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magazine home > archives > spring 2002 > features

One U of M alumnus is profiting by diminishing distances as he makes the words “near” and “far” obsolete with his Memphis-based business.

Straight to Video
by Benjamin Potter

 
Jay Myers
 

Jay Myers built ISI from the ground up. The fledgling company does the bulk of its business in the South but has clients all over the U.S. and even a few overseas.

The world is getting smaller.

Telephones, television, the Internet — these inventions and countless others bring the world into our living rooms. And new technologies such as videoconferencing put employers closer to employees, teachers closer to students and doctors closer to patients.

As U of M alumnus Jay Myers (BBA ’78) can attest, videoconferencing can be big business. Myers is president and CEO of Interactive Solutions Inc. (ISI). In October, the business magazine Inc. ranked ISI 182nd on its annual list of America’s 500 fastest-growing private companies after ISI harvested a mammoth 1,535 percent sales growth in its first five years.

Myers’ travels have taken him across the country and to foreign lands, but his longest trek to date was the one to establish ISI. It was a journey decades in the making.

Rewind

Myers carries himself with perfect posture, and he normally dons glasses and a conservative shirt and tie. But there are hints in his Germantown, Tenn., office that belie his outward appearance and CEO title.

By his desk sits a sign that says “Reserved for Jay Myers. UT fans will be towed at owner’s expense.”

“I have to turn that sign around sometimes,” he says. “A lot of our clients come from East
Tennessee.” A loyal Tiger fan, he adds, “I don’t whistle ‘Rocky Top’ around here very much.”

While he was at then-Memphis State University, Myers admits he wasn’t a “star student,” but hard work paid off. “I worked my way through school,” he says. “I take a lot of pride in that.”

John Pepin (BBA ’62, MBA ’64), dean of Fogelman College of Business and Economics, says Myers was a “slightly above-average student,” but grades weren’t what made him unique.

“What made Jay stand out,” Pepin says, “was his outgoing and very competitive personality, numerous questions, entrepreneurial thoughts and great perseverance.”

Or maybe business was in the blood. Role models ran rampant in the Myers household. His father once helmed the Memphis Better Business Bureau, and several siblings work for various corporations throughout the South. Myers considers his father a tough act to follow.

“I was very close to my late father,” Myers says, who shares both a first name and birthday with his dad. “He was always a strong supporter of me and was always in my corner.”

After graduation, Myers struggled to come into his own. Fresh out of college in 1978, he went to work as a salesman for AM International.

In 1982, he went to Eastman Kodak Co. looking for a change of pace. By 1987, life’s pace was as frantic as ever — peaking at a time when he had 48 hours to find and purchase a new home in Raleigh, N.C., while his wife, Maureen (BA ’76) was expecting their first child. “That’s what you call eating stress for breakfast,” as Myers puts it.

Then, a bombshell. Just months after Myers moved his family to Raleigh, Kodak dissolved the division at which he was working.

A job offer from Hewlett-Packard and his mother’s fight with breast cancer brought Myers back to Memphis. But wanting a return to a smaller company, he hit the books at the library to research emerging technologies. “My way of trying to deal with crises is to get educated,” he says. “You can’t sit back and expect changes — you’ve got to do something.”

Pause

In 1990, Myers made his fourth career move, this time to ATS Telephone and Data Systems, Inc. (now Expanets Mid-South Region), a company founded by another U of M alumnus, David
Perdue (BBA ’63). At ATS, Myers got an initial glimpse into his future.

“One day I was talking to my boss and saw a tape on his desk about videoconferencing,” Myers says. He borrowed the tape and was immediately enamored with the technology. After a month of persuasion, he convinced ATS to sell the equipment.

Meanwhile, Myers had ideas for a new company — one that would deal solely with videoconferencing equipment.

“ISI was basically formed off the dining room table in my house,” Myers says. “I held my ‘CEO meetings’ and hammered out ideas during my morning run with Shadow, our dog. The good thing about the dog was that she never talked back or shot down any of my ideas!”

But at the same time, Myers says starting a new company was a serious matter that required great focus, as well as his family’s full-fledged support.

