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Have you ever been in a classroom or Sunday school setting with children? Did you notice that they do not sit still? You probably figured the reason for their restlessness was short attention spans. Some local entrepreneurs, though, are betting that poor furniture design also contributes to the rambunctious behavior of children in our schools. And by improving that design, they’ll help kids and build a successful business.
Youth Ergonomics, Inc. believes it has the solution to poor ergonomic design and other problems facing the children’s commercial furniture industry.
The idea for the company and its products began after Deb Hines, a commercial furniture consultant and owner of DH & Associates, was asked by her daughter’s school to advise them on purchasing furniture for the classrooms and computer labs. Hines’ previous commercial furniture experience was in the adult furniture market, so she visited schools and observed children in the classrooms and labs to assess their needs. Hines found that the furniture available to students was inappropriate for children in regard to size, comfort or support. As a veteran of the adult commercial furniture industry Hines was accustomed to a wide range of product choices. In sharp contrast, the children’s market offered limited choices.
Among those choices, there was nothing being offered that was comparable in design, comfort or durability to the products in the adult furniture market.
Given the trend toward ergonomic office furniture, the increased amount of time children spend at computers, and the possibility of long-term health issues caused by poorly designed furniture, Hines found it hard to believe there was nothing suitable for children.
Hines became interested and researched the market further. She concluded that there was a void in the commercial furniture industry, and she was convinced she could fill the need.
Hines approached local business owner and commercial furniture veteran Bob Flynn, co-owner of Carolina Business Interiors. Flynn conducted his own market research and agreed with Hines’ assessment of the industry, the market and the business potential. In August of 1999, the entrepreneurs, joined by David Longo (co-owner of CBI), formed Youth Ergonomics, Inc. to design, produce and distribute innovative children’s furniture.
The enthusiastic team immediately began looking for a furniture designer who would understand their ideas and concepts and that could combine their vision with design skills, market resources and production know-how. “We wanted to develop a product that would be suitable for children — made for children, mindful of children and what their needs are,” says Hines.
Fortunately for the new partners, they did not have to look far. According to Bob Flynn, “By sheer happenstance one of the best and leading industrial and furniture design houses in America is right here in Charlotte, Tolleson Design. We approached Tom Tolleson and showed him and senior designer Greg Saw our ideas. They found the venture exciting and wanted to sign on.”
Hines and Flynn worked closely with the designers, thoughtfully making decisions regarding each aspect of the chair and accompanying table designs. The company will launch its line with a computer chair and accompanying table that can be used both in schools and in homes. Future plans include additional chair and table models, as well as desks and stools.
Building the Perfect Chair
The first priority for Youth Ergonomics is to produce furniture that will prevent children from developing health problems currently plaguing many adults. Research suggests that poor posture and unsupportive furniture are among the contributors of musculoskeletal disorders. “We are hopeful that we can provide a solution to these problems that will teach children from their very first computer experience how to sit right and key right. When these children reach adulthood they will be conditioned to automatically sit to avoid carpal tunnel, back, neck and muscle problems,” says Flynn.
The rapid growth of computer use among children in astounding. Students are introduced to the computer in the first grade and by the third grade are asked to perform research on the Internet and complete homework assignments on computers. Experts predict that computer use will increase in school environments and one day we will see computers at each desk rather than in separate labs. Placing children in this type of computer intensive learning environment without proper support from the furniture may become a long-term health issue.
What makes their chair ergonomically correct? The seat height is adjustable, so students of different sizes can keep their feet firmly planted on the floor, allowing their legs to form a right angle. This position does not impede blood flow to the legs. Another element supporting blood flow to the legs is the “waterfall” front edge of the seat pan. Chairs with straight edges cut off circulation to the lower legs. The seat pan itself is contoured so that a child’s upper body weight does not push straight down on the “sitting bones.” The contoured seat pan disperses the weight for greater sitting comfort. The seat back is also curved to provide proper lumbar support. There is a back height adjustment so the seat back can support students of various sizes.
In addition to producing ergonomically correct children’s furniture, the owners of Youth Ergonomics are also concerned about safety, quality and aesthetics. Unlike the adult version of the computer chair, the chairs from Youth Ergonomics do not have wheels, so the chairs stay in one place. Another difference from the adult version is the number of legs. Youth Ergonomics’ chairs have five legs rather than four. The fifth leg provides stability and prevents its occupants from tilting the chair.
The table was also built with ergonomics and safety in mind. The keyboard and floorboard of the table are adjustable to accommodate different body sizes. The adjustable mechanisms are designed so fingers can’t get caught or pinched in the moving mechanisms. Additionally, all of the table’s edges are round and extra support has been added to areas where critical weight load may be an issue.
The quality of the materials also plays a large role in material selection. Durability is a major concern in the production of the furniture. These chairs are made of soft-skinned urethane and are extremely durable. Soft-skinned urethane is firmer than traditional seat cushions and can not be punctured, torn or stained. It can be sprayed down, scrubbed and sanitized. It’s appealing to educators and parents because of the easy maintenance and extended life cycle of the chair.
The final product closely mimics products found in the adult furniture world. “In terms of the elements of design, we have created a product that the children can begin to use from the very first time they sit down at a computer, that not only will enhance performance, but will help them develop proper lifetime habits,” notes Flynn.
However, the simple act of giving someone an ergonomic chair to use does not insure that person will enjoy ergonomic benefits. Studies of adults show that often times they are not using ergonomic furniture correctly. To benefit from the furniture, people need to understand the basics of ergonomics and to be taught the various and appropriate adjustments to make to the furniture.
Edgar to the Rescue
To that end, Youth Ergonomics has created a computer generated cartoon character named Edgar to teach the children to use the furniture properly and to communicate the benefits of ergonomics. Edgar will be the first thing to appear on the computer screen and he will take the children through the steps of adjusting the chair. The Edgar CD-ROM is instructional and interactive, and encourages children to “develop healthy lifelong computer habits.”
The owners of Youth Ergonomics believe the Edgar concept is an important piece of the puzzle creating furniture that benefits all children. Tests have shown that three-year-olds can watch this video once and perfectly adjust their chairs. Edgar is a likeable and appealing character. The hope is that he is someone the children will relate to and trust. Edgar grows up with the children and becomes more hip as Eddie, the middle schooler and finally as Ed, the high schooler.
The market has changed since the inception of Youth Ergonomics; there are now several manufacturers of ergonomic furniture for children. However, Youth Ergonomics believes its product is unique with respect to design, quality and appeal. The U.S. Patent office agrees. Youth Ergonomics has been awarded design patents on both the chair and the table.
The company has exclusive rights on these designs for 14 years.
People Helping People
This story is not only one of a good idea and great design, it is also one of people. The owners of Youth Ergonomics cannot contain their excitement for the quality experts and extensive resources they found to turn their idea into reality. In addition to the local design firm, Youth Ergonomics has called on local attorneys, graphic design artists and an advertising agency to get the job done.
“The synergy and excitement of others surrounding our concept has been a big boost, not only to getting the job done, but to getting it done in one year,” says Flynn.
Additionally the owners attribute their strong partnership to the success of the first two designs. Hines and Flynn agree they couldn’t have done it on their own. Each partner has different strengths and these strengths have led to a product that did not stray from the original vision of high-quality ergonomically correct furniture for children.
With a sales goal of $20+ million over the next three years, the company has launched an extensive marketing campaign. You may see ads for the furniture in New Yorker and Parenting magazines. Youth Ergonomics will market its products to institutions, including schools, libraries and churches and to the home market under the name of “The Edgar Collection.” Chairs and tables are expected to be available to the public by the end of this year.
What started as a research project for an elementary school turned into a business idea and is now a product ready for market.
