Entrepreneurial Success Award Featured

9:56am EDT July 22, 2002

The seven years entrepreneur Jim Wallace spent in corporate America prior to starting his first business provided him valuable learning experiences.

“I often see entrepreneurs who tend to put down large corporations,” he notes. “But working for a large corporation taught me some good things — in terms of business, discipline and getting along with people — that I otherwise would have had to learn the hard way.”

In 1970, Wallace founded his first business, Cascade Data, to provide computing equipment for businesses too small to require a mainframe. Four years later, he sold it and founded a second company, Representative Electronic Products, or REP Associates, a manufacturer’s representative firm in the electronic components business. Within eight years, he merged it into a Columbus company he’d acquired called Microtech.

By the time Wallace got around to selling that company in December 1986, he was a year and a half into his current venture: Cranel Inc., named for his son and daughter, Craig and Janel.

Wallace admits he wrestled with the decision to sell Microtech. “I had reached the point in those years where I was ready to do something different, but with that I carried a heavy moral obligation to make sure the people were OK,” he says. “After all, I did not build the business alone, and I felt a heavy obligation to make sure those people were taken care of.”

When Cranel was formed in June 1985, Wallace says the initial focus was on distributing mass storage and document imaging products. In time, he began to sense a need in the marketplace for post-sale services, so in 1988, the support and maintenance division of Cranel emerged.

This trend of adding new pieces to the company — rather than starting new ventures — continued in the early ’90s when “severe margin pressure” in the distribution area and customer concerns about the inability find people to implement mass storage pushed Wallace to once again change Cranel’s focus. This time, he was after “a solutions concept,” which he continues to build upon today with the recent addition of another business segment — the professional services or consulting component.

“We now have a solutions sales force that initiates a customer contact,” Wallace said. “Once the solution is sold to the customer, we have a consulting group that makes it work in the customer’s site. And then we have the support and maintenance side of the business, which supports the customer after the sale.”

Cranel has provided the massive storage systems that Time uses to digitize and archive all its photographs — more than 25 million. Cranel also provided the equipment and teamed with a reseller in Costa Rica for a project in which all land ownership records in the country’s history were digitized and stored on computer systems. With offices in Boston, Denver, Atlanta, Chicago, Aliso Viejo, Calif., and Princeton, N.J., the company will surpass 200 employees in 1999. Revenues in 1998 approached $100 million.

Diane Allen, senior loan officer at Columbus Countywide Development Corp. and Wallace’s SBA award nominator, notes that although Cranel is growing at very rapidly, that growth has been carried out thoughtfully and carefully.

“I think that is the heart of this award — not just a successful small business person, but someone who has really expanded very capably,” she says. “In order to better serve their market, which is truly a national market, they have been able to establish and successfully manage satellite locations, and that can be very tough, particularly for a young company.”

Allen attributes much of Cranel’s success to Wallace’s leadership.

“He has an incredible ability to maintain control down to a detailed level, but he also has done a good job of hiring capable people and delegating, which is very important,” she said.

Wallace’s business philosophy is simple: “I drill into my people that what we deliver to our customers may be a product or a service, but what we sell to them is our integrity, and if we ever give up our integrity, we have nothing left to sell.”

His personal philosophy is just as simple: “We all get out of life what we give of ourselves. If we give of ourselves to others, we’re going to be very well rewarded.”

In keeping with that, Wallace sits on the board of advisers for the Entrepreneurial Institute at the University of North Dakota and the School of Engineering at North Dakota State University. In 1998, his home state honored him as the North Dakota Entrepreneur of the Year.

Although baffled by the trend of holding entrepreneurs in such high regard, Wallace says, “I admire anyone who can stand on a street corner and sell hot dogs and make money at it. I admire anyone who has a business, regardless of size, and can make it go. So there are many people in this world that I admire.”