By Gary Goettling
A practical nature has meant success for a century of Georgia Tech graduates
Robert McMath (right): Georgia Tech's approach created a culture of resourcefulness among its students and alumni.
For more than a century, an entrepreneurial spirit has been a prominent, though often fortuitous, byproduct of a Georgia Tech education for an extraordinary number of its graduates. Alumni have started new ventures in every industry imaginable, from retail and service businesses to real estate development, manufacturing and, especially, high technology.
In recent years, fundamental changes in business, the economy and technology have heightened the value of that mindset, prompting Tech to shift its informal tradition of entrepreneurship to a formal academic discipline through the DuPree Center for Entrepreneurship at Georgia Tech. In the process, Georgia Tech is also reclaiming its roots.
The entrepreneurial quality of a Tech education is embraced literally in the Institute's founding documents, according to Dr. Robert McMath, vice provost of undergraduate studies at Tech and co-author of a Georgia Tech history, Engineering the New South. Beginning with the early shop classes, when students machined furniture and metalwork for sale in an effort to make the school financially self-sufficient, Tech students have consistently demonstrated a propensity for doing business.
"Georgia Tech's practical, hands-on philosophy was to provide the kind of education that would produce graduates who could do useful things and be of economic benefit to the state," McMath says. "That approach created a culture of resourcefulness among students and alumni that continues to this day. They have to figure out how to get things done, so they are looking for practical solutions rather than theoretical ones."
The entrepreneurship pervasive over the years throughout the alumni ranks has also been fostered by the sheer rigor of the curriculum, adds Dr. Lloyd L. Byars, interim dean of the DuPree College of Management.
"Working through a hard curriculum gives students an appreciation for hard work, and builds perseverance and self-discipline all of which are attributes of a successful entrepreneur," Byars says.
But while alumni have historically demonstrated a propensity for entrepreneurship, the element of institutional support from Georgia Tech, especially in terms of high-tech entrepreneurship as an economic-development tool, is a relatively recent development, notes McMath.
"The environment encouraged hard work and industriousness, but it did not encourage start-up activity on the part of faculty because that was viewed as being somewhat unseemly," says McMath. "For a while in the post-war years and post-Sputnik era, the research side at Tech was so deeply wedded to NASA and the Department of Defense that it didn't bother with local and regional economic development."
McMath points to a turnaround during the 1970s and early '80s with the administration of Dr. Joseph M. Pettit, who had helped engineer the development of Silicon Valley while at Stanford.
"That was when Tech began actively encouraging faculty, staff and students to be entrepreneurial," he explains. "In some ways it was a shift back to our roots, with Tech beginning to reconnect with the state through the Advanced Technology Development Center, the Economic Development Institute and the Georgia Research Alliance."
The Dupree College of Management embodies the Institute's aggressive promotion of entrepreneurship through its primary academic thrusts: management of technology, entrepreneurship and international business.
These areas overlap and complement each other, Byars says. "Most entrepreneurship activities of Tech students, faculty and alumni focus on technology, which is the major force behind the growing globalization of the economy."
"Most entrepreneurship activities of Tech students, faculty and alumni are focused on technology, which is the major force behind the growing globalization of the economy."
Most of the college's entrepreneurial activity is housed in the DuPree Center for Entrepreneurship, founded four years ago and, like the college, named for its primary benefactor, Thomas E. DuPree Jr., IM '74, himself an entrepreneur in the restaurant business.
Dr. Thomas Boston (right): "Very small companies run by creative entrepreneurs, because they're nimble and can react quickly, can be very effective competitors with the giants that can't maneuver as well."
According to its mission statement, the center aims to promote the teaching of entrepreneurship, conduct related research, and provide education programs and service activities that encourage entrepreneurial activity.
The center's academic programs are directed at the breadth of Tech's curriculum. Undergraduates throughout the Institute may take the introductory Entrepreneurial Forum or a class on the economics of race and entrepreneurship. A concentration in entrepreneurship is offered for master's degree students in management. A certificate program in entrepreneurship is offered for electrical and computer engineering students, and a minor is offered for master's and doctoral students in biomedical engineering and life sciences degree programs.
