Inside Track: Flexibility breeds success
OST’s Jim VanderMey takes pride in company’s fun, family-focused work environment.
Some of Open Systems Technologies’ “peculiar culture” is a result of Chief Innovations Officer Jim VanderMey’s unorthodox leadership. Since the company’s formative years, VanderMey said he and his business partners have worked to make it a fun and family-focused environment, which translated to years of successful client relationships.
VanderMey got into coding very early on and started his first company in partnership with another individual in 1978 during his senior year of high school. The two were doing systems consulting for business users of Apple and RadioShack computers, which VanderMey said were not useful for business work at the time.
“They would buy them, bring them to their business and think they could do something with them,” VanderMey said. “They discovered that those computers didn’t do anything … to make them usable for business required a certain degree of craftsmanship.”
Personal computers were more of a hobby at the time during the late ’70s and early ’80s, VanderMey said. As an outgrowth of the personal electronics industry, people would buy computers to play with, similar to commercial drones in the present day, but their capacity in the workspace was limited.
VanderMey said at any early technology adoption stage, hobbyists are the “vanguard,” introducing it recreationally before business use.
“In the early stages of the automobile industry, it was people who would work on their own cars, this whole mindset of, ‘I’m going to buy something. I’m going to work on it myself. I’m going to do something with it.’ And that’s what the home computer industry was like in the 1970s,” he said.
Although VanderMey enjoyed running his own business, starting a family later on in life compelled him to adopt a more conventional workflow with regular pay.
VanderMey started as the one-man IT department of Rapid Engineering, a small manufacturer in Comstock Park, in 1985. As the manufacturing industry started to integrate technology into the workplace, VanderMey helped develop digital sales tools, which also helped him learn the ins and outs of the industry.
VanderMey went on to what is now Priority Health in 1991 as the third IT member on staff. Through what he called a “very rapid” period of growth for the health insurance company, VanderMey gained a deep knowledge of the health care industry.
“So, I learned health care more deeply, I’ve done consulting in health care, dental practices, retail … all different kinds of businesses,” he said. “At OST now, we’re involved with global companies, and that’s where these threads came together really nicely.”
After six years at Priority Health, VanderMey said he felt he had reached the end of the challenges it had to offer him. After speaking with Jim Slubowski, who was the CIO of Priority Health at the time, they both concluded that it was time to move on.
VanderMey accepted a position at a large, nonspecified local company, but only a day after accepting the role, Dan Behm, former president and CEO of OST, contacted him about starting a new tech firm.
VanderMey said he was convinced Behm was well-suited to handle the sales aspect of the operation, and with a strong financial backing and the ability to sell a product and service he believed had market value, he took the offer fairly quickly.
“My first conversation with Dan was on a Wednesday, and I accepted the position the following Tuesday,” he said.
At the time, a local public accountant, Crowe Chizek (now branded Crowe) partnered with OST to move into a new enterprise resource management product, and both the company and Behm believed VanderMey was well-equipped to help deliver it.
“I had the technical acumen that was necessary to support the things that they were going to do, and I believed I was able to execute on what they wanted to accomplish,” VanderMey said.
The final thing that convinced VanderMey he wanted to take the job was the flexibility it would afford him. At 33 years old, he already had a family with four kids, including a daughter who was undergoing chemotherapy for a brain tumor, and a 2-year-old son with special needs who was beginning to start school.
Luckily, family was very important to Behm as well, VanderMey said. The two agreed they wanted OST to be as fun and flexible as it was financially rewarding.
“Dan wanted to be at all of his son’s basketball games, and I wanted the time flexibility to care for my family and prioritize the things I thought were most important,” VanderMey said, “and that is deeply embedded in the DNA of OST as a result of that.”
In its early days, OST consulted primarily for manufacturing clients. VanderMey said his previous experience with manufacturers set him up well for his new role.
“That whole vocabulary came back to serve me again when we started OST,” VanderMey said, “being able to understand the business context that we've put the technology into so we can support the business as opposed to just implementing technology.”
From its start in 1997, VanderMey said OST was on a very fast growth curve. The company got its first customer, DRT Manufacturing out of Dayton, Ohio, in August 1997, the same year OST was founded. And VanderMey was proud to say they still do business today.
From there, VanderMey said OST grew from zero to $5.5 million in revenue by late 1999. The small digital consulting firm was growing, until Y2K hit and the “dot-com bubble” burst.
Hardware sales for OST virtually stopped then, VanderMey said, because what was driving the technology industry up until then were concerns over legacy — manufacturing systems not meeting the requirements for Y2K, for example — so everyone put freezes in place in the last two months of 1999.
OST was forced to diversify into managed services but dropped to about $2.3 million in revenue and only seven employees, including VanderMey and Behm, by 2003.
The seven who remained chipped in to buy out the company in 2003, and fortunately for them, VanderMey said the company was able to hook a major client in the transportation industry shortly after.
“The funny thing was, right after that, Navistar made its first purchase with us,” VanderMey said. “Here’s a Fortune 500 company, and they’re replacing their IT infrastructure for the platforms that run their business, and they bought that from a seven-person company.”
VanderMey said they were able to draw Navistar because of the quality of their service, saying they were the “best in the world” at what they did.
OST’s ability to make an impression on a major trucking company enabled it to bounce back from $2.3 million in revenue to $160 million by 2014, anchoring “hundreds” of quality business partnerships along the way.
VanderMey said he has personally been at the forefront of several of these partnerships, having done work for Komatsu, a construction equipment company in Japan, Mercedes-Benz in Germany, Boeing and the U.S. Department of Defense.
Today, OST’s two strongest markets are manufacturing and health care, taking credit from VanderMey’s prior experience in both industries.
To reach across such a broad range of clients and help them transition from a traditional to digital environment, VanderMey said personality and communication skills are key.
“When I find somebody who’s an expert — and this is one of the most fun parts of my job — I don’t assume I’m the smartest guy in the room, and I’m going to be the expert in what our customer needs,” he said.
His favorite compliment to hear about OST is when employees’ spouses approach him and say their husbands or wives are better parents because of OST’s work environment.
“If we can help somebody be the best soccer coach, softball coach, youth leader in their church, husband, wife, dad, mom, whatever’s the most important things in their life — if we can help them do that by what we do here, then we’ve been successful,” VanderMey said.