Being first in its field paid off again Thursday for Atlantic Assurance, a 7-1/2-year-old technology company that helped revolutionize information products for home equity and mortgage refinancing lenders, when it was named the winner of the 2002 Trailblazer Award from the Metrolina Entrepreneurial Council (MEC).

The award, presented at a banquet held at the Big Chill restaurant, is given each year to a start-up business that is at least three years old, has shown significant growth, and has cut new ground in its industry. In fact, Bank of America hired Atlantic Assurance to help it create its own real estate information company in 1999. The process took just 11 weeks.

“We were the first company in the industry to do business on the Web,” says founder and senior partner Todd Gorelick proudly. “We’ve taken a traditional craftsman delivery process and changed it into a factory line-produced service. Basically, we are a service factory.”

Atlantic Assurance developed software that transforms the way lenders get information, such as title searches and valuation. Typically, banks and other institutions turn to local individual vendors to conduct the necessary research for real estate-based loans and lines of credit. That often means dealing with hundreds of individuals. Atlantic Assurance’s software enables it to manage the services of 10,000 of these vendors nationwide, meaning lenders only deal with one company, no matter where they or the property may be located, resulting in expedited service and lower costs.

“Each individual job is broken down into steps, and the software tracks it, much like FedEx tracks it packages,” Gorelick says. “It’s a work flow and vendor management program.”

The system is so efficient that everyone involved in the process saves money, Gorelick says. For example, because vendors are paid as soon as their task is completed, they don’t have to send Atlantic invoices. “We save about a quarter of a million dollars each year because we don’t have to reconcile invoices,” explains.

The firm, started in fall 1993, was in the black within three months after it opened, Gorelick recalls. Growth has been financed internally and with bank lines of credit. Revenues last year were about $35 million, and clients include the likes of Bank of America, Chase Manhattan, BB&T and SunTrust. There are 250 employees, 165 of them in Charlotte, with the rest in offices in Richmond and Kingsport, TN.

“We’ve certainly benefited from the increased interest in home equity lately,” Gorelick says. “But home equity and refinancing are not as cyclical as other aspects of real estate, and we also manage the foreclosure process as a counter if those services do decline. We’re in a growth business.”

Impact Solutions, Countryside Landscaping also honored

Two other finalists from among 28 nominations were also honored: Impact Solutions, a customer relationship management (CRM) solutions provider serving the retail automotive industry; and Countryside Landscaping, a full-service landscaping company whose customer base is residential real estate developers.

After operating in a survival mode these last few years while developing its product, Impact Solutions owner Page Tucker says the company has stabilized and is “ready to compete for market share.”

Impact, founded in 1995, is the leading provider of web-based CRM solutions to the automotive industry. Clients, most of them located outside of North Carolina, include GM, Volvo and Ford. Its software provides database marketing, enabling companies to better identify their customers and their market penetration. This, in turn, helps them improve their marketing to customers and potential customers.

“The economy is screaming at people to find more efficient ways of doing business,” Tucker says. “People don’t understand the value of their current customers. A paradigm shift is required, and we provide the solution for that.”

The company, with 25 employees, hopes to expand its services to other industries, including personal watercraft, heavy-duty equipment and health care administration.

Most every company gives lip service to customer service, but Tony Pope has used that old-fashioned virtue to grow his landscaping firm into a $10-million business.

Founded in 1994, Countryside Landscaping provides lawn installation and maintenance, grading and irrigation services to residential builders. Among its customers are major Charlotte homebuilders such as Pulte Homes, Ryland Homes and Centex Homes, as well as Duke Power and several small municipalities. Many of them have been clients since the firm’s founding.

“We do a good job, do what we say we will, and, if there is a problem, rectify it as quickly as possible,” Pope says. “We build partnerships with our customers and value them as partners.”