Inside Track: Rutherford finds his niche
Despite not being technically savvy, Rutherford and Associates president sets himself apart with business expertise.
When Michael Rutherford founded Rutherford and Associates in 1986, his brother, Paul, was in high school, but being a business insider in a room full of tech gurus set the younger Rutherford apart and propelled him into his current role as president of the growing tech company.
Paul Rutherford’s skill set is far apart from the world of software development but quite complementary to enterprise resource management. He graduated with a Bachelor of Business Administration in risk management and insurance at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business in 1993.
While still in school, Rutherford spent every winter, summer and spring break working for a third party administrator in Atlanta to help pay for his education.
“I started off paying claims, saved up money, went to school,” Rutherford said. “At the end of the four years, I managed to get out of college without any student loans … I don’t think you could do it now.”
After he graduated, Rutherford went back to the same company and shifted from claims to health administration. In his new position, he worked closely with the company’s sales professionals to ensure the policies they were selling were supported by the system the company ran.
Rutherford later met up with his older brother; the elder Rutherford had come to Atlanta for a trade show in fall of 1994. While the two caught up, Paul Rutherford explained to his brother what he did professionally.
Coincidentally, Michael Rutherford, who at the time had a staff that he could count with one hand, was looking for somebody with his brother’s skill set.
“He had several hundred customers, and he really had five or so employees,” Paul Rutherford said, “so not a lot of depth in terms of people who could go out and train customers, and support customers and work with the sales guys and keep them in line.”
Taking the offer to work for his brother, the younger Rutherford loaded up his Honda Civic and moved to Holland in winter 1995.
“I started hitting snow around northern Kentucky, and it just got worse the whole way up,” he recalled. “I’d never seen anything like it.”
Rutherford entered the company when it still was located in the Brooks Beverage building across the street from their current office. He started out as support staff, researching R&A’s numerous clients to get a feel for the business, before moving into implementation. Similar to his previous job, he was tasked to work with the sales staff to back up the product it was selling.
Although Rutherford said his brother had done well with the company prior to his arrival, he thought he added an “accelerant” to the operation.
“Prior to that, he didn’t have anybody that would really fill the role of going out and doing go-lives for customers, going to the trainings, so customer on-boarding was a lot more difficult at that time,” he said.
Rutherford added he was the one who encouraged his brother to close down R&A’s first office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that it had prior to moving to Holland. He claimed it didn’t make sense for a company of that size to maintain two offices.
“We worked really hard to grow the team here, and eventually, we outgrew the space that Brooks Beverage was willing to allot to us,” Rutherford said, “so we built this building in ’99.”
Rutherford said he and his brother work well together, which was important for him coming on board to a tech company as a businessman with no coding experience.
Rutherford added he didn’t even use computers much during his college years. Even prior to graduation, most of the technology was still “green screen,” and the company he first worked at was the same way.
“If somebody was showing me how to use a program, I could use a program, but I never really dug in to understand how a computer worked,” he said.
One late night at the R&A office, Rutherford unplugged all the computers with the help of his brother, and from the ground up, went through and figured out what all the different cables did.
“Back then too, you didn’t have wireless connections … everything had a cable,” Rutherford said. “For me, it was a lot of just learning where did all the different cables even go — just something as basic as that was something that I had to figure out.”
Even without any formal background, Rutherford still was rigorous with testing R&A’s software, Rutherford SX, to ensure it met clients’ needs.
In 2001, R&A licensed SX to Mars Electronics, a wholly owned subsidiary of M&M Mars, which handled the company’s vending machines. After working with Mars for several years, R&A recommended the vending company invest in rewriting SX and converting it to Windows.
“That conversion was helpful in terms of being able to sell the application,” Rutherford said. “You get to the point where you couldn’t sell a green-screen application anymore, so we had to have something that was Windows-based.”
R&A got its first beer customer in 2004, Comer Distributing in South Carolina, mainly because it had made the switch to a Windows-based application, Rutherford said. Sebastien Charroud, vice president of product management for R&A, was a consultant for Comer Distribution at the time and was brought in to assess the options for distribution software.
“Looking at the options that were out there, it was pretty much all ES400-based, green-screen applications, so (Charroud) looked through Microsoft and found us through our Microsoft partnership,” Rutherford said.
With Charroud as a resource, R&A also was able to hook major companies like Miller and Coors as clients, as well as local companies like Alliance Beverage.
“For us, it was always do a good job with this set of customers and then they would know somebody and talk about us, and then we would move on and sell to a new account and start working with them,” Rutherford said. “Eventually, we got into some quite large accounts.”
Today, R&A has accounts with J.J. Taylor Distributing and Manhattan Beer Distributors, which Rutherford said are two of the largest distributors in the nation.
Similar to the challenges he faced coming on board in 1995, Rutherford said almost all new employees are faced with the steep learning curve, and they either make it or they don’t. For a niche industry like beverage distribution, finding people with the necessary industry experience is difficult.
“My learning curve was probably bigger than most,” he said, laughing. “But if you bring in somebody who’s technically savvy, and they at least have some level of business acumen … then it’s a lot of just learning from interacting with the customers and understanding how to take the tool that we develop and apply it to the needs of the customers.”
But even with a steep learning curve, Rutherford said he had the good fortune of starting when the company was small, which compelled him to have hands in all functions of the business. Although he’s not programming savvy, he’s aware of what R&A’s programmers can do, and he has a sense of how that can serve clients.
“I’m not super technical, but I know enough to be dangerous,” Rutherford said.
For the future, Rutherford said he’s focused on building R&A’s capabilities to support mobile users.
“I think we do a reasonable job of that now, but the market’s changing, and for us, it’s a matter of adapting and staying ahead of the curve,” he said.