Business Columns & Blogs

Amid merger mania, this small company quietly grows

We’ve had quite the run of headlines lately about Big Business. If some major corporation wasn’t headed to town with loads of highly paid jobs, another was rumored to be leaving via the latest merger or acquisition.

There was the good: We won the headquarters of Bubble Wrap maker Sealed Air Corp., thanks to aggressive lobbying efforts and up to $36 million in incentives.

And there’s the not-so-good: We could lose the headquarters of Family Dollar if Tennessee’s Dollar General succeeds in buying the homegrown discount retailer. Analysts say many of Family Dollar’s 1,400 Matthews-based headquarters jobs are at risk under that scenario, and Family Dollar’s board has rejected the proposal.

Then you’ve got Brazilian and Irish suitors vying for Charlotte-based Chiquita Brands International.

It’s the age of the deal. Thousands of jobs can move from one state or country to another with a few pen strokes and a boardroom handshake.

Amid all of this, it bears repeating that major corporations don’t fill out the entire picture when it comes to growing the employment base. Another part, one that’s easy to overlook right now, is how well or poorly a city grows its own small businesses into big businesses.

I was reminded of that recently by a chat I had with 45-year-old twin brothers from Charlotte.

Dan and Scott Schubert lead AMTdirect, an 18-year-old Cornelius-based firm offering real estate technology to companies that operate in multiple locations and need to lease property. It’s the kind of niche firm you might never notice unless you need its services.

AMTdirect supplies software that helps Rite Aid, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Enterprise Rent-a-Car and other corporations track leases and the assorted dates, duties and deadlines embedded in them.

If you’ve ever run into problems after renting property or leasing some out to others, you know how important the fine print of a lease can be. Imagine you’re Enterprise, with 10,000 locations to manage. Or Rite Aid, with 6,000.

The Schuberts said their software helps companies not only oversee their leases, but also gives them data-rich mapping functions that let them see where their competitors are leasing, how market patterns are evolving and perhaps where they should be leasing in the future.

The firm has about 40 employees, the brothers told me, and is seeing annual revenue increases of about 20 percent. Like so much of the exploding digital sector, it’s probing a market that didn’t exist a generation ago.

They believe that, even after 18 years, they’re still just cracking the surface.

“The CFOs and CEOs are really starting to pay attention to this,” Dan said. “We think this market is going to really take off.”

The twins are UNC Asheville graduates. Scott, a CPA, did property accounting for a commercial real estate firm out of college. Dan went to work for what was then First Union as a consultant on the business development side.

Both were tech-savvy types who tended to learn software systems quickly. So when they saw a niche market emerging for commercial real estate management software, they struck out on their own.

With help from an uncle, a former Silicon Valley CFO, they attracted Silicon Valley investors as well as help from friends and family, raising $1 million at launch.

They face competition from companies such as Austin, Texas-based Accruent, but AMTdirect’s client list includes familiar names such as Novant, Rack Room Shoes, BB&T and Harris Teeter.

It’s hard work. The brothers said they travel a lot, trying to keep the client list growing. They compete with the big banks and other major corporations for the computer software professionals who seem to be the rock stars of today’s jobs marketplace.

But they’re doing all right, by their account. They’ve got the 21st century tech firm’s definitive proof of it – interest from venture capitalists and private equity firms interested in buying into the company or buying them out.

They say they might go that route eventually, but not anytime soon.

“We’re approached almost daily from that perspective,” said Scott. “That can be very distracting. We’re really not interested in it at this point, so we just stay away from it.”

So, while the corporate big boys keep fighting merger battles, the Schuberts sound refreshingly old-school, despite their high-tech business model. They’re building a business, one client at a time, one relationship at a time.

If you’re a mayor or a chamber of commerce type, you want small bright-futured companies like this sprouting in your backyard.

One of them might just grow up to be the next Google. And you wouldn’t have had to pay a king’s ransom in tax money for the privilege of playing host to all those jobs.

Not until some other city or merger partner tries to lure them away, that is.