Dr. Pamela Lewis can predict the future. Or at least craft and implement a plan to make it happen. Armed with a Ph.D. in strategic planning, she has fashioned tactics for dozens of organizations in diverse industries including health care, engineering, entertainment and education. The newly named Dean of the McColl School of Business at Queens College, she is charged with strategic leadership and operational effectiveness. A proven leader and scholar, Lewis is excited by the challenge. “The McColl School has only tapped into a small part of its potential,” she says. “It has a very strong foundation to leverage its competitive advantages.”
Until recently, Lewis flexed her leadership might as Dean of the Lebow School of Business at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pa. “Drexel University is an engineering school that grew a business school,” Lewis explains. The Lebow School serves approximately 3,000 students in undergraduate, masters, Ph.D. and executive education programs with 87 full-time faculty.
As the university’s first woman dean, Lewis faced the daunting task of rebuilding a school beset by declining enrollment and student quality, low faculty morale and stagnant programs. As she interviewed for the top position, Lewis found hope despite the business school’s deterioration. “There were tons of problems,” she admits. “It was a tough situation, but I was excited at the prospect of what the school could be.”
Lewis rolled up her sleeves and went to work. She spearheaded a number of new initiatives: the Center for Electronic Commerce Management, enterprise resource planning (ERP) education and research, as well as an online MBA program. She worked in tandem with the University’s marketing efforts to improve the school’s brand image. She aggressively pursued corporate and alumni gifts and threw her support behind faculty research and endowed chairs. And, in addition to her administrative responsibilities, Lewis taught a new venture strategy course at the graduate level.
Three years later, Lewis had achieved the seemingly impossible. The Lebow School of Business is now nationally recognized as a leader in ERP education. The college offers an MBA concentration in e-commerce and boasts influential corporate partners including SAP and Hewlett Packard. The school hired 20 new faculty, added two new chaired professorships and strengthened ties with the local and national business community. During her tenure, fundraising soared to a whopping $14 million+ from $800,000 just three years earlier. The college has invested over $2 million in technology and facilities improvement, with an additional $7 million devoted to expansion. Today, prospective students face more stringent entrance requirements; admitted student test scores and GPAs are on the rise.
How did she do it? Lewis understands that success is more than just strategy. “It’s not just casting a vision, but putting legs on it,” she emphasizes. “I am very much aware of the importance of implementation.”
Making a specialty of competitive and new venture strategy, Lewis has studied, written about and facilitated strategy for eighteen years. Despite her flair for the process, Lewis is aware that strategic planning strikes fear at the heart of most organizations. “Strategic planning carries negative connotations because of the failure in execution,” she says. “In some organizations, it’s an annual process. But the information is never actually used, so strategic planning gets a bad name.”
Lewis faced significant hurdles to convince skeptical Drexel colleagues that planning could yield exponential results. “People were very jaded,” she recalls. “It took a lot of hard work for them to re-commit, buy into the process and participate.”
When the McColl School lured Lewis southward earlier this year, her Drexel associates were surprised by her affinity for the Queen City college. But Lewis had few doubts. “I had basically accomplished in large part what I had set out to do at Drexel and have always sought out new challenges. The McColl School reflects Queens College’s liberal arts tradition. You see much more critical thinking, debate and dialogue. It’s a much better fit for who I am personally.”
While she admits that leaving Drexel was a painful decision, she found the McColl School simply irresistible. “The McColl School has so much support from the Charlotte community. It has an excellent faculty. It has all the pieces of the puzzle and I accept the responsibility of putting the pieces together and executing the plan taking the McColl School to the next level.”
Unlike large, comprehensive institutions, smaller business schools must develop and capitalize on core competencies to raise their stature. As she explores Charlotte’s business community and the Queens College constituency, the concept of leadership has become central to her emerging vision for the McColl School. “Not everybody will be a CEO,” she offers, “but we can develop people into leaders wherever they are.”
“Charlotte is the most civic-minded community I have ever seen,” she observes. “It’s really about leadership-from the broadest perspective. We have outstanding role models who have created this very distinctive culture in this city.” Those role models include Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl, Jr.; McGuire Woods partner John Fennebresque; Queens College President Bill Wireman; and Bank of America executive William Vandiver – all members of Queens College’s Board of Trustees.
Lewis is dedicated to integrating leadership and mentoring opportunities throughout the school’s coursework to strengthen the leadership emphasis. The focus on leadership does not, however, circumvent technology initiatives. While Drexel University’s engineering history fostered a more scientific, technology-oriented business school, Lewis looks to establish a greater technology presence at the liberal arts McColl School. “Technology has impacted both the content and the delivery of business education across the board,” she says. “In order to teach our students about how technology is affecting business, we have to use technology to deliver education more effectively.”
Lewis sees the globalization of markets as a significant force affecting the delivery of business education. “Of course we teach students about global markets and how to conduct business in an international marketplace,” she explains. “But our classrooms are also more diverse, and it’s critical to teach students how to work with others from different backgrounds.”
Another major trend impacting business education is technology. While Lewis cannot overstate the importance of e-commerce, she also sees technology from a broader perspective. “Technology has not only changed the way people work, but how they think,” she says. “Today’s workforce has very different expectations about their work and students have to learn a more participatory management style.”
As the McColl School prepares students to manage, Lewis discusses other key developments in business education. “Business schools have to be sensitive to entrepreneurship and new venture development…particularly with e-commerce.” She adds, “But even before e-commerce, entrepreneurship has been the foundation of what we’re all about – capitalism.”
Pamela Lewis was always on the fast track to success. Born and raised in Columbia, Missouri, her business acumen was apparent at an early age. Her father owned several businesses, including a small grocery store. By age 13, Lewis was running the store. “My dad said I came out of the womb understanding financials,” she quips. “I always knew I wanted to be a business person.”
After receiving a bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida , Lewis spent a few years in the corporate world before pursuing an MBA. A newlywed, she entered the Ph.D. program at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville , but gave birth to her daughter, Ashley, ten months later. “No one expected me to finish the program,” she says, but Lewis returned to class within a few days. Her son, Patrick, was born during her third year in the doctoral program. “Raising a family in graduate school was a lot easier than in the corporate environment,” Lewis insists. She names her husband, Terry, an IT consultant, her staunchest supporter.
Lewis launched her professorship at the University of Central Florida. While chair of the management department, Lewis assumed another role: author. As the lead writer of Management: Challenges in the 21st Century, she highlighted major shifts in the field of management. This college textbook proposed a new management model for the 1990s and beyond. Now in its third edition, the text has become a mainstay for undergraduate management courses across the nation and as far away as China.
Despite her academic focus, Lewis understands the value of real-world business experience. “The McColl School doesn’t hire professors without real world experience. Our professors have to understand real life and we encourage them to consult and stay engaged. That’s why I continue to do strategic planning work. I come back much richer, intellectually.”
At 43, she is surprisingly young to have amassed such credentials. “I’ve had the opportunity to move along pretty quickly,” she concedes, “but I’m not too young to be a dean!”
Two years ago, Premier Systems Integrators, an eight-year-old Charlotte-based technology architecture firm, began hosting and managing computer applications for some of its customers. By April of this year, the business had grown so large it was spun off, creating a separate business unit – i-bridge, L.L.C. – as an application service provider (ASP).
With its headquarters and data center in Charlotte, the privately-held ASP now has 70 employees. Last year, it reached revenues of $10 million and is projected to grow by 50 percent this year. The brains behind the new business are long-time partners Don Doctor and Jim Shannon. Together, they plan to give mid- to large-sized companies a better option in hosting critical mission data services. f the Dynamic Duo of information technology were unmasked, it would be recognized as Don Doctor and Jim Shannon of Premier Systems Integrators. The team founded the company eight years ago, and it quickly matured from a small equipment reseller to one of the fastest-growing technology architecture firms headquartered in the Southeast.
