Trenton is, or at least once was, a great place for manufacturing. But could it become a high tech hub? Kamal Bathla, CEO of Maestro Technologies, thinks so.
Until recently Maestro Technologies was following the business model of many IT outsourcing companies. Headquartered in Edison, the firm, which specializes in big data services, outsourced much of its engineering and programming work to an office in India. But in September the company cut a ribbon on a new headquarters in a historic building in downtown Trenton, and Bathla says he plans to close the India office and “re-shore” many jobs to American workers.
Maestro is hiring programmers, analysts, and business development specialists, and has many other open positions. “By the end of next year, the fun starts. We are hiring like crazy,” Bathla says.
Maestro is currently renovating its new headquarters, located at 1 West State Street, which began life as a bank and was most recently home to Wells Fargo and the Schools Development Authority, both of which moved out in 2013. Maestro now occupies the entire building.
Maestro is the largest tech company to set up shop in Trenton, which in its best days was known for industry, not information technology. Under the terms of an economic incentive, Maestro will retain 35 jobs and add 143 new ones in exchange for $17 million in tax credits.
However, Bathla says it was Trenton’s location, not just the tax credits, that prompted him to move the headquarters there. In his office Bathla has a whiteboard with equations showing Trenton’s suitability as a tech hub. Before founding his own company, Bathla worked at J.P. Morgan, where he ran a program on global location optimization, which was based on where workers with desired skills were located and how much it would cost to hire them.
Bathla says he used a similar system to compare location options for Maestro. He looked at various metro areas and took into account the number of skilled workers living there, salary levels, cost of living, the unemployment rate, and the number of college students graduating within a 30-mile radius, and found that Trenton came out ahead of everywhere else. “This decision was backed by solid data,” he says.
Maestro also considered moving to Wilmington, Delaware, which also offered a generous incentive package, but Bathla says that the numbers didn’t measure up. “When we compared Trenton and Wilmington, Trenton was way higher in all measures,” he says. “The skill distribution, salary levels, and access to resources was amazing. The decision was not emotional, but it was numbers-based.”
Bathla says he thinks more tech companies would move to Trenton, like he has, if they also crunched the numbers objectively and came to the city to see what it’s like.
But though Bathla says his decision to move to Trenton was purely based on the numbers, there were emotional factors in play. “New Jersey is home,” he says. “I live in Watchung, so it’s not an easy commute, but I’m passionate about what I do.” Bathla says he is not unknown in Trenton and his wife, Susheel Bathla, a podiatrist, has been active in the Trenton community for years.
Bathla grew up in India, where his father was in the real estate business. The youngest in his family, Bathla earned a bachelor’s in electrical engineering in India before moving to the U.S., earning a master’s in computer science at the State University of New York in Buffalo.
He originally formed his company in 1993 as an Internet service provider, turning it over to partners to take a job at J.P. Morgan. In 1998 Maestro switched from providing dialup Internet service to consulting, operating with only a few clients until 2007, when Bathla turned his attention to the business after taking a buyout at J.P. Morgan, where he was a senior vice president.
Bathla grew the business, acquiring another company, Brahma Infotech, and moving into Brahma’s office at 707 Alexander Road. (U.S. 1, March 9, 2011.) He later moved the headquarters to Thornall Street in Edison.
Bathla says Maestro specializes in big data solution services, which means analyzing the vast amounts of information gathered by companies like credit card firms. For example, Maestro might develop a program that looks at the buying patterns of consumers to predict future purchases. These predictive analytics are similar to the ones used to recommend movies to streaming video users. Maestro’s clients include J.P. Morgan, Chase, Bloomberg, and Goldman Sachs.
According to Bathla, most Maestro employees are currently located in the U.S. “We do have a presence in India, but most of that is coming back to the U.S.,” he says. He says the economic factors that once made it favorable to outsource programming to India are changing: salaries in India are rising and the quality of work output is declining, he says.
As of late September, there were 18 Maestro employees working in the new Trenton headquarters. Bathla was renovating the building and planning to move the rest of the Edison staff and add new employees as the year goes on, with a goal of about 200 staff. In the meantime, Bathla says he is renovating the building to include Silicon Valley-like perks for workers.
“We’re going to have ping-pong tables, pool tables, bean bags, and nap pods,” he says. “We are trying to establish a collaborative environment.”
He also plans to make the historic building into even more of a landmark by adding LED lights that change the color of the columns out front so he can display seasonal lighting. The building retains its marble-lined lobby with teller stations and all, and Bathla says this space will be used for large gatherings and conferences.
The plan for the building includes a “smart applications innovation hub,” where young entrepreneurs or students can take workshops on topics like cryptocurrency, big data, the Internet of Things, and cyber-security.
Michael Walker, spokesman for Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson, welcomed the business as an opportunity for Trenton residents to learn high-tech skills. “Can you imagine, public school students learning about the future of technology? Blockchain, and things like that?” he said. “Trenton is filled with possibilities.”
Maestro is also launching a program to provide paid internships for Mercer County Community College students, leading to full-time jobs after graduation.
Walker says he hopes Maestro will draw other high-tech companies to downtown Trenton. “I think Kamal is representative of the future in terms of how businesses perceive Trenton as a destination for conducting business, and a destination for technology,” he said. “He is forward thinking, and his way of thinking should be adopted by other business leaders.”