotte. Noah says it’s probably one of the only contiguous pieces of land its size available in any large city in the U.S.—and it is accessible by its own 4-lane entry drive and visible with over a half mile of road frontage from Charlotte’s most heavily travelled Interstate 77.

ARK Group plans an apartment complex and a hotel, both with stunning skyline views, plus 60,000 square feet of banquet room with ready access to Silver Hammer Studios. For the remaining acreage, they would like to attract a big name corporate campus, like Apple or Google, to Charlotte.

If all goes according to plan, that company will see all that the NC Music Factory has to offer and agree with Noah and Richard: “This is it. This is the spot!”

     Alongside lawyers and politicians, car dealers feature as the villain in many a bad joke. But Dick Keffer has always had a knack for seeing potential where others haven’t. And to him, being a car dealer means an opportunity to make a positive difference in the world.

     From promoting women and minorities into leadership positions, to taking underprivileged children to the beach, his successful automotive career has been accompanied at every step by quiet acts of benevolence.


Cranking the Engine

     Like many young men, Dick Keffer always loved cars. Growing up in Pennsylvania in the 1930s and 40s, his first car represented freedom and still holds a fond place in his heart.

     It was September of 1961, in the midst of a promising career in insurance, that he announced that he was leaving his to pursue a job in car sales. His father was not a happy man. Keffer Jr. chuckles at the memory and adding, “He came around later though, when I started sending him a new car every six months.”

     Whatever his father’s reservations may have been, Keffer knew from his first day at Ammon R. Smith Auto Company that he wanted to spend his life in a car dealership. He excelled there and moved up quickly through the ranks.

     Ambitious and determined, he set about setting specific goals for himself and then striving to achieve them. He set a date by which he wanted to be managing a dealership, and a second date by which he wanted to own one.

     He met his first goal on time when Ammon Smith offered him a management position.

As manager, Keffer immediately began looking for potential where others didn’t see it. He looked for talent and intelligence in people regardless of gender or position in life. One of his most important choices for management was a woman.

     “You have to understand,” Keffer explains, “times were different. That was the early l970s. Lots of people thought women couldn’t handle management.”

     Keffer was the exception: “I don’t care if you’re black, white, purple, male, or female,” he says. “All I care about is whether you can perform.”

     And the person Keffer had in mind for the job had already proven she could. Her name was Bonnie Hunter. Keffer had hired her as a clerk after her father asked him, as a favor, to give her a job.

     “She came in and started doing in half a day as much work as any two other clerks could complete in a full day,” he remembers. He knew she was capable of more, but at the time there was nothing more he could do about it.

     He also knew it was time to start looking for his own dealership.


Navigating the Potholes

     Keffer loved the Carolinas coast, and was pleased to find a buy-in opportunity at a dealership in Wilmington, N.C. Tom Reich Chevrolet had been struggling for years, but Keffer felt he could turn it around, so he approached Tom Reich with a proposal: Keffer would come to work there and each year he would purchase stock. Reich was glad for the management help, and thrilled to have a partner.

     So Keffer packed up and moved to Wilmington with his wife and five children.

In the new dealership, Keffer immediately began making changes. He called the office manager into his office and asked him for sales numbers. The manager informed him that they would be ready by the middle of the month, but Keffer wanted to see the numbers by the third of each month. The manager told him that if he wanted his numbers that fast, he would have to find a new office manager.

     So Keffer did. He approached Hunter with the opportunity. She accepted and packed up and her husband and moved south to accept the new position.

     Thanks to Keffer and Hunter’s management, the Wilmington dealership quickly started turning a profit. But despite and because of their success there, Wilmington was not to be a final destination for Keffer or Hunter.

     As profits continued to increase, Reich, still the dealership’s majority owner, became increasingly aware of the potential of the operation. One day he called Keffer into his office.

     He looked uncomfortable as he broke the news: Now that the dealership was turning a profit, he no longer wanted to sell more stock. He expressed regret and said he hoped Keffer wouldn’t hate him for the decision.

     Keffer pauses in his retelling of the story, recalling the bitter disappointment. He hitches his hands into his belt loops, and gazes into the distance.

     “Well,” he said to Reich, “I certainly am disappointed. But I don’t hate anyone and I guess you have your reasons. I hope you’ll understand that I’m going to have to look for another dealership opportunity.”

     So in 1974, Keffer set his sites on Charlotte, a growing city that he was sure would offer an opportunity, and packed his family off again.

     Hunter shared his confidence. Keffer told her that as soon as he had his dealership, she would be hearing from him. And it was just three months later that she did, packing up her family and following him to Charlotte.


Getting a Lift; Giving a Lift

     The city lived up to its promise. In Charlotte, Keffer met Charles Johnson who became his business mentor and taught him the value of remaining behind the scenes and working quietly for the good of the company, employees and community.

     Johnson also funded Keffer’s purchase of a dealership, allowing Keffer to pay him back gradually out of the profits of the business.

     Keffer immediately welcomed Hunter into the dealership and within a few years, she had earned her way to the presidency, where she has continued leading the company ever since.

     From the arteries of Independence Boulevard and Tyvola Road, Dick Keffer Pontiac and Dick Keffer Automotive are now Charlotte icons. Keffer chairs Keffer Management Co., LLC, with involvement in 12 automobile dealerships, an aviation company, plus a Charlotte Douglas Airport operation.

     All are known for quality and outstanding service, as one might expect from a company run by a man like Keffer, who has spent his entire career looking for opportunities to boost other people.

     Keffer’s philosophy, and philanthropy, is unique—he seeks out promising individuals to train within his organization, and then helps them get set up in their own businesses. The process begins with identifying high-performing individuals within the company and gradually promoting them through the ranks. When he sees that they are ready, he helps them locate potential ownership opportunities.

     Then, he purchases the dealership and puts them in charge, with the option to buy him out of the business gradually from profits.

     Hunter says Keffer Management is unique in not being a consolidator but a finder of stores for managers who share equity as principals.

     “We have had as many as 25 dealerships in the portfolio, but sheer growth is not our basic goal as much as profitable management. We do get a lot of phone calls, that’s for sure,” she says.

     Over the years, Keffer has set up 10 individuals in this manner, with 10 others currently in process. In the same way, he started two of his own sons, who now own and operate dealerships in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

     “They are doing so well; I am really proud of them,” Keffer exclaims.

Keffer says that some dealers see this activity as a form of abetting the competition. Rather than train new owners, they might purchase multiple dealerships and hang on them. Keffer says that’s a fine way of doing business, but for him it’s more important to help others reach their potential.

     Unfortunately, for all the success Keffer has seen in this community, he has seen his share of sorrows too. He doesn’t worry too much about the economy—he has seen it go up and down enough times to know how to get through it. But the collapse of General Motors was a blow.

     “It crushed me,” he says, shaking his head. “I thought they had more money than God. I thought that could never happen.”

     One of his dealerships, where he was training a manager to take over, was pulled by GM. Keffer knew the dealership was underperforming, but he wanted to give the manager more time and opportunity to prove himself—time that GM didn’t have to offer.


Giving Wings—and Wheels—to Dreams

     Despite the sorrows and challenges, Keffer has never stopped reaching out into the community and looking for opportunities to help people. One of his best-known successes is the annual Beach Blast for underprivileged middle school children, organized through the Charlotte South Rotary Club and funded by Keffer.

