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Q&A: Well-traveled exec returns home to run software firm

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Tom Willie, the new CEO of Indianapolis software firm Blue Pillar Inc., is a bit of a growth guru.

An Indianapolis native, Willie started his career as owner of a painting company while earning an electrical engineering degree at Purdue University. After college, he took a marketing job at electronics giant Texas Instruments.

Willie Willie

He left two years later to get in on the ground floor as general manager at high-speed Internet provider Efficient Networks Inc., which Siemens AG bought for $1.5 billion in 2001.

In 2003, Willie moved to energy grid technology firm Current Group in Maryland. He spent 10 years at Current, the past two as CEO, before a Spanish conglomerate acquired the company in March.

Now at Blue Pillar, Willie, 40, is back at square one with a 35-person firm with a few million dollars per year in revenue. The company secured $7 million in venture capital in 2012.

Blue Pillar develops software that monitors buildings’ electrical systems to prevent or fix outages and other problems. The company focuses largely on selling to old facilities, especially in health care, where maintaining power means life or death.

The 7-year-old company moved its 10-employee headquarters to Indianapolis from Alpharetta, Ga., in 2011. Develop Indy paid an undisclosed sum for the company's moving expenses after it said it would add 70 workers making an average wage of more than $40 per hour by 2015.   

Willie, who started his new job in November, recently sat down with IBJ to discuss his career and his growth plans for Blue Pillar.

IBJ: Going from a big company, like Texas instruments, to a small startup, that’s a pretty big changeup in itself, even just in lifestyle. What was it about Texas Instruments that taught you how to do small business?

A: What it taught me was how to be a great marketing person. I came out of school as an electrical engineer that had an entrepreneur’s spirit. What TI taught me is, really, how do you apply that spirit, but do so in the technology industry?

IBJ: What convinced you to get into small business?

A: For me, having run my own company, I loved it so much, I enjoyed it so much, almost as much as the technology side of things—being able to be in a company where you truly feel like you’re making an impact—that was a huge draw for me. And small companies offer that to pretty much everybody that comes on board.

IBJ: What was it that brought you back to Indianapolis? It sounds like things were going pretty well for you in Maryland.

A: I had a small company I had been a part of for 10 years, and I had become the CEO two years ago. A company called Current. I took that company from about $1 million in revenue in 2010 to well over $10 million in revenue in 2012, and ultimately sold the company in March of 2013. We worked out an agreement in which I stayed on consulting with the company for a period of time, and then had the opportunity to take some time to look around and see what I wanted to do next. That’s when I found Blue Pillar—or Blue Pillar found me.

IBJ: Who are your customers at Blue Pillar? What kinds of companies are these?

A: Definitely, our biggest part of our business is hospitals and health care. Why? Because they have significant concerns about being stranded on the side of the road. If you think about what happens if the power goes out in a hospital, and their generators don’t start or something in the electrical system fails, the issues associated from that, from a life and criticality point of view, are large.
We saw our first military organization, a military base—again, critical power a concern for that military base. If you think about a data center, a hospital is a data center with beds. A military base is a data center with soldiers. Everything that runs the Internet nowadays, their whole life is how that facility is running and whether it’s online.

IBJ: How much of your revenue comes from health care versus all the other types of customers that you have?

A: It’s probably 85 percent now.

IBJ: Is that going to change all that much?

A: I don’t really care, honestly. If we continue to do well and be known within the health care industry as the absolute solution provider for solving their critical issues—I believe there’s probably very few national-level issues greater than health care, right?

And so if we can help that industry be extremely successful in solving their critical problems going forward, this company will be very, very successful.

Are we looking at other industries that have a similar personality trait to health care? Of course. But I’m not one too worried about where and specifically who’s giving me the revenue and whose problems we’re solving.

IBJ: What can you tell me about Blue Pillar’s general growth plans right now? Can you give me some idea, quantifiably, of where things are today versus where you see them five years from now?

A: Well, the company’s gone through pretty significant growth in the last couple of years. The company, in essence, went from less than 10 people less than two years ago to over 35 people today. So we have been growing substantially. Our revenue has quadrupled over the last twelve months.

IBJ: Can you tell me what it is?

A: We don’t disclose it, as a private company. But it has grown. It’s multiple millions, I can tell you that.

IBJ: The company got a pretty healthy amount of venture capital funding not too long ago. Has there been any more recently or is that going to be a big part of your growth going forward?

A: We have not raised money since that round. That was about 18 months ago. So it’s been almost a couple of years since we did raise money, which is also something that we’re very, very proud of. Most companies are back to the well within 12 months and asking for another round of investments. We’re going to end up going over two years, most likely, with the initial round of investments that we made.

Having said that, are we looking for capital? Are we potentially considering looking for capital that would help us continue to grow? I think that will be something we will look for in 2014.

IBJ: How about employment growth? Any projections?

A: I don’t. Part of what I’ve been leading since I got here is planning for our 2014 organization and strategy. And so we’re still working through that. I do expect there will be some employment growth in the company. I would say no less than 10 percent (next year). That’s at the low end.

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