The technology industry, including the Charlotte region, has no shortage of software solution providers in any representative software category: supply chain management, business intelligence, customer relationship management, enterprise application integration, business process automation; also known by their sometimes ridiculous sounding acronyms: SCM, BI, CRM, EAI, BPA. But there is a shortage of software solution providers that actually learn their clients’ needs and make technology work around those needs.
Phillip Morris and Joe Guy set out to do just that. As founders of Charlotte-based Mariner, LLC, they have successfully built a specialized technology solutions provider that places quality technology solutions and customer satisfaction at the top of its priority list.
Teaming from the start
Morris and Guy were first teamed together on a project while working for a start-up technology solutions provider in Greensboro in the early ’90s. They soon recognized a gap between the services their employer provided and what they knew should be done for technology solutions to be effective for customers. This realization inspired Morris and Guy to formulate the software engineering process that is still the foundation for Mariner’s specialized software solution today.
The first project they tackled together was so successful that it was nominated for a Smithsonian Award for medicine in 1995. (The software solution was developed to support the testing, interpretation and distribution of bone marrow donor drive specimen results for transplant centers nationwide.) Soon, lunch discussions between Morris and Guy centered around one question: “What if we started a business?”
The window of opportunity opened when Morris took a “corporate position” with a larger software company and asked Guy to sign on too. Together they opened a Charlotte location for their D.C.-based employer. Soon after, however, the company was acquired, the entrepreneurial atmosphere was lost, and Morris and Guy had all the inspiration necessary to launch their own business.
An auspicious beginning
The year was 1998. Royal & SunAlliance’s new specialty group, called REMi (Royal Equipment Maintenance insurance) needed help with a project supporting its new line of business that required specific technology skills. They knew of Morris and Guy’s desire to launch their own business and were convinced that they had the custom application development skills necessary to complete the project. The connection was made.
The new partners launched Mariner and spent the first two months interviewing REMi staff before even starting to write code. They built out an entire suite of applications to support REMi’s business processes that included proposals, policy management, claims processing, help desk management, and a client portal for online policy review and claims information. The application suite was delivered and upgraded over a five-year period and upon its completion was described as one of the most comprehensive self-service application suites implemented within the industry. The project showcased Mariner’s expertise in application development and process management and practically designated the young company as an IT arm of Royal & SunAlliance.
Mariner = guiding customers expertly
Morris and Guy had purposefully chosen the name for their company; they wanted it to represent something fundamentally significant about the company but not limit its flexibility or growth. They determined the name should be centered on something that differentiated them from others providing similar services: their software engineering process. This process was the foundation of their technology solutions’ successes from the very beginning and would always be the supporting structure for the way they planned to do business. It is a navigational tool that maintains the project course and insures that all requirements and goals are met.
Morris and Guy turned to the sea for ideas, since navigation came to mind, and realized that the name “mariner” fit their role in guiding customers expertly through the design, development and implementation of software solutions. The process name became Ocracoke since it is, in essence, the beacon that lights the way around hazards. And technology implementations have hazards a-plenty.
What is so special about the process? Mariner’s unique Ocracoke process examines the customer’s environment before the design begins, considering the drivers for the project, the ultimate solution goals, the skills of the solution’s users, the users’ roles within the company, and the time frame for completion. These elements combine to provide the knowledge Mariner needs to plan the solution that best fits the customer’s situation.
Upon the analysis, Mariner builds tracking reports, milestones, reviews, tests, prototypes and trials. The process is proven. Clients have even hired Mariner to return after project completion to mentor their IT department in “the process.” Customers actually identify the Ocracoke process as a “product” Mariner could sell.
“We are able to provide skills and expertise that most companies, regardless of size, cannot afford to maintain in-house. We work shoulder-to-shoulder and create a relationship that is built on our ability to enhance the expertise the company already has in place,” explains Guy.
Growing up, Morris and Guy’s attitude towards growing a company has remained constant for Mariner regardless of the economy or the state of affairs in the technology sector: Provide a solution for customers that best meets their needs and your ability to meet your financial obligations will be taken care of.
