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John Smith has started nearly 20 companies in Rochester over the past four decades. He has created more than 400 local jobs. His reason for doing so is simple: his family.
His parents, sons, brother and brother-in-law all have been involved in businesses Smith launched. They are a big factor in what he has achieved.
"My success is not measured in the materialistic things that I own; it's with my family," he says.
Smith, 66, has promised his wife he will not start another company, but there is no denying he still has the entrepreneurial bug. He currently is chairman of Solu Technology Partners Inc., CEO of CloudDOCX LLC, CEO of Dealer DOCX LLC, chairman and CEO of Brite Computers, CEO of StormFrog Inc. and managing partner of JJ&S Development LLC.
The native Rochesterian in fact has not slowed down since he was the kid with two newspaper routes in the morning and a dog-walking business during his lunch breaks from school. His mother would make him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and he'd walk dogs each weekday, making $2.50 a week.
"He'd walk with these big bags of papers on him, and on Sunday the paper was so heavy that he couldn't really walk with it because he wasn't big enough," says his wife, Joanne, describing Smith's days delivering newspapers. "His father would drive him around on Sunday mornings to do his paper route, so that was the easiest day of the week."
Smith grew up in West Irondequoit, the fifth of eight children. He realized early on that if he wanted something, he had to rely on himself to get it.
"I remember my first loan was from my older brother," he says. "He loaned me money to buy my go-cart, and I had to pay him $10 a month to pay it off. My brothers were big and tough, so you paid them back when they asked you to pay them back."
In his youth, Smith dreamed of playing professional baseball, which he did at age 18. He signed with the New York Mets out of high school and played in the minor leagues until a car accident on the Thruway changed the course of his life. The car Smith was in hit a utility pole, and he suffered a severe break to his right ankle.
A new field
With his future in baseball thrown into doubt, Smith had to figure out his next step. His father convinced him to think about information technology, then in its infancy as an industry.
"I got my first job in data processing back in 1968," Smith recalls. "(There were) rooms full of computers that now fit in the palm of your hand. It was really the early stages of computing, the big IBM computers that filled the room and processors on cards. All the programs were on cards; they weren't even stored on disc yet."
After getting started in the IT field, Smith met Joanne and turned down an offer from the Kansas City Royals to try to restart his baseball career, instead opting to build a career and stay in Rochester. Once married, Smith started college and worked for Monroe County in the IT department.
He went to school full-time days at Monroe Community College and worked a full night shift as a data processor. After earning his associate's degree, he began taking classes at Rochester Institute of Technology toward his bachelor's degree.
Smith left the county IT job and went to work at RIT as a data processor-again working a full night shift-while continuing school full-time days at RIT, a schedule that left few hours for a normal life.
"Everything worth doing is tough, but you have to persevere, and one of the things about John is he's very hardworking and he perseveres," his wife says.
The end of his education also marked the start of his family.
"When I graduated from college, I was holding my little boy in my arms," says Smith, whose son Justin was followed by another son, Trevor, and a daughter, Courtney.
With a degree in business administration from RIT, Smith went to work for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rochester, now Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, as a supervisor of operations.
Emil "Zeke" Duda, retired Excellus chief financial officer and a friend of Smith, says determination has been a signature trait in the 40 years he has known him.
"When he puts his mind to something, he follows through," Duda says. "He's willing to work as hard as it takes. There (are) people who have an idea, want to start it, and if it doesn't go perfectly well, then they just shrug their shoulders and blame fate and everything else. John would just work as hard as it took to get something done."
After a year and a half with Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Smith went to work for Information Associates Inc. The IT industry was on the move too.
"I saw the evolution of increased processing power and capability," Smith recalls. "(They went) from these huge systems to smaller systems but with much more capability. So I learned how to manage the systems, programmers and the operations programmers, working in conjunction with the vendors like IBM."
The job taught Smith about a lot more than processing data.
"When I went to work there, the first thing they taught me was how to make coffee because I was the first one in the office," he says. "I said, 'I don't drink coffee.' They said, 'It doesn't matter if you drink it or not; you're making it.'"
Adds Smith: "I was standing on the loading dock in my three-piece suit, shaking a rug because the president of the company said, 'You need to go shake this rug out and put it in the hallway.' (I said) 'I have a bachelor's degree; I don't shake rugs,' and he said, 'Well, I have a master's degree from Cornell, and we do whatever we have to do.'"
