It wasn't that long ago that Jim Kunevicius, a mere 24-year-old
technology entrepreneur, combined his Charlotte-grown company Vicious Systems with Indianapolis-based Allegiant Technology Group as part of a $65 million venture capital deal with Chicago-based Frontenac Company. The resulting Seurat Company continues to grow rapidly in the multi-billion dollar enterprise relationship management (ERM) market.
Although technically headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., Seurat has a distinct identity owing to its roots in Charlotte. Kunevicius started Vicious Systems in 1996, and the company not only gained early momentum but also enjoyed steady growth. Kunevicius says that while other startups were preoccupied with the Internet, his focus was squarely on the customer.
More than a question of semantics, his attention to the way corporations manage relationships with their customers, partners, suppliers and employees has played a crucial role in defining the interactive culture and processes at Seurat. Kunevicius founded Vicious Systems, a leading edge developer of Web sites and interactive marketing, while still in college at UNC Charlotte.
Initially working out of his dormitory room, Kunevicius grew his company to 60 people in just 18 months. At the same time he was a two-time SoccerAcademic All American and graduated with Phi Kappa Phi, MagnaCum Laude and Beta Gamma Sigma national honors!
It was just last year that Kunevicius succeeded in obtaining the venture capital backing to merge his company with Allegiant, forming Seurat, expanding service offerings to include integrated marketing, organizational development, interactive solutions and strategy consulting. As Seurat1s chief creative officer, Kunevicius oversees cross-channel design initiatives and works with major national brands on complex design issues, global design strategies, and offline-to-offline brand integration.
It is not surprising that this young entrepreneur has recently received the UNC Charlotte's Young Alumnus Award, given annually to a graduate under 40 who has achieved something significant. Nor is it surprising The Business Journal of Charlotte has recognized him as a Distinguished Member of the Business Community as one of Charlotte's 40 Under 40 award winners.
Nor is it surprising that he is among the finalists in the Carolinas' 2001 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards.
In the beginning...
Back in the dot-com heyday of the 1990s, hotshot soothsayers predicted that all business would be conducted via the Internet. So companies scrambled to establish an Internet presence. It didn't really matter what kind of Web presence, it was just imperative to have one.
Would-be customers clicked onto company Web sites, poring through pages upon pages of information, products or marketing literature, often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what they found. And it was confusing to figure just what information was most pertinent. And if you did indeed find what you were looking for, it was a tricky proposition to find your way back to the exact same Web page the next time. Even worse, it was frustrating to navigate a very user-unfriendly checkout.
Sure the banner ads and catchy logos drove Internet traffic, but what made online customers come back? The Internet put a new wrinkle in the customer relationship equation. Kunevicius couldn1t help but notice this and believed that personalized, face-to-face customer service could be replicated on the World Wide Web.
"Customer Relationship Manage-ment isn't new," he says. "Small companies and corner stores have provided personalized service for years. But it1s tough for a Fortune 1000 company with millions of customers. I figured we could bring about a one-on-one customer relationship on the Internet."
This was the driving principle behind his launch of Vicious Systems to help enterprises manage their customer relationships over the Internet. Vicious Systems offered strategies to reach customers and built the technical infrastructure to store customer preferences and profiles. The results were real-time Web pages and e-mails that were personalized, timely, relevant and anticipated.
"It's easy to put a picture of your CEO and your company's history on a Web site," Kunevicius says. It's more difficult to say, Dear John Doe, we notice that you have $6,000 in your checking account. Would you be interested in opening a savings or brokerage account? Click here to chat with a live service agent to discuss your options." To be able to deliver that message to the right person at the right time requires a high level of sophistication."
That sophistication wasn't lost on big businesses. In a short time, Vicious Systems boasted an impressive client list of Fortune 1000 companies including, First Union, DeWalt and Wachovia. The company consulted with the highest of corporate officers to customize strategies for leveraging the Internet to strengthen customer relationships. Beyond consulting know-how, Vicious Systems also had the technical expertise to execute and deliver these advanced relationship management solutions. Large financial institutions, consumer product manufacturers, retailers, and venture capitalists all took notice.
And the successes didn1t stop there. While many start-ups were going bust in 2000, Vicious Systems skillfully merged with an Indianapolis firm. The merged company, renamed Seurat, secured $65 million in financing from a private equity group in Chicago. It was one of the largest private equity deals in Charlotte history and the largest Charlotte-based placement in the year 2000. Not bad for the now 24-year old founder and president.
Heading for a merger...
It wasn't a get-rich-quick exit strategy. Kunevicius explains, "We had other companies offer to purchase Vicious Systems. But we were only interested in a strategic offer which would help us achieve our vision faster and with less risk. We wanted to enter new markets and augment our existing capabilities."
Vicious Systems had focused primarily on interactive customer relationship management through strategic online marketing, personalization and Web design. But as the company evolved, it became clear to management that effective customer relationship management needed to span multiple channels-not just the Internet.
"Large businesses are putting an enormous amount of resources into growing customer relationships on the Internet," says Kunevicius, "but those same relationships are lost at the call center or the retail branch.Technical systems need to be integrated and a relationship strategy is required to service customers consistently across the enterprise. Companies need to understand the interdependencies between their customers, employees, partners and suppliers."
Vicious Systems began hiring talent in telephony, sales force automation and other proficiencies for a more comprehensive offering. Before long, the company boasted an impressive staff of 60 technicians, Fortune 500 executives and strategy consultants. Management had aspirations of growing nationwide. Then Frontenac came calling.
