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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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
The image is more than superficial. Being at the leading edge permeates the company as it rides the next wave of e-integration.
The publicly held Chicago-based company is now the largest Web integrator offering clients everything from strategy to site design to back end systems integration.
Robert Bernard, Chairman and CEO, believes that “companies that can envision and sustain a new level of business integration — from business model to operations to customer relationships — will be the leaders in the new economy.”
One of the energizers and interpreters of the new economy is T.J. Felice, managing executive of marchFIRST’s Charlotte office.
“If you look at a company as a collection of lines of businesses, the way they work together as an entity is by the exchange of information. In the old economy, a competitor had to take on a whole business because there was no way to break it down,” explains the 33-year-old executive. “Today, the Internet is breaking down the hardcore ties between lines of business. Information can now be exchanged in different ways. The Internet allows competitors to break into that information, and segment off that line of business to compete head to head.
“If companies compartmentalize based on the traditional way of doing business they set themselves up for competition from faster more efficient companies at that line of business. Our point is, organizations need to think across the enterprise working all the time to maintain relationships with employees, shareholders and customers.”
To this end, marchFIRST offers clients strategic vision and technology depth, an understanding of how its clients’ marketplaces are changing and how to build and execute winning strategies.
“Organizations tell us they’re developing strategies for two to three years that only have a shelf life of six months because things change so quickly,” Felice continues. “The question we get from senior level executives is, ‘How do I develop a strategy for my enterprise that’s meaningful?’
“The challenge is to build a strategy based on what our clients know and where they want to go rather than based on what they don’t know or what they fear.”
Because of the speed of change, there’s often a perpetual sense of uneasiness at the corporate level. marchFIRST becomes an advocate, helping companies realize and sustain meaningful business results.
“We start from the top of the organization and help drive change that benefits the entire enterprise,” Felice expounds. “We can bring our experience and expertise to bear to help clients put their thoughts into perspective. We ask the right questions and draw the answers out of them. We help them coordinate and articulate the necessary information to achieve their desired business goals.”
Felice admits that understanding a client’s expectations before beginning a project can be challenging.
“Setting a good foundation and managing client expectations are key. We’ve gotten very focused on asking questions upfront to make sure expectations are met. Understanding expectations drives the success of the project as well as the success of our long- term relationships with the client. We don’t miss if we’ve gotten that straight.”
Felice classifies the types of challenges they assist clients with into two categories.
“In the first situation, the client is aware of their problem. They will ask us to come in and work out that specific issue. In the second instance, particuarly if we’ve developed a relationship in which we constantly deliver to their expectations, they give us an opportunity to do more meaningful things. They may not know the problem, but they know there’s an opportunity to impact the bottom line and call us to help figure it out for them. For example, they may ask us to find new ways to create revenue or a new market to compete in.”
David Henley, director of professional services at YOUcentric, producers of e-business relationship management software based in Charlotte, says that marchFIRST has consistently provided them with top tier technical talent.
“At one point we found ourselves in need of deep Oracle expertise to support some of our projects. They provided top Oracle talent quicker than anyone else could. They put in extra hours, nights and weekends to give us spot expertise,” says Henley. “They’ve come to the table with resources like that a number of times. Once they’re in here, they are part of our team and we treat them that way to the point that it’s difficult to distinguish between the two of us.”
Their relationship has since grown to global proportions.
“We have a close working relationship with marchFIRST,” explains Doug Havis, director of Alliances and Channels. “The Charlotte office has been the genesis of our global activity in all corners of the country.”
Growth Through Ms & As
Felice has been through the mergers and acquisitions that produced marchFIRST. In 1999, he left a Big Five consulting firm to open the Charlotte office of Point of View [Partners Inc.]. The company offered back end integration strategies and had three sizable clients; Transamerica, Bank of America and First Union.
“Back then we were privately held and hired people as we sold work,” Felice explains.
