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January 2002
Fast Track
By Lynda A. Stadler

     Jerry Wingate, president of Solid Computer Decisions, Inc. (SCD), spent five years toting computers around in the back of his old Chevy Suburban providing on-site desktop computer training programs and Microsoft certification classes for various clients. In 1999, he realized things were changing in the industry and he made his move. Instead of falling prey to Y2K, Wingate discovered a silver lining that has accelerated his company into one of the fastest-growing technology training and services companies in the country.

     “After so many companies had to change their computer systems to accommodate Y2K it became apparent that they didn’t have people certified and experienced to deal with the new training, hardware, and software programs,” explains Wingate.

     His new plan included recruiting people to invest in SCD’s six-month certification training courses and then hire them to serve as trainers, technicians, network engineers and web designers for SCD. Although training still represents about 60 percent of the business, the company expanded its service line to include all the technology support a company would need, from installation and networking, to training and supporting users, to servicing the equipment. He also decided that it paid to be in more than just one location.

     Mark Hudson, a management consultant and efficiency expert, joined SCD as executive vice president in the spring of 2000. Intrigued with Wingate’s vision, Hudson eagerly agreed to develop a blueprint to help him achieve his goals.

     “Jerry described to me his vision for his business model and how he aggressively wanted to enhance the company by expanding service lines and locations,” recalls Hudson. “The rate of growth he described was a bit unorthodox and I was taken back a bit at first. But when I thought about it, I knew that although it would take a lot of hard work, if we did it right it could be done.”

     His unconventional strategy, however, is what Wingate says has saved his business from the fate of many other IT companies. “The biggest challenge for many companies in this industry is that they put all their eggs in one basket, investing energy in only one product or service line. We don’t do that. We have a variety of services and one might get us in the door, but then we build a trust that enables us to help the client in other ways.”

     SCD’s newly formed Help Desk division is one example of how clients benefit from its resources. “Think about the average Help Desk operation that many businesses run,” observes Wingate. “Many of the people working there are just not qualified so they usually aren’t much help at all. That’s where we come in. We can have people on a company’s site, or work from our own location. We pay to train our people, so the client doesn’t have to,” he explains.

     SCD’s rapid-fire expansion plan is what Wingate says will help him win more national business accounts. “Most companies want one source to train all their people nationwide,” he explains. “They want one guy to be accountable, and that would be me. We’re positioning ourselves to be in every major city so we can be everywhere our clients need us.”

     In the past 12 months alone, SCD has opened 26 new locations. It plans to open another 36 locations by the end of 2002. Eventually, they’ll have three in every state, says Wingate. Additionally, the company partners with 19 universities and colleges to provide computer training to students from centralized facilities. And next year, SCD will begin operations in Bogotá, South America.

     Why the sudden expansion? Why not, says Hudson. “The opportunities are there,” he says. “In order to grow and brand your business you have to develop the business in many directions. We want to share what we have with as many cities and people and corporations as possible and we have the conviction and confidence that we can do it.”

     Wingate expects this new expansion plan to result in $50 million in sales next year, up from $18 million this year and $3.25 million in 2000. While growth has come fast and furious, Wingate says it has been completely self-financed. “We started with our own money and everything we make goes back into the business,” he asserts. This approach works for SCD because they adhere to what Hudson describes as “specific management operations systems that keep the focus on the bottom line and on how the company can be as efficient as possible with the least amount of costs.”

     “You have to know what drives your bottom line and be proactive about becoming more efficient and learning the best ways to utilize resources to increase productivity,” he says. “I believe in managing by the numbers, looking at the details every day and having tools to provide the information you need to evaluate opportunities for improvement.”


Growing a Company

     Jerry Wingate is growing his business with the skill, precision and high energy of a military operation. As a former Army Air Cavalry Captain, he’s accustomed to detailed planning and precise execution, yet can also change directions on a dime. He surrounds himself with competent people who he trusts to get the job done to his high standards, yet he gives them the autonomy to manage themselves and achieve their full potential.

     “We have six month business plans down in writing, we have everything planned to the Nth degree,” says Wingate. “Yet we seize opportunities when they present themselves. If an unexpected opportunity comes along, such as a location we found in Kansas City recently, we can move within 60 days and be there. If something doesn’t work out as planned, we pull out and move resources in another direction.”

     Wingate’s hyperkinetic personality makes him the perfect cheerleader, giving employees the “vision they need to succeed,” he says. Wingate has no office, he chooses instead to manage by walking throughout the building and visiting new location sites. He “tests the temperature of the water” by making himself accessible and walking among the people.

