Secrets Of His Success

After 26 years at IBM, Robert Blackwell took a gamble that paid off

In today’s volatile economy, stories of small business success are few and far between. Tales of dotcom and other startup failures have left many entrepreneurs wary of venturing out on their own. Chicago-based Blackwell Consulting Services, however, is going strong with projected revenues of $30 million for 2002. Founded in 1992 by Robert Blackwell, the firm offers a range of IT services, including systems integration and architecture, .NET solutions, data management, network and infrastructure design and implementation, and IT strategy.

CEO and President Blackwell began his career at IBM in 1966 as a systems engineer designing applications for hospitals and universities. After wearing several different hats at the technology systems giant, including a stint as branch manager and director of consulting services for the Midwest region, Blackwell decided to venture out on his own. While leading the outsourcing team at IBM, he realized that the barriers of entry into his field were low and that little initial capital was needed.

Blackwell also saw that IBM was in financial trouble. “IBM wasn’t selling a lot of equipment. Manufacturing had moved off shore and people were starting to outsource. And I knew there was going to be a market for information technology services,” explains Blackwell. “I thought that a small company could do it just as well as a big company,” says Blackwell. “I also thought that, as a small business, we could move quicker. There’s no bureaucracy. And there is only one level of management.”

He was right. But success did not come overnight. The consulting firm faced several obstacles. “The biggest obstacle was that we were a nobody. We had no brand. No one knew who we were. We were also up against the prejudice that big companies are better than small ones,” says Blackwell.

Both his patience and his contacts at IBM slowly paid off. Today, Blackwell Consulting Services, with some 240 employees in the U.S., is one of the largest minority-owned management consulting and information technology consultancies in the Midwest. The company boasts more than 100 national customers and has locations in Chicago, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Bloomington, Illinois. Major clients include Aon insurance, Waste Management, and the Chicago Public School System.

A recent coup for Blackwell was partnering with ModularIS, a leading provider of enterprise software tools for the Microsoft .NET platform. The joint partnership means that BCS will use ModularIS products and services to design and implement enterprise applications for its clients. BCS is currently helping a Fortune 500 company update its outdated technology to the Microsoft .NET platform.

Blackwell cautions other entrepreneurs against making price differentials when starting out and low-balling themselves just to get a contract. He also says it’s important for small companies not to rely on minority status to get business. “You have to focus on doing a better job than your competition, not your race,” he says. “You cannot overestimate the power of performance.”

Lastly, Blackwell reminds potential startups that patience is everything. “Recognize that it is going to take you a long time to get there, but

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