Whittman-Hart bought Point of View in July 1999.
“Suddenly we had a lot more capital and our employee numbers grew dramatically,” says Felice. “It was like P.O.V. on steroids. Then USWeb/CKS merged with Whittman-Hart on March 1st, 2000.”
That merger combined Whittman-Hart’s back-end integration strategies with the Web design skills of USWeb/CKS and allowed the company to have a major impact on rewriting the way e-business systems are built. National clients included Diner’s Club, Harley-Davidson and Apple Computer Inc. and in 1999, combined revenues were $991.8 million.
Employees Seek Local Impact
Besides Felice, employees like Jon Nance, Daniel Durham and Brad Fleming were enticed from Big Five consulting firms by the lure of the freedom and the entrepreneurial spirit the company embodies. But beyond furthering their own careers they wanted an opportunity to impact their community on a local level.
“In a large company, it’s difficult to own a client relationship from conception to completion of a project or strategy,” says Nance, manager of the customer relationship management practice. “I wanted more opportunity to develop those skills.
“We do the bulk of our business in Charlotte and bring in experts from other places when we need spot assistance. At my previous job I was traveling 10 to 20 hours a week. marchFIRST gave me the opportunity to work closer to home. After nine years in Charlotte, I’m now actually doing something to help local companies change and make a difference in the way they perform.”
Durham, a senior consultant, says that although they aren’t typical consultants, their resources run deep.
“We have people across the globe with knowledge, experiences and resources that we can tap into for niche needs. We’ve just recently implemented new tools to help us share knowledge to access the work other offices have done. We learn from their experience and can apply it to our own situation here.”
Fleming, a senior consultant, echoes their words and adds, “I went from being a number at a Big Five consulting firm to being able to impact Charlotte both professionally and personally. Before, I was traveling five days a week and not spending much time here. Now I have a life in Charlotte as well.”
Fleming is the fundraising chairman for his Chantilly neighborhood, which is partnering with the city for local improvements.
The company encourages civic- mindedness and its employees have taken part in Junior Achievement, YMCA Corporate Cup, NPR Fundraisers, local church projects and other events such as Race for the Cure.
Turnover rate is well below industry average in this office. “In hindsight, we’re fortunate we grew slowly early,” explains Felice.
“We continued to build small groups of people focused on either a specific offering that we take to the market or a specific skill set. We still hire people in groups to provide a sense of community. That solves the turnover problem. The companies that try to grow too fast or try to do too much all at once experience the turnover when things get bumpy. And things get bumpy in our business.”
One big bump was a dramatic dip in stock prices and a ten percent company-wide layoff of employees at the end of 2000. According to Felice, though, the demand stil exists for their services.
“The third quarter earnings announcement on October 24, 2000 stated that revenues were slightly below expectation but earnings per share were dramatically below expectations. From a global perspective, demand stayed flat while recruiting continued.
“That resulted in a ten percent reduction in our work force. As an organization, we’ve slimmed down so we can go to market more aggressively.”
In 2001, Felice anticipates a ripe market with a growth rate of 60 percent for the Charlotte office.
“Our main focus this year will be the ninety miles around Charlotte with a strong demand for strategy and supply chain and customer relationship management and anything to do with transactions on the web. I see nothing but improvement in the pace of development in Internet space, with broadband being the leading technology. It’s more relevant here than wireless because of the manufacturing and financial sectors. It’s about exchanging information better, faster and cheaper. Charlotte is still a rather conservative city when it comes to technology. The mentality is, ‘Let’s see what floats and what sinks and get on board with what floats.’ ”
Manuel Zapata won’t discuss most of Zapata Engineering’s successful projects, and with good reason. His company specializes in identifying problems in existing structures and developing creative solutions to modify and repair them — “detective work” as he calls it. “With some of the engineering work we do, our clients don’t always want a lot of publicity,” says Zapata. “So we have to be discreet.” Zapata Engineering delivers facilities, infrastructure and environmental engineering services to a variety of public and private companies and governmental organizations. And just as his engineering solutions rely on establishing structural integrity, Zapata’s success is due largely to his own personality: solid, unassuming and full of integrity.
