When Michael Reed's children wanted to know why traffic signals didn't get covered with snow during a winter storm, he had a simple answer: Snow Ants.
Snow Ants, as Reed's story goes, live in the stoplights.
"They're nice people, but they have issues like everybody else," says Reed, president and CEO of Application Link Inc. "I told my kids the reason why no snow is there is because the Snow Ants broom them out to keep the motorists safe."
Reed's youthful imagination hasn't left him, even though his children are now grown.
Take, for example, the Beanie Baby lion on the credenza in his office.
"It reminds me of the kid in me," he says.
So do the yo-yo and Frisbee that often circulate throughout Application Link's Downtown offices and the purple toy Prowler, which Reed zooms along his desk when he's stressed.
The toys -- and a Cleveland Browns dog -- create the only character gracing Reed's office. He's been there nearly three years, but the sole thing hanging on the walls is a souvenir banner from Puerto Rico given to him by an employee -- and put there by the employee herself. He doesn't even have a desktop computer; file folders cover his desk.
For Reed, it's the simple things that make the day -- and the company.
Ten years after Application Link's founding in 1979, Reed bought out his partner. He's grown the 16-employee business to $20 million in sales -- with 32 straight quarters of profitability, he says -- through simple philosophies.
The first thing he did when he became full owner was to make the technology software and hardware company self-sufficient, which meant having its own products and brand, as well as creating a development division.
"I wanted to develop products we could develop in six months or less," he says, adding that reasoning came from his own use of software products. "I always had a problem with Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel. They're great products. But I always felt dumb because I always felt like I was only using 8 percent of the product."
Then he found out his customers had the same feelings.
"Before we put one pen to paper, I said, 'We have to make our products simple -- create products our customers could put their entire hands around,'" he says. "Everything we have is simple. Like Legos, you snap on pieces."
For example, one of his base products, LinkTRACK, used to track and manage business activities, is personalized for the legal field with add-ons such as a legal dictionary.
John S. Ensign, president of Ruscilli Construction Co. Inc. and a client who has known Reed for more than 10 years, says Reed's entrepreneurial instincts help him anticipate what the customer is looking for and put together new products in response.
"He's an up-and-comer, I think," Ensign says.
"Any time there's ever been a problem situation here, he'll get personally involved in the solution and do what it takes to make sure everything's resolved to our satisfaction."
Reed recently adopted for his business the Global Sullivan Principles to promote corporate social responsibility. Among the principles created by the Rev. Leon Sullivan, an African-American civil rights activist and Baptist clergyman: "We will promote fair competition including respect for intellectual and other property rights, and not offer, pay or accept bribes," and "We will respect our employees' voluntary freedom of association."
In Reed's efforts to stand out in his industry and retain employees, he seeks out what he calls "cool projects."
"There's no loyalty in our industry," he says. "People are jumping around. There's always somebody willing to bid higher, and the way to retain employees is to have cool projects."
His most recent cool project has been developing software to change the way government services are delivered. The aim: for the government to treat its clients as customers, not as numbers or problems.
Reed's three- to five-year goal for his company continues along the vein of keeping it as simple as possible: "To create a billion-dollar company with less than 100 employees. I think it's possible to do."
Perhaps Reed's simplicity enables him to interact with the children at the Eldon W. Ward YMCA, where he serves as president of the consulting board and leads grass-roots efforts to help the branch raise $2.2 million toward a renovation project.
"I think he's an excellent role model for our young kids," says Kim Jordan, the Y's executive director. "We don't hesitate to point out that he owns his own business. I think he has a genuine concern for young people and where they're going."
Reed, who lost his own father to cancer two years ago, has spent seven years on the Y's consulting board, an organization he says meets his desire to help children and senior citizens.
"I think the wisest person in the world is the oldest person in the world, because they've seen so much. In our society, we think the wisest person in the world is the richest person," he says. "And our children are our eternal hope. Any child we leave behind could be the child that's going to cure cancer, and people need to understand that."
In his spare time, Reed is an avid chess player.
"I've been playing chess ever since I was big enough to move the pieces. I even have a chess computer game on my hand-held (computer) I use when I'm trying to de-stress myself," he says.
What he likes about the game is that it requires the player to plan and execute a strategy.
"You have the opportunity to win or lose and, in doing that, it kind of mirrors life's struggles," he says. "You make your move, and somebody is always countering that move. You've got to understand that every move's important.
"There is no trivial move in life." How to reach: Michael Reed, Application Link Inc., 469-1981, ext. 26, or www.applicationlink.com
Joan Slattery Wall (email@example.com) is associate editor of SBN Columbus.