Tech center aims to forge alliances New president wants Md. to set example for nation

October 12, 1992|By Leslie Cauley | Leslie Cauley,Staff Writer

To get an idea of what drives Michael Walter, the new head of the National Information Technology Center, one need look no further than the group's name.

It was originally called the "Maryland Information Technology Center," but then Mr. Walter took over early this summer.

"No state is more capable of stepping up to the national platform than Maryland, and we needed a name that reflected that," said Mr. Walter, president and chief executive officer of NITC.

"We have a national aquarium in Maryland, why not have a national technology center?," said Mr. Walter, his tongue only slightly in cheek. "Fish and technology. Sure. Why not?"

Why not, indeed.

The way Mr. Walter sees it, Maryland could lead the nation in developing and supporting technologies that can, over the long term, bring jobs to the state and the nation.

The lawyer-turned-businessman hopes to use NITC to assist the emerging industry of information technology in the state. The goal is to forge new alliances -- among business, academia and government -- with an eye on creating jobs. Along the way, he hopes to produce a national blueprint for other states to follow.

"Maryland is providing America with a platform upon which many things can be tried," muses Mr. Walter. "We can contribute to the competitiveness of this nation."

Mr. Walter's biggest challenge is buried in the mission statement of NITC -- to assemble a consortium of businesses to develop new technologies.

It might look good on paper, but as anyone in the high-tech community knows, U.S. companies aren't known for their keen abilities to collaborate.

Competition, not collaboration,has long been a valued commodity in high-tech circles.

And therein lies the challenge for Mr. Walter, contends Walt Plosila, director of the Montgomery High Tech Council, a Rockville-based group devoted to high-tech development in Montgomery County.

"His No. 1 priority and the thing I hope he is focusing on is educating potential members on why they should join and participate in NITC," said Mr. Plosila. "Companies aren't used to working together. Most have a Lone Ranger philosophy of life, and they have for a long time."

Joel Lee, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development, agrees that forging a sense of community among a wide range of players -- some intensely competitive -- will be a challenge.

"It's a big, uphill task," he says. Mr. Walter, no stranger to steep hills, arrived at NITC by a route that could best be described as circuitous.

After earning a law degree in New York, the Brooklyn native spent two years in the Army stationed in Germany, before heading back to New York to clerk for a state judge. Following a stint as a county prosecutor in New York, he set up a law practice before being wooed by a franchiser setting up shop in Houston.

The fledgling company, Meineke Discount Mufflers, hired Mr. Walter as corporate counsel. A nasty fallout between a franchisee and Meineke led Mr. Walter to the law books to study the company's options.

His legal solution to get franchisers to quit shortchanging Meineke was novel enough to earn an invitation to speak before the American Bar Association.

Mr. Walter accepted. After his address, he said he was approached by another franchiser that was assembling a management team.

The franchiser, ComputerLand, hired him as corporate counsel. He stayed long enough to see the computer retailer through its start-up and national franchising phases before being wooed away by another computer retailer, Entre Computers.

Three years later, he managed to catch the attention of yet another start-up, a non-profit wedded to the idea of forging industry alliances in a consortium environment. Mr. Walter, by now tiring of the franchising game, said he jumped at the opportunity.

"It was heavenly kind of work," Mr. Walter says of his time at the Corporation for Open Systems (COS), a McLean, Va.-based research and development consortium.

As vice president of marketing and corporate service for COS, Mr. Walter became an advocate of industry alliances.

The experience, he said, only underscored his belief that consortiums are key to keeping American industry on the leading edge of technology.

"I am a real believer in consortium," says Mr. Walter.

By then it was the spring of 1992,and NITC's backers were looking for someone who could convince companies, some of them bitter rivals, to work together for the greater good of Maryland. In short, someone with a strong belief in consortiums and the wherewithal to pull it off.

Bingo.

"I've been training for this job for five years," smiles Mr. Walter. By most accounts, including his own, Mr. Walter has hit the ground running. Since assuming his post March 16, he's been making the rounds to potential member companies, introducing himself to legislators and making appearances at those critical networking functions to seek out friends and funding. It may take years before those efforts pay off, if, indeed, they ever do.

But don't tell Mr. Walter that. He's already busy planning Maryland's future and, in the process, the future of an industry.

"I see opportunities in this opportunity that could last a lifetime," he says.

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