Manuel Zapata founded Zapata Engineering in 1991 and has carefully positioned it as a very specialized firm. Forget simple construction — Zapata Engineering takes on complex, technically demanding challenges that many larger firms decline.
“We also work on buildings where the usage has changed — more people in a certain space than originally planned for,” he shares. “The heavier load can cause the building to begin stressing. We help the building carry new functions.”
The firm employs a highly technical staff of engineers, geologists and other scientists for forensic and environmental engineering. This select team corrects everything from indoor air quality or “sick building syndrome,” to property contaminated with chemicals, electromagnetic fields and munitions.
Zapata Engineering developed the methodology to research the effects of electromagnetic fields from cellular phones and power lines throughout the Southeast. The work has been reproduced in other parts of the country, and scientists continue to use Zapata techniques for continued research. The firm also conducts studies, performs investigations and develops designs for cleanup at sites contaminated with ordinance and explosives and chemical warfare material. The U.S. Air Force, Army and the Navy regularly call upon the Charlotte-based firm for their expertise.
Zapata’s out-of-the-ordinary engineering has earned the firm impressive repeat clients that include several Fortune 500 companies as well as small to mid-sized organizations.
The firm’s client list reads like a Who’s Who in American Business — J.A. Jones, Bank of America, BellSouth, United Parcel Service, to name just a few. In large part, Zapata credits long-term relationships, many established during his Duke Power tenure, as key to his continued success.
“Our success has been built on these relationships,” he says. “We have executed multi-million dollar contracts for a lot of public companies. They keep coming back to us because they trust us to tell them the truth.”
An asphalt company turned to Zapata for help in a complex land negotiation. The company wanted to sell property to a high-profile retailer, but the buyer balked because the land was contaminated. Zapata Engineering openly consulted with both the seller and buyer regarding the environmental consequences, then carefully crafted a thorough clean-up plan that suited both parties. Zapata was instrumental in the positive outcome, and the retailer purchased the property.
The U.S. Army was so impressed with the firm’s meticulous approach to solving structural problems, they recruited Zapata Engineering to train for ordinance and explosives and chemical warfare clean-up. Today the firm is among a select few in the nation qualified to restore military training grounds by dismantling live weaponry.
Zapata’s integrity has served him well throughout his career. But his success in the business world did not come easily. A political refugee, Zapata arrived in Gastonia from his native Chile in 1967. He fled the country when the ruling Communist Party barred university graduates from ever leaving the country. Five years into a grueling six-year civil engineering program, Zapata abandoned his studies for a taste of freedom.
“Coming here was extremely difficult,” he remembers. “My heart goes out to all immigrants. It takes a lot of guts to come to the U.S.”
Zapata planned to settle in San Diego, but through a family friend detoured to Gastonia. Although he had studied English since the third grade and read both English and French textbooks in engineering school, the language barrier was still significant. “When I first came to Charlotte, I turned on the car radio to a Country station. I couldn’t figure out a word they were saying!”
Undeterred, Zapata applied to the engineering school at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte (UNCC). He easily passed a battery of placement exams to earn a spot in the mechanical engineering program. But he still needed a job.
Businessmen and brothers Frank and Fred Mayhew took a chance on the eager young man. He was hired on the spot to program a computer at Metal Service Corporation on South Boulevard. Although Zapata had never programmed a computer before, he figured it out in a single morning. The unit went into production that afternoon.
“I was very fortunate,” he stresses. “I had people who took a chance on me. In this country, when people see someone struggling and trying, they find a way to help you.”
Zapata earned a degree in mechanical engineering in 1969 and accepted a post at Piedmont Natural Gas. He continued his studies in the evening at UNCC, earning an MBA in 1972. But his community fervor didnít begin in earnest until he caught the eye of Bill Lee.