"Depending on their majors, students can concentrate in entrepreneurship by taking classes the center coordinates and makes available," says Dr. Terry Blum, director. An environmental and civil engineering major, for example, can earn a certificate in entrepreneurship by taking a sequence of classes that culminates in either a new-venture-creation class or a business-plan class, she notes.
Dr. Thomas D. Boston, a professor of economics, directs the DuPree Center's African-American entrepreneurship program. "The academic programs at Georgia Tech are positioned at the forefront of the technological developments that are driving changes in business as well as society," says Boston. "Students and faculty are constantly creating new kinds of technology and looking for ways to market those technologies. Tech's traditional support for business creates a kind of feedback effect throughout the environment that generates the entrepreneurs who start new ventures on their own, and those who are starting new activities within larger, existing companies."
But isn't entrepreneurship an art rather than science, more intuitive than instructional? And if so, can the subject truly be "taught" effectively?
"You have to be creative, and you have to have ideas, but the execution part, especially in technology entrepreneurship which creates jobs and economic value, requires a multidisciplinary bag-full of knowledge and skills that will make you more likely to succeed," Blum says. "Anyone can come up with an idea, but it doesn't mean they can evaluate whether it is a compelling idea according to the techniques of analyzing a market or even an emerging market.
Professor Terry Blum (right): "To be successful requires entrepreneurial knowledge, skills and attitudes. Companies have to be innovative and entrepreneurial to compete in a global economy in the 21st century."
"That doesn't mean people who don't come through our program will not be successful or that everybody who comes through such a program will be successful. We're simply trying to make entrepreneurial ventures a lot less treacherous."
The courses cover such topics as how to obtain financing, the workings of public and private markets, and how to assemble a management team. Participation in the center's curriculum has the extra benefit of exposing students to the "social capital that one develops in being in a network at Georgia Tech with our alums and the entrepreneurial community," Blum adds. "This can also facilitate the other kinds of resources: the management team and the financial resources."
Blum cautions against drawing too narrow a definition of entrepreneurship. Applying a broader perspective, she says the qualities of flexibility, creativity, teamwork and continual learning that characterize new-venture entrepreneurs will also provide a critical competitive advantage to growing and large companies. Thus the center's perspective also serves to provide leadership training to students who will later head major corporations.
"To be successful, even in a company that's not your own venture, requires entrepreneurial knowledge, skills and attitudes," Blum says. "Companies have to be innovative and entrepreneurial to compete in a global economy in the 21st century."
Her observation is underscored by Boston, who notes that profound business-world changes including deregulation, career insecurity and layoffs (a.k.a. "downsizing"), changing markets and technological advances, particularly in communications are compelling businesses to operate much differently than in the past if they are to prosper.
Bryant Isaacs (right): "We're trying to get a number of things to market quickly, which means the culture we're trying to create here might be different from what we have in our large labs."
"It was once an accepted premise that the economies of scale associated with large companies and large-scale production were the leading edge in competitive markets," he says. "But very small companies run by creative entrepreneurs, because they're nimble and can react quickly, can carve out markets and be very effective competitors with the giants that can't maneuver as well. So if they are going be competitive, they have to bring on board and nurture the kinds of talent you find in a lot of these small, aggressive, entrepreneurial companies."
Entrepreneurial principles are also appropriate for meeting the goals of virtually any organization, including non-profits, Blum says.
"Georgia Tech is a public school, yet we're incredibly entrepreneurial," she explains. "We continually innovate. We try to commercialize our technology through licensing and new-company development. And though we might do different things with our 'profits,' we're a very entrepreneurial operation."
ATDC Makes the Point
Her point is illustrated by the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), founded in 1981. Primarily involved with helping high-tech startups by providing management assistance and facility and office space, ATDC also promotes entrepreneurial ventures by large, established companies through its "landing party" effort.
The idea is to get established companies Northern Telecom was the first to sponsor a small-scale research and development operation near Tech, usually for a set period of time.
"Our mission is to create technology jobs," says Wayne Hodges, director of the Economic Development Institute. "This is a way of working with large companies that want to come in and get familiar with the terrain and the resources here. Hopefully their initial presence will grow, and they'll start doing bigger things here."