     Inspiration for the program came to him more than a decade ago while on a family vacation. He and his wife and children had watched a rickety school bus pull up, and a group of children descend upon the beach. It quickly became clear that these children, who lived 50 miles away, had never seen the ocean.

     “Their eyes were as big as saucers,” he remembers. “I thought, ’Holy cow! There must be a hundred thousand children in Charlotte who have never seen the beach!’”

     For two years, he organized and coordinated and overcame obstacles and with the help of the Charlotte South Rotary Club and several individuals, creating a program that takes more than 500 underprivileged children to the beach every summer. The total number of children served by the program now exceeds 12,000 over the last 20 years.

     Keffer says he has watched every single one of those children get off the bus at the beach for the first time. “Their eyes just pop out of their heads,” he says. “The want to know everything: ‘How big is this pond? Why can’t we see England or the coast of Africa?’”

     “Monday morning, they inundate their teachers with questions,” says Keffer, understated joy emphasizing his words. “‘Show us where we were on the map! Show us the cities we went through! Tell us more about jellyfish!’ Some of these kids were bumps on a log in class, and now they are asking questions.”

     Although Beach Blast is one of Keffer’s favorite accomplishments, it is only one of the remarkable thing he has done. He originated Give Kids the World, a program that takes terminally ill children to Orlando for a week. He funds scholarships for children in the Beach Blast program who complete high school. He has received the Silver Beaver Award from the Boy Scouts of America as well as a Lifetime Service Award from NCADA, and donates the use of his personal aircraft to fly terminally ill children to a Wings of Hope hospital.

     When asked what he will be doing next, Keffer pauses for a moment. “Well, I’m 78 years old,” he says. “Some people would say that if I had any sense, I would retire and stay at my home in Florida. But I enjoy what I’m doing. If I didn’t have this, what would I do with myself?”

     Keffer’s main dealership on Independence is currently upgrading from an older showroom to a brand new 36,000-square-foot facility, and he expects corresponding sales growth in the next few years. Beyond that, whatever Keffer does next, it’s almost certain to benefit a lot of people.

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
Intelligent Solutions
By Zenda Douglas

     The feelings of success are palpable in the offices of Verian Technologies. That’s no surprise, given their 175 clients, 56 employees, enviable growth and plans to move into a new building of their own.

     One of the Charlotte Business Journal’s Fast 50 award recipients, Verian Technologies, a leading provider of purchase-to-pay automation solutions, was founded in 1997 and has posted growth in each of the 13 years since, showing profit in 11 of those 13 years.

     “In slow years we’ve grown 10 percent; in strong years: as much as 30 percent,” says Tehseen Ali Dahya, president and chief executive of Verian, now a multi-million dollar company. The economic downturn of the past three years seems to have passed by them without pause.

     This is largely due to the fact that Verian Technologies saves money for its customers, whether a corporation, non-profit or government organization. According to Dahya, “Our goal is to help clients maximize the value of their organizations’ spending and minimize the amount of working capital they need to operate.”

     Verian Technologies provides a suite of applications that helps customers manage all of their purchasing, invoice processing, employee expense reports, and tracking and performing maintenance on company assets, in one database. This allows organizations to review their entire organizational spend easily and helps them take steps to consolidate spend, negotiate contracts, gain contract compliance.

     By doing this, organizations are typically able to save between two and 10 percent, according to Dahya. Verian Technologies’ systems also guard against too much money being tied up in working capital by automating the invoice receipt, approval and payment process.

     This allows Verian’s clients to ensure that invoices are not paid too early or too late, allowing them to take early pay discounts if they choose. Plus, customers get faster visibility and insight into their monthly accrued expenses without a lot of effort.

     “There is a definable link between companies trying to save money in this economic downturn and their interest in our ProcureIt solutions,” says Dahya.

     Verian Technologies deals primarily with what is known as indirect or maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) spend. These are purchases such as office supplies, computers, maintenance supplies, professional and other services or supplies needed to keep an organization running. After labor costs, these combined expenses typically amount to the second-largest expense item on most companies’ P&L. Increased savings and control in this area can have a significant impact on an organization’s bottom line.

     Verian Technologies’ client list has also experienced consistent growth. Its first client in 1997 was the prestigious Nalle Clinic in Charlotte, now part of Presbyterian Hospital. Today their clients range from the smaller $50 million organizations to multi-billion dollar international companies.

     “We help a large delivery company purchase and track $3.5 billion in products and services annually,” says Dahya, proudly. “That’s about 9,000 invoices per day.”

     Clients represent a cross section of industries—services, health care, retailers, financial services, oil and gas, and construction, to name a few—and include Universal Studios, Allstate Canada, Macy’s, REI, Boeing, PETCO, Price Chopper, Caterpillar dealerships and GNC.

     Interestingly, some smaller companies can have more purchase volume than larger ones. Verian systems are particularly appealing to companies that have many locations and struggle to control spending, track inventory or assets, and have a lot of paper-based invoices coming into the organization.


Core Values

     Staying true to their mission to make life easier and work more valuable, the Verian operation focuses on three core values: customer success; a cohesive team; and stable, profitable growth.

     “We are very focused on customer success; that is one of the keys to our success,” says Dahya. “We work very hard to help our customers achieve their definition of success. This may include saving money, reducing paper in the process or getting better data for compliance purposes.”

     Customers frequently comment on the Verian approach, saying “Wow, you guys really listen,” according to Dahya. “It’s more than just a tagline; it’s the culture of the company. We pride ourselves on customer intimacy and knowing our customers very well.”

     Privately held Verian Technologies was started by Dahya and two other University of South Carolina master’s program graduates, Bilal Soylu, now chief technology officer, and Bhavin Shah, now director of product strategy.

     Prior to Verian, they jointly owned a medical distribution company selling medical supplies to physicians and hospitals. “We saw a real challenge in the way hospitals and physician practices managed their inventory,” says Dahya. “Two affiliated medical practices across the street from one another—one may have an abundance of an item and the other has none, leading to costly rush orders to meet demand.”

     Dahya and Soylu were in the MBA program together when they met engineering graduate student, Shah.

     The partners realized that there was a need to have systems to manage purchasing in order to achieve visibility and better manager spend, according to Dahya. At that time, he continues, Internet technologies were just coming onto the scene. Most systems were either client server or mainframe-based, difficult to use, and did not provide easy visibility of inventory or purchasing data for the organization.

     As a result, most companies would track and place orders by individual location without regard to the larger enterprise. “We built a system from the ground up, based on Internet technologies, to provide easy visibility into organizations’ entire purchasing, inventory, asset management and invoice processing,” explains Dahya.


Streategic Team

     Dahya, who shapes the vision and strategy of Verian Technologies, is a recognized leader in the purchase-to-pay space and has presented at such industry events as ePurchasing Week, Supply Chain Expo, iSource, and others. A graduate of Queen’s University in Canada, he worked as a mining engineer for four years prior to returning to school to pursue his MBA degree.

     An active leader in industry-wide technology initiatives, Soylu has been recognized as a “Professional to Know” by Supply & Demand Chain Executive magazine. Soylu completed his undergraduate studies at Georgia Southern University.

     Shah drives Verian’s product strategy for its intelligent suite of purchase-to-pay solutions. Shah earned a bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering from the University of Bombay, India.

