ASHEVILLE, N.C. – He may do it on a much smaller scale, but Bill Ward’s life philosophy is quite similar to Warren Buffet’s.
Said Ward, a Raleigh native who’s lived in Asheville for 22 years: “I’m a capitalist, and I’m here to make money, but I want to do good at the same time.”
Ward does more than talk the talk. He founded BUILDERadius, Inc. in 1999 and is getting ready to implement an exit strategy in another few years. He is also the founder the Blue Ridge Angel Investor Network, which seeks to encourage private investment in western North Carolina firms.
“The manufacturing jobs are going away,” Ward explained. “It’s great to have hospitality industry jobs, but they are not high-paying jobs. We need tech jobs that pay well and that don’t pollute.”
BUILDERadius is an-Internet-based system that uses wireless technology to manage local governments’ building departments. About 100 governments — including Columbia, SC; Decatur, AL and Council Bluff,use the software, which is marketed under the name of BluePrince (a play on the term ‘blueprints’). Quipped Ward: “We stayed up all night to come up with something clever.”
The system creates recurring revenues through subscriptions. The company is now expanding its offerings with BuildFax, which provides users with online property history reports and Castlekeeponline, an online tool for managing the construction process of high-end homes.
The Internet Is ‘Fascinating’
Ward came to Asheville in 1984 (“we all have to live, work and play somewhere”) when he helped inaugurate Mr. Coffee Concepts, a joint venture between Concord-based S&D Coffee, Inc. and Mr. Coffee that placed coffeemakers in hotel rooms and office supply stores. When he left in 1989, the enterprise had annual revenues of $22 million.
Ward then started looking for something different to do. Even though it was in its infancy during the 1990s and few people hade heard of it — to say nothing of seeing its potential, Ward said, “I found the Internet fascinating.” And from his experience in the building industry, he knew that “building standards departments are antiquated and archaic.” Then he saw what Mecklenburg County was doing to put its building inspection system online. And so BUILDERadius was born.
Ward described BUILDERadius as “a middle market player.” For the first three years, “it was three guys in a garage,” he recalled. What got it off the ground (and out of the garage) was $5 million in angel funding, which he raised through the Charlotte office of Helms, Mullis & Wicker, a statewide law practice. “I’ve been approached by some VC (venture capital) guys, but I don’t see the need for it,” he commented. “They produce mixed results.”
An Angel Investor
But Ward’s commitment goes beyond just growing his business. He is also committed to helping to foster economic development in the area. That’s why he started BRAIN in 2001. “We started having monthly meetings at Asheville Community College with 20-25 people attending, and then it soon grew to 75-100,” he said.
Ward played a pivotal role in bringing Jim Roberts to Asheville as BRAIN’s executive director. (Roberts also serves as the executive director of the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council.) “We need to build a technology labor pool here and an angel investor pool,” Ward said.
One issue that concerns Ward is the ‘double brain drain’ that western North Carolina experiences. “The best and brightest of our young people leave to go to college somewhere else and then don’t come back. Then the graduates of our local schools – UNC Asheville, Western Carolina, Montreat and Warren Wilson – leave after they finish school,” he observed.
Ward is proud of the fact that of his 30 employees, 20 are grads of local colleges, including 12 from UNC Asheville. And he’s optimistic about what the future can hold for the area.
“With the Internet, companies can be wherever they want to be, and Asheville has all the organic ingredients,” Ward observed. “It’s a tolerant community with gorgeous scenery and outdoor activities — it’s a cool place to be. It’s the kind of place Richard Florida talks about in ‘The Creative Class.’
“We’ll never be a Boston or an Austin or a Silicon Valley, ” Ward added, “but we can get to the point where we have boutique technology companies under every bush.”
Ward, who turns 55 in September, plans to help make that vision a reality by becoming “an angel investor engine for western North Carolina” when he completes a successful exit strategy from BUILDERadius through a sale or merger. He anticipates that happening in about two to three years when he expects revenues to reach about $25 million. “I’ve already been approached, but I’m not ready for that at this time,” he said. “We’re rocking along pretty good.”
Ward says there are about 150 investors in the company, but as he votes 80% of the stock, it is a tightly-held company. The board of directors includes nationally known golf course designer Tom Fazio and Ed Gropp, former CIO of Ahold USA. Both have retired to the Asheville area.
Baby boomers who retire to the North Carolina mountains are a great resource for emerging companies, Ward said, because of their business expertise and their wealth. “It’s great to access their abilities as investors and advisors,” he observed. “They are an extra plus in the primordial soup cooking here for technology firms to climb out of.”
Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council: www.ncmtns.biz/