Christine Whitman is not easily intimidated. She looks change in the eye and shapes it into possibilities.
Whitman, 61, chairman, CEO and president of Complemar Partners Inc., has reinvented her career more than once. She started as a research assistant in the biochemistry department at the University of Rochester before she joined CVC Inc. in the marketing department and later became involved in the buyout of the thin-film process equipment firm.
At the helm of CVC, Whitman took the company public and merged it with Veeco Instruments Inc. in 2000. Since then, she has co-founded the Greater Rochester Enterprise Inc., established herself as a tough and astute angel investor through CSW Equity Partners I-V LLC and helped launch Rochester Angel Network Inc.
Whitman does not believe her career moves make her unique.
"That is the profile of a serial entrepreneur, and if you look in the Silicon Valley area or if you look in Austin, you will see that those people who have had great success in business, who are entrepreneurial, love it," she says. "So it’s not really a job as much as it is a passion about growing businesses. And so you grow one business, you figure out how to do it well and you want to do it again."
Currently, Whitman is growing Complemar, a supplier of outsourced business services, where she is majority owner. The firm, which now has four locations-on Lee Road in Rochester and in Buffalo; Sparks, Nev.; and Harrisburg, Pa.-has seen revenue this year increase 35 percent over 2012. The company added 51 customers, bringing the total to 200.
Complemar employs roughly 100 people, and perhaps 20 of them came on board this year. Over the next 12 months, the company expects to increase total employment by 10 to 15 percent. Revenue is projected to increase 30 percent in that period.
The company is looking beyond the United States to markets in Europe, India and China. Acquisitions also lie in Complemar’s future.
"Our goal is one acquisition a year. … When the economy was so bad and we were focusing on investing in infrastructure, we put a little bit of hiatus on acquisitions," Whitman says. "My goal is that we will grow 50 percent by acquisition and 50 percent organically."
Whitman came across Complemar when the business was looking for an investment from CSW Equity Partners, a group of investors she brought together in 2002, after she left Veeco.
"They came to us, and it took a while," she recalls. "We met them two times, and the second time we decided to move forward and make the investment and provided board guidance initially, and the opportunity was so great that we decided we would jump in more actively."
Complemar serves as a third-party logistics solutions provider, offering a host of services including e-commerce software, printing, direct mail, packaging and order fulfillment. It aims to help its customers cut costs, lower inventory and improve performance.
"I liked the concept," Whitman says. "I could see the e-commerce market exploding. Complemar has built a very robust order management platform with user interfaces for both (business-to-business) and (business-to-consumer) customers and the vision of end-to-end solutions.
"So somebody can come to us and offload that whole part of the process; so we can create a website for them, we can create a shopping cart for them, we can create the user interface, (and) they have real-time access to all these transactions, what’s happening, tracking information. And then we handle the returns for them, if they need to have their products returned."
With Complemar handling those processes for customers, Whitman says, those businesses can focus on growing.
"I like that model because it helps other companies grow faster also," she says. "It’s really in keeping with my mission to help companies grow in this region. So this provides the backroom infrastructure so other companies can focus on what I think they need to focus on first, which is sales and product development."
The company has overhauled itself since Whitman and other investors in CSW Equity Partners acquired it in 2004. Complemar consolidated local operations at 500 Lee Road and acquired two businesses in Buffalo and Nevada. Most importantly, it moved toward automation.
"Everything was manual; there was no automation in the company," Whitman says of the period when she first became involved. "There were many mom-and-pop fulfillment companies around the country, and it was pick, pack and ship and everything was on a little checklist. … Believe it or not, they weren’t using barcode scanners, things like that.
"First thing we did was invest in as much technology as we could possibly put in place to make the operation more efficient. And that was a huge culture change for the company."
While it took some time to get employees and processes up to speed, Whitman says the company still is doing more. Revenue growth indicates the effort was worth it.
"We are really excited about where it is today," she says. "We’ve got a really rock-solid, robust solution for clients, and they love it."
Jason Aymerich, president of software and print solutions at Complemar, who has been instrumental in bolstering the company’s customer list, says tying the firm’s services together has been important. One of the goals for the sales team at Complemar is to urge customers to take advantage of all the services the firm offers.