“My role in the beginning, as the old com-mercial says, was not to let him see me sweat,” Maureen says. “It sounds corny, but I knew that we would be OK. If this business did not work out, then something else would.”

Myers says that period in his life was a “humbling experience.” He and a secretary spent 1996 plugging away, looking for clients and forming a business partnership with a friend in Kentucky. Despite the small triumph of ISI’s first sale (“It was for $28,000, but it felt like $28 million for us,” Myers says), times were trying for the fledgling company.

Private investors began to lose faith and pulled the financial rug from underneath ISI’s feet. The clamps tightened when ISI was swindled out of $14,000 from a fraudulent New Hampshire-based company. At the end of its first year, the company was nearly a quarter of a million dollars in the red.

Myers remained diligent, however, and the hard work soon paid off. Large Tennessee-based clients, such as AutoZone, FedEx and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, helped turn the tide and put ISI back in the black.

Play

The U of M played an important role in ISI’s recovery. In 1998, Myers enrolled in an entrepreneur class headed by Dr. Barry Gilmore through the University’s Fast Track program.

“I’m not sure there was any magic formula,” Myers says, “but we learned to put together the components of a strong business plan.” Developing that business plan, along with meeting other local business owners, strengthened the backbone of know-how and contacts.

ISI found great success in the next few years. Revenues increased, as did the number of employees. By the end of 2000, the company had a new home in Germantown, Tenn., more than $4 million in total sales and a Small Business of the Year Award from the Memphis Business Journal.

His older brother, John Myers (BBA ’73), describes his sibling’s abilities this way: “He is constantly wanting to network and be associated with others who have the skills and experience to help him. While it’s not a unique characteristic, I suspect it’s one that is shared by many entrepreneurs. And that’s the bottom line — Jay’s an entrepreneur. He had a vision for a business, he created it and he made it successful.”

Two other ISI employees are U of M graduates — Don Cottam (BBA ’97) and Andrew Ruhland (BBA ’00) — a decision Myers says was “by design.”

“I’m proud of going to school at Memphis State,” Myers says. “They’ve got one of the best business schools in the South. The U of M taught us to think outside the box.”

Record

Some equate the term “videoconferencing” with hostile company takeovers or impersonal business meetings. Myers, however, paints a more benign, personal picture of the trade.

Many of ISI’s clients include several area hospitals and educational facilities. Distance learning is a big part of what ISI does, and so is telemedicine.

Nurse using videoconference equipment
Sharon Newsom, a registered nurse, and other medical personnel at Le Bonheur, use this videoconferencing equpment, which is connected to a facility in Tupelo, Miss. Medical devices can be plugged in for added practicality.

One endeavor in telemedicine has linked the North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, Miss., to Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center in Memphis. Now, a pediatrician in Memphis can diagnose a patient in rural Mississippi via the video link in a matter of minutes. The old process cost more time, money and stress, Myers says.

“The mental anguish created by this system for both the babies and the parents was enormous, not to mention very inefficient,” he says. “We feel very good about being able to provide technology that improves people’s lives.

“Using this technology might mean avoiding a plane trip and being able to attend a child’s school play or ballgame,” Myers says. “It makes us feel like we have a role in people’s business life.”

Fast Forward

For Myers, being a businessman is only half of the picture. He considers community service “an obligation” and has been active in shaping the Memphis community in a positive way.

Myers, an Eagle Scout, still helps Boy Scouts of America through fund raising and assisting scouts who seek personal management or communications merit badges. He also teaches a business basics course to elementary school students for Junior Achievement. And he’s a member of Leadership Collierville, Tenn., where participants go through team-building exercises, diversity training and visits to the state legislature.

Myers essentially is a potent blend of aggressive salesman and neighborhood nice guy. He has four pillars upon which he wants to set ISI. “One, highest ethical standards,” he says. “Two, impeccable integrity and honesty. Three, give back to the community. Four, honor my father’s name and reputation. I want to run the business in a manner that would make my father proud.”

Perhaps most importantly, he remains true to himself.

“You can fool a lot of people, but you can’t fool yourself,” he says. “You are who you are.”

 

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