TransFormer Man goes forth Entrepreneur: Albert M. Harris' software solution to a bank's mainframe problem resulted in a sigh of relief from the client and a new business for the programmer.

March 31, 1997|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

It's been five years since Albert M. Harris was put to the task of coming up with a solution to what some people thought an unsolvable computer programming problem.

The client was Mercantile Safe Deposit & Trust. The Baltimore-based bank was looking for a way to avoid the time, expense and complications of having its mainframe computer system reformatted so the bank could redesign its computer-generated statements for customers. Harris was hired on as a consultant to trouble-shoot.

Not only did Harris crack that case by writing a new software program, he found that the program had so many applications for industry that he decided to start a company around it, the Harris Group.

He isn't the first or last computer software designer to build an entire company around just one software program that addresses a pressing need of government or industry.

But the lesson learned in doing so, says Harris, probably could be followed by just about anyone dreaming up a new product to hawk.

Harris puts it this way: "Never develop a product you are going to have to convince people they need."

Today, Harris' Baltimore-based venture is profitable and on a fast growth track, propelled chiefly by the success of the computer program Harris designed to address Mercantile's needs.

In short, the program allows mainframe computer programs that handle printing and mailing documents to quickly add or delete information, and to reformat or completely redesign fonts and logos for statements and other documents, such as phone bills and insurance and bank statements.

Though the program costs about $55,000 a shot, the company promotes it as a tool that can reduce the expensive and time-consuming process of having computer technicians rewrite mainframe computer programs that govern document production.

That process can take, on average, months to complete without a software program to handle it. The program trims that time frame to weeks, say company officials.

The Harris Group markets its software package under the name TransFormer.

"We like to think of our program as a tool to take the ugliness out of a document and put some spice back into it," said John C. Reith, regional manager at Harris.

If you ask Harris, he'll tell you unabashedly that he created not just a software program but "an entirely new industry."

Today, of course, there's competition.

Pitney Bowes Inc., the publicly held mailroom and bar code equipment company, and Bell & Howell Co., the publicly held information services firm, have similar software products on the market.

Who has the best product is a matter of debate between the companies.

L Harris says he doesn't dwell on the heavyweight competition.

"The market for this type of product is huge," he says with customary bravado. "It may be a $1 billion-a-year industry. There's plenty of room for growth -- and competition."

By computer industry standards, the Baltimore-based company remains small, though the payroll has doubled to 30 in the past year.

W. Scott Harris, vice president for operations and finance at the company (he's also Harris' son), says the company chiefly has been beefing up its software development and technical staffing.

More hiring is forecast, particularly in software development, he said.

The reason: The company wants to speed up development of a PC version of its software program and increase the capabilities of the TransFormer product.

"We are growing in many different directions at once," says the vice president.

Another growth area that the company has mapped out for the year ahead: diversifying the customer base.

In the Harris Group's case, customers today largely comprise the financial services, insurance, telecommunications and printing industries, said Reith.

Customers and clients of the Baltimore-based company include Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Maryland, Allstate Insurance, MBNA and MCI. The Internal Revenue Service is also a client.

The company is aiming to expand its client portfolio to include more government agencies and more manufacturing and distribution-based businesses, said the younger Harris.

Meanwhile, the elder Harris anticipates future expansion for the company through acquisitions of companies that complement the Harris Group's electronic print software package and consulting services.

And he doesn't rule out taking the company public at some point.

The company's growth mirrors that of the segment of the state's economy devoted to information technology.

Jobs in that sector grew by more than 7 percent between 1991 and 1995, according to Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation figures.

Revenue is growing even faster than jobs at the Harris Group, up 50 percent in the past year. Revenue is projected to grow by more than 50 percent this year, said the founder.

The company, located in the former London Fog plant, now known as Meadow Mill, had revenue last year of about $3 million, said the younger Harris. He expects revenue to reach close to $5 million this year.

The company's revenue picture, he said, has been strengthened through sales partnerships its struck with other software companies, such as Baltimore-based and publicly held Group 1 Software, and stalwarts IBM and Xerox Corp.

Timothy E. Walsh, a vice president for sales and marketing at Harris, sees the company's biggest challenge as keeping up with the rapid acceptance and demand for the program.

"There aren't many banks and insurance companies that can get by anymore without a program like this," said Walsh.

Success, it seems, is not so new to founder Harris.

In 1983, he sold a Baltimore company that he had built from scratch with a partner, a computer software developer for the banking industry named Disc Inc., to publicly held AGS Computers Inc. for $6 million. AGS was later gobbled up by telecommunications heavy Nynex Inc.

Harris stayed on at Nynex for three years before saying goodbye.

"I knew," he said, "I'd spot another opportunity in time."

Pub Date: 3/31/97

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