IAI president David McKelvey became a key mentor for Smith as his focus turned to entrepreneurship.
"I always had high aspirations," Smith says. "You think about a little boy wanting to be a professional baseball player, dreaming about things, so I had dreams to run my own company someday. When I worked for this gentleman, he said, 'Well, tell me what you want to do,' and I said, 'Well, I want to sit over there" (pointing to McKelvey's chair). He said, 'What does that mean?' I said, 'I want to be the president of either this company or another company.'"
A business of his own
Smith absorbed all he could from Mc-Kelvey, learning how to sell, budget and manage people. When IAI was going to be acquired in 1980, Smith decided to buy the service bureau division.
Becoming a business owner was both freeing and unnerving for Smith.
"I started out in June of 1980 with 13 customers, and I thought, 'Oh, that's a bad omen,'" he recalls.
Smith's wife knew the challenges of owning a business firsthand; she and her mother co-owned Satisfashions, a women's clothing store, from 1975 to 1988.
"She wrote a note to me and sealed it in an envelope and said, 'I believe in you,'" Smith says. "So we risked everything we had; we mortgaged our house, we took all of our life savings, and (at that time) we had three little babies."
Adds Smith: "I've been very fortunate, I've been blessed and I've had a wonderful wife that backs me all the time-44 years. I don't know how she's done it sometimes, being married to an entrepreneur. My wife is the best thing that ever happened to me in my life besides my kids."
Starting out, Smith's parents let him borrow their car and also worked for him-his mother as a secretary and his father as a delivery man. A single employee, Smith and his parents made up the company's total staff. For a while, the non-family employee was the only one to have a paycheck.
"I didn't know what I didn't know, so it was a risk, but I just firmly believed that I could be successful," Smith says. "I had (the) backing of my wife, and my family was very committed to supporting me and helping me, and we just did it."
Computer time was purchased at night back then, so Smith would work from midnight to 8 a.m., rest a few hours and then during the day sell services including accounts payable and inventory systems to the Eastman Dental School and other clients.
He named the company JTS Computer Services Inc., and over 17 years it grew to be a multimillion-dollar business, with roughly 110 employees in Rochester. He sold the firm in 1997.
"It was pretty satisfying to create it and to create opportunities for people," Smith says. "I loved to mentor people and help them grow. What I always try to do in my business career is surround myself with the best possible people (to) be successful."
JTS Computer Services was the first of 19 companies Smith has launched, some on his own and others with partners. Among these are Brite Computers, Solu Technology Partners, StormFrog, CloudDOCX and DealerDOCX. Of these firms Solu Technology Partners is the largest, with roughly 250 employees. Brite has some 75 employees, StormFrog has 35, and CloudDOCX and DealerDOCX have a total of some 15 staffers.
"My wife calls me a serial entrepreneur, which is better than being a serial other thing," Smith says.
His natural optimism has been a vital part of his entrepreneurial success.
"I think the reason he can be this entrepreneur and do this is he is extremely optimistic," Joanne Smith says. "The cup is always half-full (for him), and I'm more the cup is half-empty, so we balance each other out. As he says, it takes a certain amount of failure to be appreciative of your success. He's someone who doesn't dwell on yesterday; he always looks forward to tomorrow."
Smith's setbacks include Restore, a disaster planning and recovery firm that he says was "a little ahead of its time and probably not large enough to compete in the regional market we were after." Also, a promotion and advertising venture used expensive 3-D technology and "did not catch on fast enough to allow us to continue the investment at that time." These experiences taught him a lesson: to know when to redirect your efforts and preserve your capital.
Through difficulty and success, Smith has approached each day the same way.
"He's just so hardworking," says son Justin, president and chief operating officer of Brite Computers. "I think that's part of that whole optimistic (attitude): 'I can get it done, regardless of whether I've failed once or twice or never failed.'"
Smith's personal values shape his approach to business. He sees customers as friends and treats them like family.
"You want to always treat people very fair and always assume the best," he said. "That's really been something that I was taught from the time I was a little boy. You don't mistreat people; you always show respect."
"He is extremely respectful of people, of his clients, of his employees, of his family," his wife says. "He's very generous. Nothing makes him happier than to see someone who's working for him or with him be successful. He gets the biggest kick out of that because he's been there."
From the start, Smith has mixed family and business. In addition to his parents, his two sons, two brothers and brother-in-law have been involved in his companies.
Brite Computers now is run by his sons Justin and Trevor, who is executive vice president. His brother James is CEO of Solu Technology Partners.