Today, with offices across the country, Premier Systems Integrators, L.L.C., is an end-to-end e-business infrastructure integrator that delivers technology solutions to companies throughout the U.S. Its revenues reached $185 million last year. Premier is privately held and is backed by Chase Capital Partners, Frontenac and Salt Creek Ventures. It develops partnerships with leading technology providers such as Oracle, Cisco, EMC, Checkpoint, Veritas, Hewlett Packard and others.
It was in 1998 that Premier first began offering an outsourcing solution, hosting and managing complex computer applications for customers. By April of this year, however, the business had grown so large it was spun off, creating a separate business unit – i-bridge, L.L.C. – as an application service provider (ASP).
With its headquarters and data center in Charlotte, the privately-held ASP has 70 employees. It achieved 1999 revenues of $10 million and is projected to grow at a 50 percent clip per year. The company targets mid to large-sized companies that are investing in technology, are in post merger integration, or are in a growth mode.
Doctor, the driving force on the technology end, admittedly spent his early years in business caught in a bit of an identity crisis.
“I had a double major in computer science and accounting,” relates Doctor. “Being a CPA by trade, I bounced careers, not knowing which one I wanted to be involved in. I first bought into a manufacturing company in the early ’80’s. Then I started a software company with two other gentlemen, stepping back into technology. We grew the software company to 300 employees in five years with revenues of $50 million.”
In 1992, Doctor decided to create his third company, Premier Systems Integrators, also in technology but focused on infrastructure rather than software. He knew he needed a partner to round out his skills and, according to Doctor, Jim Shannon was the dynamic part of the duo who did just that.
“Jim was, at the time, a competitor working for Hewlett Packard. He was, bar none, the best salesman I’d ever met,” confesses Doctor. “Through previous experience, I’d learned that technology is all about excelling in sales, management and delivery. The business is qualitative, not quantitative. You need the most knowledgeable sales people in the industry and the best delivery people money can buy. If you combine the two with a focus on management and strategy, you can grow companies rapidly and profitably.”
At Premier, Shannon covers the front street and Doctor, the back office. Doctor elaborates, “Jim functions as our eyes and ears in the field. He has a good read on the marketplace and a good relationship orientation. People in this business can become enamored with their own technology and lose site of the market. Jim understands how technology can be applied to and truly add value to a customer’s business.”
I-bridges the Gap
Working together, Shannon and Doctor uncovered a critical change in the buying habits of customers.
“It is not uncommon in technology to hear about projects failing to meet budget, missing return on investment projections and missing deadlines for implementation,” Doctor says.
“Too often, after implementations were complete, the consulting company left and the customer had difficulty maintaining the system they had just had installed. In response, the customer has had to become a more savvy and experienced buyer of technology. As a result, they are hungry for providers of services to give guarantees of performance and pricing.”
Both Doctor and Shannon owe their success to listening to their customers and seeing the pains they were enduring. As Doctor says, “We want to lead the industry in providing solutions that guarantee performance and positive results. That’s why i-bridge was created – to provide companies with a full-service management solution that would relieve them of the burden of day-to-day management of complex infrastructure systems, so they could focus their efforts more strategically. “At i-bridge, we believe that for the money you pay, you deserve to have your technology work. We are all about helping maintain mission-critical systems. The new wave is ‘I want to stay involved with you.’ “
The challenge for companies today is to keep up with technology changes, be able to satisfy the increasing demands of users and continue to add new skill sets. The cost is high and finding skilled technology people is difficult. Businesses are increasingly contracting their applications to outsourcing companies. Businesses are then free to use their in-house technology people to work on more strategic applications.
“ASPs are one of the fastest growing areas of technology today,” says Julie Cochran, vice president of marketing.
According to International Data Corporation, a well-known technology research firm, by the year 2004, ASP spending will approach $7.8 billion with a 92 percent annual growth rate.
“What we offer is value in skill, scale and speed,” Cochran says.
Doctor elaborates. “We strive to execute flawlessly. We have high-end technology people 24/7, who can spread their skills among multiple customers creating economies of skill. Because we do the same thing repetitively, we can do it a lot faster than a customer could do it on its own, offering economies of speed. Then because we can leverage our facility for multiple customers, we have economies of scale. These economies are a great advantage to a customer from a skills and cost perspective. With these functions taken care of, the customer can focus on core elements of business, of which information technology may not be one.”
Fear of losing control of their systems may be the reason some businesses are hesitant to approach an ASP. I-bridge aims to overcome that fear with their methodology, service level agreements and their unique monitoring system. “I-bridge presents a partner relationship versus a vender relationship,” says Cochran. “Most outsourcing companies provide connectivity but don’t provide quality, on-going management of the systems.”
The Doctor’s Prescription
In the initial phase, i-bridge brings in a team to document the customer’s business operating procedures. Although this is tedious work, when the methodology is in place and documented so that it’s understood, the quality of operations can be improved significantly.
“Open communication leads to improved quality,” says Cochran. “Even though we are running applications at a center off-site, we really are functioning as an extension of a customer’s information technology department. Both customers and i-bridge personnel are trained on the same processes and procedures.
“Service level agreements (SLAs) are written guarantees between the outsourcing company and the client which require us to adhere to specific performance standards,” Cochran continues. “We think the way these are traditionally done is inadequate in the business today. SLAs are more realistic the more measurable they are. When we go through the documentation process we find the most important pieces of information that need to be measured to meet the client’s needs. Then we give the client a tool to constantly measure how we are doing against the SLA.” At i-bridge, that tool is the “portal.”
The concept of the portal was chief operating officer Greg Hoogerland’s vision even before joining i-bridge. But here, the vision became a reality.
“A portal offers full, up to the moment disclosure by providing visibility into the client’s whole environment and status of its systems at any time through a Web page that links back to information about the customer and its system,” Hoogerland explains. “It contains the SLA, the documented process and procedure information, any problems encountered with its systems and reports on how long it took to remedy problems and any other information important to that particular customer. The customer can access that information at anytime, from anywhere through the Internet. A customer can even use the portal to track development projects and other non-technical activities.
“There’s a trust factor in any relationship. This portal provides a way for a customer to measure what it signed up for and how i-bridge is performing against that,” Hoogerland says. “It’s a good balance of our services and the performance of the customer’s gear. Then we also sit down with each customer once a month and recom-mend the best way for it to run its information technology and provide the tools to see how it’s running. It’s a very pro-active approach.”
Doctor summarizes the i-bridge philosophy: “I believe what makes or breaks a relationship is how you respond when there is an issue. That’s what distinguishes a good service provider from an average service provider. After any type of failure we conduct a post mortem to learn what we could do differently in the future. We write that in the SLA. It’s monitored through the portal. We are signing up to be accountable under no uncertain terms.”
Denny Watson has moved around a bit in his 26 years of life – to Mount Airy, N.C., Natchez, Miss., and Hillsborough, N.C. In each place he has observed an interesting phenomenon – a distinct sense of community pride among the residents of the small towns he has called home.
Watson graduated from East Carolina University in 1996 with degrees in political science and philosophy, two areas of study that, as Watson points out, don’t really prepare a person to do anything. After graduation he hooked up with Magnolia Graphics Specialty Company in Hillsborough, a family-owned firm that sells promotional products – key chains, coffee mugs, ice scrapers, etc. – all emblazoned with the logos of the purchasing companies. Remarks Watson, “Companies love these gizmos that let them spread their names around with something fun and tangible to give to customers and friends.”
Watson noticed the companies that bought these souvenirs were a lot like the small towns in which he had lived. They were proud of who they were and what they had accomplished and wanted people to know about it. Then Watson had a vision: If companies would buy souvenirs, maybe small towns would too.
And thus was born the concept of LogoNation, Inc., a company that specializes in T-shirts (Watson calls them “CommuniTees”) custom-made with a city’s logo or slogan on the front, and the names and logos of participating merchants on the back.