Bill Lee was chairman and CEO of Duke Power (now Duke Energy) from 1982 through 1994. He spent 39 years rising through the ranks to build Charlotte-based Duke Power into one of the nation’s largest utilities. But Lee’s interest extended beyond Duke Power. He wisely funneled his time, energy and even his subordinates into building Charlotteís and the stateís economy. As an advocate for the business community, he expected Duke employees to do the same.
Lee saw value in Zapata and hired him in the mid-’70s. Right away, Zapata found that Lee had high expectations of employees at his management level. “He wanted everyone to be involved in the community,” recalls Zapata. “He told me that because of my job, I had to be the leader of at least two industry or civic groups, so Iíd better get busy. It was written into my job description.”
Zapata eventually found himself at the helm of the Sister Cities Committee for the City of Charlotte. He revived the then-defunct group and incorporated the business community into the cultural exchange. The very first Sister City was Arequipa, Peru; then Baoding, China; and Krefeld, Germany. Zapata led delegations of Charlotte businesses overseas and organized reciprocal trips.
“We got to promote our city around the world,” he says proudly. “The payoff for the city was great.”
But as a Duke Power employee, Zapata hadn’t entertained the idea of promoting himself, much less his own company. As committee chair, Zapata actually had to ask some members, intent on endorsing their own businesses, to leave the group. “We were focused on promoting the United States first, then North Carolina, then Charlotte and yourself last,” he insists. “When you are talking to companies from Japan or Germany, it’s not about you. It’s about Charlotte.”
His integrity served him well in the ensuing years. “Even today I get calls from contacts I met years ago. When you work hard to keep your integrity, people trust you. Even years after the fact.”
Those heady years of leadership came to a roaring halt in the late ’80s.
In the midst of profound changes in the electric utilities industry, Zapata found himself downsized. With his wife Karen’s support, he bravely took his severance and launched what he hoped would be a successful international consulting business. His worldwide contacts and stature as a business leader should have guaranteed success.
But it didn’t. Zapata found competition from the Big 5 accounting firms, law firms, and the banking sector too much for his fledgling operation. Disheartened, he tried his hand at the import/export business. It, too, failed to reap dividends. By 1991 Zapata was nearly out of ideas when he was reminded of what a management expert might call his “core competency.” He was after all, an engineer.
Zapata explains, “Working at Duke Power put me on the business side. I had to study and refresh and get back to being an engineer. I realized how much I truly loved engineering. It’s what I wanted to do all my life.”
Zapata studied and obtained his engineering license. With his last $250, he set up a computer in the corner of the family room in his home. He sent out 50 letters to contacts he had made throughout his career at Duke. Zapata Engineering was open for business.
Those contacts he cultivated through civic activities did not fail him. Zapata’s trust, integrity and strong sense of ethics struck a chord with his former colleagues and they in turn supported him.
He couldn’t afford to pay his first employee, but Mary Richardson, now senior vice president of operations, has been with the firm ever since. His wife, Karen, a CPA, eventually left her position as a college professor to come aboard. Nine years later, Zapata Engineering is 50-employees strong and one of the largest engineering firms in the area.
Zapata’s ability to engender trust is matched by his trust in his employees. Zapata Engineering experiences remarkably low turnover because he is a strong supporter of his staff. Educational stipends and bonuses are not unusual in this day and age. But what is different is the level of flexibility and responsibility offered to employees. Work hours are flexible. After grueling field assignments, the staff is encouraged to take time off.
When the firm landed a project in San Francisco, most employees assumed Zapata would handle the assignment in the much-coveted locale. Instead, he sent two junior, yet very capable engineers. Zapata’s management philosophy is actually a reflection of how he likes to work. “We believe in our people,” he says. “We trust them and give them a great deal of responsibility early on. We want them to like their jobs and have fun.”