     Most Verian employees fall into one of three groups: engineering, where programmers and quality assurance people build and deliver market-ready products; professional services, where project managers, business consultants, and support teams help a client achieve their objectives on an ongoing basis; or sales and marketing, where the team crafts solutions to solve customer problems and communicate their value to the marketplace.

     All of the coding and programming is done by Verian team members. “Once we have requirements and information for a future version, our folks develop the solutions with customer use in mind,” says Dahya. He points out an unusual mode of operation within the industry—their people that write the code frequently interact with customers: “This allows us to do things that are nearer to our customers’ needs and achieve faster delivery.”

     The Verian team is relatively young but many of its employees are seasoned, particularly senior programmers and professional services consultants. The company has an atmosphere of camaraderie and it’s a fun place to work with an informal dress code. But the casual culture belies the overarching mindset of the group: an incredible focus on customer success.

     “We’re all on the same page of making sure clients are successful,” says Dahya. “And we work together. No one is ever left feeling like they’re off an island drowning; there would be 10 people rushing in trying to help each other.”

     Entrepreneurial from the beginning, the company encourages good ideas from anyone in the group. “People here are bright,” says Dahya. “We’re not too big on titles but we respect each other. We seem to attract people who fit into our culture very well.” Turnover is very low.

     Another value that is demonstrated at Verian Technologies is the belief in reaching out to the community. The company supports Susan G. Komen for the Cure as well as the Toys for Tots program. As part of an educational partnership with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Verian provides internships for students. In testament, “Several students have become employees,” says Dahya.


Accommodating Growth

     Verian Technologies’ current location at the UNCC-partnered Ben Craig Center has served them well but the company is now looking forward to moving into their own, newly-constructed building.

     “We’ve been looking to move for the last three to four years,” says Dahya. “We finally got the right opportunity to buy land and received great tax incentives.” The property is located just south of the North Carolina border in Lancaster County, South Carolina.

     “It’s still in the Charlotte region and we still consider ourselves a Charlotte business,” says Dahya. The Charlotte region has a very business-friendly environment, whether in the city proper or the periphery. Dahya explains it this way: “We’re in the suburbs of Charlotte. Right now we’re on the north side; soon we’ll be on the south side.”

     Verian systems are designed for the end-user and are easy to implement and easy to use. “Our systems are much simpler than many of the enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems designed for accounting departments,” says Dahya. “Our system employs many of the characteristics of online purchasing and feels very much like an experience.”

     As a result, most customers have many users on the system. “Employees simply access the system and they are ready to make purchases within a matter of minutes,” says Dahya. This offers a huge time savings for organizations that require several layers of approvals, even for small purchases.

     With the Verian system, approvals are processed and sent through e-mail, which reduces approval time from weeks to days. Users can also get real-time snapshots of inventory counts within the system. Most importantly, all spend can be tracked against departmental budgets—putting spent vs. actual metrics at managers’ fingertips.

     Constantly working on new projects, Verian Technologies focuses on three releases a year in their software-as-a-service (SaaS, also software-on-demand) delivery model for their suite of automation solutions. SaaS is a deployment option that allows customers to use software as needed without any capital outlay for hardware or IT resources. The cost is relatively small. This option works well for companies who are comfortable with their information being stored in the cloud, an increasingly popular scenario.

     Verian offers both SaaS and behind-the-firewall options. Which option a company chooses may depend upon an organization’s specific scenario. Also new is a spend intelligence module which helps customers get a full view of who is spending and what they are buying, and identifies ways to maximize their savings and reduce working capital needs. With this module, purchasing analysts can drill down to specific trends or seasonal impact.

     During this past year, the company has updated its expense management application and just released the newest version of its popular invoice automation solution.

     “We’re really in a milestone moment for Verian with the new building and many new clients coming onboard,” says Dahya. “We are very excited about the future and continue to focus on making our customers successful.”

Zenda Douglas is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.

     This is a year of celebrations for Louis Romero. As the native Ecuadorian enjoys his 20-year high school reunion with fellow Myers Park High School graduates, his company, Charlotte-based Network Cabling Systems, simultaneously celebrates its tenth year in business.
     Romero, 39, started working at a very early age, eight or nine, and hasn’t quit. What has changed is that he is now his own boss, setting his own goals and developing the business strategies for his company atop the business he loves, structured cabling. His best strategy so far has been to build strong relationships with his clients.
     In 1971, Louis Romero’s parents came to Charlotte from their native Ecuador in search of opportunity, prosperity and the American dream. They found what they were looking for. For 30 years, Louis’ parents have owned and operated a successful lawn care and service business in Charlotte. Fortunately for Romero, he inherited their strong work ethic, keen eyes for long-term opportunity and entrepreneurial spirit.
     His business, Network Cabling Systems (NCS) provides voice and data network design and installation, as well as local area network/wide area network design and installation. Clients include small businesses, mid-sized companies, and Fortune 500 corporations. Although the products NCS installs are on technology’s leading edge, Romero considers his business to be a trade that is more heavily tied to the construction industry. He equates what NCS does with any other part of the architectural and construction process. “You hire a plumber to install the pipes to carry water, you hire an electrician to install the wiring to transmit electricity and in today’s world, you hire a network cabling specialist to install the infrastructure required to meet your technological needs.”
     Of course, not all cabling systems are created equal, and NCS has established its niche by focusing on business sectors with critical data requirements.   
The company installs cabling systems for financial institutions, banks and insurance companies, manufacturing plants, healthcare facilities and educational institutions. By concentrating on specific industries, Romero reasons that his technicians and designers can approach each project with a better understanding of the clients’ needs. Better cabling design upfront ensures a better performing network with fewer hassles and lower costs in the future. As Romero says, “Like many aspects of a new building, you get only one chance to build it correctly.”

Getting Started

     Following graduation from Myers Park High School, Romero completed an electronics apprenticeship through Central Piedmont Comunity College. His training led him to a position with IBM as a network technician managing corporate network cabling installations. In 1991, following in his parent’s entrepreneurial footsteps Romero decided to strike out own his own and established his own company.
    He originally operated the company from his home with a small staff. After two years of consistent growth, he moved the business to the current Griffith Road location near Tyvola Road and I-77 started to expand NCS’s services and its workforce. Today, NCS has 45 employees and technicians who each manage from 16 to 21 cabling projects at a time, both regionally and nationally.
    Romero attributes his consistent growth to a few key factors, the most important of which is customer satisfaction. He and his employees have developed strong relationships with their clients. The company focuses on providing a high level of customer service and emphasizes building long-term relationships.
     “As long as we have been in this industry, cable has always been cable. Copper and fiber optic wires are lazy until we install them and put their technology to work,” says Romero. “What makes NCS different is the close-knit relationships we maintain with area architects, construction firms, and IT managers.”
     The strategy works well in an industry where technology is constantly changing and clients continually need to increase their cable productivity.
     “Our number one relationship strategy is to maintain personal connections in an otherwise impersonal industry,” adds Romero. “Design and construction is a tough business.”
     Because NCS has done well with assignments for large companies that have a reputation for demanding excellence from their vendors — such as Bank of America and Equitable — NCS has not only earned their call for repeat business, but has been able to consistently attract new clients as well.
     “Our marketing strategy is really a relationship strategy. We employ a simple concept, centering on the people within our industry who trust us to be their cabling provider,” says Romero. “And we always consider the end-using companies who will live and work in the buildings and facilities we wire, long after the work is completed.”
     When the key players in town know your company is really looking out for them as real people — in positions of critical and logistical respons-ibility — your work and service become more valuable to them than any gold.”
     NCS has provided cabling services on several large projects that Gary Peacock & Associates (GPA) has designed and managed. GPA is a local technology consulting firm that specializes in the integration of technology and real estate projects, including cabling systems.  According to Gary Peacock, “NCS consistently provides a quality system with zero defects and one that even looks great.  NCS’ customer service during and after the project has been excellent.”