In the past, companies were reluctant to geographically separate employees from the mainstream for special projects because the workers often felt left out in terms of promotions and everything else going on in the company, according to Hodges. But with the need to start new products and get them to the marketplace as quickly as possible, "this idea has a lot more relevance to large companies than it once did. We think this is something we'll see more and more," he says.
From a company's point of view, sponsoring an R&D landing party at Tech provides an entree to the greatest high-tech resource of all: brains.
"You get the best window on the folks who are here, and you can develop relationships with faculty that are very productive for everyone concerned," Hodges says. "You have a chance to tap into the student talent and hire them as co-ops, grad students or Ph.D.s, and see whether or not they fit into your culture."
At present, Lucent Technologies is supporting a landing party its formal name is the Atlanta Product Realization Center working on new-product development in wireless technology. Due to a lack of space on campus, the staff of 40 is housed in the Georgia Public TV building next door to the Georgia Center for Advanced Telecommunications Technology. The project manager is Bryant Isaacs.
"There are a couple of new areas in wireless we want to explore from the point of view of product realization. Not just research, but it's getting to product and getting to revenue," says Isaacs, who believes an entrepreneurial approach offers many advantages over working in a large lab environment.
"We want to make sure we can incubate properly without being sucked into the larger bulk of what's going on around us," he explains. "We're also trying to get a number of things to market quickly, which means the culture we're trying to create here might be different from what we have in our large labs."
That culture includes a flatter management structure with fewer layers of approval and other impediments, no large meetings and more creative freedom.
"We are viewed as part of a business within Lucent," Isaacs says. "There are some restrictions I can't solicit investors, for example but we are trying to take the best of Lucent with us and leave some of the bureaucratic stuff behind. The biggest plus is that you can get on with the job."
The Tech connection has paid off well for Isaacs and his wireless entrepreneurs. The Lucent group includes several Tech students and alumni, and it works closely with an ATDC startup called RF Solutions, founded by Tech students.
"Georgia Tech, I think, has the right sort of organization for this kind of entrepreneurial R&D activity, and not just the academic side but the commercial side as well," Isaacs says. "It's part of the Georgia Research Alliance, and some of its research centers are basically focused on commercialization of technology. And because it's Georgia Tech, access to resources is easier." GT
Gary Goettling is an Atlanta freelance writer specializing in business and technology.
What makes an entrepreneur? Three Tech entrepreneurs reveal a consensus on four attributes of individuals who start and operate their own successful businesses:
"If you have a dream, think it through logically and gain additional information to the point where it's pretty clear it ought to be a good idea and should work; you'll execute that vision. If you are afraid, if you allow fear to intercede between your intellect and your vision, then you won't execute it. It's not a dry intellectual exercise by any means, but the emotion has to back the intellect, rather than the other way around."
· Self-confidence "As an entrepreneur, you usually hit the wall 10 times a day and have to choose to either go on or fold up the shop," says Noonan. "If folding becomes an option, you are done." GT
"I've been in a position to help Tech students fulfill their dreams. That's what it's all about unleashing people with opportunity."
As Tom DuPree Jr. (right) sees it, creating an academic and research center devoted to entrepreneurship was simply a matter of matching an opportunity with a need.
A 1974 industrial management graduate and highly successful restaurant entrepreneur, DuPree was approached four years ago about helping Tech establish an entrepreneurship program within what was then the School of Management.
DuPree remembers being told of a management faculty member's research that supported what he had known intuitively.
"Many of my classmates started their own businesses," he says, "as have hundreds and hundreds of other Tech grads. So it was interesting to see that Georgia Tech produces the highest number of CEOs per capita of any college or university in the country. And they've done it without any formal curriculum on entrepreneurship. Clearly, that's an opportunity to do something more."
The need was an Institute-wide, multidisciplinary center, a "go-to" place as DuPree calls it, that would provide and coordinate courses aimed at honing entrepreneurial skills and preparing students to do business in an entrepreneurial setting. A $5 million gift from DuPree provided a healthy startup for the DuPree Center for Entrepreneurship and New Venture Development.
"We want to enhance the ability of the graduates so when they get out they are better prepared to do exactly what so many of them have been doing all along," he says. "Let's give them some tools to work with and some frameworks to follow. We'd like to graduate an even higher number of better-qualified entrepreneurs from every degree program."