     Employees who take on the career track at SCD must earn their way, but don’t expect to hear anyone shouting orders or pulling rank in this organization – it’s strictly against the rules. “No one here is considered smarter than another,” Wingate explains. “And nobody will be treated as such. Everyone who joins SCD comes on as an equal and is expected to help each another succeed.”

     Wingate has only four rules that define his non-conventional business environment – have fun, play, make friends, and no politics. As a result, only four people have quit the organization since 1999, and many more are lining up to experience Wingate’s special brand of technology boot camp.

    “Typically the people we attract are average people just like me,” explains Wingate. “People who are disenfranchised with their current positions or careers, or have found themselves without a job and are willing to try something new. Others just haven’t been given the opportunity to do what they love.”

    Uniquely, every employee, regardless of his or her position, is required to get MCSE certified. The policy brings everyone onto a level playing field, says Wingate. And employees like the idea.

     “I think it’s a great thing,” says Trish Gillam, administrative manager of SCD’s Training and Service Center in Jacksonville, Fla. “It makes me feel like an equal with the other employees and I can understand what they’re talking about.” Although Gillam admits she has to work a little harder than others, she feels the training will open doors if she ever wants to do something different within the company. “I think everyone should be trained to their full capacity,” she adds.

     The company pays for students they hire to take the Microsoft exam and then once on board, additional training is available free of charge. “Any employee can walk up to the front desk and sign up for any class he or she wants,” explains Wingate. “We have extra trainers on site at all times just waiting for people to come and ask questions.”

     The enthusiasm and commitment

of SCD employees is not lost to clients. Meg Maloney, partner with the law firm, Hamilton, Gaskins, Fay & Moon, hired SCD to develop her company’s website. “We were a new company and got what we needed done in a matter of days,” she says. “The person that worked with us was very skilled, very professional and had a good sense of humor. I believe SCD has very decisive management and a high quality product to offer.”


Changing People’s Lives

     Wingate’s keen, non-judgmental intuition about people has allowed him to identify and hire people that may not have otherwise had such an opportunity, and for those who provide unparalleled expertise to the operation. For as many employees as you’ll meet at SCD — currently there are 220 — you’ll find as many different backgrounds and stories.

     Tommy Boger used to work for the Department of Transportation painting lines on roads. SCD’s advertisement appealed to him because it gave him the sense that he could take himself to another level. He now runs SCD’s operations department making sure every detail of opening every new location is taken care of.

     “I owe a lot to Jerry for giving me this chance. I’m from a small town and I never went to college, but I’m very good with details and organization. I love what I do here.”

      Cheryl Calebro is a nurse who now serves as SCD’s Call Center Manager. She manages two shifts of staff personnel who handle more than 1,000 calls per week. “When I interviewed with a competitor’s company, I was told — in front of a classroom of people — that I would never succeed in the IT industry,” she recalls with a laugh. Benny Coxton, PhD, a former university professor and school superintendent heads up the College Partnership Initiative and SCD’s Chief Information Officer, David McIntosh, was a physical therapist at a hospital when Wingate met him at a training session for IT employees.

     “This is what I’ve always wanted to do with my life,” says McIntosh “And I was doing it at my old job for free, just to be involved with the technology.”

     “No matter what someone did before, we take them in, put them through our training and they become one of us,” explains Wingate. “We identify each person’s strength, skill and motivation and place them in jobs that are most appropriate. Everyone is having the time of their lives.”

     SCD’s culture is based on a team atmosphere in which communication and employee involvement is a top priority. “For employees to take ownership they must feel that they’re contributing to the growth of the company,” says Hudson. “We get a lot of people involved in our decision making process and solicit input on how to we can make ourselves better.”

     When Trish Gillam realized that all SCD Student Coordinators could benefit from consistent training she developed procedures for everyone to follow. With the support of her boss, Rali Pertierra-Mendez, vice president of the Florida region, they posed the idea to management. Now, all administrative personnel are flown to Jacksonville for training. “I know from my experience in customer service that the front line people are the most important for first impressions,” says Gillam. “We were already sharing ideas, and now it brings us all together to learn from each other.”

    “Our people have great ideas every day,” agrees Wingate. “If they can sell me on the idea and show me how it can be successful, then we’ll try it. If it doesn’t work out, that’s okay because that is a part of learning.”

     Wingate admits that there is a great deal of investment in each employee, but asserts that it’s the right thing to do. “Why wouldn’t we invest a lot in our people?” he asserts. “I want them to be successful. I want them to have as many learning opportunities as they need or want. They must be on the cutting edge of technology at all times to do what they do. These people are an extension of my family and I need to take care of them. I’m making sure money is being made and that it comes in and stays here. That is my responsibility.”

Lynda A. Stadler is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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