Computer forensics firm ProServices is up and running and moving into its new offices in the Roebling Center in Trenton. To get this far the company has had to overcome the sudden death of one of its principals, a torturously convoluted municipal permitting system, and the challenge of selling a product that is so difficult to explain that Rob Cross, who directs its sales effort, says that doing so takes “almost a Jehovah’s Witness.”
ProServices is a “red alert” sort of company. Nearly all of its business comes from corporations or military agencies that need the software running a new device to work perfectly, and to do so yesterday. When this doesn’t happen, it is often necessary to comb through millions of lines of computer code to find bugs, a process that can turn up thousands of false positives.
Cross, who has a minority ownership interest in ProServices, says that few companies have the time, the personnel, or the software tools to do this job. Fewer still want to stop a project’s forward momentum to go back and pinpoint programming errors. His company’s bread and butter is analyzing the code, locating the bugs, and reporting on which ones are causing breakdowns. It does this work for Fortune 100 companies, and increasingly for government entities, particularly agencies within the Department of Defense.
ProServices, a 15-employee company that pulled in $1.5 million in revenue last year and is confident of doubling that amount in 2007, is a convergence of two major storylines.
The first is the entrepreneurial enterprises of Brian Gill-Price, the company’s president. A rebellious Army brat turned born again Christian who started his first software company while he was a Lehigh undergraduate in the late-1970s, Gill-Price went on to gather $48 million in venture capital to start Silicon Valley-based ProCase, a company, now defunct, that sold tools to automate the programming process. ProCase cast Gill-Price off when he couldn’t get along with a president installed by its venture capital backers. The company set him up in business 3,000 miles away, in a one-man office in Carnegie Center. It provided some office equipment, but little else. When ProCase tanked, it took all of its venture capital with it. Gill-Price and his new company, ProServices, had to start from scratch.
The second storyline, and a major source of ProServices’ funding, revolves around Y2K. An entrepreneur all of his adult life, Gill-Price quickly seized upon opportunity when the run-up to the year 2000 caused companies large and small to scramble to find and fix code that could cripple their operations when the calendar flipped to a new century.
In the mid-1990s he sold tools that companies could use to scour their code for Y2K problems. Then, as the date of the ball drop came closer and companies began to panic, he hired consultants and took on the jobs himself. “In 1999 I was on the road 299 days,” he says. The work was lucrative. A single client would pay more than $1 million for assurance that any potentially disruptive code could be identified in time.
His partner in this effort was Jerry Covello, who was working as sales director of Boston-based programming tools company Software Emancipation during the Y2K run-up, and, at the same time, was a silent partner in ProServices. He and Covello fed each other business, and Covello came on-board full time in 2000, serving as president of the company.
A large photo of a smiling Covello hangs in ProServices’ reception area. Covello’s framed photo ID sits on Gill-Price’s desk and his photo is also in the top drawer of Cross’s desk. Covello, a long-time Princeton resident, died in a car crash in 2005, after plans for ProServices’ expansion in Trenton were well underway, and his presence is still strong.
Gill-Price met Covello when he was hired to work as a salesman at ProCase, and he didn’t like him one bit. Not for a long time. “We were absolute opposites,” he says. “He was a New Jersey boy with an accent and a sales suit. He looked like a used car salesman. I was a Californian, a hippie. I was an arrogant programmer at the peak of my career. I had no reason to respect him.”
But he had to work with him, so the two hit the road in search of clients. “He deliberately communicated that he was a big dumb salesman,” Gill-Price recalls. “Programmers thought of him as a dumb jock.”
Gill-Price spent a year wincing at Covello’s performances, which were heavy on emotion. Then, slowly, he began to see what was happening. “He was always in control of the situation,” he says. “He understood what made people move. The programmers never saw it.” But they bought the software automation tools nonetheless, even when they had no idea what they were buying — or why. The tools are a hard sell, says Gill-Price, because, while all programmers will agree that software in general is horribly buggy, they are all convinced that they themselves are doing excellent work. Few, he says, see the need for tools that reduce errors by automating the process.
Covello was so good at moving the tools that he was soon responsible for 60 percent of ProCase’s sales. Gill-Price says that Covello had that kind of success no matter what he was selling. A sales legend, Covello became a top salesman at Xerox when “they were selling fire extinguishers with their copiers,” says Gill-Price. Working around the tendency of his company’s machines to burst into flames, Covello concentrated on selling paper, and became the company’s top salesman in 1978. “They did a study on him,” says Gill-Price, “a psychological study to see why he was so good.”