Mariner doesn’t act as a purchasing agent for customers. Mariner’s expertise enables them to create solutions that are customized to the individual business needs and user needs of each client.
“Our solutions can’t be purchased out-of-the-box. We take existing software elements that provide the functionalities each customer needs and then write the customized software that makes them work as one solution,” explains Morris.
Very often, Mariner’s skills are needed to make an application work within internal corporate networks and use information stored in various types of databases. Large corporations often utilize the services such as those Mariner provides to create software applications that are “branded” to look like their Web site or intranet and allow them to do the tasks that their type of businesses require of them.
Bust or boom; bumps in the ride
Words that inspire vivid memories for some have different meanings for Morris and Guy. During the “boom,” one of Mariner’s largest customers went bust, owing Mariner a large chunk of money. The partners practiced frugality. They monitored all expenditures, conserved all resources and weathered circumstances that actually allowed them to set an example for others who would begin to feel a real pinch during what the rest of the industry called the “bust.”
By the time their peers and competitors were tightening belts, Mariner was adjusting to its conservative environment. Their trials and tribulations helped them identify their most valuable skills and taught them a real life lesson – that hard work and dedication are truly more valuable to you and your customers than stacks of cash.
Mariner also had some insulation from the dot-com crash. Most of their customers were “brick and mortar” businesses whose Internet presence was secondary to their direct manner of conducting business. Because the dot-coms were not the types of companies for which Mariner’s skills were best suited, the solutions provider didn’t immediately sign up a list of them for business when dot-com money was flowing like water.
All along the way, Morris and Guy feel they have made good decisions that have added to Mariner’s reputation as an effective technology solutions provider. It hasn’t always been easy. They’ve spent many fretful meetings making difficult decisions to survive without compromising. They have closed ineffective remote locations; they have ended attempted ancillary ventures; they have cut staff positions due to budgetary constraints. They know that building a business is never all pretty or fun; but hard decisions make the difference between success and failure.
Partnerships are an important part of Mariner’s heritage. They are woven into the present business and are vital in their strategy for the future. Mariner has found that strong partners, such as Business Objects with whom Mariner has been a preferred partner for several years, enhance your reputation and help you specialize to meet targeted industry needs.
Mariner’s relationship with Business Objects enhanced the building of its Business Intelligence practice. Business Objects software provides building blocks that Mariner can utilize in designing its enterprise reporting applications that give customers the ability to pull valuable information out of stored data to help them make better decisions.
Mariner’s long-standing Microsoft partnership, which has just elevated to Gold status, enables them to build solutions that are intimately integrated into the most prevalent software platform in the world.
New technologies are migrating from individual applications that use isolated pockets of data into collaborative, accessible and secure networks of information. Through their own efforts as well as through partnerships, Mariner is expanding the solutions offered and matching marketing efforts to them. New efforts also enable Mariner to provide best practices solutions to mid-sized companies as well as the previous area of focus – enterprise corporations such as Royal & SunAlliance.
Not your average priorities
Priorities set by the average company include line items such as total revenues, bottom line costs, operating expenditures, quotas and closed deals.
Priorities for Mariner include those of the average company, but placed above those are priorities for satisfied customers, successful solutions and happy employees. The latter priorities are obvious when you consider just two facts about Mariner: More than half of their existing customers are repeat customers, and their employees love to work there.
“We find no greater validation of a job well done than customers who come back to us with more work. Too many technology solution providers have left waves of unsatisfied clients and unsuccessful solutions. We will not be one of them,” declares Morris.
Mariner’s internal success is partly due to its rigorous hiring process. It is long and involved. But when an offer is finally extended and an agreement is reached, both parties know that there will be no surprises. Employees essentially become “family” and enjoy retreats, training programs and benefits, on-site game rooms, Friday afternoon refreshments and sometimes even an afternoon movie. The flexible, pleasant atmosphere instills in the staff loyalty and the desire to do their best. And that, the co-founders agree, is more valuable than anything else they could request.
The team created by an outwardly casual working relationship can now answer the question they constantly asked each other over lunch nearly a decade ago: “What would happen if we started a business?”