Coming Back Home to River City

Randy Schilling's sleepy hometown in Missouri is no Silicon Valley. Yet that's where he located his high-tech company--and he's glad he did

Unlike nearby St. Louis, the historic city of St. Charles doesn't have a giant arch. And there's not much hustle and bustle in St. Charles (population: 60,000), either.

But the locale does have a proud pioneer past as Missouri's first state capital and the jumping-off point in 1804 for Lewis and Clark's westward expedition. There's not much in the way of industry, though, apart from two new riverfront casinos and a healthy trade in tours, antiques, and Americana crafts. The town's boosters have high hopes that a six-lane highway (I-370) and two new industrial parks will bring in new business, but for now St. Charles is a sleepy St. Louis suburb.

So why would a high-tech whiz like Randy Schilling choose to base Solutech Inc. (#377), his fast-growing Internet consulting and training company, in St. Charles?

The truth is, seven years ago, when he started Solutech, at age 29, Schilling had wondered exactly the same thing. A St. Charles native, Schilling had feared that locating the company in his hometown might doom its chances. But he made the decision for family reasons. As things turned out, St. Charles has served his company well. "I don't think there's any limit on how much we can grow," says Schilling, whose company's revenues have soared to $24 million this year. St. Charles, he says, has been as good a launching pad for Solutech as it was for Lewis and Clark. It's been the perfect gateway for realizing Solutech's strategy of doing business in second- and third-tier cities like Louisville, Des Moines, and Colorado Springs. The company's 250 employees are posted in 11 cities spread out across the heartland of America.

Until his hometown reeled him back, Schilling hadn't shown much of an entrepreneurial bent. An electrical engineer by training, Schilling left Missouri in 1985 to work for Illinois Power Co. in Decatur, Ill. He liked his job, which gave him the chance to do cutting-edge computer work, he says, and he never gave any real thought to moving back.

But during one visit back home, he ran into Sibby Bruere, his old high school flame. One thing led to another, and the two got married a year later. The only condition: Sibby, whose father is president of a local bank and whose family has deep roots in the community, didn't want to live away from her parents and five siblings. In December 1990 the couple packed up their bags and headed back to St. Charles. "Randy might tell you otherwise, but I really didn't have a hard time convincing him," says Sibby.

Schilling spent a year and a half working in the downtown St. Louis office of Grant Thornton, the national management-consulting and accounting firm. But Grant Thornton, he notes, wasn't a technology company, nor was it overly interested in developing computer-related consulting work. Schilling, in contrast, was convinced that the shift from mainframe computers to client/server technology would open up all kinds of business-to-business training and consulting opportunities. So in August 1992 he took $5,000 in personal savings and started Solutech.

Schilling did have his qualms about basing the venture in a place few outside Missouri have ever heard of. He remembers fretting to his father-in-law that it might be impossible to get the clients he hoped to train to come there. "I didn't think people would come all the way across the river," says Schilling, who started his company in a rented 640-square-foot backroom office on the city's historic, cobblestoned Main Street.

But they did, partly because Solutech was one of the few companies around that offered vendor-certified training in new client/server-related software, such as Microsoft's SQL Server and Sybase's PowerBuilder. Within three years of the company's launch it was training an average of roughly 100 students a month. Schilling says he urged the company's out-of-town trainees to stay at Boone's Lick Trail or another local bed-and-breakfast. "We started trying to leverage the fact that we were in St. Charles and turn it into a positive," he says.

Before long, business was materializing in cities just a short airplane hop away. Schilling opened satellite offices but avoided big cities like Chicago, where competition was keenest. He gradually shifted his focus to helping companies develop E-commerce sites and other Internet-related business applications.

Recruiting technically sophisticated workers hasn't been a problem, claims Schilling. "There's a great talent pool of people who because of family or other personal reasons happen to be living in the area," he says.