||Like the gecko, we
change when our environment changes. We used to sell word processors; now we sell
computer networking equipment and IT services. Even
though w e still sell hardware, we're more of a people
business, because people drive hardware and software.
-- Darleen Johns, left, president
Alphanumeric Systems Inc.
Grit & Grace
Darleen Johns used hustle and hard
work to build her company
but it's her empathy and the desire to serve that keeps it on top
By Suzanne W. Wood
Nobody who knows
Darleen Johns would ever call her a radical feminist. But
that doesn't mean she isn't disappointed when she reads
articles that seem to focus on her hairstyle, nail polish
color or the décor of her office more than on her
considerable business acumen, forged over the 22 years
she has owned Alphanumeric Systems in Raleigh.
Fortunately, those kinds
of portrayals are few and far between these days for the
53-year-old Johns. Since founding the company in 1979 as
a reseller of word processing machines, Johns has
transformed Alphanumeric into a leading
information-technology solutions provider with sales of
$60 million and 240 employees. In the process, she has
gained acceptance, respect, admiration and even fierce
loyalty from her peers and clients in an industry where
few women have ascended to the top tier.
The metamorphosis that
Johns and her company has undergone mirrors the
chameleon-like ability of the gecko, a small tropical
lizard that Alphanumeric has adopted as its mascot and
logo; Johns has several gecko figurines on her desk and
usually sports a gold gecko pin on her lapel.
Like the gecko, we
change when our environment changes, says Johns.
We used to sell word processors; now we sell
computer networking equipment and IT services. Even
though we still sell hardware, we're more of a people
business, because people drive hardware and software.
We're continuing to grow and we're reengineering the
AS part of that
reengineering, Alphanumeric last fall spun off a wholly-owned subsidiary, the NetCritical Group, which
bills itself as an electronic infrastructure company.
NetCritical provides architecture, implementation and
support for high-performance Internet sites and corporate
gateways, or anybody who would feel great pain when
their site isn't working, notes Tim Finnegan, the
subsidiary's president. We're responding to the
whole emerging field of Internet Quality of Service,
which comes over from the telecommunications industry.
Everybody expects to have clear telephone service; now
the Internet is having to meet those same high standards.
We also focus on availability, scalability helping
clients adjust to peaks and valleys in site usage
Unlike its parent,
NetCritical plans to expand beyond North Carolina by
focusing on second-tier cities such as Nashville and
Charlotte, where it will have offices by the end of the
year. Finnegan expects first-year revenues of about $6
million. The reason we formed this company is that
most companies have so much invested in their Web
connections, he says. People don't want to
trust these technologies to companies that dabble; they
Even prior to
NetCritical's launch, Johns and her Alphanumeric team
were building distinct business units that would allow
them the latitude to develop the specialties that today's
marketplace demands, while at the same time maintaining
their stable, conservative, rooted-in-the-community
image. At the same time, Johns has been stepping back
from the day-to-day operations of the company to devote
more of her time to the visioning process and community
service. Her right-hand man, Executive Vice President
Steve Chase, who has been with Alphanumeric since 1990
when there were only 13 employees in the company
has assumed greater responsibility.
We're now focusing
on these areas, in addition to NetCritical, LAN/WAN
networks, enterprise storage, and contract services or
outsourcing, says Chase. By focusing on these
areas, we've been able to attract much larger accounts in
a diverse number of industries, such as pharmaceuticals,
publishing, health care providers, manufacturers, and
dot-coms. The fact that more and more companies are
hunkering down and focusing on their core competencies
has been good for us, in terms of outsourcing and our
other business units. And in the face of all the
companies that are slowing down or laying off, we are
expanding and attracting a lot of good people. Due to
this expansion, we currently have 21 open positions in
our infrastructure proper, and more at outsourcing
clients' work sites.
Alphanumeric recently was
ranked by an industry trade publication as one of the top
five hardware resellers in the state and among the top
300 in North America. Its other positive notices, such as
being named one of the 50 fastest-growing companies in
the Triangle for six years running and one of the 59
fastest-growing technology firms in North Carolina for
five years in a row, will only help Alphanumeric attract
the best workers.
Chances are, some of the
people Alphanumeric hires this summer will be with the
company the next decade, emulating Chase's long tenure in
an industry known for high turnover. People stay
here because of the corporate culture, our good people,
and the open-door policy we have with all the executives
things Darleen has done over the years, says
Chase. She encourages people to grow with the
company. For instance, a person who started here six
years ago at a very entry-level position is now managing
close to 130 people.
Johns also encourages a
casual, family atmosphere. It's the kind of placewhere employees can bring their children when they have
child-care problems; where it's not unusual to see a
chocolate Lab pup roaming the halls (on a leash, of
course); where an executive with a bag of pretzels and a
Coke in his hand saunters into Johns' office for a brief
impromptu chat; and where Johns and her administrative
assistant, Johnnie Bradley, call back and forth to each
other instead of using the intercom. She also invites a
group of 10 different employees each month to break bread
with her and share ideas and concerns.
Indeed, Johns' key talents
are, by all accounts, what some would call primarily
feminine traits: empathy; the ability to listen; and the
desire to serve.
She's one of the
best listeners I know, asserts Joan Myers,
president of the N.C. Electronic Information Technologies
Association, an industry trade group based in Raleigh.
Johns was NCEITA's chairman last year. As a person,
she has very strong values. They emanate from all aspects
of her life kindness, graciousness, and charity
yet she is an incredible strategic thinker. She
has built her whole business model on an outstanding
value proposition for her customers. She has incredible
business grit married with grace.
