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SMALL BUSINESS PROFILE WTH: Firm mapping out its own success Owner shifts focus from old-school engineering to GIS

April 24, 2006

SMALL BUSINESS PROFILE

WTH Firm mapping out its own success Owner shifts focus from old-school engineering to GIS

Rex Jones wants to show off his company's work, so the lights go down, a computer comes on and a map of Starke County appears on a screen. The map is a maze of green lines representing county and local roads, red for state/interstate highways, blue for water.

Jones zooms in further, picking a random street in the rural county. Up pops an aerial map of every parcel. He chooses a house and begins to retrieve data-the floor plan of the home, its latitude and longitude, the parcel number and a variety of other information-that can make emergency-management agencies and government employees more efficient in everything from ambulance response times to planning school bus routes.

Thus begins a demonstration of the geographic information systems (GIS) that Jones' company, WTH, has put in place in 70 of Indiana's 92 counties as well as locales in New York, New Jersey, South Carolina and Illinois.

In 1997, with 100 percent Small Business Administration financial support, Jones bought Warren T. Hobson and Associates, a 30-year-old civil-engineering company with 16 employees who specialized in sewer, bridge and road designs. Two years later, he bought a small mapping company that worked with public-safety agencies to help pinpoint the location of emergency situations.

For the past six years, WTH has been merging the concepts. The company developed software called Think GIS that provides layers of information-everything from parcel numbers to the tonnage allowed on local bridges-and now has a patent pending on something called UDX (for Universal Data Exchange) that allows agencies to share data no matter whose software they're using.

What WTH (which now stands for Where Technology Happens) does now seems a long way from its origins, but Jones says it's a natural progression.

"In the early '90s, engineering companies were doing the primary part of GIS," he says. "GIS was complex, and engineers were thought to have the edge on complexity."

Jones knew the competition in the GIS market was bigger, so he wanted WTH to be better. He outlined a mission: to be user-friendly, affordable, service-oriented and interoperable-all while, in the beginning at least, serving a niche, nonurban market.

But first, he had to change the company's culture and combat its reputation for what he describes as less than stellar customer service.

"It's that culture that makes the company successful," he says. "It's about character, integrity and the people you hire. I am a cheerleader; I am not the doer. I try to find people who want to help other people and understand local government."

To steer the engineering business in the right direction, he cut the staff to six or seven employees. Today, only two of the company's pre-1997 employees remain, and WTH hasn't lost a customer in four years.

Early on, though, WTH experienced some growing pains. For four years, the company operated without a strict budget. If it needed to spend, it spent. That changed.

"If you're a professional business, you'd better be run like a professional business," Jones said.

He also saw the need to diversify its customer base. If WTH had concentrated solely on its home state, it would be subject to the whims of political and economic changes. So the company looked elsewhere for customers, and it now has 350 clients in five states.

"They provide quality service," says Alan Williams, E-911 communications manager for Buford County, S.C., and a longtime WTH customer. "They stay with us, they provide the service and I get my money's worth. They also make it easy to use for the common, non-technical GIS person."

Because of hurricanes, Buford County-which includes Hilton Head-evacuates its 300,000 residents two or three times a year. The county also is growing at a rate of one to 10 new streets a month and 1,000 new houses each quarter. The county's 300 emergency vehicles are all equipped with WTH's software, which also helps them use cellular technology to track hunters and boaters in trouble.

"At midnight, we don't need to be guessing where the road is," Williams says. "They know where that road is because that map is in their vehicles."

Washington County, Ind., wanted aerial photography, mapping and numbering of its parcels, but county Assessor Eugene Trueblood didn't think the service would be affordable. He met a WTH representative at an Association of Indiana Counties meeting about five years ago.

"They came down and did a presentation to our county council and our commissioners, and their presentation was so good-and the price was right-that we immediately signed with them," Trueblood says. "We're happy with them, and we don't see any reason to ever change."

WTH bills clients based on the services and amount of software it provides. A typical bill can range from $30,000 for basic services to upward of $300,000 to map every parcel.

"We did not have to sell people on GIS," Jones says. "We just had to be innovative enough to find a price point that they could afford to buy it and have it user-friendly enough that they could use it. That's the combination that got us market share."
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