The super salesman and the techie entrepreneur began hatching plans for taking ProServices to the next level after the Y2K clean-up was over. Rather than selling automation tools, the business of ProCase, where they met, they decided to sell what they called “factory based services,” which would include re-engineering, software lifecycle maintenance, and general purpose software development. While all of these services are still available, ProServices is spending most of its time on troubleshooting, or, as it likes to call it, “computer forensics.”
Gill-Price likes the term “factory,” and so did Covello. Their company wasn’t actually going to manufacture anything, but they saw their work as a successor to the work for which Trenton became famous in the heyday of John Roebling, who manufactured the wire cable for the Brooklyn Bridge in Trenton. ProServices’ work is now being done by professional engineers, but Gill-Price envisions a future in which it could be broken down into simple steps that a high school graduate, perhaps trained with the help of ProServices, could perform.
Gill-Price says that he and Covello liked the idea of Trenton as a symbol. They also liked its location, with its easy access to trains and highways, and both thought of it as a bit of a social project. They would bring technical jobs, staffed by people with disposable income, to the city. Others companies would follow, and restaurants, first-rate housing, and vibrant street life would spring up around them. Somehow, residents of one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods would also find work in these high-tech companies, and would prosper right along with them.
“It was about the message,” says Gill-Price. “The message is manufacturing. To customers it says that we do something in a repetitive, standardized way.”
This vision led the partners to look for offices in Trenton. They moved from the Carnegie Center to a converted house on East State Street, and immediately began looking for larger quarters. Their quest led them to what was once Roebling’s infirmary and human resources building, at 700 South Clinton Avenue — a building whose big new sign reads “Trenton Makes Technology.”
Leading a tour, Cross points out spaces that were once nurses’ stations and patients’ rooms. As much of the original building as possible has been preserved. Its four-inch thick pine floors have been polished and the doorway of the thick brick bearing wall has been exposed. The building sits on a corner and tapers at each end, creating odd-shaped offices for its executives, each of whom has chosen his own warm, dark wood furnishings.
When the partners bought the 10,000-square-foot former Roebling infirmary in 2001, says Gill-Price, they “thought of it as a small thing, a small project.” They got estimates on the cost of rehabbing the building, last occupied in 1976, and learned that it was generally in good shape. “We thought it would take $300,000 to $370,000,” says Gill-Price. It would be a small amount of money, and a negligible time commitment.
So far the building’s renovation has taken years longer than first anticipated, has cost $1.5 million, and its bathroom and kitchen are still works in progress. Gill-Price, used to Silicon Valley office buildings, which he recalls seeing rise from farmland virtually overnight, had no idea of what he was getting into in taking on an old building in an old city. The project has strained the company’s finances and drained something from his spirit.
He and his partner thought they would be in their building within three years.
“Three years! Do you have any idea what a start-up can accomplish in three years!” exclaims the former Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He still has a hard time fathoming the fact that putting an old building back on line could possibly take longer than founding, funding, running, and selling a start-up. “It almost killed me,” he says. “It’s a very, very difficult thing to do, keeping a building alive.”
Near the end of the process, Gill-Price is somewhat baffled by what went wrong.
“Trenton welcomed us,” he says. “They really wanted us. They appointed a point man to help us through the process. The city did a good job of trying.” But, still, rehabbing the building was way more than he bargained for. His construction people told him, for example, that the electric in the building was sound, but it turned out not to be up to code, and had to be completely replaced.
It’s a good bet that that sort of work would have been required in almost any municipality, but Gill-Price shakes his head when he talks about some of the city’s other requirements. Sitting in a building completely surrounded by concrete and asphalt, he says, “we had to go through three separate landscaping approvals. We had to hire a landscape architect, and they kept rejecting his plans. They didn’t like the bushes!”
No one from the city deliberately obstructed the process. No one was anything but helpful. “It was death by yes,” says Gill-Price.
Anne LaBate, a commercial real estate broker with Segal, an agency with offices in Trenton, has some insight into ProServices’ rehabilitation woes. She lives and works in the company’s Roebling neighborhood, enjoys its diversity, knows a great deal about its buildings, and found a tenant for Gill-Price. She says that ProServices’ principals have done a first-rate job in restoring their building, and that it will certainly make a difference in the city.
“There is no question that he (Gill-Price) is making a statement,” says LaBate. “He took an old, old building and did something striking. There is no question that he did a good job.” She is showing other companies buildings near his, making sure to point out his “cool signs,” and sees South Clinton Avenue beginning to jell as a technology corridor.
Some clients get the appeal of the area more quickly than others. LaBate cites a European company that is now looking in the area. Used to urban areas, and valuing a convenient train station, that company thinks that ProServices’ neighborhood could be just right. PowerLight, the tenant Labate brought to Gill-Price’s building is also very happy with the area. “They’ve already found restaurants that I had never heard of,” she says, “and I live in the neighborhood.”
