Corrections or additions?

This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the August 7, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

How Skeptics of the EDA Became Big Boosters

Dynamic Security Concepts Inc. (DSCI) is a company whose

business is hush-hush as well as high-tech. Based in Mays Landing,

the fast-growing information systems company has contracts with the

FAA and other government agencies. Its work includes helping to ensure

the safety of air traffic control systems and consulting on systems

to foil would-be terrorists and hackers.

Founder and president, Susan Hopkins, and her friend, fifth

employee, and vice president of finance, Susan Sandman, are

reluctant to divulge too many details about DSCI’s work. But when

neighbors decided that the company’s first real office was most probably

a hair salon, they decided a low profile could be too low.

"The shutters were pink," says Sandman, explaining, at least

in part, the confusion. On trips to the bank, tellers were baffled

by the size of the checks she was depositing. (Among the company’s

contracts is a $20 million multi-year contract from the FAA.) She

and Hopkins chuckled about the tellers’ reaction, but when government

decision makers were to make a security clearance call, the pair decided

the shutters needed a makeover.

"Mrs. Hopkins hired me because she knew I could paint shutters,"

laughs Sandman, an attorney by training. "I painted the shutters

brown."

Eventually, with the help of a loan guarantee from the New Jersey

Economic Development Authority (NJEDA), the firm purchased an office

that reflected the nature of its work. Happily serving as NJEDA boosters,

Hopkins and Sandman are among the featured speakers at the New Jersey

Technology Council’s "Women in Technology" program on Tuesday,

August 20, at 8:30 a.m. at the office of the NJEDA on West State Street

in Trenton. Also speaking are Caren Franzini, executive director

of the NJEDA; and Kathleen Czarniewski, senior portfolio manager,

First Union. Cost: $40. Call 856-787-9700.

The house with the pink shutters was DSCI’s second home. A firm believer

in the importance of frugality to the success of a start-up business,

Hopkins began the company, now grown to some 38 employees, in her

house seven years ago. The reason she moved to an outside office?

"You move the first time your five-year-old answers the phone,

and Lockheed Martin’s on the line, and he says `Mommy’s in the bathroom,’"

Hopkins says. So it was on to the 900 square-foot house with the pink

shutters. As her payroll began to grow, conditions became intolerable.

"My office was in the kitchen," says Sandman. "The safe

was in my face." Anyone needing access to the safe would have

to insert their derrieres between her and the safe.

By then in charge of contracts, benefits, and more, Sandman went out

looking for a larger space. "I looked at offices for a year and

a half," she says. The space would have to have features dictated

by the terms of the company’s government contracts. Security was important,

as were walls between different sections. Rent on any suitable space

was above what their government contracts could support. Finally,

Sandman found a building that would work, and it was for sale.

The young company needed help to swing the purchase. An potential

answer was that loan guarantee from the NJEDA, but Sandman was reluctant

to go there. "I’m like a total Republican," she offers as

an explanation. "I believed there is nothing government can help

you with. I thought it would be a lot of paperwork for very little

money, a bureaucratic nightmare."

Instead, she found working the NJEDA "the most pleasant experience."

The paperwork was easy, and with the NJEDA and their local bank, Minatola

Bank, behind DCSI, the company was able to purchase a building for

a yearly payment that is half what it would have paid to lease a similar

space. The 5,000 square-foot space also contains rental apartments,

as well as offices DSCI leases to government agencies.

DSCI is just the kind of company the NJEDA want to nurture, says Sandman.

It is in a high-tech field, is growing rapidly, and provides good

jobs. Salaries, she says, range from $38,000 to $150,000. And how

large will the company be in a year or two?

"One hundred employees," says Hopkins with nary a second’s

hesitation.

"No, no. Wait," interjects Sandman. "When you get past

50 employees you have to deal with many more regulations." She

also reminds Hopkins of the time the fledgling company hired seven

employees and thought it would be a good idea to have all of them

start on the same day.

"Never again," the two chorus.

Yes, Hopkins agrees, recalling that chaotic day, slow growth probably

is best.

