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Taking a lifelong journey to improvement

A serial entrepreneur from the age of 12, CEO Ralph Dandrea was used to doing things himself-and doing them his way. He is the first to admit that identifying with people’s feelings was not his strong suit. Developing explicit processes for optimizing productivity, however, was.

Dandrea evolved, developing the people skills, while running his company ITX Corp.-and, his wife adds, becoming a father of three.

Today, managing his 155 employees and relating to them is something Dandrea enjoys. When asked if that was always the case, he says, "God, no!"

"My nickname in a previous job was Little Napoleon," he says.

Dandrea, 42, was born with a passion for learning that led to two graduate degrees and an almost obsessive tendency toward process improvement. At a submarine shop he once co-owned after college, for example, he developed a 100-page manual on sandwich making.

"I would train people to terrible lengths on that process," Dandrea says. "There are some remnants of that here. I hope I’ve tempered that a little at ITX."

With information technology customers around the world and in 36 states and with services ranging from Web site and software development to network design, Dandrea has had ample opportunity for self-improvement.

His wife, Colleen, says he thrives on it. The common denominator among his varied interests is betterment.

Dandrea’s exceedingly high standards have sometimes been a disadvantage. He used to judge people too harshly, he says. He changed that by taking a more critical look at himself and by observing the success people had had doing things their own way.

His unswerving determination-and the enjoyment he derives from making progress in whatever he does-have grown ITX, despite fluctuations in the market. For IT those fluctuations were never more dramatic than when the IT bubble burst three years after ITX was founded.

Until that time, he jokes, the mere ability to spell "IT" was enough to get a job in the field.

The Internet was new enough then so that a curriculum for it did not exist. The partners at ITX come from wildly divergent fields-one from biogenetics, another from psychology. Dandrea comes from a background in law, finance and economics. But he says computers and electronics came naturally for him.

Diversity creates a richness that Dandrea would never trade. It also has helped the company stay its course by finding new ways to improve the functions, attitudes and perceptions beneath day-to-day operations.

ITX was able to avoid a major downtown in this recession. For the first nine months of 2009, the firm had a 2 percent dip in sales. The decrease came after consistent growth in recent years: 54 percent in 2008, 30 percent in 2007 and 30 percent in 2006.

Growth path
The company has grown partly by acquisitions, the most recent of which was made last month when the firm purchased the Web development half of LogicalSolutions.net Inc. That added 25 employees to ITX and boosted annual revenue to nearly $10 million.

Recessions do not scare Dandrea. Instead they inspire introspection and more opportunities for process improvement. But the biggest impetus for improvement, in Dandrea’s mind, was not a recession or personal tragedy, as it is for some business owners. His motivation has come from personal observation.

"I had an overabundance of confidence," he says. "I’ve had my failures. Fortunately, I haven’t had any spectacular catastrophes in my life, but I have been humbled. Sometimes people mistake my confidence for arrogance, and that’s because I don’t have the empathy.

"When I’m projecting confidence but I’m not empathetic to the person across the table, they see me as being kind of arrogant. And I was blind to that. I started to realize (I needed) to create a better interaction with people-but I didn’t realize it all at once."

Improving only gradually is not a problem for Dandrea. It is the journey, he says, not just the destination.

"At one point, I looked in the rearview of my life and kind of noticed there was a lot of wreckage back there. I started to question what was happening. I didn’t have workability in my life. I didn’t have the level of integrity I had convinced myself I had," he says.

"When you dig deep and you take responsibility, then it gives you so much more power over what’s going on around you. So my No. 1 job at ITX is about helping people understand our culture and how powerful they are as individuals."

April Butler was one of Dandrea’s first employees. She came to work as a receptionist after being a temporary worker at the University of Rochester, one of Dandrea’s first clients.

Integrity is a big word at ITX, and it applies to everything, she says.

Integrity is not about honesty in the ITX culture. It is about accountability, taking the blame and defensiveness out of business and making it about responsibility and empowerment.

That sentiment is a Ralphism-one of many quotes and terms that appear every day at the entrance to ITX.

"It may not be our fault, but it’s still our problem" is one of Dandrea’s favorites.

Telling someone something once does not change that person’s perspective, Dandrea says.

"It doesn’t mean anything. I have to say it like a thousand times, and when my employees start making fun of me or mimicking me-I do hear them mimicking me to each other-when I hear that, I know they got it," he says. "Ralphisms are just one more way to administer steady doses of it."

Dandrea has so many regularly used axioms that he assigns them shortcuts on his computer.

His goal is to make his employees their own decision makers. To get them to accept accountability, you have to start small, and more than anything you have to be persistent, he says.

Dandrea is nothing if not persistent-and that characteristic emerged with his early interest in electronics.

An early start
Entrepreneurship ran in Dandrea’s family. His grandfather and later his father owned an electrical supply business. As a youngster rummaging through the crawl space of his house in Gates, Dandrea happened on his father’s college textbooks. They were all he needed to learn how to build circuit boards.

That led to his first business: building remote controls for televisions that did not have them. He developed different models for different customers and installed them. That was at age 12.

Two years later he started another business with a computer program he had developed to track inventory for video stores. He was making $20 an hour.