Economic Growth
     Romero also believes that the booming economy in Charlotte and the Carolinas has contributed greatly to the success of NCS. “For years I have envisioned our relationship strategy to include customer projects throughout North and South Carolina. From a business networking perspective, thinking of North and South Carolina as a unified marketplace has been a wise move. We live and work in a very tight-knit region.  I have always kept my mind open to thinking regionally,” Romero says enthusiastically.
     Another contributing factor to the success of NCS is overall growth in the technology industry. While many technologies and technology companies are facing a recession in growth and development, NCS is experiencing quite the opposite. As the technology in structured cabling continues to improve, the need for the company’s’ services is also on the rise.  NCS has even been involved in some wireless projects. “Originally the word made me cringe, but it is amazing — every wireless device needs a wire and the need for our services is still there,” says Romero.
     Finally, Romero admits the success of his 10-year old company boils down to doing great work, performed by great people. “In this industry, design knowledge and installation skill are collectively how business is won,” says Romero. “We accomplish this by hiring the most experienced technicians, researching the most reliable technology, and by hiring the most experienced technicians. Did I mention hiring the most experienced technicians?” In addition to experience, Romero’s employees have ‘stickability.’ “They love their job and the work is always challenging.  In this industry it is difficult to retain good people and even tougher to retain great people, but I respect my employees very much and have been fortunate to experience low turnover, year after year.”

Focused on the Future
    Looking toward the future, Romero vows to keep customer service and satisfaction the number one goal. Additionally, he would like to grow the management team and the client base.
    To celebrate its 10th anniversary NCS redesigned its logo and invested in a promotional race truck. The new logo reflects the changes and improvements in technology, while the race truck represents the increased speed of data transfer via cable.
    When asked about obstacles Romero has faced in owning his own business, he just smiles. “I have been extremely fortunate and NCS has been such a positive part of my life,” beams Romero. He adds reflectively, “It has been an exciting ride; the highs are higher and the lows are lower, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Brazas Brazilian Grill is a notable entry in the steakhouse revival and a welcome new addition to Charlotte’s restaurant listing. The restaurant bills itself as a churrascaria rodizio, or Brazilian steakhouse, and it’s not only a steak knife you’ll need but a serious appetite as well. Churrascaria rodizio (Portuguese) translates as sirloin rotation, which refers to the serving style as well as the meat selections. Waiters constantly circle the room, bringing sizzling skewers of a variety of meats directly from the grill to your table.
     The concept, originated with the South American gauchos (local ranchers) of the ’30s, is a combination of South American Indian, Portuguese, German and Italian cultures and an integral part of Brazil’s culture. Here in America it is a one-price feast of unlimited trips to the cold and hot bars and all the meat you can eat.
    There’s no ordering or waiting. The cold and hot bars are self-serve. “Gaucho” cooks/waiters brandishing skewers of sizzling meat parade ceaselessly, carving tantalizing samples tableside, which you grab with individual-size tongs. The rodizio includes over 20 varieties of meats seasoned to perfection and slow-roasted over an open flame including beef, chicken, turkey, pork, lamb, rabbit and Brazilian-style sausage. On occasion, exotic cuts of meats including wild boar, venison, water buffalo, bison, ostrich and quail are served as well.
    It’s an all out assault on the senses, and a world where fat is not feared. You simply flip a card on the table which acts as a traffic light, signaling the staff when you want to begin (the “Yes, Please!” side is green) and when you’re done or merely need a rest (“No Thank You” is red).
     The fresh gourmet cold bar includes over 45 different types of salads, vegetables and cold appetizers — including hearts of palm, steamed vegetables, lettuces, cheeses and cold cuts — in addition to many types of seafood items such as shrimp, crab legs, octopus vinaigrette and calamari salad.
    The hot bar has over 15 different gourmet dishes such as tender chicken cooked in white wine, steamed mussels, calamari, garlic shrimp in lobster sauce, black beans, jambalaya, Brazilian-style pork loin, cod fish Brazilian-style, fried bananas, and many more mouth watering specialties.
     As if that’s not enough, there is a rolling dessert cart which will make you wish you hadn’t eaten or at the very least, seem like an appealing method of transit to your car.
     Be sure to try the traditional Brazilian “margarita” with a kick called a Caipirinha, made up of lime juice, sugar, Brazilian sugarcane liquor and crushed ice.
     Be forewarned, however. Don’t overdo the cold and hot bars before the service of meats — it’s easy to fill up, and there are no doggie bags!
     You may not be able to face meat for days after dining in a churrascaria, but the quality and varieties of all-you-can-eat cuts are reason enough to try it. And its relaxed informal atmosphere, self-paced eating and wide variety of foods make it particularly well suited for the business lunch or dinner.

Please be seated…
      Brazas Brazilian Grill, located at Independence and Sharon Amity Road, is quite spacious with pastel pink walls, white linen tablecloths, hardwood floors, white ceiling fans, ample greenery, and soft but lively Brazilian music playing in the background. The bar area at the entrance features a grand piano, and leads to the central area dominated by an island of brass and glass containing the cold bar wells, surrounded by a three-sided array of silver domes comprising the hot bar.    
Charlotteans already know George Jakowczuk and his wife, Sofia, as the owners of A. Bonnart S.A., Fine Jewelers, nearby the restaurant located at Independence and Sharon Amity. Originally from Argentina, Jakowczuk first emigrated to New Jersey some thirty years ago to continue in the jewelry trade he had apprenticed in from the age of twelve.  New York and the nearby New Jersey suburbs were among the first cities here in America to feature Brazilian rodizio-type restaurants, which Jakowczuk frequented regularly.            
It was in New Jersey where Jakowczuk met Sofia, who had come from Brazil a few years earlier. And it was a trip to visit Sofia’s sister here in Charlotte that brought them to this city. Both Jakowczuk and his wife considered Charlotte an attractive city and a good place to start a jewelry store.
     He has been operating A. Bonnart for nearly twenty years now, but finally succumbed to the overwhelming desire to have his own rodizio restaurant featuring foods from their native lands. With the help of his son, Sandro, at the jewelry shop, Jakowczuk and Sofia have turned their full attention to the start up of this restaurant. They have spared no expense in the décor, furnishings or cooking equipment — all is first rate.
     Jakowczuk has been fortunate to locate a very capable manager, Joe Pereira, formerly of New Jersey’s Braseiro Churrascaria, as well as some very capable chefs and servers. if their first few months of operation are any indication, business is booming Brazas-style!