Serving the Public Good
Despite his accomplishments, Zapata is modest about his long career of public service.
“Charlotte has been good to me,” he says simply. “People gave me a chance. If I can help the city, then I will.”
And he has. Zapata has actively served as Chairman of the Chamber of Commerceís Foreign Investment Committee, Carolinas World Affairs, the North Carolina Entrepreneurial Development Board and more.
Charlotte mayors and even the governor have sought his business expertise. He has led North Carolina delegates all over the world. Zapata has mentored emerging businesses and cultivated support for minority entrepreneurs. His quiet, yet hands-on approach has enriched both the business and social fabric of Charlotte and the surrounding area.
Zapata explains his civic zeal with a quote attributed to former Charlotte mayor Stan Brookshire. “ ‘In Charlotte it doesn’t matter how much money you have. If you don’t do civic work, you don’t count.’
“Here,” he says, “businesspeople give of their time, talent and treasure. For a long time, the only thing I had was time.”
Despite the demands of a growing firm and a backlog of $72 million in contracts, Zapata still makes time to support to the Charlotte business community. Working with the Charlotte Chamber, he helped found the Las Americas Business Council, a business group for Hispanic professionals. He has mentored young entrepreneurs through the Charlotte Chamber Minority Business Leadership Institute. His presence has been felt in social organizations, too — from the Boy Scout Council to Crisis Assistance Ministry.
Although Zapata has been identified as an industry recruiter and goodwill ambassador for the City of Charlotte, he is convinced that his best work is yet to come. His goal is to increase the firm to 400 employees through internal growth. “We have a lot of momentum going right now,” he says. “If you love what you’re doing there’s no need to retire. It’s so much fun to grow a business.”
‘Tis a month before Christmas, and on SouthTrust?s fourth floor, a man emerges, looking different from before.
His name is Black ? though he?s all dressed in red ? and he?s got visions of kids smiling inside his white head.
From New Year?s to Thanksgiving, he?s a regular Joe, but from now until Christmas he?s the star of the show.
Throughout North Carolina, his task is quite clear: to spend the holiday season spreading good cheer.
Even without the red suit, Larry Black is the spitting image of Santa Claus. He?s got the full white (mostly) beard and sweeping mustache, the fringe of white hair on a balding pate, the ruddy complexion, the perfect round glasses, and a belly which one can imagine could ?shake like a bowl full of jelly? at any moment.
Black provides facilities support for SouthTrust Bank?s Charlotte properties most of the year, but every Thanksgiving he shuts the office door and puts on his Santa suit. For the next four weeks, he?ll travel over 2,000 miles visiting nursing homes, assisted living centers, child care centers, and Christmas parties. Anywhere a child or senior citizen needs to find Santa, Black will try to make him appear.
?Santa works for us eleven months of the year,? says Bradley Thompson, CEO of SouthTrust Bank, ?then he takes care of the children for the other month.?
Black bought his first Santa suit in the 1980s. He enjoyed playing Santa for friends and for the town of Telluride, Colorado, where he lived for three years during the early ?90s. There, Santa came to town in a hot air balloon and landed on the main street.
Black recalls one of his earliest experiences there. ?A little boy, about seven or eight, kept staring at me. ?You want to pull my beard, don?t you??, I asked him. He nodded and I said ?come on.? He pulled it, but not too hard. I told him to pull harder and he really yanked on it. Then he turned to his mother and said, ?Mom, it?s him!??
Black first grew that beard in 1968 when he played the sheriff in a production of ?The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail? at the Mint Museum. It?s become whiter, he says, as the years have gone by. Every May he begins letting it grow out, shaping it once or twice, and every December 24th, he trims it back.
?My wife says I look like Sean Connery without the long beard,? says Black.
