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Dwight Smith Featured

9:43am EDT July 22, 2002

If you see Dwight Smith, president and CEO of Sophisticated Systems Inc., driving down the road, he might be singing.

“I ought to have some musical talent, as much as I listen to it,” says Smith, 42, who particularly likes the tunes on his Jackson Five CD. “I love music. I have always wanted to play an instrument.”

Two years ago, Smith purchased a used saxophone with the intention of learning to play. The lessons have been put on hold, however, with Smith busy running one of the fastest-growing information technology companies in the country.

“Sometimes there’s not enough time in the day,” he says. “But I have people around me that are very understanding and supportive, and that means a lot.”

These are people like Lynn Berta, Smith’s executive assistant.

“She takes care of me and the company’s interest,” Smith says. “She lets me do a lot more than I am capable of doing and have time to do.”

The other unsung hero is Damaro Lewis, second in command at Sophisticated.

“He is one of the people that keeps my feet on the ground,” Smith says. “Frankly, I think he is the smartest person in the company — so much smarter than me.”

Back in 1990, long before Smith met up with these folks, he found the confidence to venture out on his own after getting a taste of entrepreneurship at a Michigan software consulting firm.

As branch manager, Smith was responsible for about 50 individuals, including all hiring and firing decisions, as well as choosing what projects to pursue. It was like running a small business, Smith recalls.

“I said, ‘This is fun.’”

After growing up in Springfield and attending Ohio State University for both his undergraduate and graduate work, Smith was sure Columbus was where he wanted to be.

“I love Columbus. It’s just a warm, friendly city,” he says.

So he sold his house in Michigan, left his job, returned to Columbus apartment living and lived off his savings while forming Sophisticated Systems.

He remembers transferring what he calls his “IBM mentality” to the business: “I always wanted to do business with big companies.”

Today, Smith’s company boasts such clients as Nationwide, Honda, the State of Ohio, Abbott Labs and Bank One. Sophisticated even made Inc. magazine’s list of the country’s 500 fastest growing private businesses in 1996 and 1997.

Sophisticated Systems was profitable its first year in business, Smith says, generating $80,000 in revenues. It has remained profitable every year since, with 1999 revenues estimated to be in excess of $24 million. The company employs between 120 and 130 individuals, with about 20 more full-time subcontractors.

That’s a far cry from the beginning, when Smith was the only employee.

“With that kind of growth comes some challenges and a lot of excitement,” Smith says.

Already firmly planted in Columbus, Dayton, Indianapolis and Detroit, Sophisticated may enter the Cleveland marketplace this year.

“Our employees make the company go,” the characteristically modest Smith says of Sophisticated’s success. “They are appreciated every day.”

In addition, lots of big companies have given Sophisticated a chance, Smith says, and that translates into tremendous credibility.

Although Smith ascribes Sophisticated’s success to others, folks close to Smith know there’s another reason — Smith’s diligent work ethic and high moral and ethical character. Jim Hackbarth, president of Cornerstone Partners, an executive recruiting firm in Columbus, has known Smith since the two were salesmen at IBM right out of college.

“He is, without a doubt, one of the most forthright, honest, what-you-see-is-what-you-get businessmen in Central Ohio,” Hackbarth says. “He walks the talk.”

Other colleagues, such as Don Anthony, president and CEO of a Columbus consulting firm known as The Warrior Group, emphasizes Smith’s ability to focus and put the things he is trying to achieve into a concrete plan.

“He cares about people and issues,” Anthony says. “He does things that most typical business executives will not do, just from the standpoint that it’s the right and humane thing to do.”

Smith’s character extends far beyond the day-to-day operations at Sophisticated. As the father of three stepsons, he is openly committed to kids — his own and others.

Last year, he established the JSS Foundation, named for his stepsons, to provide financial and other support to kids and to foster the notion of entrepreneurship.

“Every day, the reason I work an extra hour is because I want to try and get in a position where I can really help kids,” he says.

In spite of his hectic schedule — in addition to running his own business, Smith chairs the entrepreneurial committee at the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, is a board member at Columbus State Community College and the Columbus Regional Minority Supplier Development Council, and serves on the Governor’s Small Business Advisory Committee — quality of life is important to him. Not only does he exercise to help alleviate stress, he derives much of his strength from his religion.

“If I had a penny for every time I prayed during the day, I would be retired already,” Smith says. “It gives me strength and it always guides and directs me to do the right thing. I have many people to answer to, but especially to God.”

Smith is earnest about his obligation to give back to the community, and he is thankful for the position he is in. He often recalls his earliest jobs, baling hay for $1.55 hour and waiting tables for $1 an hour plus tips.

“I feel like one of the most blessed people in the world,” he says. “I have been put in a position to give back and I hope that I have been wise in those decisions. I hope I have not missed opportunities.

“When it’s all said and done, you can’t take it with you.”

Lori Murray (Lori3204@aol.com) is a free-lance writer for SBN.