     Wilton Connor is a down-to-earth guy. He built his successful packaging company by finding innovative ways to take care of his employees. Now he’s getting ready to expand again, and he’ll probably find some new ways to keep them happy.
     “We nearly went bankrupt three times,” says Wilton Connor of the early days at his eponymous packaging company. He and wife Catherine refinanced their home, sold stock and cashed out their IRAs to keep the nascent company afloat.
     The company’s then-seasonal business made banks wary of loaning Connor much-needed funds. Desperate, he convinced his father to advance land as an early inheritance. “We mortgaged that to make payroll,” he remembers. He kept the company alive with money from investors while juggling 36 credit cards.         
     Despite mounting financial difficulties, Connor never had a supplier deny him credit. “We called our creditors before they could call us. We were honest about our position, our intentions and never dodged a phone call.”
     With estimated sales this past year of $70 million, the company has come a long way from its difficult beginnings, but one thing hasn’t changed. Connor always takes care of his employees.
     Wilton Connor Packaging, Inc., a Charlotte-based company, is riding a wave of exponential growth with sales soaring 69 percent from $48 million in 1999. With two new buildings at its Westlake Corporate Campus, the company has planned at least four more for a total of 2 million square feet of light manufacturing and distribution space. Wilton Connor employs 600 full-time workers with the count swelling to 1,200 during busier seasonal periods. Connor expects to add 400 more full-time workers in the next three to five years.
     Eleven year-old Wilton Conner Packaging supplies  value-added turn-key packaging solutions that assist product manufacturers in retail marketing and distribution. Specific products and services include point-of-purchase corrugated displays, structural and graphic design, contract packaging, inventory management and transportation logistics.
     Whether you shop at Food Lion, Wal-Mart, Home Depot or the Circle K, you’ve seen Wilton Connor Packaging in action. The company designs and fabricates free-standing displays parked at the end of store aisles and on-shelf trays that make products stand out. “We receive the product and put it in anything else that would contain it,” Connor explains. “That could be a box, a tray or a stand.” Consumer buying behavior contributes to Wilton Connor’s growth. “Studies show that over 40 percent of the expenses on an average shopping experience are unplanned,” says Connor. “If the product is placed off-the-shelf, there is an immediate boost in sales.”
     Consumer product manufacturers are eager to alert shoppers to special deals and encourage purchases through these eye-catching containers. They turn to Wilton Conner for expertise in graphic arts and structural design, as well as managing inventory and transportation of both products and displays to stores. The manufacturers of Pringles Potato Chips, Jiff Peanut Butter, Energizer Batteries, Tide Laundry Detergent, Dawn Dish-washing Liquid and Black & Decker Tools are among Wilton Connor clients.
     According to chief financial officer Guy Forcucci, complexity is the rule, not the exception. “Generally, retailers have small, medium and large stores. There’s a different inventory amount for each one of those stores. The shelving will be different, and the amount of inventory they want to receive at any one time will be different.”
     He continues, “Even when you have stores of similar sizes, the demographics are different. Which means that one large store may ask for different things than another large store at another location. The rules for each retailer are different and all of them want the products to look different.”

Consolidation Sparks Growth
     The consolidation among mass retailers over the years has fueled the drive for differentiation. Connor points out that while Home Depot and Lowe’s are both home improvement chains, their store layouts and concepts are completely different. “They have a very different feel yet sell the same types of items. They are trying to be very distinctive, carving out their own niche.” That requires different displays and varying inventory dependent upon store location, demographics and size considerations. Wilton Connor Packaging transports both products and displays economically and safely to retailers at the best value for manufacturers.
     Over the years, retailers have flexed their might, shifting expenses like product displays back to the manufacturer. Manufacturers focus on their core competency — making products — by outsourcing display and logistical issues to packaging companies like Wilton Connor. “Our strength lies in how to get this product reconfigured and properly stributed,” Connor says. “We have to understand the difference between a small town store and a Super K and the advance shipping notice computer system it takes to get it into that store.” This expertise has earned Wilton Connor Packaging blockbuster clients like Proctor & Gamble, Kodak and Keebler —all without the benefit of advertising or cold-calling. The company only has three salespeople because most new clients are by referral.
     Wilton Connor’s phenomenal success is only superseded by — or maybe a result of — his unorthodox management style and human resources philosophy. The company experiences virtually no turnover and the degree of worker loyalty is unprecedented. Seasonal employees return year-after-year clamoring for a chance to come aboard full-time.
     Connor is the first to admit that working in a manufacturing plant isn’t glamorous. “This is hard work,” he says. “Some of our employees are unskilled and their pay is low.” But the benefits he offers go above and beyond medical, dental and retirement plans. Wilton Connor has improved his employees’ quality of life.
     Connor sees partnerships with clients, suppliers and employees as the keys to his future. Among the many services offered to employees are an on-site laundry, a van pool, a child care subsidy, a home repair service at cost of materials, one-on-one language skills training, and an “Angel Fund” for emergencies.
     These benefits were borne out of need, not by design. Early on, Connor and his wife, Catherine, were disturbed by the plight of an employee — a single mother who spent up to four hours daily commuting to get to work only to forgo precious evening hours with her children in order to do laundry at a coin laundromat. As parents of three young children, the Connors sympathized with her situation. “At first I wanted to go out and buy her a washer-dryer,” says Connor. “But Catherine said, ‘We still have credit on our Sears card. Why don’t we buy a washer/dryer and put it in the plant?’”
     The Connors set up an on-site laundry that washes, dries and folds laundry with a next-day pick-up for full-time employees — while they work. The fee is nominal and ironing is extra.
     Employees who once wasted hours a day on buses now ride a van driven by a company-paid driver for a nominal fee. Tutorial education, including Spanish-English instruction is available for both adults and their children. A company-paid handyman does home repairs for employees. Employees pay for materials; the company pays the handyman’s salary. “Factory workers just can’t take time off from work to meet a handyman at their house,” says Connor. “This was the next best alternative.”
     As parents, the Connors were very aware of the need for quality child care. Catherine Connor contacted Child Care Resources to help devise a program where the company could pay a subsidy directly to the caregiver to assist employees. For the Connors, their unconventional initiatives aren’t simply a matter of altruism; after all they had a business to run. But to Wilton Connor, it is a reflection of their humanness. “What are the things we can do as a group that would make our payroll checks go further?” he asks. “It just made sense for us.”
     What’s in it for the company to offer such unusual benefits? “We have highly motivated employees,” Connor insists. “We always get quality work from our people.” He believes that his small investments in his employees have reaped an enormous return. While Connor admits the total cost isn’t insignificant, he notes, “It’s small percentage-wise. We do most of it on a break-even basis.”
     The employee base reflects a rich diversity that most companies can only strive for. Women make up over half the workforce and account for a number of supervisory positions. Minorities, including immigrants, are well-represented throughout the firm. In fact, minorities earn half of the firm’s top twenty salaries. “We speak nine different languages here,” shares Connor. Wilton Connor Packaging has also lured many older employees out of retirement and has a surprising number of disabled workers.
     While the company does recruit highly skilled personnel, those with no experience are trained and skills are developed. What’s more, Connor actively seeks to promote promising employees from within to supervisory positions, giving them an opportunity to shine. Wilton Connor Packaging has a track record of identifying and polishing “diamonds in the rough.”
     Structural engineers are groomed from the workforce to learn how to conceptualize displays using computers — a trade not offered in a college or vocational degree program. Graphic artists, both experienced and fresh-out-of-college, handle major accounts.
     Juan Marin, an immigrant from Ecuador, was plucked from the packing floor once Connor learned he was interested in graphic design. Now an art student enrolled at UNC Charlotte, Marin works in the company’s art department, while going to school at night. “I started out as a packer and now through Mr. Connor, I work in the art department,” he beams. “I’m learning a lot.”
     Wilton Connor is a native son of Charlotte. His father was a music director at Myers Park Baptist Church and at Charlotte College (now UNC Charlotte), and his mother wrote book reviews. Connor earned a degree in sociology from Hiram College in 1970 and went to work at Container Corp. of America in Ravenna, Ohio.
     Connor was promoted to positions in Cleveland, Philadelphia and then Baltimore. His wife Catherine was a CPA, running her own accounting practice. The two wed and settled in Charlotte where Connor took a position at Western Craft in 1983. The couple had three children in three years.

