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“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 company.”

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 — and security.”

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 want specialists.”

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 efficiently.

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 biggest supporter.

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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