Of particular interest to DuPree is the center's emphasis on African-American entrepreneurship. "It's an opportunity to enhance minority opportunities," he says. "It is also a distinct way for fully enfranchising a variety of American citizens."
Entrepreneurship has also been boosted in a broader sense, thanks to DuPree's generosity. His Capital Campaign award of $20 million to the management school two years ago the largest ever by a living person and second-largest in Tech history set the stage for the management curriculum's return to college status earlier this year as the DuPree College of Management.
DuPree is a study in persistence. By his own admission, he flunked out of Tech twice and ended up with a GAP "rounded upward" to 2.0. But perhaps the most important part of his Tech education, DuPree says, is that it taught him an appreciation for hard work.
"There's kind of an unwritten expectation that you are going to excel at whatever you do," he explains. "We all learn that if you can get through Ma Tech, you're able to handle just about anything life throws your way."
DuPree has lived up to that. In 1979, he entered the restaurant business with a single Burger King. Seven years and five more Burger Kings later, he sold his franchises to buy several Hardee's restaurants and the first of many Applebee's restaurants. As chairman and CEO, DuPree guided his company, Apple South Inc. to phenomenal growth, earning recognition in 1992 as Georgia's Retail Entrepreneur of the Year. Two years later, Forbes magazine described Apple South as the eighth-best small company in the nation.
DuPree isn't standing pat in his fast-changing industry. For the past three years he has been selling Apple South holdings and acquiring new restaurants nationwide under the company name Avado Brands.
One of DuPree's greatest pleasures is seeing others reach for and grasp the kind of success he has enjoyed not simply financial success, but the reward of following an entrepreneur's vision.
"I've been in a position to help Tech students fulfill their dreams," he says. "That's what it's all about unleashing people with opportunity. Often we seem to approach life with shackles rather than saying, 'Let's see what we can do.' When you remove some of those shackles and give people confidence and support, more with words and actions than with a check though checks are important that's when people's real abilities come roaring out. You never know what end-product you'll get. In all likelihood it will be far beyond anything you dreamed." Gary Goettling GT
"Everyone makes mistakes, but you can't let inevitable mistakes stop the show. Having the freedom to fail is the same freedom it takes to succeed."
Keep your big company small." That adage encapsulates the entrepreneurial business philosophy of John P. Imlay, IM '59 (right). It's a belief he observed in his former life as an enormously successful computer-technology business owner, and one he still advocates as a high-tech venture capitalist.
But behind that deceptively simple slogan lies the unflinching commitment, hard work and instinct of a true entrepreneur.
A pioneer of computer software, Imlay is the stuff of legend. In 1971, when "computer" meant "mainframe," Imlay was a salesman with Univac-Honeywell. He noticed that each of the large, complex applications he sold was built essentially from scratch for every client, a process involving much time and re-programming. He asked himself, "Why do we have to re-invent the wheel each time? Why not package some of that software and sell it like you sell records for a record player?"
Imlay quit his job and purchased Management Science America (MSA), a near-bankrupt consulting and computer-services firm in Atlanta. Under his leadership, MSA became the first software-applications supplier to break the $100 million mark in annual sales, and by 1981 had become the largest independent software company in the world. In 1990, it was sold to Dun & Bradstreet for $333 million.
"People are the key," he says. "Successful companies make sure people have the information they need to make good decisions and the authority to act upon them they have a high degree of autonomy. If you've empowered people to make decisions, the right people will make good ones most of the time. Everyone makes mistakes, but you can't let those inevitable mistakes stop the show. Having the freedom to sometimes fail is the same freedom it takes to succeed."
Imlay's management philosophy, which embraces a high degree of internal entrepreneurship he calls "intrapreneurship," was detailed in his 1994 book, Jungle Rules: How to be a Tiger in Business. The book is structured around 20 aphorisms reflecting his imaginative, unconventional approach to business problems.
A ripple effect of entrepreneurship creating new companies, new jobs and new technologies is another legacy of MSA's employee empowerment.
"It served as a training ground for young technology managers, especially in the early days when this industry was still new and everybody was learning along the way," he says. "As our sales grew from a couple million to $550 million a year, some people would drop off to take advantage of the new opportunities they saw.