Launching the Biz
     Connor is a born salesman and was responsible for 60 percent of Western Craft’s business in the unenviable sales territory between Charlotte and Asheboro, N.C. Energizer Battery in Asheboro asked Connor to fashion a packaging solution for their batteries. He devised a prototype that contained several battery “blister cards” in a carton sealed with shrink wrap.
     Western Craft wasn’t interested in the project; their forté was corrugated paperboard. Energizer Battery, however, felt the package would be ideal for a new retailer from Arkansas called Sam’s Club. The year was 1988, just before the warehouse club craze took over America. Sam’s Club targeted two different trades — the individual consumer and those buying products for resale. “The package had to meet the requirements of both customers, yet could only have one SKU — store keeping unit,” Connor explains. “That’s why it was perfect for club stores.” Sam’s Club offered to buy five and a half million units a year.
     Connor recommended the automatic equipment to create the boxes to Energizer, but company officials had other ideas. Energizer was willing to buy the equipment, but did not want to install it in their plant. They made Wilton Connor an offer he couldn’t refuse. “They said they’d lease the equipment to me for a dollar a year,” he recalls. “So I quit a perfectly good job and gave them three dollars.”
     Wilton Connor leased 17,000 square feet of warehouse space in 1989. With his wife, he launched the company as a contract packager. But the going was rough from the very first day. Catherine worked two part-time jobs — one as controller of Wilton Connor — to make ends meet. The two were of modest means and with a young family to feed, money was tight. Wilton Connor admits, “There were honestly times when we didn’t have any money.
     “But Catherine was always very good with money.” He pauses, “She handled all of those troubled financial times very well and raised three children.”
     Guy Forcucci, then a partner with an accounting firm, was willing to take a chance on the struggling enterprise. He reviewed the business plan, made suggestions and invested his own money. “They needed a bank loan,” he says, “but it was a small company with a seasonal business — all the reasons why bankers say, ‘You’re going to fail.’ ”
    And they nearly did, as cash flow couldn’t keep up with the demands of the company. Despite the problems, Forcucci came aboard full-time as CFO in 1991. The young company established a relationship with the Bank of Canada and the tide turned in their favor. By 1996, sales reached $26 million.
    Competitors include Chesapeake Display & Packaging and Alliance Display & Packaging Company, both in Winston-Salem, N.C. But the competition hasn’t prevented Wilton Connor from garnering the best customers in the industry. In 1998, the company’s dedication to quality and expanded services caught the eye of Weyerhaeuser Company, one of the world’s largest integrated forest products companies. Weyerhaeuser is principally engaged in the growing and harvesting of timber; and the manufacture, distribution and sale of forest products. Wilton Connor Packaging formed a 50-50 joint venture with Weyerhaeuser, expanding the capabilities of both companies. Wilton Connor Packaging gained access to Weyerhaeuser’s national accounts; Weyerhaeuser could now offer more specialty packaging services. It was a win-win situation.
     Wilton Connor Packaging was started in 1989 as a contract packager, but now takes on all phases of the process, from manufacturing to the retail shelf, including design/marketing, sourcing materials, managing inventory, producing the package, and shipping it to the retailer.
     Wilton Connor has become relatively wealthy. But he believes that wealth is more than just money. “Real wealth is doing what you want to do when you want to do it,” explains Connor. “I can’t imagine wanting to do anything else.”

     Katie Tyler, owner of Tyler II Construction Company, believes her purpose in life is to inspire others. 
Last September Tyler took her message to Russia. She was part of a team that went to Charlotte’s sister city, Veronezh, to help coach some budding young Russian entrepreneurs.
     Going to Russia was important personally to Tyler. She had gone to elementary school in Atlanta in the days of the Cold War and remembers taking refuge under her desk during nuclear attack drills. Then her father took the family to Japan in 1963 where Tyler went to school for four years. On the way home in 1967, they traveled through Russia.
     “I realized then that these are just people,” says Tyler. “Our governments may be different, but they’re people just like us. I always wanted to go back.”
     Loren Lassiter, project director of the Charlotte Community Connections Program, says she was looking for a  strong team to reconnect with the Russian business and non-profit leaders who had studied in the United States as part of The Community Connections / Business for Russia program. Launched in 1994 after a summit meeting between president Bill Clinton and Russian president Boris Yeltsen, the program funds internships for Russians to study in one of ten United States cities, including Charlotte. Since its inception, 99 Russians have come to the U.S. to study. Lassiter wanted the team to visit Russia to put on a two-day program of workshops and business seminars for as many of those former interns as possible.
     The team Lassiter assembled included Willy Ratchford, executive director of the Charlotte Community Relations Committee and Gary Ferraro, Lassiter’s husband, who is a cultural anthropologist at UNC-Charlotte. The Russians actually requested these two because they had worked with the Charlotte interns before. Ratchford gives a seminar entitled “Strength and Diversity.” Ferraro talks about the cultural dimensions of doing business internationally.
     Tom Flynn, assistant to the Charlotte city manager for small business development, joined the team to give a seminar on “How to look at the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities in your city.” Looking for a woman to round out the team, as well as a small business owner, Lassitor’s choice of Tyler was deliberate.
     “She was the perfect choice,” says Lassitor. “She’s great.”
     Tyler has not just built a successful  company, she has done it in a male-dominated industry. Her story is one of believing she can do anything she sets out to do. It’s a story and a message she’s willing to share.
     “Something about my story of turning $250 into a $15 million company helps others believe they can also achieve what they set out to do,” she says.
     Tyler, age 49,  grew up in a family with three brothers and a father who was a professional with the Boy Scouts. Since her family moved around a lot, her brothers became her best friends and she learned to play their games.
     A self-professed tomboy, she rode motorcycles and loved to sail.
     “I was never raised to think ‘girls don’t do that,’ ” Tyler says. “It never crossed my mind that I couldn’t do anything I wanted to do.” That ‘can do’ attitude took Tyler from a secretarial position in the Ivy Department Stores corporate office in 1974 to head of her own construction company in 1983. Today she leads a 25-employee company that specializes in interior renovations. Tyler says her greatest professional satisfaction is taking an existing building and turning it into something better.