Hopkins, who holds a bachelor’s degree in information systems from

the University of Maryland (Class of 1989) and a master’s degree in

systems engineering, left home at age 16. Her first job was in the

collections department of Mobil Oil at the time that company was transitioning

from a manual to a computer system. It was the beginning of her love

affair with all things electronic. "I’m one of the few women with

a GPS (global positioning system) in my car," she boasts.

As she worked her way through school, Hopkins worked for a number

of aviation companies. Working on testing and programming surveillance

systems for air traffic control and consulting on combining legacy

systems with newer technology, she was told she was technically talented,

but, she says, when it was time for promotion, she heard: "`You’ve

only been here four or five years, and there are guys who need to

put food on the table."

Pay disparity — women doing the same job as men, but getting less

pay — is "alive and well," says Hopkins, the single mother

of two children. "You can complain about it, or you can do something

about it."

She says she looked around, and decided she could do as a good a job

— a better job in many respects — than her employers, and

set out on her own.

Conducting a phone interview in which she and Sandman — two smart,

funny women — interweave comments, some serious, many light, it

is hard not to muse on the ways that women-owned businesses tend to

be different. Hopkins’ comments on her management style flesh out

that thought.

Hire creatively. Hopkins recruited Sandman, who says she

was in no way looking to be employed, after observing her in community

activities. Sandman, the mother of four children, holds both a bachelor’s

degree and a J.D. from Villanova and had commuted from Mays Landing

to Trenton, where she worked in Governor Kean’s administration, before

she decided family responsibilities and the drive were just too much

to juggle.

"I saw in her brilliance and compassion," says Hopkins.

"I was in no way looking for a job," says Sandman, whose volunteer

activities included writing wills for seniors.

Hopkins cajoled her to join the new company, and Sandman says she

initially spent 10 to 15 hours a week cutting flowers, painting shutters,

processing new employees, and doing whatever else needed to be done.

Now she says she is up to "too many hours," and Hopkins says

her work on everything from HR policies to legal advice to leasing

is invaluable.

So it is with many DSCI employees, who are hired based on their intrinsic

abilities rather than on their resumes.

Offer employees flexibility. Mrs. Sandman just got in

to work, says Hopkins half-an-hour into an interview that didn’t begin

until late afternoon. "She was at her daughter’s swim meet,"

Hopkins says. "That is where she should have been."

All employees, Hopkins says, are granted this flexibility to combine

job and home in ways that work for them. Her sister, Lori Barnard,

vice president of contracts, and the employee Hopkins credits with

"taking us to a different level," commutes from Maryland.

Sometimes she works from Sunday to Thursday, and sometimes she doesn’t

come in until Tuesday. She could telecommute if she wanted to, says

Hopkins, but prefers to be where the action is.

Another employee does telecommute, building databases "in her

bunny slippers after getting her kids off to school," says Hopkins.

"Women do it differently," she says. "They may have to

do their thing at 2 a.m. You have to take brilliant superstars and

work around them." She says she gets the best people by hiring

those others overlook.

Encourage continuing education. Forty percent of DSCI’s

employees are pursuing advanced education in technical fields. "We’re

not talking basket weaving," says Hopkins. She hires specifically

with the intent that her employees "will go far" and will

not simply be content to "park themselves" in a job.

Include employees in important decisions. As the end of

the year approaches, Hopkins sits down with her employees and talks

about how the company’s profits will be used. More vacation or contributions

to 401 (k) plans? It’s their decision.

Don’t play the blame game. Everyone makes mistakes, says

Hopkins. No big deal. Just learn from them and keep right on moving.

"Don’t beat up on your people," she says.

Salaries are competitive, benefits are stellar — and constantly

upgraded — and turnover is just two percent. Meanwhile, Hopkins,

now responsible not only for her two children, with whom she spends

her downtime water skiing on nearby Lake Lenape, but also for a growing

roster of employees, remains a frugal manager.

Recalling visits to competitors with opulent offices overlooking impressive

bodies of water, Hopkins says many have gone out of business. Driving

a 1991 pick-up truck, and working at a desk she bought years ago for

$100, Hopkins says "Don’t get fat, dumb, and happy."


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