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Home / Profile / Robert Ruppenthal:
A small-business chief who thinks big

Robert Ruppenthal:
A small-business chief who thinks big

Anyone who has taken a ride to the top of the World Trade Center relied on one of Robert Ruppenthal’s projects to get there. So have astronauts.
Ruppenthal, co-founder and president of Real Time Enterprises Inc., worked on the team that developed the software that runs the elevator at the skyscraper and thousands of other buildings. His earlier projects went even higher: the Viking mission to Mars, the Minuteman missile-guidance system and the space shuttle.
“I fell in love with large projects involving hardware and software,” says Ruppenthal, 53. “That is what drove me. It’s the thing that still propels me. The box that flew to Mars, I held in my hands.”
RTE, a software-engineering and support-services firm based in Pittsford, has posted 25 percent to 30 percent annual growth. In 1997, the privately held firm beat its average: Sales rocketed 41 percent to $4.8 million from $3.4 million the year before.
The company made the Rochester Top 100 list of fastest-growing private firms in 1995 and 1996.
Ruppenthal grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he spent weekends working on cars with friends.
“My buddies and I were backyard mechanics. I developed a love for things mechanical very early,” he says.
After high school, he joined the U.S. Navy, where he trained in submarine technology, electronic communications and navigation equipment.
“I was responsible for a navigation site and all ground radio communications at (a California facility) during the Vietnam years,” Ruppenthal says.
That training led him to a position at Honeywell Inc.’s Aerospace Division in Florida, where he met his first computer and worked on the Viking and space shuttle projects.
He stayed at Honeywell for five years and obtained a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of South Florida in Tampa. Shortly after graduating in 1977, he accepted a slot on the design team at Otis Elevator Co. in Connecticut to build the first computer-controlled elevator.
“To a machine junkie this is the real stuff,” he says. “Most of us take elevators for granted, but we built a 20-car elevator system for the World Trade Center.”
Otis scaled that system down and sold it all over the world, Ruppenthal says. After completing the two-year project in 1980, he accepted an offer to serve as a consultant to Eastman Kodak Co., which was developing a blood analyzer.
“The process of putting together new components of hardware and software in a sophisticated system and environment and making it work–that is my passion,” he says.
Whether it involved components for the Mars mission and elevators or the medical device, he enjoyed the hunt for the right answer.
“To participate in building a machine of that complexity and have it work in those kind of conditions (a one-year trip to Mars) and extend the reach of mankind, it was just an amazing thrill,” he says.
He cared little for where the project team worked: Florida, Connecticut, Rochester.
“I was more enamored with where was the next exciting project than I was about where (it was located),” Ruppenthal says.
But when he arrived in Rochester, he found a community with the right labor market and company mix to launch his own business.
“I had been looking for the right circumstances to start a Real Time Enterprises (type of business),” he says.
Less than a year after arriving here, Ruppenthal and partner James Janicki, vice president of engineering, founded RTE.
Kodak’s Clinical Diagnostics Division was its first customer. The division, now owned by Johnson & Johnson, has remained a major customer for 17 years.
The RTE co-founders had met on the Kodak blood-analyzer project.
“We worked very well together and saw a lot of similar strengths,” Janicki says. The project’s success prompted the duo to form a team that would provide software-project expertise to other companies.
Their concept was to introduce discipline and defined processes to software development, which at the time was more of a craft.
“If we refined it, we would get better and better. This was the reason for starting the business,” Ruppenthal says. “The goal was to become more efficient and deliver predictable results.”
RTE specializes in serving the equipment manufacturing, printing and publishing industries.
Ruppenthal and his wife, Kathryn Fiske, live in Penfield. They have two daughters, Sarah, 17, and Elizabeth, 22. His elder daughter expects to graduate in May from Rochester Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s degree in information technology.
The household includes his mother, Ethel Ruppenthal, who moved here after a stroke four years ago in St. Petersburg.