"I can identify over 50 CEOs of high-technology companies who have come out of MSA," Imlay adds. "To see these young people succeed that's really the reward."
As chairman of Imlay Investments, a venture capital firm formed with his share of the MSA sale proceeds, Imlay has a vehicle with which to indulge his fascination with new technology and his desire to help entrepreneurs in the Southeast follow their dreams.
"That's my passion at the moment to watch these young people succeed," says Imlay, noting that only one in 10 high-tech ventures survive.
With his penchant for exceptional timing, perhaps it's not surprising that Imlay's investment company is riding a new wave of venture-capital activity in Georgia.
Imlay's investments include stakes in Internet Security Systems, a booming developer of computer- and network-security products; and System One Technical, a temporary-personnel firm for high-technology companies.
With its largely untapped home and consumer markets, the Internet offers staggering potential as a communications and commercial medium, Imlay says.
"After 40 years of unlimited growth of technology, we've yet to reach our infancy in terms of the 'Net and computer capability," he notes. "Young people and entrepreneurs have a terrific future in technology. It's really an amazing and exciting time. Sometimes I wish I was starting in business again." Gary Goettling
Don Chapman (right) has an eye for profitable ventures. Among the products that have caught his entrepreneurial eye: eyeglasses, catalogs, meat, fashion accessories, printing equipment, snack foods and basketballs.
Chapman, IM '61, has made his living buying companies, running them for a few years, then selling them for profit. The products his companies have sold have just one thing in common: Don Chapman thought they had potential.
Did he get to know all about the products in every business he was involved in? "I hope so," he says, "I was the chief operating officer of them."
The son of an Atlanta lawyer, Chapman didn't set out to be an entrepreneur. But he realized he had a talent for identifying potential markets and figuring out how to make them profitable, and soon capitalized on what he did best.
"Good management skills are transferable," he says. "Specifics can be learned."
Today, Chapman is at the helm of TUG Manufacturing Corp., a company that makes airline and ground transportation equipment. The company sells its products worldwide.
Chapman recently announced the merger of TUG with Stewart & Stevenson of Houston. When the merger is complete, he will be president and chief operating officer of S&S/TUG. He also co-owns a printing-press business and is involved in several charitable causes.
Such a juggling act is not new to Chapman. He has spent his career doing several things at once.
After graduating from Tech, Chapman sold asphalt and spent time in the Air Force. In the early 1970s, he partnered with Tedd Munchak to began finding and acquiring companies.
"I just felt that was something I had a gift for," Chapman says. "I thought there were businesses out there that could be profitable."
They started with snack food companies in Chicago, Atlanta and Puerto Rico. Chapman steered clear of high tech and heavy manufacturing at first. "Our skills," he says, "were in marketing and distribution."
Most acquisitions he kept about three years, although he kept some longer. "Our goal was to improve the businesses and sell them," he says. "Basically, our goal was to look for something that would sell for a profit."
After a decade of buying and selling, Chapman launched his most challenging project. His idea: A new kind of eyewear business that would provide customers with better service and a better product at a lower cost. The company: Opti-World, a chain of eyeglass and contact-lens superstores that took root in the Southeast long before superstores were available for everything from pet food to shoes.
The business, which Chapman started from scratch and sold a few years ago, was not only a new company, it was a whole new marketing concept in the Southeast. "Opti-World was our most successful venture," Chapman says. "We had a lot of good people involved."
TUG Manufacturing, a small company purchased in 1977, also proved profitable. The company, now much larger and based in Kennesaw, Ga., expects sales in 1998 to be around $50 million.
Chapman also has brought his entrepreneurial talents to community service. As president of the Georgia Tech Alumni Association in 1983, he led the Roll Call Campaign beyond the $2 million mark for the first time. He has also been involved in programs for the mentally retarded.
After more than a quarter-century of buying, running and selling companies, what's next for Chapman? "The merger of TUG will keep me busy for some time," he says. "After that, we'll see what happens." Patti Puckett
Patti Puckett is an Atlanta freelance writer.
Aleksander Szlam (right) made his fortune over the phone. Szlam, EE '74, MS EE '80, developed software and hardware systems that allow companies especially those involved with telephone marketing to manage large volumes of calls.