"We call it the Complemar continuum," says Aymerich, who joined Complemar from Diamond Packaging. "We’ve done a good job garnering new customers by offering a service they’re most likely to consume-get in the door with print (for example) and then sell packaging, fulfillment or whatever else."
He expects the health care industry, particularly the clinical trials market, to be increasingly important to sales. Complemar can help with the assembly of diagnostic specimen kits, also called collection kits, and is working with major pharmaceutical companies.
The wine and spirits market is another growth engine. Aymerich would like to cultivate customers in the entertainment sector as well.
Complemar also sells a product called CiderSure, which employs a technology developed by one of Whitman’s former co-workers at CVC. It uses ultraviolet light to pasteurize and purify apple cider. The company has 300 units in the field and hopes to expand its use to producing other juices.
Though Complemar is more proficient than it was, Whitman says more automation is on the way.
"We will be putting in robotics. We don’t have robotics now, but we intend to take a look at how to optimize the process flow of some of our lines so that we can continuously be faster, cheaper, better. That’s what I tell everybody," she says.
Carl Sassano, director at Complemar and one of the investors in CSW Equity Partners, says automation will set Complemar apart from competition.
"Packaging fulfillment is not a unique business," Sassano says. "What’s going to make, or what is making, Complemar different is its ability to automate and minimize errors and make sure the customer service that they provide is top-notch.
"I mean, that’s what’s going to differentiate them from anybody in Rochester who wants to open a warehouse and say, ‘Hey, we do packaging.’ Anybody can do that, but to be on time, to be consistent, to be able to track what’s in inventory, to be able to report it to the customer, to not make an error? That’s important."
Complemar is one of Whitman’s investments. She, Sassano and other private investors are involved in other firms such as VoicePort LLC, OneStream Networks LLC and Soleo Communications Inc.
A former Bausch & Lomb executive, Sassano has ties to Whitman that go back some 16 years, to when he joined the board of Rochester Institute of Technology.
"That’s when we first really got to know each other, and I thought pretty highly of her when she was on the board," Sassano says. "We were on a couple of committees together and of course we were in board meetings together, but a real friendship and partnership developed in 2000-2001."
Whitman had just left Veeco, and Sassano had ended his tenure at Bausch & Lomb.
"We were both gone from the respective companies within probably four or five months of each other," Sassano says. "We met up one day in an airport and talked about how we wanted to stay in Rochester and wanted to get interested in the entrepreneurial side of Rochester and small businesses and why didn’t we form an investment partnership and see if we could strike out and help some small companies grow."
That conversation laid the framework for CSW Equity Partners, where Whitman is managing partner. The group has roughly 10 investors, mainly in New York State, and has invested in some 10 businesses, most of which are local.
"Our model is that we make tranches of investment with milestones, and we like to see the entrepreneur achieve those milestones before we move forward to the next level. And we serve on the board and provide advice," Whitman says.
"One of us serves as the chairman of the board usually to set an agenda to do what I call setting a business rhythm so that you take an entrepreneur who’s built a technology, who has a great idea but to move it from innovation to entrepreneurship and a company you then have to start getting into more of a business rhythm with monthly goals and objectives in terms of sales and hitting certain growth margin numbers and development programs being done on time."
Companies that make the cut not only have a distinctive product offering but one that can capture market share.
"I look for a technology that is going to, I would say, make a change in the market, and the market has to be big enough," Whitman says. Preferably, she says, the total available market is as much as $1 billion.
"This business or technology would have the chance to be at least 10 percent of the market, so $100 million is kind of my sweet spot. I like to know that the company has the potential to grow to $100 million."
Angel investments, Whitman says, are usually in the early stages, in the $250,000 range. Most angels reserve another $250,000, since entrepreneurs often come back for more.
"And then sometimes you need a third and a fourth, and then you might start to get some partners involved to share the risk," Whitman says. "Usually the angels are up to ($2 million)."
So far, CSW Equity Partners’ investments show promise. Sassano, for one, has no complaints.
"The companies continue to grow each year, so each year the top line is higher, which is great. But more importantly, all three companies have been cash-flow-positive for a number of years," says Sassano, referring to Complemar, OneStream and VoicePort. "To be an investor is one thing, but to be an investor in a company that has growth and you’re watching your investment (grow) instead of continuing to put in is the best of all worlds."