Watson started small, test-driving the concept in one of his old hometowns to see if it would work.
“In February 1999 we sold our first CommuniTee in Natchez, Mississippi,” Watson says. “It’s a town that a lot of people recognize. The first day we sold over $1,000 and “collected 70 to 80 percent of that in cash.”
The Natchez experience became the template for the business: A salesman goes into a town, determines who the 10 most prominent merchants are, pitches them on the idea of the shirts and goes from there. Each participating merchant gets a number of the shirts to sell or give away, and LogoNation donates some shirts to a nonprofit group, such as the Chamber of Commerce or the merchants’ association.
“The sale is surprisingly easy,” Watson says, “once the merchants understand the concept. What we do is promote businesses by promoting communities.”
It wasn’t long before Watson realized two things: In order to cut costs, he needed to stop outsourcing the printing of the shirts, and he needed some way to organize his business so it could grow quickly and seamlessly. Watson solved the first problem by moving the company to Mooresville, hometown of his wife, Jennifer (“She’s vice president, founder and owner,” Watson says), buying a screen printing machine and setting up a design department.
The second problem was a bit thornier. As with most businesses, the key to Watson’s success is volume. However, it’s not the number of ad spaces a salesperson fills in any town (there are only 20 spaces on a shirt), but the number of towns a salesperson hits in a month. Keeping track of where the salespeople are, whom they’ve called on, what’s been sold, what’s still out and the other myriad details were drowning Watson and his staff in a sea of paper.
“There had to be an easier way,” Watson says. “I just couldn’t figure it out.”
And so he found his way to InSite Business Solutions, L.L.C., a two-year-old custom software developer in Matthews.
“A lot of our clients are like Denny, real visionaries who have come up with a unique business proposition,” says Brandon Fox, president and co-founder of the business with John Blomberg. “What we do is show them how custom software can help them automate their routine business processes, get them out of sight and out of the way. We like to say that we enable the visionaries.”
Although only two years in business, InSite already had a track record of helping solve problems for unique businesses, such as Kochman Consultants, Ltd. of suburban Chicago. Kochman produces a proprietary product called the CADalog, which is a CD-based listing of kitchen equipment that architects and engineers use when designing restaurants. The CDs are periodically updated and new versions sent out.
InSite Business Solutions is in the process of helping Kochman move that information onto its Web site, so the information can be constantly updated without the cost of burning and mailing new CDs. In addition, architects and engineers can comment on the products, ask for design tips and generally interact with one another.
For VMS, Inc., a Richmond company that maintains more than 3,000 miles of roads in Alaska, Mississippi, Texas and Virginia, InSite Business Solutions designed a program to use caller ID and pagers to keep track of workers.
“LogoNation is a lot like Kochman and VMS,” Blomberg says. “In each case, there is a visionary with a viable business model who needs help understanding how technology can dramatically improve his business.”
InSite Business Solutions follows a precise methodology with its clients including a project definition phase, a requirements development phase, a planning phase and an iterative development phase that keeps the client in the loop every step of the way.
“I had looked at off-the-shelf products. They got me a little ways down the road, but didn’t do all I wanted,” LogoNation’s Watson says. “What I was looking for was a way to put together our whole company on the program. I wanted to let technology help our company.”
What InSite discovered in its project definition phase with LogoNation was that much of the routine and paperwork of the sales force could be automated to dramatically reduce the amount of clerical time needed to enter and track orders. In addition, InSite could connect the custom software to LogoNation’s existing accounting software for a seamless exchange of financial information. “Our aim is that 75 days after the last date of participation (final ad space is sold), we will deliver the shirts,” Watson says. “In order to make that happen, a lot of things have to fall into place. Shirts have to be designed, logos rounded up from participating merchants, the city logo must be obtained, all rights have to be cleared, a distribution point has to be designated, shipping has to be arranged, the blank shirts have to be ordered, printing has to be scheduled, money has to be collected, sales commissions have to be calculated – just to name a few.”
The InSite program ties all those functions together for Watson. When fully deployed, it will do everything from alerting the design staff to a new project to ordering the shirts, scheduling the shipping and paying the sales force.
“It helps us manage workflow. Once the information is entered, it will trigger our key dates. It will automatically generate managerial reports: how people are doing, if they need more help, that kind of thing. And it all ties into our accounting system,” Watson says.
The result is that LogoNation can grow from its existing 10-person sales force to 30, 40 or even 50 people. “In order for us to manage more sales people, we had to have technology,” Watson says. “InSite’s custom programming enables our expanding sales force to meet the needs of many more communities across the nation.”
Dr. Adi Khindaria, Ph.D., met Lane Ostrow on the soccer field. But their competitive spirit wasn’t limited to just sports. Khindaria was a highly respected technology consultant. Ostrow was president of Plej’s – an $80 million bath/linen company with 44 retail stores throughout the Southeast.
As Plej’s president, Ostrow knew firsthand the technology concerns facing small to mid-sized companies today. “The biggest problem is keeping up [with competitors],” he says. “Technology yields enormous efficiencies and cost savings, but upfront capital outlays, attracting high-level technology talent, and preparing for future needs are huge challenges.” He adds, “These things really have to be in place to help your business grow.”
Khindaria agrees, “Technology changes rapidly and it’s tough to keep pace. It’s not just a matter of PCs [personal computers], it’s the total infrastructure. Unless you have a strong foundation, you can’t have the best business applications to run your company.”
A business application could be a general ledger system, a human resource system, a manufacturing system, a relationship management system and more. These critical tools reside on an infrastructure that needs to be robust, yet flexible enough support new and changing company needs.
Ostrow hired Khindaria to fashion a technology plan for Plej’s. He wanted freedom from technology maintenance and upgrades, and the ability to share information and improve business practices. After careful research, Khindaria proposed an innovative solution. There was only one problem – he couldn’t deliver it. The solution just didn’t exist for the company’s size. Khindaria explains, “We decided to take what larger companies do well – that is, leverage technology – and bring it down to a smaller, mid-sized company in an affordable, yet customized way.”
Ostrow felt they were on to something big. “I couldn’t be the only one who needed this kind of help,” he says. So he and Khindaria surveyed their contacts – executives and managers – only to find that others, too, were clamoring for enterprise-wide technology at the small business level. Out of that consulting project, a new company was born in March 2000 – iReadyWorld.
Today Khindaria and Ostrow are CEO and president, respectively, of iReadyWorld, an infrastructure service provider to the small to mid-sized market. As a full-service, single source for technology needs, iReadyWorld provides the foundation for business applications, including the hardware components, networks, servers, security, and office solutions like e-mail and high-speed Internet access, and leading business software. Best of all, the customer doesn’t actually buy anything.
iReadyWorld purchases the machinery, PCs, software and hardware mechanisms, with installation and support for as low as $179 per user per month. That’s not too bad considering that GIGA Group, a national information technology research company estimates the total cost of PC ownership alone to be $350 – $500 per user per month. (GIGA figures do not include lost productivity for downtime or repair costs, which can be significant.) From the customer’s perspective, the services offered are seamless and simple.
But in reality, infrastructure complexities can overwhelm even the savviest business owner. iReadyWorld’s affordable framework consists of fourteen different layers, including a secure data center, networking (wiring, drums and machinery), data storage, operating systems, and a dizzying array of office applications.
How does an infrastructure provider contribute to a company’s bottom line? Ostrow points out, “We enable customers to use technology from a competitive standpoint. You don’t want the large bank fighting with strategy and the small bank fighting with technology. So outsourcing that piece allows the smaller company to focus where it counts most, for example, on interest rates. You don’t make any money spending 25 percent of your time distracted with technology problems. Infrastructure itself doesn’t make you money but allows you to make money.”