His company, Melita International, located in Norcross, Ga., has gone from a garage venture to rank No. 40 on Forbes magazine's list of the 200 Best Small Companies.
Voted Inc. magazine's Entrepreneur of the Year for the Southern Region in 1991, the 47-year-old inventor and entrepreneur developed an auto dialing and receiving system that has become an industry standard.
From humble beginnings, Szlam has made Forbes ASAP magazine's ranking of "Technology's 100 Wealthiest," coming in at No. 71 with a net worth of $126.8 million.
He came to the United States in 1969 when his parents fled their native Poland during a period of political unrest. When they arrived, Atlanta's Jewish community helped the family start over, providing housing, food, clothes and a Georgia Tech education for Szlam, who could barely speak English.
Margie Lewis (right) proves that customer service pays off. During 14 years with the Nuclear Regulatory Agency in Washington, Lewis, NE '79, was involved in customer contact and employee performance. "I thought I could provide a better service to customers than larger companies that were more concerned with just the bottom line."
In 1993, she withdrew her $10,000 savings account and started Parallax, an engineering and environmental management company, in partnership with fellow Tech alumnus Dolan P. Falconer Jr., NE '78, MS NE '79.
Lewis is president and chief executive officer of the Germantown, Md., firm. Parallax inspects nuclear power plants, puts in place safety procedures and cleans up nuclear and hazardous waste.
Her first contract was a $2 million, 18-month project with the Department of Energy. By the end of 1993, sales totaled $700,000. A year later, revenues had more than tripled, to $2.2 million. In 1995, when Lewis added sales of nuclear management computer software, sales hit $13 million.
Parallax could be a $50 million company within five years, she says. "We're growing, and that's interesting because the [nuclear power industry] market is shrinking."
The United Methodist Church might seem an unlikely place to find an entrepreneurial mindset, but the qualities that create new businesses can also create new churches.
Early in his career, the Rev. John A. Simmons (right) was given an assignment: start a new church in Roswell, Ga. With only a piece of land and an unerring faith in his objective"We didn't even have a box of gem clips"the task was much "like starting a new business," says Simmons, Bio '71.
"I knocked on doors and followed up on leads for six months before we even started having worship services," says Simmons. "I gathered people in small groups and tried to convince them that it would be an exciting adventure as well as spiritually satisfying to be a part of a new church in that community and it worked."
The effort was aided by establishment of a pre-school program at the church that filled a conspicuous community need, Simmons adds.
For the next 11 years, Simmons was pastor of Northbrook United Methodist Church. His success in Roswell led to his appointment as senior pastor of Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church on the Emory campus. For eight of those years, he also was president of church development for the North Georgia Conference, leading an effort to start or revitalize about 30 churches.
Like a business entrepreneur, Simmons defined his product and developed a market, relying on ingenuity, salesmanship and hard work. "I considered this very much in keeping with my analytical, problem-solving training from Georgia Tech."
In 1996, Simmons earned his doctorate at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.
His current post as pastor of Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church also requires an entrepreneurial attitude. Simmons, like any good businessman, cannot take success for granted, and must remain sensitive and responsive to parishioners' needs. From location and "a spectacular building" to a well developed pre-school program and a recently added sports league, the church works to attract new members .
At the same time, Simmons points out the pitfalls of trying to sustain a congregation on the strength of marketing tactics alone, citing Christian aerobics classes and youth ski trips as worst-case scenarios. The risk, which he says also affects many business entrepreneurs, is that the organization's purpose becomes subordinate to the drive to attract customers.
"Are we there to give people what they're looking for, or do we sell them on belonging to a Christian community?" he asks. "Tom Peters wrote in In Search of Excellence that a business needs to remember to 'stick with the knitting.' The 'knitting' in the Methodist church is belonging to a community of faith and living the story that we find in the gospel. That's what I market."
An organization that has spent much of its 142-year corporate life as a public utility protected by the inertial comfort of government regulation would hardly seem the place to embrace the risk-taking, rough-and-tumble of entrepreneurial-style management.
Yet that's exactly what's happening at Atlanta Gas Light.
When the natural gas industry in Georgia was deregulated this past November, the state's oldest corporate entity was thrust into a new life as an open-market competitor.