Actually, Linda Black likes the Santa look fine, too. When she was a child she told her mother she wanted to grow up and marry Santa Claus. Her mother told her Santa already had a wife. When she married Black ten years ago, she was able to say, ?See, I really did marry Santa.?
Thompson met Black after he wrote a complaint letter to SouthTrust. Thompson was impressed with the eloquence of the letter and arranged a meeting. He immediately recognized Black?s potential.
?The next year, I tried to hire Larry to play Santa for us for two weeks,? says Thompson. ?At the time he was working as a department manager at Wal-Mart and they wouldn?t let him off. Even so Larry took a couple of days vacation and helped us out.?
In 1998 Thompson solved the problem by hiring Black full-time. Now Black works 40 hours a week for SouthTrust most of the year and 120 hours as Santa at Christmas.
?It helps us create some fun in the workplace,? says Thompson. ?Larry is part of the fun.?
SouthTrust bought Black a second Santa suit. Since he puts it on every day for thirty days in a row, it?s nice to have a back-up.
?You have to see him in full regalia,? says Harriet Penninger, branch manager of the Mint Hill office. ?He?s a wonderful Santa Claus.?
Together with the Mint Hill Business Association, SouthTrust sponsors a Senior Citizen?s Christmas Party. This annual event draws about 500 people. Black appears as Santa and has his picture taken with anyone who wants it.
?He speaks to everyone and has something nice to say to everyone,? says Penninger.
In Cary, North Carolina, Black visits a day care center and interacts with over 200 children.
?He?s wonderful,? says Anna Booth, branch manager of the Walnut-Maynard office. ?We look forward to him coming every year. He?s very personable and very patient. We take a picture of each child with Santa and send it home with the parents. It?s a great way for us to show support for the community.?
In Rutherford County, Black puts in an appearance at the annual ?Breakfast with Santa,? a benefit for a new children?s museum, to be called KidSense. Last year, about 1,000 children showed up to have their pictures taken with Santa.
?Larry is real good with the children,? says Debbie Martin, vice president and branch manager of the Spindale office. ?He?s very gentle, and especially good with those who are afraid. He doesn?t want anyone to miss out on having his picture taken.?
While it might not suit everyone to hold 1,000 squirming children in their lap or to listen to 1,000 Christmas wishes, it suits Larry Black to a tee.
?I have a ball,? says Black. ?It is a personal delight to portray Santa and experience all that adoration. You feel such a sense of responsibility to make every child feel positive about Christmas.?
The hard part comes when a child asks for something Black knows is probably out of Santa?s reach to provide.
?Kids figure they can ask for the moon,? he says. ?When they want something I suspect is out of the parental ability to provide, I just say ?I?ll do my best.? I try not to make any promises which can?t be kept.?
When children ask for pets, Black tells them Santa can?t bring live animals in his sled, but says he?ll talk to their parents and see if they think the child is old enough to handle the responsibility. Black also brings pleasure to the many adults he visits at nursing homes and senior citizen centers as well.
?At one nursing home, a 92-year old woman said this would probably be her last Christmas,? says Black, ?when I left, I told her ?See you next year.??
In addition to playing Santa for SouthTrust, Black does private parties. For the last five years, he?s also been Santa at the two games before Christmas for the Charlotte Hornets. When Black does a party, he takes the time to get to know something about everyone who?ll be there. He delights in a child?s surprise when he asks something like, ?Why did you name your goldfish Brooklyn??
You won?t ever see Santa in a bar or behaving inappropriately, as long as Black is portraying him. Black learned that lesson one year in the late ?80s when he went out for a drink with a group of friends. Upon learning that one friend had to meet his sister at the airport, Black went home and put on his Santa suit before returning to the bar for another round. Then the group left for the airport.
?I was walking though the concourse when a little boy spotted me,? says Black. ?Look Dad, there?s Santa,? he said. His father replied, ?I told you we might see Santa at the airport.? That was the last time I ever took a drink while dressed as Santa.?
