The information technology industry is littered with improbable, rags-to-riches stories.
Insight co-founder and CEO Tim Crown has one that belongs near the top of the list.
Fresh out of the University of Kansas (1986) and a 10-month, management training program with NCR in Jackson, Miss., Crown and his brother, Eric, kick-started their dream with a $2,000 cash advance on a pair of credit cards.
"Only because that was all they would give us," Crown recalled, laughing. "I was not a good enough credit risk for a bank, so we took both of our credit cards, maxed them out and got a whopping $2,000."
The business that began on a wing and prayer now boasts $2.9 billion in annual sales — good enough to rank it 506th on the 2002 Fortune 1,000 list.
Along the way Tempebased Insight has donated millions to charities through the Crown Foundation, sponsored the K-6 Summit School in Ahwatukee Foothills, and signed on as title sponsor for cycling’s Race Across America and college football’s Insight Bowl, to be played today at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix between California and Virginia Tech.
"The first couple of years I literally slept on my brother’s apartment floor," Crown said. "We took no money out of the company — not even salaries — for three or four years. We were living off credit cards and we’d pay one off by getting another one.
"We were heavily in debt but I figured ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen? I can go bankrupt. I don’t have any assets any way so I’ll just go get a job.’ "
Crown’s job status now appears secure.
Heading into its 17th year of operation, Insight has undergone four major transformations as the company responded to market trends and customer needs. Through every change Insight has managed to increase revenue and its employee base. Crown credits the firm’s growth to more account penetration and a growing demand for more expensive personal computers.
"We started in custom programming and got into the mail order business on a whim to sell one 20-megabyte hard drive at a really good price," Crown said. "Within about a year we decided custom programming wasn’t nearly as exciting as mail order."
Today, Insight and its outsourcing affiliate, Direct Alliance, term themselves a onesource, total solutions provider with both IT products and services, rather than strict product fulfillment.
"Like Dell, Insight had the right business model at the right time," said Dave Manthey, an analyst for Robert W. Baird in Milwaukee, Wis. "This IT direct marketing business model is the single best way for customers to produce multi-version IT solutions."
Despite the success, Crown fully expects Insight to undergo more changes in an industry known for rapid and dramatic shifts.
"From an outside perspective you’re going to see us be much stronger on the Web," said Crown, who lives in Ahwatukee Foothills with his wife Heidi and their three children, Meghan, 9, Jacob, 7 and Zachary, 5. "The Internet is really becoming interwoven with business. Whether you’ve got bricks and mortar or just a cyberspace location, you’re going to have to use it to communicate with customers."
Communication is an area in which Crown takes great pride. Insight has built a local reputation as an employeefriendly company which runs in step with its chief executive’s philosophy.
"If I had to describe it in a sentence, it would be: Either make war or make love with your employees," he said. "Don’t play the in-between game because it doesn’t work and it’s not sincere."
"If someone hasn’t worked out, for whatever reason, it’s better to cut ties immediately. With everyone else you have to involve yourself, 100 percent, with the individual."
To that end, Insight sponsors a litany of company gatherings, including the bowl game which will draw about 5,000 employees, family members and friends.
Crown will be there, too, commanding more respect and attention than he ever imagined he would earn.
"It’s funny," said Crown, whose brother is no longer involved with the company on a day-to-day basis. "I don’t look at myself any different than I did 20 years ago.
"The numbers and size have changed but I feel like I run the business the same way I always have, which is a little by the seat of my pants, a little by my gut, and a little by spending as much time on the sales floor talking to people, customers and suppliers as I can.