As told to Leigh Buchanan
More than 40 years of direct marketing and financial services history is packed into the genial, unassuming person of Tim Litle. An engineer to the core, Litle, 66, is responsible for some of the commercial world's least sexy innovations, including those three-digit numbers on the backs of credit cards that discourage fraud, credit card rules that let consumers buy on installment plans, and the system by which mass mailers receive discounts from the U.S. Postal Service for presorting by carrier route. Those ideas and others have made or saved billions of dollars for Litle's clients, as well as thousands of direct marketers who have never heard his name. Litle & Co. is No. 1 on this year's Inc. 500 list with $34.8 million in 2005 revenue and three-year growth of 5,629.1 percent.
I grew up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. My grandfather was the chief engineer for Lincoln; my dad ran the Detroit office for Time magazine. The engineering gene must have skipped a generation: I got it and went to Cal Tech. My freshman physics professor was Richard Feynman and my freshman chemistry professor was Linus Pauling.
At Harvard Business School I took all the entrepreneurial courses I could. I wanted to be a technical entrepreneur, although at the time it wasn't clear what that meant. After business school I worked on cold-war intelligence technologies at Litton Industries. I was there for less than a year when I got appendicitis, and while I was having my appendix out someone stole my project from the lab. The Feds were all over the place. I left Litton in 1965. That was the last time I worked for a company that wasn't mine.
A politician friend wanted to be able to mass-mail letters to specific groups of voters. I thought we could use computers to create targeted letters based on information about groups of people. The politician and I and two other guys started a company to do that for large marketers.
We got into list management, which means segmenting a marketer's mailing list according to demographics and buying patterns. We also saw a big opportunity in subscription fulfillment--making sure the right people get the publications they subscribe to. One of our clients was The Christian Science Monitor. Only 70 percent of the time did subscribers get it on the day they expected it. I went into one of the printing plants and watched people take the Monitors off the belt and stuff them in mail sacks. There was a thick manual about how to put stuff in the sack and the maximum weight and the minimum number of pieces. These were minimum-wage people--a lot of them didn't speak English. And they were writing out the tags that went on the mail sacks by hand and then taking them to the post office where more people would dump them on a table and then put them in other sacks. We came up with a system to computerize that: Labels would be printed according to Zip codes and the newspapers would then be sorted based on their destinations. We got it working, and I'll be damned if they didn't get 92 percent on-time delivery.
One of my business school friends was high up at the U.S. Postal Service, and they'd been studying the Monitor thing. He said, "We save so much money with this, do you think you could get your buddies in the direct marketing business to do it if we give them a discount?" It cost 9.6 cents to mail a catalog, so I said, "How about four cents?" Eight months later the post office announced its first Carrier Route Presort discount, and it was four cents. Now about half of all mail is delivered that way. I think they paid me $500 for introducing the idea.
Around 1977, I had sold my company, and my wife, Joan, and I bought a catalog company. It was called Clymer's of Bucks County and it sold American handicrafts. We also began to handle warehousing and fulfillment for other catalogs. All the catalogs were losing 2 percent of sales because of inefficiencies in the payment-processing system--the networks were set up for retailers and not for situations where the buyer isn't present to hand over his card. So in 1982 I put together a system to address the requirements of catalogs and the card-not-present world. We eventually brought that 2 percent down to about .1 percent.
I started the first Litle & Co. in 1986, with $1.6 million of unsecured credit from the bank. The total amount Joan and I put in was $1,000. It was another payments-processing company for catalogers. We had customers like AOL, Lands' End, most of the guys on late-night television selling Chinese woks.
"Like those other things, installment billing was a dumb idea of mine, then it was an interesting idea of mine, then it was Visa's idea."
We did some significant things. We worked with Visa to introduce address verification, where a cataloger asks for the customer's billing address as a way to check his identity. With American Express we introduced the identification number on credit cards. Another thing we got through was installment billing. Visa had rules against that because the interest would be paid to the seller and not the credit card issuer. We explained that companies like NordicTrack don't want the interest; they want to increase their sales. We suggested a rule that would prohibit the seller from collecting interest on installment payments. Six weeks later, the rules changed, and Visa ended up selling installment payments as a feature. Like those other things it was a dumb idea of mine, and then it was an interesting idea of mine, and then it was Visa's idea.
In 1995 I sold the company to First USA for about $80 million. I didn't sell them my name so they renamed it Paymentech.
In 2001 I started this company. It does the same thing as the first Litle & Co., but it's a different entity. More than half of our clients are Internet marketers.
To succeed, we have to know four things. First, we have to be good systems guys. Our competitors are very nontechnical, whereas systems are our core competence. Second, we have to know our market. Our competitors are populated by bankers and go to banking conferences; we go to direct marketing or Internet conferences. Third, we have to know Visa and MasterCard regulations. And fourth, we have to know how to manage risk. We are the ones who make sure the card issuers get their money from our customers' sales. So if one of our customers goes out of business we take it on the chin pretty hard.
This is the engineer in me talking, but I want to build the perfect payment processing system. The software environment has changed a lot since my old company. There's not a whole lot of stuff in our computer room: The undepreciated value of all our computer hardware is around $500,000. There was probably $20 million in the old Litle & Co., and we had twice the number of employees.
My son Tom has an art history degree and a fine arts degree. He also ran a successful venture capital firm for six years. But he worked at my other companies during the '90s, and last year he joined this one as vice president of business development. He's done such a terrific job that the members of our executive committee have come to me individually and said, "It's time to make Tom CEO." So we did that.
One of my personal goals for this year is not to be in the critical path of anything going on at the company. I think I'm doing a good job at staying out of these guys' way. I'm in the meeting every month where we plan the next month's software. And I explain how to deal with Visa and MasterCard, and with our partner bank, Wells Fargo. But I don't roll up my sleeves and do things like I used to.
People think I'm crazy, but I love this business.
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