Labate says that the red tape ProServices encountered in rehabbing its building would have been at least as bad in almost any area municipality, and would have been a good deal worse in some. “South Brunswick and West Windsor are horrible,” she says. “Trenton isn’t nearly the worst.” Besides, she says, building codes are set by the state. It would be nice to wave them aside, but she says that no town is able to do so.
While the building rehab didn’t go as planned, neither did one advantage that ProServices hoped to reap from its inner city location. Obtaining HUBZone — historically underutilized business zone — certification was high on the company’s to-do list when the partners decided on a Trenton location. Government agencies, and companies that sell to these agencies, are required to set aside a portion of their contracts for businesses that have earned this certification.
ProServices did so, but Cross, a graduate of the University of Cincinnati (1995) who is in charge of sales, says it wasn’t a help. “It gets you into the door, but that’s about it,” he says. The company did not obtain any business under this certification, and he didn’t think that it ever would. In fact, the company, although it is now operating from a HUBZone location, has given up the certification. “It requires that 35 percent of your employees live in a HUBZone,” says Cross. It is out of the question that any of the white collar engineers who staff the company would even consider living near its offices, he says. He is unaware of middle-class Trenton neighborhoods like Glen Afton or Hiltonia, but points out that they probably aren’t in HUBZones anyway.
Gill-Price and Cross repeat identical visions of Trenton as they want it to be. “Our employees could leave their homes in the morning, walk to get a cup of coffee, drop their children off at school, stop into the YMCA for a work-out, and then come to work,” each says. “After work they could hire a local babysitter and go out to dinner in Chambersburg.”
It’s true that there has been talk of a new YMCA for the Roebling area for a long time, and a new, architecturally stunning grammar school is in the works, says LaBate. But Gill-Price, running a company in a formerly bustling industrial zone, shows little inclination to hang around waiting for an urban utopia to emerge.
He is obviously distressed to report that a car in his parking lot has had a tire removed. He says he isn’t sure that he can provide security for his employees. But crimes like these take place all the time, everywhere, and certainly all along the Route 1 office corridor in West Windsor and Lawrence, where cars are stolen and vandalized with some regularity. Yet Gill-Price, who lives near Newtown, Pennsylvania, is worn down from a couple of tough years, and appears to have decided that Trenton is not what he thought it would be.
In response to a question on whether he is disillusioned, he says, “not disillusioned, but discouraged.” He says that he would have difficulty recommending siting a company in the city to the many engineers who attend the church in Washington Crossing, in which he, his wife, and their three nearly-grown children are active.
His outlook might be brighter had film production company Manex been able to deliver on its promise of turning a large portion of the historic Roebling complex, which is made up of dramatic brick buildings with huge windows and high ceilings, into special effects studios. The demise of that plan upon Manex’s bankruptcy, says LaBate, left the heart of the area vacant. Forward momentum will pick up, she says, when a plan for those buildings is formulated.
Gill-Price may not be around to see that day. He says that he has to move his company in two years. By that time, he says, it will require 50,000 to 60,000 square feet. He has already cut his real estate in half by renting the lower floor of his two-story building to PowerLight, a solar energy company. He says that he moved another company in to ensure that he would stick to his timeline and move to much larger quarters in two years, avoiding a temptation to make do with the two-story building.
“We need to decide by the spring,” he says. “It will be Trenton or someplace else.” He has clients in Fort Monmouth that could be moving to Aberdeen, Maryland. “Maybe Baltimore,” he says of a possible new home for his company, which is only partly moved into its Roebling offices. “I have to decide if the passion I have is a Trenton passion or an inner city passion,” says Gill-Price, a fit outdoorsman who maintains homes on the Chesapeake and in Costa Rica.
It’s possible that Trenton was more the idea of Covello, the “Jersey guy,” than of Gill-Price. LaBate points out that Covello was born in Trenton. In any case, the loss of Covello at the helm has had a major impact on the company in a number of ways.
“We had a succession plan,” says Gill-Price, “but we didn’t cross-insure each other.” They had the papers drawn up, but decided not to pay the premiums. “We were keeping costs in line, and chose not to spend the money,” he says. “We knew it was a risk. I’m not afraid to take risks, but that one can bite you.”
Because of the succession plan, Covello’s ownership interest passed smoothly to Gill-Price, but because he had not taken out insurance on his partner, he had to use company resources to buy out his portion. “It was hard to come up with enough capital to pay off the estate,” he says.
Covello’s worth was measured in much more than dollars, though. “He was the president,” says Gill-Price. “I never wanted to be president. He was the front and center person. I can do that, but I’m needed to run the engineering shop.”
