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On The Road

Computer reseller's fortunes are tied to two locations, one in gritty Queens and the other in a bucolic spot near the Appalachian Trail

Underlying the success of Jade Systems Corp. (#9) is a tale of two cities--or, more precisely, of one city and one village. Although the company is small enough, with 83 people, that owners Debbi and John Milner might easily have found space for it in a single location, the computer reseller maintains two facilities, each of which contributes to balancing business and personal goals.

The two locations, though technically part of the same metro area, couldn't be more different. The integration and distribution facility--where computers are received, configured to customers' specifications, tested, and forwarded--is a former ice-cream-machine factory in Long Island City, a section of Queens, N.Y., that is almost impossible to describe without using the word gritty. The neighborhood's predominant decorative elements are weeds, graffiti, and barbed wire; the smell of rot follows a garbage truck through the streets.

Sales, customer service, and management-information services, meanwhile, are in an innocuous suburban house converted to a makeshift office building 65 miles north, in Cold Spring, a bucolic dot on the Hudson River best known for antiquing and camping; the Appalachian Trail passes nearby. The driving distance between the two offices is worse than it sounds, because about 15 miles of it is through a more-or-less permanent traffic jam. Debbi Milner, Jade Systems' president, who spends three days a week at Cold Spring and two at Long Island City, confesses to finding the commute tiring. (Her husband, who has the titles of executive vice-president and chief financial officer, generally remains in Cold Spring.) Still, the Milners wouldn't have it any other way.

Jade Systems, which had 1997 revenues of $46 million, had been a moonlighting operation for nine years before 1993, when the Milners began devoting themselves to it full-time. Meanwhile, the couple had given up their Manhattan apartment for their weekend cottage in Cold Spring, which they considered a better place to raise a family. They worked out of a fairly typical home office and liked the local labor pool, which is conversant with high tech; IBM is headquartered nearby. They acquired the house next door when "one day we realized there were eight people in our bedroom," Debbi Milner says.

Of course, it wouldn't do to have a steady stream of Compaq and IBM computers being trucked up and down the unpaved lane that leads to the Milners' house. Ninety percent of Jade's customers are headquartered in Manhattan, including Chase Manhattan and Barclay's Capital, and 85% of its product is shipped to locations in the metro area. Even if Cold Spring would tolerate the traffic--which it wouldn't--it isn't central enough. So the Milners turned to Long Island City, which can scare the uninitiated; 1,886 serious crimes were reported to police there in the first half of this year. But so far Jade has had only one item disappear from its inventory in five years: a single copy of Lotus 1-2-3. The warehouse, moreover, is just a few minutes from Manhattan and about as convenient as it's possible to be to the office parks of New Jersey and Nassau County, Long Island. And the price is right: just over $4 a square foot.

Moving the whole works together might make logistical sense. It would, at the very least, cut down on driving time. However, Jade's somewhat exotic second location has become a great relationship builder. The Milners have both staffs over to the house for a party once a year, and suppliers have been known to drop by for no real reason other than to have someplace pleasant to hang out. "I'll get calls on a nice Friday," says Debbi, "saying, 'We'd like to take a drive. Can we come up and make a sales call?"