They're finding corporate success as ‘intrapreneurs'

When Andrew Morton interviewed to work at Comtrend, a high-tech equipment manufacturer, he didn't bring a resume. He brought a business plan.

Unlike many of his friends who left corporate America to start businesses, Morton became an entrepreneur within corporate America, a role dubbed “intrapreneurship” by business owner and author Gifford Pinchot in the 1970s.

The risk-taking and innovation are similar for both types of executives, especially in today's rapidly changing, global economy.

“Entrepreneurs think intrapreneurs have it made: ample capital, infrastructure, salespeople, support people and an umbrella brand,” said author and venture investor Guy Kawasaki. “Intrapreneurs don't have it better. At best, they simply have it different.”

In 2001, Morton was working for 3Com, and Comtrend was primarily a research and development lab in Taiwan with $30 million in annual sales. Founder G.S. Fang was a Taiwan-born U.S. citizen who had worked as an engineer at AT&T Bell Labs for 16 years before starting his own research lab.

“It was a company with an engine but no steering wheel,” recalled Morton, an engineer who has worked at IBM, 3Com and other large technology companies.

Morton and Fang met between flights for four hours in a San Francisco airport lounge to discuss Comtrend's potential.

“I spent two weeks writing a business plan because I saw exactly what he was doing,” Morton said. “When I saw what (Comtrend) was capable of, I jumped at the opportunity.”

Comtrend made telecommunications equipment that original equipment manufacturers put their names on. Fang wanted Morton to build the Comtrend brand.

In 2001, Fang gave Morton, then 30, an ownership slice to run the company in North and South America. Morton brought in a 3Com colleague to run European operations. A third executive runs the Asian offices and factories.

Each runs his operation as if it's his own business. “I've had a lot of sleepless nights over growth,” Morton said.

Comtrend sells only to telephone companies, not cable operators. Morton and his colleagues spent a lot of time building trust and relationships with those companies.

“Telecoms are old companies. It takes time to earn their trust,” Morton said. “We've come over that hump, which is not easy to do. There are a thousand small telephone companies in the U.S. We target 500 of them.”

Pioneer Telephone in Oklahoma City, Okla., is one of those customers, buying modems and high-speed data equipment for Internet Protocol Television.

Comtrend really does run like a U.S. company, said Pioneer executive Scott Ulsaker. “The support structure we receive is exceptional. They're probably one of the best vendors we work with.”