Khindaria and Ostrow didn’t just stop there. As a former consultant, Khindaria was well aware of the drawbacks of IT consulting. “Small to mid-sized companies have to pay someone $125-$150 an hour to solve problems. Consultants come in, install, and then walk away. There is no accountability, no responsibility when things don’t work or go wrong.”
So they expanded the help desk concept into a 24 hour-a-day, 7 days a week support system for their growing list of clients. Khindaria explains, “Every appliance that we deploy is monitored proactively 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If something is about to go wrong, we know about it, and we can remedy it. That’s what large enterprises do today.” Ostrow clarifies, “For the most part, we don’t have to send anybody on site [to a customer’s business]. We can monitor and solve most problems remotely.”
iReadyWorld guarantees a 15-minute response time, routine service checks, optimization adjustments and upgrades. The company’s service agreements cover three years, with replacement and upgrades as needed.
iReadyWorld solutions are scalable, meaning they can easily accommodate changes in staffing, software, trading partners, additional locations – just about any variable in a company’s growth cycle. One of their latest offerings is cutting-edge telephony service. “Our voice telephony system links offices in multiple states together for free intra-company calls,” shares Ostrow. “Multiple locations in multiple states are connected by the same data system and with telephony, voice travels along the same network.” Khindaria adds, “In most companies, voicemail, fax mail, and e-mail are on three separate systems. Telephony gives you one in-box – voicemail, e-mail, and even faxes come to the same place.”
How does a young start-up offer such broad, customized, pay-as-you-use offerings? iReadyWorld has partnered with three leaders in technology infrastructure: Cisco Systems, Compaq, and Genuity. All iReadyWorld networks are Cisco Powered Networks, with all the benefits of end-to-end networking: simplified, cost-efficient network management; higher network availability; more reliable, scalable, and secure services; and faster deployment. Compaq supplies iReadyWorld servers and corporate quality desktop PCs that can be managed remotely. Genuity offers a comprehensive suite of managed Internet infrastructure services, including voice-over-Internet Protocol telephony. “We built an enterprise to look just like any large company,” Khindaria says. “Most large companies are nothing more than small units glued together under one parent name. So they have 200 users here, 50 users there and all of that is centrally monitored. We do the exact same thing but for individual separate companies. We are the central monitor.”
One of iReadyWorld’s success stories is Pumps Parts & Service, Inc., a Charlotte-based industrial and environmental pumps distributor. Controller Greg Tilley is also technology coordinator, with very specific needs for his 45-employee firm. Tilley turned to iReadyWorld for advice. “We have some industry-unique software packages that are not standard and iReadyWorld ] worked with us to design the LAN, not just a pre-made solution. They helped us design a system and worked with us on the standard software configurations, and we didn’t have to buy any equipment. Other IT companies just couldn’t do that.”
Khindaria and Ostrow’s backgrounds could ward off any would-be competitors. Khindaria completed a Ph.D. in computational biochemistry at Utah State. As a graduate student he worked on supercomputers and helped several West Coast companies launch their networks and Internet products. First Union tapped his expertise to develop their cyber-banking product in 1997. As chairman & CEO of iReadyWorld, Khindaria plots strategy and product development for iReadyWorld.
Ostrow grew up in Charlotte and received degrees from Duke University. He also holds a law degree and received a master’s in tax law from Emory University. At iReadyWorld, Ostrow oversees day-to-day operations, sales and marketing.
The company has an astonishing lack of direct competitors in its market niche. “We are the only ones employing a subscription-based model – per user, per month,” Ostrow comments. “We are the only ones employing a subscription-based model – per user, per month.”
Twenty-four employees strong and growing, iReadyWorld hopes its plan will work in new markets. Khindaria stresses their business concept isn’t exactly new. “We’ve taken a large enterprise model, repackaged it, and made it available and cost-effective for small to mid-sized businesses – a market segment that couldn’t afford it earlier. It’s all about execution.
Morris has constructed a state-of-the-art, theater-quality haunted labyrinth that will shock even the most jaded haunted house goer. Located at the rear of his 4,800 square foot costume shop, this extensive haunted maze features 3-D special effects, lasers, animated gargoyles, aliens, psychopaths, and corpses, walls that crawl, floors that fight back, and black holes – all in a lengthy studio set where you become the star in an interactive horror movie.
The technologically advanced exhibit includes a library, gallery, attic, a child’s room, garden, graveyard, an oddities museum, asylum, dungeon and even a laboratory for Dr. Evil. Morris has cleverly added sinister-themed booths for an off-colored carnival atmosphere. Halloween junkies will revel in Morris’ quirky sense of fun, but this sophisticated haunted house isn’t just for thrills. “Although the house is open to the public during October, I actually built it for my clients,” says Morris.
Many Charlotteans are familiar with Morris’ store, Morris Costumes & Tuxedos on Monroe Road. But most would be surprised to find more than gorilla suits and Grim Reaper accessories. While the store does include formalwear, dancewear, and Karaoke machines for rent, it is only a small part of Morris’ business. He is one of the world’s largest distributors of Halloween costumes, props, and special effects to the motion picture and amusement park industries supplying over 10,000 retail stores, magic and novelty shops around the world. The Morris Costumes Catalog is a dictionary-sized publication of costumes, masks, magic tricks and props that has become essential to the industry. Morris notes, “It’s even available in film studio libraries.”
What’s more, Morris has clients from as far away as Singapore lined up to experience the haunted house. He explains, “The house is a permanent display to help me showcase new products and technologies to my customers.” Over the years, that customer list has grown to include Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, touring shows, rock tours, and every major amusement park in the U.S., South America, Europe, and Asia.
Morris engaged Leonard Pickel, editor of Haunted Attraction magazine, to bring his chilling vision to life. Pickel has designed spooky displays for over twenty years, including haunted houses for Universal Studios. “The lighting [in the house] is an art form in itself,” Pickel shares. “We have installed a pneumatic air system throughout the building to animate the props. The electrical effects are spectacular – lasers and three to four feet lightning-bolts.” Although Pickel doesn’t recommend the house for children under the age of 10, he acknowledges, “A lot of 10 year olds can go through it with no problem. Sometimes, it’s the adults we have to worry about.”
Morris himself is a master among haunted house experts. He is the author of books on magic and related subjects, including How to Operate a Financially Successful Haunted House. He anticipated the growth in the haunted house industry – now a remarkably lucrative trade that has expanded nationwide and beyond. “Today, Halloween is the second largest commercial holiday in the United States – second only to Christmas,” Morris reveals. He admits, “We started in the business at the right time. The Halloween business was just taking off. That’s important to any entrepreneur – getting into a developing market on the ground floor.”
That developing market has tapped Morris’ talents in unexpected ways, including that of inventor. While distributing costume accessories, Morris found clients searching for a theatrical makeup that would go on quickly, dry instantly, and wash off with soap and water. After much experimenting, Morris created a winning product that is applied ingeniously through an airbrush. “No one had ever before developed a makeup that would go through an airbrush,” he says proudly. “You can even paint hair.” The airbrush makeup is now a staple at KISS concerts, NFL games, Disney World, major film studios, amusement parks and fairs. Brian Look, head makeup artist for Star Trek Deep Space Nine, recently won an Emmy for his airbrush designs using Morris’ product.
Morris also markets Stretchy Spider Webs, an inexpensive fibrous material that simulates the real thing. “It’s great for movie sets,” he says. “You put it up, it comes down easily, and you can use it again. This stuff is absolutely amazing and it retails for about a dollar.”
Morris has developed additional products, including illusions and enormously large props priced up to $30,000. Even the rock band Metallica has purchased two electric chairs from Morris.