Under Johns' chairmanship,
NCEITA's membership and lobbying power grew
significantly, says Myers. Yet despite her busy schedule
and crushing responsibilities, Johns was unfailingly
friendly and courteous to Myers' staff. She's
always taken the time to talk to my staff, to thank them
or praise them for something they did, says Myers.
I look up to her; she has taught me so much as a
business person and a friend. The legacy Darleen leaves
you with is that you feel like you're a better person
after being with her.
Johns' composure in the
face of adversity is well known among her colleagues and
friends. When she sat down with a reporter recently, it
had been a hard week. Johns' husband, Robert, whom she
calls her best friend and mentor, was still recovering
from surgery for colon cancer. One of her beloved
poodles, whom she called her baby, died,
leaving her with just one poodle (for many years she'd
had three, and their portrait faces her desk). And a
favorite client, distraught over the condition of his
gravely ill wife, called on her for moral support. Yet
she cheerfully soldiered on with the interview and photo
session, displaying the trademark candor and sense of
humor (People ask me about my business exit
strategy I'll exit when I'm six feet under,
she has quipped) that has helped build relationships with
clients and peers.
Johns' strength as a
person and an entrepreneur has garnered her many awards
and recognition over the years, apart from the accolades
Alphanumeric routinely collects. Last month, Johns was
named a Woman of Today by the Pines of
Carolina Girl Scout Council, one of its highest honors.
She has been a Tar Heel of the Week in the Raleigh News
& Observer; was named a Distinguished Woman of North
Carolina by the Governor's Office and the N.C. Council of
Women; selected as an Outstanding Woman in Business and a
member of the Business Hall of Fame by Triangle Business
Journal; and chosen as Business/Professional Woman of the
Year by the YWCA Academy of Women.
With people like Chase
managing the operations at Alphanumeric, Johns has more
time to devote to her civic activities, which include
serving on 15 boards and committees. A longtime member of
NCCBI, she is now joining its Executive Committee.
Another recent involvement is serving on the N.C.
Efficiency and Loophole-Closing Committee, chaired by
former Govs. Bob Scott and Jim Holshouser and former
state Treasurer Harlan Boyles. Their mission: to study
the possibility of eliminating high-dollar tax breaks
resulting in $150 million in annual savings for the
state. Gov. Mike Easley also charged the group with
finding ways to save an additional $25 million through
cost-saving programs such as consolidating agencies or
turning to online services or procurement.
I have a long
history with the State of North Carolina, and I feel I
have an altruistic relationship with its officials and
agencies, says Johns. I bring a lot of
experience to this committee in terms of using technology
to be more efficient.
It was state government
that gave Johns her first taste of work. Graduating from Raleigh's Enloe High School in 1965 after having
been raised by her grandmother and an uncle, Johns soon
landed a job as a secretary at the Department of Motor
Vehicles, which seemed like a logical career path for a
young woman without a college degree.
Her skills and personality
got her noticed, and within five years she was promoted
to records-management analyst in the Department of
Administration. There, in addition to managing the
avalanche of paperwork that burdens all government
agencies and deciding what to discard and what to
archive, Johns kept looking for ways to work more
She saw something
promising in the first word processors that hit the
market in the mid-'70s. Some people derisively called
them $15,000 typewriters, but Johns was
intrigued with their potential to transform secretaries
and, by extension, help their companies be more
productive. It was in her capacity as a word-processing
procurement specialist that she met an executive with a
vendor called Electronic Calculators Inc. Impressed with
her knowledge and people skills, he hired her to be a
trainer for his company. She also did sales. That
experience, coupled with a brief stint as a part-time
salesperson at a local department store, helped convince
Johns that she could sell. So when the now-defunct ECI
began losing faith in word processors in favor of
calculators and other business machines, Johns decided
she would strike out on her own. Her husband, Robert,
also a business man and 25 years her senior, was her
In those early days of
1979, Johns and her three employees wore many hats.
Indeed, Johns recalls that she carried around four
different business cards, listing her titles variously as
trainer, controller, marketing support rep and president.
Some of her biggest breaks came when she landed big
accounts with military bases such as Cherry Point and
with her old employer, state government.
Today, state government is
still a large client of Alphanumeric's. That she has
managed to keep the same client happy for 22 years is no
surprise to her peers and clients who admire her social
as well as business skills.
I'm impressed with
Darleen's ability to build relationships and stay on top
of what's going on in the IT community and in state
government, says Ron Hawley, the state's Chief
Information Officer, who works in the Office of
Information Technology Services and has known Johns about
five years. She's a master at establishing and
building relationships, the best I've seen in state
government. Her company is very service-oriented. She
holds that responsibility high on her list of
responsibilities, and she's always trying to find
solutions. She looks at things from various angles to
make sure we get the best value in everything.
Johns knows that her
strengths lie in mapping strategy and anticipating trends
in the industry rather than learning how to do techie
things she leaves that to the experts. Although
she reads her fair share of trade magazines and attends
some trade shows (though not as many as in the past),
Johns keeps current by letting others in the industry
talk. I listen to what they say, she says of
her clients and competitors. I guess you call it
intuition or gut instinct I just listen to what is
going on in the community.
Back in the '70s, Johns'
sixth sense told her word processors would do for
secretaries what mainframes had done for accountants.
While others failed to fully embrace the technology,
Johns turned out to be prophetic. She's still making
those kinds of decisions today, and time will tell how
right they were.
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