While Black has been an actor, a lawyer, and a judge, he feels he has found his true calling in playing Santa Claus.
?I have a gift God gave me and I?ll do the best I can to repay it,? he says. ?I believe Christmas is important year round.?
Black has a dream, too. He would like to find a way to recognize people for the good things they do throughout the year. If he could, he would design a pin in the shape of a holly branch and engrave it with the words ?I keep Christmas in my heart? and present it to the doers of good deeds.
?The true spirit of Christmas, the spirit of love for others, should not be restricted to just one month a year,? says Black. ?And it should not be acknowledged just once a year.”
“This is a different kind of training for a woman to be in,? muses Darlene Pearson, president of The Avenue Group, a Charlotte-based technology training company. ?Most people think of training in terms of sales or human resources, but we do training on highly specialized software products.?
And not just any software products. Pearson has established relationships with top software tool providers including Adobe, Macromedia, Corel, AuthorIT, Quark and more.
While both the type and sheer number of software tools on the market can be mind-boggling, Pearson is careful to keep the company focused on a particular niche.
?We train on tools for Web designers, graphics professionals, technical writers and project managers. We also train instructional designers ? people who develop training materials for large corporations,? she explains. ?Everybody does some sort of training, but we train a very specific and sophisticated audience.?
The Avenue Group offers both training and services primarily to the financial services, industrial, and computer (hardware and software) market segments. Its four practice areas are: Technical Documentation and Instructional Design; Training Delivery; Web and Promotional Materials Design and Development; and Business Analysis and Project Management.
The company?s business model encompasses three distinct divisions that are unique to the field: training/delivery, consulting services and software product sales. Pearson considers this mix intrinsic to the company success. ?Our primary role is training,? she stresses. ?But when you train on the tool, many times people will want to buy it from you along with consulting services. They want the whole package of training services and the software itself.?
Pearson has also found that while classes are informative, participants sometimes require extra help and guidance to meet tight deadlines. ?Sometimes they tell us, ?I learned so much, but I don?t have the capacity to get everything. Can I get services from you?? So we do a lot of consulting work as well.?
The Avenue Group offers vendor-certified software training at its university-area complex and offsite at client locales. But the biggest innovation in training delivery is, not surprisingly, online. ?We are already on the Internet with e-learning,? Pearson says proudly. ?There is a live chat every week. There are materials that people can work from. They can e-mail the instructor or go to a message board.?
The e-learning delivery component is evolving into bigger and better things. The company?s roles as trainer and value-added software reseller are key to its web strategy. ?You can sign up for classes and buy the product on the same Web page,? Pearson explains.
She expects to eventually broadcast Charlotte classes live in a video format for Internet participants.? The technology is already available today,? she insists. ?All we have to do is build the content for it.?
The Avenue Group tailors classes to each client?s specifications. Exercises and examples incorporate the client?s industry, a particular project or even the client?s files. ?We teach with their examples, their files,? Pearson confirms. ?We use a standard and then incorporate their [the client?s] perspective. Most training companies don?t do that.?
While Pearson herself is no longer in the classroom, the caliber of teaching talent she has recruited helps her company maintain its edge. The Avenue Group?s instructors bring a depth of expertise and experience at every interface. Because of the company?s specialized focus, each instructor must be well-versed in distinct product areas or subsets. And because each instructor may also engage in consulting services, real-world exposure only reinforces an already strong knowledge base. Pearson has an cache of six full-time instructors and 10 contractors available for training.
Clients have responded affirmatively to Pearson?s initiatives. Her business has a large base of Fortune 1000 companies with myriad training and consulting needs: First Union, Bank of America, Transamerica and Duke Energy. While The Avenue Group targets large corporations, Pearson is finding more and more growth in smaller and mid-sized businesses, as well individual customers. ?The individual segment is really growing,? she confirms. ?A lot of individuals reach us through the Web.?