Morris’ horror roots date back to his early fascination with magic. At age 8 he was performing his own magic act in his hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich. under the shortened stage name of Philip Morris. (His full name is Philip Morris Smith … yes, he says his parents chose the name after hearing a cigarette commercial on the radio shortly after his birth.) As a youngster, he would often visit the nearby town of Colon, “the Magic Capital of the World” and the headquarters of the well-known magician of the 1940s, Harry S. Blackstone, Sr. Blackstone, known for such signature illusions as The Buzz Saw Illusion, The Floating Light Bulb, and the Dancing Handkerchief, took an interest in and encouraged his most ardent fan, becoming lifelong friends with young Morris.
By age 12, Morris parlayed his already impressive stage presence into a Saturday morning radio show called Junior Junction on the ABC network. But with adolescence, he gravitated toward a more stylish stage performance called Ghost Shows. These touring performances repackaged standard magic shows into a more grisly, interactive format. They began with a lecture on the spirit world, followed by a fast-paced magical routine with macabre illusions. The grand finale was a “black out” during which the lights were temporarily shut off, allowing patrons’ minds to wander with the help of a few glow-in-the-dark effects from the stage. “It was a magic show that ended up being a s?ance in the theater,” Morris remembers. “When the lights were turned out, the audience would see ghosts and spirits flying over their heads.” Morris headlined his first ghost show at age 15.
In 1952, shortly after graduating high school, Lash LaRue came to Kalamazoo. After seeing the whip-wielding cowboy movie star’s stage show, Morris approached LaRue, who hired him immediately as a publicist and advance man. For the next year, Morris toured with the Lash LaRue Western Show, making enough money to propose to and marry his high school sweetheart, Amy Strong. Charlotte happened to be the last stop on the tour before Lash was due back in Hollywood for filming. Morris and his new wife were planning to go along to California when a theatrical agent offered him a booking as a magician. The booking was for about two weeks’ worth of work, and Morris had planned to catch up with Lash after the engagement, but he never made it to the West Coast.
Using Charlotte as a home base, Morris successfully launched his own traveling troupe, producing and acting in Ghost Shows under the stage nemesis, Dr. Evil in “Dr. Evil’s Terrors of the Unknown.” Morris was known for performing various stunts including being burned alive, buried alive, driving blindfolded and giving away dead bodies. “Ghost Shows were the forerunner of commercial haunted houses,”Morris reflects. “The business we did was unbelievable. We’d turn thousands of people away every day.”
During his nomadic Ghost Show runs, Morris even joined the circus. “I’ve been associated with the major circuses in the United States – even Ringling Brothers,” he says. But Morris toured for several years with the Royal Hanover Circus-the second largest indoor circus in the world. His wife, Amy, and children, Scott and Terri, joined him on the road until the children were school aged.
Ghost Shows eventually died out, but Morris was already conquering a new frontier-television. In the mid-1960’s, television executives found success using Ghost Shows to introduce movies that no one would otherwise watch.
The well-established character, Dr. Evil, made Morris’ transition to television even easier, and it was not long before he was a star. Morris even produced the award winning television show, ‘Dr. Evil’s Horror Theater’. Late Friday nights, the ghost host Dr. Evil, would introduce the evening’s feature film, and provide eerie segments during commercial breaks. “The ratings were unbelievable.” Morris recalls.
“We outrated the Tonight Show with Jack Parr, and we were just a locally produced show.”
Interestingly, it was the need for costumes in his television appearances that led to Morris’ involvement in the costuming business. Frustrated at not being able to buy a gorilla suit, Morris made his own in his basement. Soon, Morris and his wife were fielding requests to borrow costumes.
They began renting costumes and related products out of their basement and Morris Costume & Tuxedos was born. Morris left the TV station in 1967 and he and his wife opened their first store.
“We went from the basement to a retail store. Then, about ten years later [in 1976], we moved to the 20,000-square-foot building at 3108 Monroe Road, which houses our offices and is a distribution warehouse in addition to the ones in Chicago and California. And then about ten years after that , we built this new 20,000-square-foot facility at 4300 Monroe Road for our retail store, some warehousing and, as of this year, our new Haunted House.”
The horror business is definitely a family affair. Wife, Amy, oversees the retail store. Son, Scott is general manager; daughter, Terri, manages the office. At sixty-five, Morris is surprisingly youthful and is already exploring new products and props for next year. “My grandsons keep asking me when they can come to work for me,” he quips.
But the haunted house is Morris’ baby. “The house,” he says, “is going to help us further understand the industry. We could not possibly recoup the money and labor we’ve put into it by charging the public. But it gives us some insight into the retail market, which has always been part of our success.”
Voted Entrepreneur of the Year in 1997 by the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, the president of Panos Hotel Group must have done something right. He has developed, owns and operates eight hotels in the Charlotte area and has four more under construction. Future plans include two office and retail developments. All of this development has taken place at breakneck speed – the first four hotels opened within three years.
He says the first time anyone asked him how he got where he is, it stopped him dead in his tracks.
“Well, I just did,” Panos laughs. “You go through life and never really stop to think about what you’re doing until somebody asks you. It’s like driving from this point to that point. You make a right turn and then a left turn and then you’re there.
“I’m a risk taker. I don’t have any children so my thrill in life – since I’m such a lousy golfer – is this business. I like putting deals together.”
Panos says he was fortunate to move here and become involved with real estate lending. But, he credits one man for the push into the hotel business. “I guess I have to thank a gentleman named Charlie Johnson who really bounced my ears one day. I was in the finance business and was talking about getting into the hotel business. He said, ‘Either get the heck in or get the heck out. Nobody can do anything they’re not committed to.’ “
That remark was like releasing the break on an idling locomotive. “I built the Comfort Inn in Monroe in 1986 along with two partners. It was a $1.5 million deal. One partner put in $42,000 cash. Then I helped him get financing and develop a Comfort Inn in Matthews. By the time it was opening, I had a piece of property in Kannapolis under contract. I obtained full interest in the hotel in Matthews. Then we acquired the Lake Norman property for that Comfort Inn.
“The timing was incredible. We were acquiring cheap property going on the Atlanta theory that everything would grow out to you. We built four hotels in ’86, ’87 and ’88. We were working about 80-100 hours a week just flat out.
“I’d never run a hotel in my life. The experts have all these designations in the hotel business and they’ll give you a mountain of reasons why you shouldn’t have been able to do what I did. I just wasn’t smart enough to know I couldn’t do it,” he jokes.
“These hotels were exterior corridor, 60-90 room hotels so they were going to come under stiff competition. We sold them for $12.25 million. Our interest was worth $3.25 million.”
A large trust out of Chicago bought them in January 1995 as part of an 18-hotel package.
“It was like a Wall Street movie with those long tables where everyone sits around putting merger deals together. There were lawyers, legal assistants, title people…there were 40 people in this room and they were really cooking.
This lawyer was signing and distributing checks. In the midst of all the chaos, he stops dead in his tracks and says, ‘What in the world is this check for $42,000 doing here?’
“Our attorney Smithy Curry, a great Southern gentleman drawls, ‘Well, that’s the original capital that went into this.’
“There was this dead silence. Then he said, ‘You mean to tell me this whole thing was built on $42,000 cash?’
“Well, we were cash flow starved from the day we started,” Panos chuckles.
“We like kind exchanged most of our profits into the Hampton Inn in Matthews in ’95 and in Concord in ’96 and the Hampton Inn and Suites in Pineville in ’97. Now we had more competitive hotels with interior corridors.”
Panos says he sees his heritage laying the groundwork for what he does now.
“In a Greek family, if you work for other people you are viewed as unsuccessful. I was constantly being asked why I didn’t own my own business. I guess it took coming of age in my 40s before I could focus in on what I wanted to do.”
“I came to Charlotte from Atlanta in 1977, kicking and screaming. Back then the town only had a semi-pro football team and they’d just gotten liquor by the drink. Now I see it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I had the experience of watching Atlanta grow from a kind of small town. Now I saw Charlotte duplicating that growth and I had some insight as to what was going to happen here.
