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Company need reviving? He’s the go-to guy

Richard Kaplan, president and CEO of Torvec Inc., always knew he would be the chief executive of multiple companies.

"My goal was to go into business as far back as I can remember; it always excited me. I’m a true believer that you shouldn’t limit yourself. Business is pretty much the same, no matter what industry," he says.

Growing up in the Park Avenue neighborhood, Kaplan was interested in business at a young age. His grandfather founded Max Pies Furniture, and his father had a floor-covering business in Rochester. Kaplan’s involvement with Max Pies began as a carpet installer working summers. He accepted the title of president and CEO after his father retired.

Kaplan carefully monitored the Northeast market during his time at Max Pies in the 1980s, and he realized that selling his business while it was doing well was a smart move. With one door closing, he opened another: Maxim Group Inc. was a management support and buying group for the carpet industry. It also comprised his other business ventures, including Resnick Media Association, Blanton Communications, WorkSmart International and many more.

"I’ve actually started 10 companies, and four of them did not work. This is a pretty good record, actually, because usually one out of 10 does work. I’ve been lucky," Kaplan says.

His metier is a knowledge of business that helps companies take innovative technologies and apply them to products and services. Many companies are missing an established product and a focused vision, he says; beyond that, no one should be afraid to fail.

"I always worried I would fail, and I have failed many times. Failure is a stepping stone to success; it’s not the opposite of success. ‘Stop trying’ is the opposite of success. You have to create an environment in your company where no one is afraid to fail," Kaplan says.

Perhaps one of the most successful ventures Kaplan has led has been Pictometry International Corp., an aerial imaging technology company. As president and CEO from 2000 to 2010, Kaplan helped Pictometry reach revenues of $10 million in 2004.

Kaplan had no sooner retired from Pictometry in 2010 than he was approached by Torvec, a designer of vehicle differentials and hydraulic pump technology.

"I got a call from Torvec, and they told me that they’ve been in business since 1996, gone through $50 million, never made a sale; they had no product and two months of cash left. They wanted me to come on as CEO. It was an interesting offer," Kaplan says.

One of his first tasks was to narrow Torvec’s focus. A $6.5 million investment last year from a group led by Paychex Inc. founder Thomas Golisano has enabled the firm to design, build prototypes and test the products it plans to market. The investment will carry the company through the next several years.

Kaplan’s business ventures have varied from real estate to telecommunications, but lack of industry knowledge has never slowed him down.

"When I went to Pictometry, I couldn’t even turn on a computer," he says. "(Staff) went to Ruby Gordon Furniture and got one of those cardboard computers and pasted a Pictometry picture on the screen. I now can turn on a computer and use it a little bit, but I’m very mechanically unsophisticated."

Kaplan, 66, attributes much of his success to luck. But he also recognizes that a well-established team of intelligent individuals can make all the difference.

"You have to know your weaknesses," he says. "You have to surround yourself with people smarter than you-and that can be very intimidating for people, but it’s a necessity. If you can’t do it, then you shouldn’t be a CEO."

The responsibility of a CEO is not limited to leading a company. Kaplan believes that community involvement and sharing success are paramount. He is a board member for numerous organizations, including the University of Rochester Medical Center, Camp Good Days and Special Times, the George Eastman House, the Better Business Bureau and the Center for Governmental Research.

Among his community citations are the American Cancer Society’s Hope Award, the Fair Business Council Outstanding Service Award and the Camp Good Days Ring of Honor Award.

"I’d like to be known as someone that’s helped people and enriched their lives in some way. I want to make the world a little better place," Kaplan says.

9/21/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected].

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