Covello was also Gill-Price’s peer in every way. “We were the same age,” says the entrepreneur, who is 52. “We used to bounce ideas off one another. We would have violent arguments. I miss that. I don’t want people I can persuade too easily. He left a big hole. It’s not an easy hole to fill.”
Then there were Covello’s peerless sales skills. Cross had worked with him at Software Emancipation during the Y2K run-up, and had become a disciple. Gill-Price knew Cross, too, and he and Covello brought him on-board to work in sales several years before Covello’s death. Cross is now building a sales force, and Gill-Price, who is close to him, and is the godfather of one of his three small children, is watching to see how well he succeeds. “It’s an experiment,” he says. He is hoping that it is one that works so well that Cross ends up succeeding him as the company’s president.
Cross, an East Windsor resident and the father of a six-year-old and 18-month-old twins, is certainly giving the job his all. He rises each day at 4:30 a.m., is at Gold’s Gym on Quakerbridge Road by 5:30 a.m., and at his desk by 7 a.m. He, too, misses Covello, but is sure that he has absorbed enough of the master’s secrets to form and lead a sales force at ProServices. He also knows that he is walking a tightrope. He wants to find pros with deep experience in selling technology, people who “are better than I am,” but who are also humble enough to cast aside their own sales styles to learn the techniques that Covello taught him.
In working to round out the company in Covello’s absence, Gill-Price has just made another key hire. Scott Clark has assumed the title of vice president of engineering. “He’s an engineer, but not a software engineer,” says Gill-Price. “I have an attitude toward programmers. I don’t respect the skills. It’s too much catch as catch can in terms of running an organization. I have a lot of engineers — plenty of technical knowledge. I need somebody to herd cats.”
Sort of a cat himself, at least in his determination to live life on his own terms, Gill-Price is the son of an Army officer. He was born Brian Price in Tokoyo, and later merged his name with that of his wife, Amy Gill. His father moved him, his mother, and his brother and sister all around the globe, and died in Vietnam in 1967, when he was 12. His mother then moved the family to Washington, D.C., where she met and married Brigadier General Albion Knight, who ran for vice president on the U.S. Taxpayers Party ticket in 1992.
Gill-Price didn’t get along with his step-father at first, and lapsed into what he recalls as a period of drug use and out-of-control rebelliousness. But he soon righted himself, and attributes the turn-around to a conversion to Christianity. He applied to West Point with the express purpose of determining whether a Christian pacifist could, in good conscience, fight in a war. He was shocked to be admitted to the academy, and spent two happy years there debating with his teachers. He then left, convinced that he could serve in wars that he himself defined as just, but could not serve in wars he considered to be unjust.
He went on to Lehigh University, where he earned a degree in civil and mechanical engineering in 1979. Shortly after graduation, he and his new wife, traveled to Silicon Valley — by bicycle. He had biked through Europe with his brother when he was a teen-ager, and found traversing the United States, already a nation of superhighways and strip malls, much less fun.
“When we arrived in Silicon Valley we had $70 in our pockets,” says Gill-Price. The hot tech area was already booming. It took him all of six days to find a job, but six months to find an affordable apartment. Most of his early jobs, including one at the University of California at Santa Cruz, involved creating operating systems. By the mid-1980s he had become a shareholder in a start-up, CAE Systems, that was sold for $75 million in 1985 to Techtronics. He then went to work for Techtronics. It was his first big company experience, and he quickly decided that big “is no way to run a company.” Chaffing at the rigidity of operating within a slow-moving corporation, he left within six months to start ProCase.
Learning a new lesson from that experience, where venture capital investors took over operations, moved the company in directions he thought unwise, and eventually pushed him out, he has come to be leery of taking on venture capital. ProServices made money from the start, and Gill-Price is not inclined to look for venture capital to grow it, although he does not rule out that possibility entirely.
He expects that ProServices will quintuple in size within the next few years as its sales effort, still just in early stages, gears up. Now several rooms of its new Roebling complex building are studded with “Top Secret” signs. Some 80 percent of its business comes from the Department of Defense. The original business plan called for a 50-50 split between corporate and government work, but right now the military is where the money is, says Gill-Price.
ProServices has already conquered substantial challenges. A plan to replace Covello’s out-sized contribution is being implemented, its new offices are occupied and lack only finish work, and its product has penetrated at least one large market segment. Gill-Price, who has forged his own trails for all of his life, now has a little time to think about whether breathing life into an underutilized business zone is a challenge he wants to take on — and conquer.
proServices Corporation, 690-92 South Clinton Avenue, Trenton 08611; 609-599-2171; fax, 609-890-9954. Brian Gill-Price, CEO. www.proservicescorp.com