Though Whitman set up CSW Equity Partners, she did not stop there. In 2005 she was instrumental in founding the Rochester Angel Network, a private group of investors focused on investing in seed and early stage companies. So far, RAN documents show, the group has invested a total of $10 million in 18 companies.
"She definitely cares a lot about the community, sees where there’s gaps and a lot of potential and she can make things happen," says James Senall, president of High Tech Rochester Inc. and managing director of RAN. "So she can call her colleagues-other investors, in this case, that are already doing deals-and say, ‘Look, we need to bring this in together; we need to get this angel organization off the ground.’"
Having a network is helpful for angel investors like Whitman, enabling them to participate in more investments.
"One of the challenges angels have is that you might have a portfolio that is pretty full, so you can only handle so many active investments where you’re keeping an eye on or you’re helping out with. … Until you have a couple liquidity events, you really don’t have any bandwidth to do any additional investing," she says. "So the beauty of having a sidecar fund is that you can be a passive investor with your friends who are being more active and they are doing the vetting of the deals. I thought that was a key element of our angel network."
With the angel network up and running and GRE encouraging companies to come to the region, Whitman is busy trying to establish a business accelerator cooperative. She was appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council and is co-chairwoman of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Work Group.
The business accelerator is proposed as a hub-and-node cooperative involving all the incubators in the region, with the hub being a 100,000-square-foot site on Alex-ander Street. Entrepreneurs could use the hub as a one-stop shop to find resources, whether they need funding or an incubator. Whitman expects construction of the building to start this year.
"We would move the HTR building. That would be used as regular rental space and sold off to a developer, and we would move downtown and move the incubators," she says.
Other aspects of the plan include video conferencing and talks with experts that will be broadcast and connect the nine counties.
"This is the last piece of GRE that needs to be just tightened down," Whitman says. "You’ve got the outreach for businesses, you’ve got retention—the county and the city are doing the retention part-and then we have the business accelerator cooperative, which will take and make available all the resources of the nine counties to help move our entrepreneurs through the various ecosystems faster."
To those who know Whitman well, her endeavors are not surprising. Once she puts her mind to something, it gets done.
"She’s not afraid to ask for whatever it is she’s asking for. … Once she’s passionate about something, she doesn’t really back down; she’ll find alternate ways to do it," says Senall, who is working with Whitman on the business accelerator.
Sassano calls Whitman one of the smartest CEOs he has ever worked with.
"She has an intuitive financial sense, and yet she’s very smart about the people and the organization and how to bring them along, make them a part of what’s going on. But she can be tough. She can be very direct about what needs to be done-but done the right way," he says.
At Complemar, Aymerich says, Whitman is a tough but fair leader and often plays the role of mentor.
"At first I was a little intimidated just because of everything she’s accomplished," he says. "I was kind of worried or nervous that I would make a mistake and get fired, but it’s really been collaborative, almost an educational-type environment. … I wish I would have come sooner."
Whitman has changed over the years, she says, noting she has learned to trust her team. Complemar has assembled a dream team, she says.
"When I was younger I was way too much into the details, micromanaging," she says with a smile. "I work very hard at delegating and letting people come up with their own solutions of how to get the work done, and I have to remember that my way is not the only way. So I remind myself that all the time, and it works out great because I have great people working with me and they, it turns out, have much better ways of getting it done most of the time."
Whitman’s grit and energy are palpable, not only in person but in her actions and the number of causes she is involved with. Multiple non-profits such as the Catholic Family Center and George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film have benefited from her savvy.
"Work and play are all the same to me," Whitman says. "So I guess I play."
Title: Chairman, CEO and president, Complemar Partners Inc.
Education: B.A., College of Arts and Sciences, Syracuse University, 1973
Family: Husband, Steve; daughter, Kim, 32, and son, Zachary, 26
Key accolades: Rochester Institute of Technology’s Herbert W. Vanden Brul Entrepreneurial Award, 2000; Center for Governmental Research Eastman Legacy Award, 2003; Nathaniel Rochester Society Award, 2004; RIT Volunteer of the Year Award, 2011; Catholic Family Center Award, 2012
Cause close to her heart: Educating young people in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics
Quote: "It’s not that I need to run a company. I like to grow businesses…. I don’t have to be running the company; I can be part of it. But as it turns out, it’s hard to run companies, and oftentimes I am the last person standing."
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