Darlene Pearson has always been a technical thinker. Equipped with dual degrees in scientific and technical communications and computer science, she has put a fresh new spin on software training and delivery. While today her strengths clearly lie in strategic planning, sales and marketing, and business partnerships, her career direction wasn?t always so clear.
As a freshman at Miami University of Ohio, Pearson aspired to be an English teacher. But an astute professor knew that her talents would take her elsewhere. ?He said, ?You?re going down a path that just doesn?t seem to fit you,? ? Pearson remembers. ?So I transferred to Bowling Green University where my advisor recommended that I combine scientific and technical communications with computer science.?
Technical writing and training was a natural fit for the would-be English teacher. But it took her a while to get there. After working in her native Ohio, Pearson came to Charlotte to join Broadway & Seymour, Inc., a software and services provider. Following a brief stint at Osprey Systems, Inc., she finally set up shop as a training consultant.
Pearson?s consulting practice grew in leaps and bounds to the point where she was overwhelmed. ?I either had to subcontract out or start hiring people,? she confesses. ?Midgard Information Systems was the perfect solution.?
Pearson added her training practice to the company?s mix. As a co-owner and COO of Midgard Information Systems, Inc., a systems integration firm, she expanded her already impressive skill set into the manufacturing arena. Over the years, she has amassed experience in project management, business and systems analysis, application design, systems construction and implementation, testing, technical documentation and training, and financial services.
In July 1998, Midgard decided to narrow its focus and spin off the Communication Services division ? Pearson?s area ? into a new company. After friendly negotiations, Midgard?s Communication Services department became a separate corporate entity, owned and operated by Darlene Pearson. Pearson renamed the unit, The Avenue Group.
As she cultivated relationships with major software and hardware vendors, one partnership literally put The Avenue Group on the map. Auckland, New Zealand-based Optical System Corporation formed an alliance with the company to both train and resell AuthorIT, a single-source authoring tool for technical writers. This software enables paper files, Web site documentation, online help and other files to be generated from a single file without duplication. The potential cost savings is enormous. ?Since the information is in one place, one person can do it or a team of people can do this more quickly,? Pearson says. ?You don?t have to recreate it from a context and layout format. It cuts down on labor and time-to-market.?
While AuthorIT isn?t the only tool available to meet this need, according to Pearson it?s at an excellent price point and relatively easy to learn. The Avenue Group is the only U.S. training provider for AuthorIT and one of only two resellers. The relationship has exposed the company to international markets.
Pearson comments, ?Before AuthorIT, we were very much a regional company. Now through this exposure coupled with e-learning, we are becoming worldwide.? While international notoriety may be ideal, it does come with a few caveats. Wildly disparate time zones can make live online chats nearly impossible for e-learning classes. In serving Asian, European as well as Australian participants, Pearson is rising to the challenge. ?We can?t always make everyone happy in the international market, but we can try. But the only time we can fit the whole world in a chat is around 3:30 or 4:00 p.m.?
As a woman in a highly technical field, Pearson is often a curiosity in technology business circles. But in her most recent round of financing, her gender may have actually opened new doors. Pearson, seeking to increase her staff as well as move more classes online, took a novel approach to fund-raising: targeting women.
Through female-owned investment banking firm, Fairview Capital Partners, LLC, Pearson raised $250,000 in angel investment from local women. She worked directly with each investor, educating them on the complexities of the business. ?We do a lot of different things, which probably makes us a little confusing,? Pearson says. ?So it took a little time to educate them on who we are, what we do and why we do it that way.?
The merits of the business plan ultimately won Pearson strong support and moved her into the business community?s limelight as a woman-owned technology company funded by women investors facilitated by women bankers. Earlier this year, she won a regional Entrepreneurial Excellence Award from Working Woman magazine.
?Women can raise money, even for a technical business. Forget about the statistics. You really can do whatever you set your mind to do. Given a strong business plan, investors are willing to help women succeed.?