David Tod and Daniel B. Roth, the chairman and vice-chairman, respectively, of Torent Inc., in Youngstown, Ohio, are at lunch. The setting is the dining room of the Youngstown Club, an establishment redolent of old money and manners, but the conversation is of new businesses and new ways. As it happens, these are subjects the pair can discuss easily. Their association goes back to 1961, when they invested $7,500 in a data processing bureau which they sold for $12 million eight years later. Since then they have been involved, through Torent, in backing or owning half a dozen start-ups or turnarounds. "A venture capital company," reads the description on Torent's latest annual report.
Well, maybe. If Torent is a venture capital company, it is venture capital of an unusual sort. For one thing, the company is tiny: Its long-term investments total well under $1 million, and its net income over the past four years has ranged from a low of $26,000 to a high of $164,000. For another, it doesn't invest according to the traditional venture-capital model, by which a venture firm might hold minority interests in 10 or 20 companies. Three of Torent's four currently active ventures are wholly-owned subsidiaries; of these, one is a company that sponsors oil and gas partnerships.
Most important, Tod and Roth seem to have other things on their minds than making money. "Our goals are twofold," explains Roth. 'The first is to create more jobs in this area and the second is to make a profit." Tod demurs, suggesting that Roth "might want to reverse that order." But it is plain that the pair, both of whom were born and reared in Youngstown, are not about to go looking far beyond northeastern Ohio in search of higher profits.
So far, in fact, their endeavors haven't strayed from the small-scale, close-to-home path they have mapped out for themselves. * Torent's first investment, back in 1971, was Recreational Industries Inc., a Lordstown, Ohio, company that converted General Motors Corp. vans into campers and special-purpose vehicles. When Torent bought it, RI had 4 employees and annual sales of $40,000. Seven years later, swelled to 220 employees and sales of $9 million, it was sold for $1.3 million. * Morrison Metalweld Process Corp., a company that repairs and maintains railroad tracks, switches, frogs, and the like, was based in Buffalo when marketing vice-president Gary L. Smith, a Youngstown native, decided he wanted to buy it. He approached Torent, which acquired Morrison for $550,000 and moved it to Youngstown, installing Smith as president. Smith now sits on Torent's board and, in addition to his duties with Morrison, heads up the company's newest subsidiary, DTS Corp. DTS specializes in hardening steel castings through the use of explosives, selling its services mainly to customers in the railroad industry. * Torent Oil & Gas Co., a combination of five limited partnerships in which Torent acts as general partner, operates 21 wells in northeast Ohio. So far, says Tod, the company has never had a dry hole -- in part because of its unusually cautious approach to drilling. In 1983, the wells produced $560,000 in revenues. * Western Datacom Co., a manufacturer of computer communications equipment, was the brainchild of Thomas Jones, a Youngstown native and Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate. Torent, which put up $50,000 in seed capital, sold most of its interest this year for a pretax profit of $136,000.
Roth and Tod's unusual brand of venture capitalism may be the variety best suited to depressed areas like Youngstown; certainly no ordinary venture firm would have been so impressed by David Houck and McDonald Steel Corp. When Houck brought his plan for the new company to Torent, Roth and Tod liked not only his modest goals and solid figures, but also the plan's potential for job creation.
The pair also liked Houck's proposed reliance on private funding. "There was a feeling on the part of a lot of people -- and I think this is prevalent throughout the U.S. -- that the state or federal government should bail us out," says Roth. Other Youngstown groups had come up with proposals for opening a foundry or renovating a mill, but most had insisted on Small Business Administration or Economic Development Administration loans or loan guarantees. To the Torent partners, the strategy was anathema. "Public money, I think, had pretty much been ruled out from the start," says Tod, recalling the initial discussion with Houck. "All three of us were so turned off by that idea that we just decided that we were going to do it. We weren't going to be another company running to the government for a handout."
Since then -- with McDonald growing to $20 million in sales and a work force of 126 -- the pair's only regret is that Torent didn't invest more money in it. "Needless to say, we'd take a larger position if we were to do it today," Tod says, smiling.
McDonald's success and widening reputation have attracted a small stream of would-be entrepreneurs to Torent's doors, located a few floors beneath the Youngstown Club in the city's Bank One Building. "It's amazing," says Roth, "how many people come to us with great ideas."
"There's a lot of wealth in Youngstown," adds Tod, "more than you might find in many Sunbelt cities, and there are viable business opportunities here. The trick is to put the money and the ideas together." Unlike ordinary venture capital companies, which are eager to "cash in on the next Xerox," as Tod puts it, Torent is most interested in small, stable start-ups in a variety of industries.
"That's the story of how these depressed areas throughout the country are going to be revived," exclaims Roth with conviction, thereby expressing what might be seen as Torent's ultimate objective. "Not through federal assistance, not by shoring up a dinosaur that owns 40,000 or 50,000 jobs; what we need are a thousand little companies with a hundred employees each. That's the new backbone of our local economy."