Ruppenthal’s interests outside work include downhill skiing, camping and canoeing. Last summer, the family vacationed in Algonquin Provincial Park in northern Ontario, Canada, where he and Sarah completed a 50-mile canoe trip.
“Running this business is my life and it is sufficiently demanding that I find time for little else outside of my family,” he says.
He shares his experience with other developing businesses, serving on the board of several early-stage ventures.
“This is just an incredible time to be alive in the software industry,” he says. “I liken this to the gold rush of another century. We are so blessed that society has rewarded us so richly for what we love to do.”
Ruppenthal was a founder of the Software Executives of Greater Rochester and served as its first president. The goal was to help tech-oriented executives learn to build companies.
“We were in the business of growing software companies,” he says. “We wanted a forum that we could bring knowledge, talent and instruction into the mix.”
He also is a past president of the Western New York Chapter of the Association of Information and Image Management International. He currently serves on the industrial advisory board to RIT’s computer engineering department.
RTE is a co-founder of MemberWare Technologies Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm that provides Internet content management services to business, trade associations and government agencies. The 2-year-old business is partially owned by RTE, but independently managed and operated.
Ruppenthal’s skills have grown with RTE.
“We started (the firm) because we loved engineering,” he says. “Very soon we realized somebody had to sell this stuff. I drew the short straw and so I had to learn how to sell.”
That led to running the business side of the enterprise. He no longer does engineering work.
“My love has transferred. I enjoyed building machines. Now I enjoy building organizations,” he says. “The single biggest challenge is learning fast enough to continue to drive a growing organization.”
That process includes a recent restructuring, which trimmed RTE’s staff to some 50 employees from 60 at the end of 1997. Ruppenthal describes the move as a temporary readjustment after rapid growth.
RTE’s engineering work extends from early-stage development through retirement of software. Its SystemCare division provides support services throughout the process such as system administration, help-desk support, software-configuration managing and testing.
“Our process expertise is the overriding thing that we do and why customers come here,” he says.
RTE works primarily with companies whose sales start at $100 million. Key clients include Johnson & Johnson, Kodak and Xerox Corp.
The bulk of RTE’s work takes place in Western New York, with a growing base in Boston and a small amount in Europe.
As the software industry consolidates, Ruppenthal receives monthly inquiries from firms interested in buying RTE. He expects RTE to remain independent and eventually to conduct an initial public offering, though he declines to discuss going public because he thinks the move is years away.
RTE sales manager Timothy Murphy says Ruppenthal does not want the firm’s success to be dependent on him.
“He has a strong sense of having a company not built around him,” Murphy says. “He wants to build a company that will survive him. He is thinking beyond the present.”
Janicki says Ruppenthal and RTE give staffers the freedom and responsibility over their projects to be creative. That style dates to the launch of RTE 17 years ago.
“I very much depend on the expertise of (the management team),” Ruppenthal says. “I don’t spend a lot of time second-guessing what decision they make.”
His workday begins at 7 a.m. and stretches until 6 p.m. His primary duties involve conferring with salespeople, reviewing and coordinating proposals, meeting with customers and administrative tasks.
Murphy describes Ruppenthal’s chief role as mentoring or coaching.
“He’s very focused on making the people who work here independent,” Murphy says. “I’ve learned more from Bob than anyplace else I have worked.”
Ruppenthal recognizes that employees have a life outside of RTE, Murphy adds.
“He understands that family is more important than work,” Murphy says. “You absolutely have to go to your daughter’s soccer game.”
Ruppenthal also values having fun at work. Last summer’s RTE Olympics featured a water-balloon toss, a paper-airplane competition and other events.
“My goal at RTE is to create an environment where we can make money, have fun and work with people we trust,” he says. “And two out of three is not good enough.
“I have a high regard (for) every individual,” he adds. “I tell (them), you and I are the architects who decide on our work environment.”
Ruppenthal’s strength as an engineer was an ability to look beyond the parts to the system itself, Janicki says.
“He always was able to look at the broader picture,” his partner says.

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