Frontenac Company is a Chicago-based private equity firm. Frontenac invests capital in services companies that are involved in building the networked economy, focusing on telecommunications, infrastructure services and business services.
Frontenac engineered the merger between Vicious Systems and Allegiant Technology. Allegiant specialized in telephony customer relationships. They advanced new strategies to gain customer information and improve service at call centers, and retrained call center staffs.
The combined company, Seurat, is a pioneer in the field of "Relationship Capital" an approach that captures and maximizes the combined value an organization's critical business relationships with customers, employees, suppliers and partners to create market value. Seurat helps complex enterprises manage all of its relationships both internally and externally.
According to Kunevicius, competition is sparse and largely fragmented. "Big consulting companies and smaller niche technologies have some capabilities in this space," he says. "But enterprise-wide relationship management requires an integrated cross-section of skills and experience that is rare in today's marketplace."
Seurat has grown rapidly to more than 200 employees in six office locations including Charlotte, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis and Tampa. Employees span four practice areas: strategy, interactive solutions, integrated marketing and organizational development. Target industries are financial services; information, communications, and entertainment; consumer and industrial products; electronics, telecommunications, and computing and energy. Seurat is owned and operated as a partnership. Kunevicius is both a director and chief creative officer of the company.
True to his beginnings...
Kunevicius' path to Seurat actually began long before Vicious Systems' founding in 1996. This Cleveland, Ohio native seemed destined for entrepreneurship. After all, it was a family tradition. Both Kunevicius' father and grandfather are serial entrepreneurs, and he witnessed the ins and outs of running a business up close.
"I come from an entrepreneurial family," he says. "I was exposed to start-ups, buy-outs and management at a very young age."
But at the time, Kunevicius was far more interested in soccer than in business. The athletic teen received a full four-year soccer scholarship to UNC Charlotte. He arrived in the Queen City in the fall of 1994.
Kunevicius played sweeper at UNC Charlotte and was a three-time captain of the soccer team. The two-time Soccer Academic All American majored in management information systems and studied computer science. His prowess on the athletic field matched his academic aptitude.
During his sophomore year, Kunevicius built Web sites for his father1s business clients back in Ohio. He then interned with several Charlotte companies as an Internet coordinator. Kunevicius frequently demonstrated excellence for Internet development, often bringing his real-world solutions back into the classroom for credit. And even he admits, his dorm room business was far more attractive to him than a campus job.
"I had been doing a lot of development [Internet] on my own and had a passion for it."
Kunevicius was comfortable working with senior managers to build e-commerce sites. By the time he graduated magna cum laude from UNC Charlotte in 1998, Kunevicius had offers from Microsoft and Sun. Like his father and grandfather, he turned down the lucrative offers and decided to strike out on his own with Vicious Systems. The young graduate didn1t have any venture money, nor did he have a sales force. But he already had a clientele that was growing.
"I already had a client base of a dozen companies before I decided to go for it," he remembers. By taking out just enough money to survive, we were able to move forward."
Amongst his peers and professors, Kunevicius had created quite a name for himself as a project leader. When he announced his start-up intentions to his classmates, a committed few were eager to join.
Although Kunevicius carefully operated the fledgling company in the black, it wasn1t easy. A handful of employees worked out of the bonus room above the garage in his house near UNC Charlotte. "Although we didn1t have much time or money," he says, "we were living the dream and having fun."
The company eventually moved into a tiny office on West Morehead furnished almost exclusively through thrift shops and second-hand furniture stores. Employees installed old doors and windows, and added a new coat of paint to brighten the interior.
"It was tough," Kunevicius admits. "But it wasn1t long ‹ they call it the tipping point. You1re never exactly sure what changed, but something happened and you never look back."
Kunevicius believes the tipping point was when the company landed American Management Systems, a Fairfax, Va.-based consulting firm, as one of its largest clients. American Management Systems had a portfolio of clients requiring the advanced Web design and marketing capabilities that Vicious Systems could offer. But the bevy of clients wasn1t all that American Management Systems brought to the table. Through the company, Kunevicius met Jerry Tylman, the man who would become his partner.
Jerry Tylman was a vice president at American Management Systems where he delivered over $15 million in interactive services business. As partner at Vicious Systems, he oversaw corporate organization, business strategy and development, recruitment, product-partner relationship management, and product delivery. Though Vicious Systems shunned management titles, Tylman and Kunevicius operated as CEO and resident, respectively.
The duo propelled the company to grow the business more than 100 percent annually. As management expanded into other enterprise relationship channels, Vicious Systems was repositioned in the post dot-com market.
Frontenac Partners took notice of the young company in March 2000 and inked a deal that May. Seurat was off and running with Kunevicius and Tylman as directors of the combined company.
In March of this year, Seurat completed the renovation of 25,000-square-foot historic Grinnell Water Works building on West Morehead.The facilities are a far cry from Vicious System1s humble beginnings in a rented bonus room.
In addition to his business ventures, Kunevicius finds time for a number of boards: UNC Charlotte Alliance Board of Advisors, IT Advisory Council, The Light Factory Board of Advisors, Charlotte BISOM Advisory Council, UNC Charlotte Board of Visitors and UNC Charlotte Business School Board of Advisors. He can also be found playing and coaching youth soccer on the weekends.
As the offspring of serial entrepreneurs, Jim Kunevicius hasn't ruled out another venture in his future. But for now, he's fulfilled by his work and happy to stay put.
"I love what I do," he says. "Seurat has an awesome opportunity to be a powerhouse in the industry. That's my idea of fun."