To Russia…
     The group flew to Moscow on September 7, 2000. They took the overnight train to Veronezh, about 250 miles south of Moscow, on September 9th, arriving in time to celebrate “City Day” with a Sister Cities tour. After a big party on Monday, September 11th, they held two full days of workshops.
     While there, Tyler had an opportunity to visit several construction sites and was appalled at what she saw. “There is no code system at all,” she reports. “At one condo project, they decided to put in underground parking after the building was finished. New buildings look like they’ve been there for 50 years.”
     Tyler stayed with a Russian couple with a six-year old daughter in an apartment project that was only a couple of years old. The elevator had 18 stops on it, although there were only 11 floors, because that was the only mechanism available. The power went out several times a day. The apartments were heated through a hot water system, and the government turned off the heat in the summer, so residents had no hot water in the summer.
     “Yet, they cope,” says Tyler, who also saw some enviable things. At the high school or “gymnasium” she visited, there was a 10:1 teacher/student ratio, as well as a doctor and a nurse on staff.  Students were neatly dressed and there were no discipline problems.
    “So, they have no hot water in the summer, but their school system is far superior,” says Tyler.
    Team members stayed with Russian families, and after a short taste of Russian life, Tyler says she rewrote her talk a half dozen times. “I was going to cover subjects such as writing a business plan, hiring staff, borrowing money and growing your business,” she says. “I realized that the concept of free thinking was completely foreign to the Russians. They were so used to people telling them what to do, they had no idea how to make decisions for themselves.”
     Tyler said she couldn’t talk about borrowing money to people who don’t trust banks, or about how to interview employees in a culture where people are told what job they are going to hold. “You can’t talk about marketing because they want to keep their business a secret,” says Tyler. “If the Russian mafia finds out you’re in business, they’ll want a cut of it.”
     Instead, she talked about personal attitudes and how to believe in yourself.  One woman, who had just started her own landscaping firm, came up after Tyler’s presentation and said, “You fill me with energy.”

…And Back
     Tyler almost never turns down an opportunity to talk to people, especially young women. She has appeared before Rotary Clubs, Girl Scout Troops, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools’ Girls in Science program, the Mecklenburg Entrepreneurial Council, and spoken with countless individuals.
     “Several years ago, when I was just starting to be involved in the community, Katie encouraged me to go through the Leadership Charlotte program,” says Janet Fortner, president of Hospice at Charlotte. “Her arm was always out to me.”
     A graduate herself of Leadership Charlotte and now a member of the Board of Directors for Hospice, Tyler has stayed active in the Leadership program which helps to develop civic and community leaders. In 1998 she won its annual Schley R. Lyons Circle of Excellence Award. Tyler has also been president of Women Executives, a diverse group of women in senior business positions, who meet once a month to network and provide personal support for each other.
     Tyler’s ability to understand other people, as well as herself, has contributed to her success. Fortner says Tyler is known for being willing to help her employees meet their goals, for nurturing them and ensuring their personal success along with the company’s.
    “She’s a very spiritual person,” says Fortner. “She lives by her values.”
     Tyler promoted one company secretary to a newly created position she calls “Lasting Impressions Manager.” It is this person’s responsibility to manage client relations. She calls the client at the very beginning of the project and again in the middle of the project. “That’s when we can catch something that’s going wrong and still correct it,” Tyler says. 
The manager calls the client again when its time to go through the punch list and finish all the last-minute details, then, again 3 months and 6 months later, and finally, a month before the warranty expires. Tyler believes this kind of attention to details and to relationships is what distinguishes her company from its many competitors. “It’s what you do before and after the job that really makes the difference,” she says.
    Six years ago Tyler became active with a group that rescues Schnauzers, her “breed of choice.” She has a section of her home kenneled off where she keeps dogs she is nursing back to health or who are waiting for a new home. She also has four Schnauzers of her own.
    Tyler has also been active on the Charlotte Chamber’s Board of Advisors, its highest level of membership. She is the only volunteer to actually chair the Chamber’s fund raising efforts, and she did it two years in a row, setting all kinds of records.
    Under Tyler’s leadership, the Chamber exceeded its $350,000 membership goal in 1997. The next year, it decided to revamp the way it raised money, by selling not only memberships, but also products such as advertising and sponsorships. With an ambitious goal of $1,500,000 for 1998, it needed an experienced chairman and turned, again, to Tyler.
    “My big button is ‘It can’t be done, but…,’ ” says Tyler. 
Bob Confoy, group vice president for sales and marketing at the Chamber, says “Katie’s successful because she’s extremely efficient and very goal-oriented. She’s also a very nice person who people like to be around. She’s good at motivating volunteers.”
    When Tyler turned 40, she made a list of all the things she still wanted to do in life. These included learning to play the piano and to speak Spanish, riding a horse on a beach, and flying on a circus trapeze. She’s gradually crossing them off the list, having just bought a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and returned to an early love for horseback riding, but there’s still a lot left. She still wants to try sky diving, go on a safari, and visit South America.
    “There’s just not enough time,” she laments. But, as she nears the 50-year mark, she knows she wants to be remembered for more than having been a trailblazer for women in construction or as business woman of the year.
     “I want to be known as someone who is easy to love and fun to be with,” Tyler says. “I want people to say, “She made a difference in my life.”