"We are developing strategic plans to guide us for the next five years," says Charles W. "Charlie" Bass, IE '69 (right), president of AGL Investments. "Our vision is to be the acknowledged industry and market leader in the evolving energy utility and related services markets."
Two years ago, Atlanta Gas Light was reorganized under a holding company named AGL Resources. One side of the chart was the utility Atlanta Gas Light, the other a new, non-regulated company called AGL Investments. Whereas virtually all of the company's income has come through natural-gas delivery, the expectation is that by the year 2004, about one-fourth of company profits will derive from other activities.
It's a fundamental culture change for the company, which is essentially re-inventing itself in management and business practices, according to Bass, a former Alumni Association trustee. But it's also a great opportunity, he adds, which can only be seized with an entrepreneurial attitude, given a highly competitive market with many aggressive players. The approach for the keepers of the blue-flame logo is to fight fire with fire.
AGL Investments' rapidly growing portfolio includes a host of unregulated subsidiaries, including AGL Propane, and a joint interest with Sonat in gas and power marketing. A startup company, UtiliPro, provides customer service and remittance processing services to the energy industry. Another startup, Cumberland Gas Pipeline, is a 50-50 venture with an Oklahoma firm.
Atlanta Gas Light's top management was itself a prominent advocate for deregulation, and lobbied the Georgia Legislature to open the market.
"We believe that competitive markets are more efficient and provide lower cost to the consumers," Bass says. "That model also happens to be financially better for us."
New entrepreneurs don't have to contend with molding new attitudes and re-writing job descriptions; that's an additional and critical extra hurdle faced by companies in transition.
"Every aspect of our corporation, from the holding company through the regulated utility and the entrepreneurial effort of AGL Investments, has had to bring about enormous change, but not without its difficulties," Bass admits. "There were many people who were quite comfortable operating as a regulated public utility and resisted the type of change you have to make to flourish in a competitive environment. On the other hand, we also have a host of people in-house who have advocated change and helped to push it forward by devising new ways of operating."
Communication with employees, customers and the new gas marketers is keeping people informed and involved throughout the change process. Development of new processes and responsibilities within the organization was facilitated by cross-functional teams examining "every aspect of the business from customer service to legal, from information systems to human resources," Bass explains.
"That played an important role in changing the mindset here toward an entirely new way of doing business in a changed world."
1 Immerse yourself in the subject. Flank high achievers mention flashes of insight that follow long periods of preparation. Healthdyne founder and philanthropist Pete Petit said his aptitude is being able to synthesize data, seeing patterns and opportunities that others miss.
2 Keep your eyes and ears open. "Keeping my eyes open" is the answer Oscar de la Renta gave me when I asked him how he keeps his creative forces alive.
3 Be wary of old mental habits. Walter Lippmann once wrote that what we see depends on the habits of our eyes. Don't be afraid to think about the subject in an unconventional way. Emerson declared: "Trust thyself. Great men have always done so."
4 Trust your own ideas. When Frank Lloyd Wright visited Georgia Tech years ago, student John Portman asked the famed architect for advice. Wright replied: "Go seek Emerson." Portman explained years later that Wright was referring to Ralph Waldo Emerson's great essay "Self Reliance," which Portman still reads once a year. Emerson declared: "Trust thyself. Great men have always done so."
5 Look for analogies in other fields. Don't limit yourself to people in your field or discipline. Most businesses, regardless of the field, have common problems. Somebody outside your field may have solved your problem, but you won't know it if you limit your contacts just to people in your field.
6 Become slightly underemployed. You'll have a very limited view of the world if you always have your nose to the grindstone.
7 Use others' eyes and ears. Find experts to help you. An expert, with in-depth knowledge, can save you time, money, and perhaps your entire project. In addition, create a system in your organization so that your associates will give you feedback. They may see something you don't.
8 Think about different ways to use existing or emerging technologies. Don't consider it second-rate science to find another use for an existing invention. You may accomplish more than the original inventor, who simply made an obvious application.
9 Look for the essence of the concept. Don't be distracted by irrelevant data. Data may be absolutely accurate, but absolutely meaningless.
10 Look for trends and tendencies. "If we could first know where we are and wither we are tending," Abraham Lincoln stated in a famous speech, "we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it." Forward thinking is time well spent. GT