That venture had started with a computer program his father had bought for the supply business. Dandrea started playing computer games on it, and before long he had designed his own computer game.

"I thought, ‘I could make money with this,’" he remembers. "At the time, they had corner video stores, and I would go to the video stores, do their inventory on the system and alphabetize it, even by category and things like that. So that’s where I was making money using computers."

Later, when his father’s computer system failed, Dandrea took a look and designed his accounting system software.

"So he was running a multimillion-dollar business on this software that I wrote. There were times when I would be in school, and they’d bring a note in from the office to my class, and there’d be a car waiting for me instead of taking the bus, so I could go to the office and fix something," Dandrea recalls.

Getting into systems and processes so early was a blessing and a curse, he says. It focused his thinking almost to a fault.

"There’s an obsessive streak in my family; I had to learn to deal with that in my personality. I can be obsessive, and my wife makes fun of me for it sometimes," Dandrea says.

"Properly channeled, it works great. Channel it on booze, gambling and running around, and it’s not so great," he jokes.

For the last 12 years, the resident of Victor, Ontario County, has channeled it into ITX, his family and myriad other interests, from coin collecting and photography to travel and music.

He is a voracious learner, says friend and former client Chris Gamble. Gamble participates in the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, an international organization with a Western New York chapter of approximately 35 members.

Gamble, who is managing partner at Kroner, Gamble & Co. CPA C.P., says the organization is not for networking but for support. Neighbors and friends, he says, do not necessarily understand the pressures of running a business. For that, members rely on each other in an environment that is strictly confidential.

It is an almost sacred part of Dandrea’s life, and Gamble says he understands why. Dandrea likes teaching and especially learning best practices, and he does that now more than ever at ITX.

ITX evolved from an IT staffing firm, to a project firm, to an IT company that works in partnership with clients. Today it works primarily with companies that do not have their own tech departments.

The small to midsize companies ITX mainly serves are smaller than ITX. In the beginning, it was the opposite. As ITX grew, so did Dandrea’s knowledge base, from which he now draws to help his clients grow.

"He’s able to help people with their business because of all the experience he had growing his business," Gamble said.

While the function of EO is much broader than that, Gamble says, Dandrea uses the organization as another outlet to use that information as well as expand it.

"Ralph is very intelligent. He says there are basically two types of people: simplifiers and complicators, and you can usually tell which one someone is as soon as they start talking," Gamble says. "Ralph can get as complicated as you want, but underneath he is a simplifier."

Personal growth
Over the last dozen years at ITX, Dandrea’s personal evolution has not involved only relationships and better business processes. It includes art and the role of creativity.

His wife says Dandrea loves photography, film and music. He listens to everything from Italian rap to Middle Eastern music.

"The world isn’t all about finance and reducing things to repeatable techniques. The real value is created in art, when you’re doing something for the first time-creating something new. And science is great, but it’s even better when it enables creativity," Dandrea says.

"I was much more focused on the science and technical aspects of the business early on, and I think I focus much more of my day now talking to people about what creates workability, what creates productivity, how we create value for customers."

Business is not about being right or wrong, good or bad, but being accountable for when things do not go as planned, he says. It is as simple-and as difficult-as that.

People are inclined to point fingers and duck responsibility, Dandrea says. It is his mission to change that human tendency, and it started with himself. He would find himself dissatisfied with his own outlook, find a new approach through a realization and be amazed by it. His wife, he says, has always been understanding and supportive of that process.

"If I’m missing a perspective, she adds to it," he says.

The changes he tries to make in himself and at work extend beyond the workplace to the way people conduct their lives. His employees have told him that.

Colleen says she gives her husband honest feedback. When she first got to know him as an employee at ITX herself, he did not get a lot of that, she says.

"He was great with providing strategy, but he wasn’t a cheerleader," she says.

People-especially salespeople-need that, she says.

He listens to feedback now more than ever, Colleen says, and he reinforces it by reading as many management books as he can. He can easily read a dozen books a week, she says.

Dandrea says he became a speed reader in law school-where he studied without intending to become a lawyer.

"I learned two things in law school: I learned how to read 1,500 pages of case material in a night and be prepared to argue it the next morning, and I learned how to win every argument or at least tie. (It’s important) to be passionate about the debate, to be involved in the discussion, because something really good comes out of it," he says.

That is the foundation of legal theory, he says.

"You take people, even if they don’t believe in the positions they’re defending; if they do a great job of arguing both sides, the truth generally emerges. I’m very passionate about whatever positions I take, but I’ve got to be open that it may not be the right one. And I didn’t learn that right away."

Ralph Dandrea
Title: CEO, ITX Corp.
Age: 42
Education: B.A. in finance and economics, Rochester Institute of Technology, 1989; J.D., SUNY Buffalo Law School, 1995; MBA, SUNY Buffalo, 1997
Home: Victor
Family: Wife Colleen; daughters Natalia, 3, and twins Gianna and Isabella, 5
Hobbies: Travel, photography, listening to music, learning new languages, reading, coin collecting, science experiments with his kids
Quote: "When you dig deep and you take responsibility, then it gives you so much more power over what’s going on around you."

1/15/10 (c) 2010 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.

 

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