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BEATING A PATH TO THEIR DOOR FORTUNE 500 FIRMS HIRE LOCAL COMPANY TO DESIGN THEIR ON-LINE CATALOGS

Working weekends used to be a chilling experience for a local computer duo that designs interactive catalogs for some of the nation's largest companies.

Wearing parkas and fingerless gloves, Scott Fisher and Greg Towne would toil in a tiny office, struggling to design a software prototype that would let people find and order products much faster than flipping through bulky catalogs.

These days, they chuckle about their humble roots, which were sprouted four years ago when their company shared space with a hair salon in a Snyder building. The landlord was prone to turning the heat way down on weekends.

Actually, the Spartan surroundings were a step up for these young entrepreneurs who had been working out of their homes.

What a difference four years makes. These days, Fisher, Towne & Associates work out of a tony office suite at Snyder Square, filled with futuristic furniture and cutting-edge computer gadgetry.

The local software innovator now employs 14 and is in the hunt for more partners as it doubles revenues each year. Like many small business owners, Fisher and Towne now face a perplexing dilemma: how much growth is too much growth.

"We've been thinking about that a lot. It's really a question of how fast we should throttle up," said Towne, who previously worked at Barrister Information Systems.

While recognizing that partnerships can sometimes be riddled with pitfalls, the two businessmen think they complement each other's skills and backgrounds. Fisher's family previously owned the now-defunct Manhardt-Alexander printing company where he was involved in marketing. Towne is a computer programmer and software developer who admits he's "not the best marketer on earth." They were introduced by a mutual friend and decided to go into business together.

Fisher was bitten by the independence bug while chowing down a Whopper at a Burger King.

"I was calling on a client in Erie, Pa., and was eating at this restaurant. That's when I started thinking about building a software program that would make it easier for customers to pick paper and other types of printing supplies."

Fisher likes to illustrate his feat in visual, dramatic form. He hauls out a 1,000-page dog-earred catalog and sits it on the edge of his desk. Then he holds a tiny cardboard carrying case containing
three computer discs. Suffice to say that the company is doing its small part to promote what some have called a paperless society.

"There's far more information on these discs than can be found inside the catalog. And with the interactive nature of our on-line catalogs, it's almost like having an expert sitting next to the customer," Fisher said.

The product attracted the attention of the world's largest paper company. With sales of $21 billion, International Paper seemed to be an unlikely candidate for the Fisher and Towne's client roster. They remember trekking to Cincinnati to make a pitch to executives from xpedx, a division of International Paper.

A short time later, the tiny company received an advance check for $60,000 and a commitment for $2 million in business through 1999. The partners credit xpedx for putting their enterprise on the map. Since then, other Fortune 500 companies have hired Fisher, Towne & Associates to develop interactive catalogs for an array of products. The client list includes IBM, Motorola, Avery and Dennison.

It should come as no surprise that companies of all sizes are turning to software programs to help bolster sales.

William L. Marsh is manager of sales force automation for xpedx, a company that will rack up $6 billion in sales this year. He said the alliance with Fisher and Towne is one of many efforts aimed at bringing his industry into the 21st century.

He added that small is sometimes better, noting that a company like Fisher, Towne & Associates can offer better pricing because of their lower overhead.

The biggest challenge facing the company as it strives to grow: finding enough workers with highly-specialized computer skills. Fisher lamented that when the company takes out classified ads, it either receives no inquiries or gets resumes from people who are unqualified. As the company continues to develop new products and attract new customers, it will probably expand its recruitment efforts for employees into Rochester, Toronto and even Pittsburgh.

The company is working on new applications for its online catalog system. It is currently developing an interactive product that will help advertising agencies to better serve clients by interfacing on the Internet.

Fisher said the only way to continue growing in a fiercely-competitive industry is to innovate and carve out new niches. He said that's how the company managed to grow from two employees who worked at home to a 14-member team in only four years.

"We've made a lot of progress," Fisher said. "I remember the days when our unreturned bottles made up a significant portion of the assets on our balance sheet."

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