"You know they'll deliver it, for you know that they'll work extremely hard because you know they don't want people to assume that the reason they got the job is because they're your brother, your sister or your son or your daughter," Smith says.
"I'm proud of what my sons and my daughter are doing in their businesses on their own," he adds. "My wife and I really taught them about the things we valued in our lives, and we see them valuing the same things, having the same work ethic, the same values with their families. I think that's been probably one of the most rewarding things of being involved in the business with your family."
All of Smith's children have turned to their father for advice in business and for support in their careers.
Daughter Courtney Smith Pulire co-founded Brandtatorship LLC, a marketing and advertising communications firm. She also helped StormFrog get started a few years ago.
In nearly 15 years of working together, Justin Smith has learned a lot about his father.
"When we bought this company, I really couldn't imagine what it was going to be like," Justin says. "We've always had a really solid, strong relationship, and I think that this has really strengthened that relationship."
Of Justin and brother Trevor, Smith says: "They're really a team. (They) share ideas and concepts as to where they want to take the company. They both are rainmakers; they both can sell anything to anybody, and they really understand the products and services. I think they complement each other very well."
Smith himself is a constant learner.
"One thing I'm not sure everybody knows is John looks for advice," Duda said. "He's not somebody who is always right, and he's always looking for someone to talk to about different perspectives and different ideas before he goes forward and does what he's going to do. He still does that today. There are not a lot of people like that."
Looking back on what he's accomplished, Smith recognizes the sacrifices he made; he does not take his successes for granted.
"I think you get instincts, and I've definitely made some bad decisions, but the thing I've learned now is I never bet the farm," Smith says. "I did that once, and now I don't bet the farm on any one opportunity."
Emotion also has been one of Smith's greatest strengths in business.
"He's a really emotional guy in a positive way," Justin says. "He's just a really caring, emotional person, (and) he wears those emotions on his sleeve. He's not afraid to show his emotions in front of anybody, and I think that's what makes him so special."
Adds Smith's son: "I think that at times in his business career that's probably been a detriment to him. I think that people at times have taken advantage of that, but he doesn't care. He's more proud of the fact that he has this side of him that is genuine, and so what if it's hurt him a couple of times? He's always able to recover."
His family is the reason Smith became an entrepreneur, and it has been the driving force of his life.
"I think that the most important aspect of John Smith is his dedication to his family," says Justin Smith. "That's paramount. ... Even with grown children and grandchildren now, his No. 1 focus is still his family and his family's well-being. He's been a great mentor and an even better father."
In the community
Rochester has been home to his family, his career and his companies; it also has given him an extended family of customers, colleagues and friends.
He has made a point of giving back to the community. Smith has served on boards for organizations including the Monroe Community College Foundation, Hillside Children's Center, the Rochester Rotary Club and Red Cross Blood Services.
"I've tried to mentor people and help people be successful, and that's very important to me," Smith says. "I feel that philanthropy is extremely important, especially if you've been lucky in life. I love living in Rochester. I could live anywhere now, but I have my family here; I want to be around my family."
Looking ahead, Smith has no plans to start more companies; his focus now is on being a grandfather.
"I always thought I'd be successful at something," he says. "I wasn't sure exactly what it (would be)-whether I was going to be a great baseball player, whether I was going to be a successful businessman-but the most important thing to me in my life is my family."
The man has no regrets. Even about baseball.
"I think it's important to always remember where you came from, how you got there and who helped you to get there, and just never forget," Smith says. "I honestly believe that if I hadn't gotten injured I would be a major-league pitcher, but I do not have regrets about that. My life has worked out fantastic, and I'm very happy."
Position: CEO of CloudDOCX Inc.; CEO of Dealer DOCX LLC; chairman of CLF Ontario Inc., doing business as Solu Technology Partners Inc.; chairman and CEO of Upstate Wholesale Supply Inc., doing business as Brite Computers; CEO of StormFrog Inc.; and managing partner of JJ&S Development LLC
Education: A.A.S. in business administration, Monroe Community College, 1971; B.S. in business administration, Rochester Institute of Technology, 1973
Family: Wife Joanne; sons Justin, 41, and Trevor, 39; daughter Courtney, 36
Activities: Golf, travel, collecting classic and performance automobiles, trap shooting, boating, paddleboarding and swimming
Quote: "My success is not measured in the materialistic things that I own; it's with my family."
1/10/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email email@example.com.