“I ended up working in commercial lending, making loans for hotels and restaurants in the early 80’s – great preparation. I needed to understand money – how to borrow it, how to prepare loan packages, how to talk to lenders.
People brought me their dreams and laid them on the table every day and I saw the good way to do it and the bad way to do it. I was in Charlotte when it exploded. Back then Atlanta banks could only operate in five counties. Charlotte banks were statewide so they had a lot of clout and leverage. BINGO!”
Panos now owns one Hampton Inn and is a partner in two Hampton Inn and Suites, including one at Phillips Place in South Park. He owns two Hilton Garden Inns, and one Comfort Suites in Gastonia. Under construction, are the Hilton Garden Inn and the Hampton Inn downtown, a Hilton Garden Inn in Rock Hill and a Comfort Suites at Harris Blvd. and I-77. Each has a story.
“I got this call in 1996 from Lee Curry, a CPA in Gastonia, who had property he wanted me to look at for a hotel. I said, ‘Look, I don’t have any more money, I’m tapped out.’ But he said not to worry about it. Three weeks later I met with him.
“He said, ‘I’ve checked up on you. I know who you are. You’re a nice businessman.’ He whips out this folder with clipped articles on us for the last three years. He represented a gentleman named C.W. Smith who invented the process of rebuilding transmissions for car companies. Lee asked me to put together a package on this property for C.W. I want you to build it because you guys know what you’re doing, he said.
“I put the package together and saw it was going to take about 25 percent capital, with the land worth about $600,000. But it would probably take another $500,000 in capital to put this thing together. I worried about the numbers.
“I go out there and here’s C.W. on a tractor in his overalls smoking a huge cigar, grading this piece of property. I’m in my suit getting my shoes dirty.
“I make the presentation in a conference room and C.W. asks, ‘What’s this money for a feasibility study? What’s this money for points?’ Well, I said, if you have a loan you have to have a feasibility study and pay points. C.W. said we didn’t need any of that because he was going to finance the whole hotel.”
Panos laughs incredulously. “I said, ‘Obviously you don’t understand because we’re going to need $5.8 million to do this hotel.’ He says, ‘I understand and I want you to get started in 60 days. We shook hands on the deal and never looked back and built the Comfort Suites in Gastonia.”
The Steam That Turns the Wheels
Panos identifies three key ingredients to his success: faith in himself, commitment and honesty.
“A lot of people don’t have enough faith in themselves to tackle things,”he says. “I’ve bought property and never had any idea in the world how I was going to do the deal. I’ve barely had enough to get the earnest money up but I’ve put together deal after deal after deal.
“The reason is commitment,” he hits an emphatic note. “I commit myself to do something and I’m going to spend every waking minute figuring out how.”
In the face of disappointments he perseveres. On one project he was turned down 37 times for a loan before a bank in West Virginia finally lent him the money.
“Every time I’ve had a disappointment I’ve learned something that became invaluable down the road.”
The honesty that was built into his early business relationships has paid off.
When he bought a site downtown and had no idea where the capital for development would come from, Smith stepped in. Numerous other developers vied for the opportunity they were granted at Phillips Place.
“If you’re honest, you develop relationships with The Harris Group or C.W. Smith that go down the road with you. That doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes. We make mistakes everyday but are honest about them and have enough faith to recover from them.”
Riding the Rails
“We soared 2,600 hotel rooms in Charlotte last year. Occupancy spikes up and spikes down. But we have six million square feet of office space under construction: four million in the suburbs, two million downtown. That alone is the emphasis to support development. We just need to slow down some of the building of hotels. I think that will take place over the next 18 months. Let the market absorb this number of hotels and then we’ll move on.
“Charlotte’s economy is going to be strong over the next five years. We’re having trouble slowing it down. That’s the problem. The real estate business is taking the brunt of all the exuberance on Wall Street because the only way to slow it down is to raise interest rates.”
Panos says there’s a difference between now and the 1970s to mid ’80s that makes the business cycle stronger.
“All the deals have real equity in them now. That has changed the dynamics of the business, too. Before, people built for tax benefits and didn’t care if they lost money. This time around, you have to be an experienced operator. You’re also required to put replacement reserves in escrow so every real estate deal will have money to refurbish, insuring fewer rundown hotels in the marketplace.
“Automation allows you to run hotel operations with a lot fewer people. We have 250 employees. We only added two people when we increased to eight hotels from five. When we can bring on exponentially fewer people and more hotels, everything gets more profitable.
“I no longer have to wait 45 days to figure out how we did in June. Running eight hotels requires constant information so I can make changes in rates, changes in schedules, in all different categories instantaneously.”
The Track Ahead
“I’m exhausted. This last round has gone on since ’97. The market is getting overbuilt here and we need to stop.”
Panos says he looks to his wife, Barbara, to help him slow down.
“She’s the perfect fit for me. She’s low-key and happy-go-lucky. She settles me. We travel to places like California or Miami Beach and just cool it. We do what we want to do when we want to do it. We eat at nice restaurants, go to the beach, play some golf.”
Some of his ideas for community however, are just gathering steam. Along with his business interests, he is deeply involved in the Charlotte Chamber, serving on the Advisory Board as well as the Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Hospitality Tourism Alliance and Destination Charlotte.
Panos longs to make lasting contributions and his group has searched for ways to use their hotels to significantly benefit people. They finally found it with Presbyterian Hospital’s Hemby Children’s Hospital.
“We learned we have families who come in from out of town when their children need medical help and may not have the resources to spend days or weeks here. Their children fall between programs and the parents’ stay isn’t covered by insurance. Our downtown facility is only going to be one mile away from Presbyterian Hospital.
“The project is a perfect marriage. Their needs and our needs fit perfectly giving all of us a sense of putting something back.
“I feel like this [business] thing is put together for a purpose. Maybe I don’t know what it is, but I feel it will be beneficial down the road. I feel we’ve done over the years, we’ve been led to, so it’ll find its way.”
Bill Little is technically the chairman of the board of Little & Associates Architects, Inc., a Charlotte-based architectural firm he founded in 1964. The company employs over 500 people in eight regional offices, and generates over $50 million in annual billings. He has been described on occasion as quirky, even a little eccentric, but he describes himself as rather shy, fearful of public speaking, and even a pocket protector nerd. Upon meeting him, however, one is quickly taken in by his engaging personality.
Little is, more accurately, a creative thinker and earnest communicator with a penchant for inspiring and instilling the same sense of freethinking in those around him. And, while he has respect for the more traditional methods of management, he has dedicated himself to kindling and fostering the same emphasis on creativity and “out-of-the-box” thinking among his coworkers – promoting a sort of madness over method. He hopes that having experienced one of his creative workshops, one might very well need the parachute of the Parachute Room to get back to ground-level.
William B. Little grew up in Gastonia. He attended public schools and worked summers cutting grass, trimming mops on an assembly line, and most memorably, performing various jobs at the Loray-Firestone Mill where his parents were employed. One of those jobs was to clean the humidifiers on the ceiling of the workrooms without electrocuting himself on the electrical parts; another was to get down on the oiled floor and mop solvent from underside of the textile machines without getting the mop caught in the open motor. In those days before air conditioners, this was hot and sticky work, but Little considered himself lucky to get a job and his family needed the money. Little acknowledges, “I was young then … It’d kill me now!”
He worked hard and played hard, especially in varsity football at old Gastonia Central High School. Although he was small and played on the B-team, he was a ferocious competitor, never willing to give up. Little recounts a particular play when he was completely open, running for a touchdown. He tripped over his own feet. “The coach came runnin’ out there, pulled up this chunk of grass and said ‘I knew somebody was goin’ to get hurt on that!’ He said I had the damnedest pair of legs he’d ever seen – I was bowlegged and on top of that I ran funny – and I was ‘Crazy Legs’ after that.”