      If it seems as though every businessperson you meet has a Palm Pilot (or the newer Palm Organizer), a pager or a cell phone these days, you’re probably right. Analysts anticipate that within three years, there will be over 300 million users.
     That suits Ryan Walcott just fine. As CEO of Charlotte-based SoDeog Technologies (pronounced so-DAY-oag), Walcott, along with co-founder Paul Crimm, have developed a technology that allows different brands of hand-held computers to communicate wirelessly.
     And he’s betting that mobile device users want and need to trade information regardless of the brand or operating system they use. So far, the digital and investment communities have been inclined to agree.
     SoDeog has already partnered with industry heavyweights Aether Software, Casio, Clarion, Ericsson, Microsoft, 3Com’s Palm Computing, Psion and Symbian. They have also garnered nearly $6 million dollars in financial backing from well-known venture capitalists and assorted angel investors. Clearly, Walcott and Crimm are onto something big. “The market saturation rates are increasing dramatically for handsets and PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants),” points out Walcott. “Just about everybody carries at least one today. The more people who adopt these devices, the bigger the issue. What we’re building is very compelling.”
     SoDeog Technologies creates software that allows mobile devices such as PDAs, smart phones and pagers, to wirelessly exchange information regardless of device type, operating system or network coverage. The software, SyncTalk Professional, is a patent-pending, universal platform for device-to-device transfer of contacts, appointments, text documents and more across different operating systems.
     “We don’t really think any one operating system will win out over the others like Microsoft Windows has on desktop PCs,” Walcott explains. “So there needs to be one common language so these different devices can speak to each other. We built SyncTalk to make that happen.”
     For those of you still clinging to a tattered appointment book, consider that electronic organizers do more than just organize. PDAs are portable devices that help you take charge of your busy life. You can transfer information to and from your desktop computer, updating the information on either the PDA or the computer. A prioritized to-do list helps you focus on important activities. Alarms alert you prior to appointments. An always up-to-date contact list saves time spent searching for phone numbers. Personal finance software helps track your expenses.
     You can make use of time spent commuting or sitting in waiting rooms to edit proposals, read manuscripts, or even play a game. And if your PDA is wireless, you can sit in the park and check your e-mail. You can look up a phone number or jot a note in a moment.
     PDAs are small and light enough to take anywhere. Many are shirt-pocket size; though others fit more comfortably in a jacket pocket or even a briefcase. They typically include an appointment calendar, a to-do list, a phone/address directory and a basic memo editor. At a bare minimum, a PDA must be able to communicate by wire with a personal computer for file transfer and backup. Many PDAs support an optional modem for access to e-mail and even web browsing. Some offer wireless connectivity or are integrated into digital cellular phones.
     But one thing a Palm Pilot couldn’t do, at least until Walcott and Crimm came along, was transfer information to another handheld platform. As with PCs, manufacturers use different operating systems for their handheld devices including Palm OS, Windows CE, Symbian’s EPOC32, Auto PC and Pocket PC. But while PC-based Windows can communicate with Macintosh and UNIX, Palm Pilots could only communicate with other Palm devices; Windows CE with other Window CE devices; EPOC with only other EPOC devices. Almost every project or management team can count on a “mixed-device” environment. Walcott had experienced this firsthand.
     “I had a Palm device; Paul had a Windows CE-based device and there was no way for us to share data,” he says. “I could send information to all my colleagues who had Palm devices, but I couldn’t sent anything to him. It was ridiculous.”
     Walcott had a very real need to send information to Crimm. Not only were they lifelong friends, growing up together in Fort Mill, S.C., they were also employees at Metasys, an enterprise management software start-up, acquired by Optum in 1998. With a computer science degree from the University of South Carolina, Walcott headed up a group of techno-savvy employees as director of research while only in his early 20s. As director, he was charged with applying new technologies and software development methodologies to build and commercialize Optum’s flagship products.
     Paul Crimm took an alternative route to hone his technical skills. Following an Air Force tour of duty, he received an appointment to the National Security Agency as a telecommunications and cryptology specialist, where he received the Joint Service Commendation Medal and the Joint Service Achievement Medal. After a stint at the White House, he was eager to return to the Carolinas. Walcott recruited him to Optum.
     During his four-year post, Walcott not only demonstrated technical excellence, but a strong affinity for management. “It was a start-up,” he says. “I saw the company grow to over 300 employees. I was very close to the executive management team, close to the heartbeat of the company.” This start-up exposure as a manager was an omen of good things to come.
     “Four years at Metasys was like 40 years at another company,” he comments. “And it’s really prepared me for this. I can take the knowledge from there and apply it here.”
     Walcott’s projects at Optum planted the seeds for SoDeog’s SyncTalk product.
     Optum specializes in supply chain software-logistics, warehouse management and order fulfillment products that must integrate with a clients’ Enterprise Resource Planning systems like People Soft or SAP. Enterprise Resource Planning (or ERP as it is commonly known) software is a vital manufacturing and planning tool that allows businesses to automate and coordinate business activities.
     “It’s a huge problem — application integration,” Walcott explains. “But the same problem exists in the device space itself. You have applications on these devices that need to talk to each other.”

Leap of Faith
     Convinced that others shared their frustration and aware of the surprising dearth of alternatives, they took of leap of faith out on their own in July 1999. Walcott and Crimm quit their day jobs and set up shop in Crimm’s back bedroom. They had no guarantee that their product would work, but an angel investor saw promise and bankrolled the duo — to the tune of $100,000. They coined the company name, SoDeog, as an abbreviation for the Latin, Soli Deo Gloria. (“To only God be the glory.”)
     Despite staggering technical challenges and the intellectual property risks, failure never entered Walcott’s mind. Using XML technology, the two were committed to overcoming constraints—limited bandwidth, limited memory, and limited CPUs and more. Tinkering, testing and building prototypes, the team met with success early on. 
“We set out from the beginning to build a product that worked and to get it onto the market quickly,” says Walcott. “We just knew we could find a solution.”
    By March 2000, they had done just that. 
    Although they had no booth, no presentation and only three employees (including themselves), Walcott and Crimm arrived at the COMDEX Fall 1999 conference in Las Vegas. COMDEX is a business-to-business trade show for technology in the new economy. They visited booths and demonstrated their prototype to industry leaders, buyers and sellers. Walcott recalls, “People kept telling us, ‘It’s about time someone tackled this problem.’ We were really encouraged.” Gathering feedback and suggestions, they returned to Charlotte to modify and tailor SyncTalk for its release.
     Since its initial funding, SoDeog had raised an additional $500,000 from other angel investors along the way. Then, in May 2000, the company raised $5 million in a first round of venture capital money from the Wakefield Group of Charlotte and Atlanta-based Noro-Moseley Partners. George Mackie, an Entrepreneur-In-Residence at Wakefield Group, was appointed chairman of the board.
      By the time Walcott and Crimm returned to COMDEX in November 2000, they not only had a booth, but were already selling SyncTalk over the Internet for $30 a copy. In that short span, they had acquired over 50,000 users worldwide. While Walcott is pleased with individual usage, he stresses that device manufacturers are the company’s primary audience.

Future Strategy
    “In the future, we’re selling the software directly to the manufacturer,” he says. “You buy the device, take it out of the box and SyncTalk is already loaded onto it. We want SyncTalk on every device that is shipping in the industry.”
     In fact, SoDeog just announced a worldwide partnership agreement with Ericsson, the world’s second largest phone manufacturer. As an Ericsson partner, SoDeog will develop SyncTalk solutions that support existing and future Ericsson technologies.
     SoDeog also recently signed a strategic agreement with Casio in Germany. Under the agreement, Casio will bundle SyncTalk software on its installation CDs for Casio’s successful Cassiopeia line of PDAs.
     Today Walcott is at the helm of a 50+ person operation with corporate offices in Ballantyne. Crimm, chief pioneer, is the lead engineer behind SoDeog’s impressive product innovations. Somehow the two have managed their business’ explosive growth despite young marriages and growing families. Looking back on their whirlwind eighteen months, Walcott is grateful for his years at Optum. “At lot of what we did at Optum prepared us for what we’re doing now.”
    SoDeog also boasts an impressive management team. With over 23 years of  executive and senior management experience, George Mackie adds depth, commercial expertise and a wealth of relationships to help SoDeog move forward.
     Brian Shepherd is vice president of marketing. He is a former McKinsey consultant with a Harvard MBA and over ten years of strategy, management and business development experience.
     Leonard Philemon, vice president of sales, has 23 years’ experience in technology and sales management. with such companies as Tandem Computers and most recently, Telxon Company.
    Peter Gifford is managing director of SoDeog Europe. He most recently was general manager for Greenwich Instruments in the U.K., where he led all sales and marketing efforts for their handheld and peripheral products.
     SoDeog Technologies is a member of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group. Bluetooth, comprised of industry leaders like 3Com, Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Lucent, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia and Toshiba, is driving development of wireless technology and bringing it to market.
     It is a common misconception that Bluetooth is a SyncTalk competitor. (Bluetooth protocol uses radio waves to transport information between devices.) Bluetooth actually enhances the SyncTalk software, which currently utilizes infrared technology as a means of transfer between devices. The software has been designed scale with advancements in wireless technology, such as the introduction of the Bluetooth protocol. SyncTalk will use this mode of transport, much as it does infrared today, to facilitate the exchange of information between mobile devices.
     SoDeog Technologies has multiple products in development to capitalize on the promising future of Bluetooth technology. According to the company, there are no other products currently positioned to compete with SyncTalk. Walcott is confident about the future.
     “Nobody is doing what we’re doing the way we do it. It’s a whole new space out there that other people have ignored. We knew from the beginning this was going to be big.”


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