Little was a fair student but worked hard. His first year at the University of North Carolina, he intended to major in business. But after taking an aptitude test that indicated strengths in math and art, a counselor suggested he pursue architecture at NC State. It was known to be an especially difficult program, but Little was accepted and persevered.
Upon graduation, he had several job offers based on his reputation as an artist and designer. Not wanting to get trapped in a narrow corner of the architectural world, he accepted a position with Richard Gillespie Architects, a small firm in 1958 “on the theory that I needed to understand how to do everything about the architectural business, not just draw pretty pictures,” recounts Little. “I wanted to learn the whole thing. He [Richard] did houses and small commercial buildings with only two people in the office, so I got to do everything.”
After four years with Gillespie, Little wanted to work on bigger projects and so he sought out his next position. He received four offers. Again, they wanted him for his artistic talent, but he still wanted to learn more so he took a job that actually paid the least. That job was with Cameron & Associates, Inc. Headed by Al Cameron, the eight-person firm was working on big projects. Little was soon invited to become a partner and the company became Cameron, Little & Associates in 1964.
Known as the Prince of Architecture in North Carolina, Al Cameron built major projects including the American Building in downtown Charlotte. Little respectfully describes Cameron as good-looking and articulate, very talented with a forceful personality. In contrast, Little asserts that he himself was quite the “nerd.” He says he had a flattop haircut and horned-rim glasses, and wore polyester shirts all week long and carried his bag lunch to work. Little thought Cameron was a great designer, but knew there was a huge difference between their styles.
Quite unexpectedly in 1967, Cameron suffered a massive heart attack at the young age of 42 and died. Suddenly, the nerd was in charge of the firm. “The first thing I did was to question whether I wanted to take charge of the firm. I didn’t know if I wanted to be an administrator. To have your own office was OK, but it wasn’t me,” he recalls. “I was prepared to go get a job. What made me happy was just doing the work. And now I was faced with a different job. The future of the firm was in my hands, and I had never made a presentation or called on a client on my own. And I certainly didn’t know the first thing about running a business.”
At the time, the firm had about six months’ worth of work. “We had four customers. I went around to assure them that their projects would be completed to their satisfaction. We were going to listen better,” says Little. “Cameron’s philosophy had been the old school of designing for awards. It was my fear factor said that you should design for the customer. We got more business from those customers because we listened to them. That was the turning point in my life.”
Little recalls his first presentation to a potential client who was the school superintendent and the school board in Gastonia. “I had never presented to anybody. I went out and got me a book. It said that you had to get their attention. And I thought, ‘We are a company of ideas. I called the office and had a guy make up a metal halo with a light bulb on top wired down to my pocket so I could turn it on when I made my presentation.
“It came my turn and I stood up and saw people’s faces – they didn’t look too good. Needless to say, we didn’t get that job. But the superintendent came to work for us four years later. He stayed for fourteen years and we did $600 million in school construction over that time.
“I knew that I was not Al Cameron. This job required networking, selling, knocking on doors, being rejected. I wasn’t prepared for this job. So I needed a salesperson and the first person I hired actually hired himself. He showed up for work before I offered him the job. He told me he had already quit his other job. He worked real hard, out knocking on doors. He never sold a thing, but he had an idea.
“His idea was that instead of just working for developers and receiving three percent for designing the property, why not find the property, design the property and be the developer. It sounded like a good idea to me.” For the next six years the firm thrived, fueled by the real estate boom of the early ’70s. Little admits, “I had no idea at the time of the risk involved. We had an economic downturn in 1974, people moved out of the apartments and we owed more cash to lenders than we had payroll.”
Overextended and about two weeks before bankruptcy, Little turned to a young assistant who had joined the firm the previous year, Ed McMahan, then 29. Ed had a background in commercial lending and real estate investment, and more importantly an idea to help him get out of his dilemma. “I told Ed that he was my last hope. I told him that if he could help me, I would give him 50 percent of everything I made from that point on. We owed about $1 million to First Union and Ed came up with a plan to pay everything back. Over seven years we built and sold shopping centers, paid our taxes and paid the entire sum, principal and interest, back.” That was over 20 years ago and the two men have been partners ever since.
Little describes McMahan as well-grounded, outgoing, a joiner, socially active, and a consummate consensus builder. “A perfect complement.” McMahan describes himself as an inside-the-lines thinker and institutional finance man. By contrast, he describes Little as “an outside-the-box creative force known for his bright although sometimes wild ideas. He is a risk-taker, visionary, never-sit-still leader.” He quotes Little as saying, “If you’re stationary, you make an easy target.”
Little is confident that the two opposing personalities work out well for the firm’s management. For example, when Little was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome some years ago, “I just wanted to quit and sell the company to our division heads. Ed convinced me to give up just 49 percent and keep control of the remainder. “I can’t tell you the number of times he’s saved me from doing something stupid.”
Little credits much of his success to his continuing philosophy of putting the client first – acknowledging that, “Our clients know what they want better than we do. So we listen to them tell us what they want, then we design it to meet their needs within a budget they’ve set, and complete the job ahead of schedule.”
In the mid-1980s, Little restructured the firm to focus on the different types of buildings. There are currently fifteen divisions specializing in twelve different building types including financial facilities, offices, schools, commercial retail, food service, rollout retail, civic, government and correctional facilities, manufacturing facilities and college and university buildings, each division autonomous and led by partners of the firm. The divisions are supported by a core of shared services – administration, finance, engineering, facilities management, and 3D rendering and animation. He says, “The beauty of the structure is that it lets our people focus on designing, serving the client with the specialist they need. The centralized corporate core takes care of the drudge work.”
At first, the restructuring, which had come to him after reading Tom Peters’ book, In Search of Excellence, didn’t work so well. Little recalls, “In the beginning I was still a dictator. The new structure couldn’t work. Then a funny thing happened – I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. It took my getting sick to loosen my grip on the organization and to find out that other people could step up and do the job – as it turned out, much better than I could.”
Today, Little and Associates is the largest architectural and engineering firm in the Carolinas and 22nd largest in the nation. The firm delivers a diverse selection of related services including strategic facilities consulting, computer-aided facilities management, technology consulting, digital modeling and animation, and land planning. It employs over 500 people in eight locations and has annual billings over $50 million. Little’s strongest desire is to sell more of the company’s stock to the new generation of leaders over the next few years, at least doubling the number of partners.
His real passion is to develop leadership. He enjoys throwing employees into the fire and letting them do the job hands-on. Although it sometimes results in momentary anarchy, and unnerves more than a few employees, Little has found that it encourages creativity and flexibility. His design of the Parachute Room – an eight-sided creativity room with brightly colored furniture and toys and a ceiling draped in parachute material, is exemplary of his attempts to “deprogram and reprogram employees to view work as fun and disruption as good.”
When asked to describe his architectural style, Little responds, “Whatever makes you say ‘Wow!’ is my style. I’ll ask a client, ‘What do you like in a building? What do you want in a building? What will you do in that building and how will it be used?’ I’ll show you many different styles and designs, and when I see your response, your reaction, I’ll know when I have produced something that makes you say ‘Wow!’ “
Little doesn’t believe in retirement. He claims to be one of the lucky people. He enjoys his work. He would like to do more design work, but he marvels in the work of his employees and younger designers who are so talented. He recalls Al Cameron who died at age 42 and is proud that he is so involved with his family, consisting of five children and seven grandchildren all living nearby.
Little’s great joy in life is serving his customers and making them happy. He also works hard to stimulate his employees to be creative and to target business goals that he hopes will take Little & Associates to new levels of architectural activity and design.
His management style that fosters freethinking and a bit of anarchy may not be for everyone, but his success cannot be argued with. As Shakespeare put it, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”