Kepware Technologies, in downtown Portland, writes software “drivers” that allow manufacturing control devices to “talk” to manufacturing software. These sophisticated little boxes are similar to the driver disc you load onto your computer to allow it to talk with your printer. The Kepware “driver” also is a metaphor for driving Maine’s economic future.

Kepware is a strong and growing high-value-added company with 48 employees. The greatest challenge for company founder Corson “Corky” Ellis and partner Tony Paine (not related), is finding a qualified workforce. The company offers starting salaries for computer technology engineers of $60,000 to $70,000, nearly twice the average income in Maine’s private sector.

For bright kids who want to stay in Maine and pursue careers in technology, companies like Kepware not only are a great opportunity, they will produce an economic ripple effect.

Ellis and his wife, a former bond trader for J.P. Morgan in New York, made a lifestyle decision in 1995. They were living in New Jersey and wanted to be near the ocean. They looked along the East Coast and found Greater Portland to have the right mix of vitality and sense of community for their family.

After 15 years, Kepware is now a world leader in its niche. It is running at a 35 percent growth rate this year, and plans to hire at least eight new employees. Profit margins are over 20 percent. That’s a very good business. Most companies are pleased to realize an annual profit margin of 5 percent to 8 percent.

What helps the company is that it carries no inventory other than its intellectual capital. The value of the company is built on its programming and service support. It depends on having “the right people sitting in the right seats on the bus,” as business guru Jim Collins wrote in his book “Good to Great.”

A walk through the Kepware offices reveals a youthful group of very bright people sporting earbuds and headphones, sitting in “the right seats” channeling their creativity into a knowledge-based product.

Despite the relaxed atmosphere, visitors to Kepware are admonished to be quiet for a very good reason — distraction lowers productivity and could compromise quality. Programmers momentarily diverted from their concentration take at least five minutes to regain their “flow.”

When you’re programming for Toyota or Procter & Gamble, you want to ensure that you get it right and on time.

Early on, the company had trouble attracting recent University of Maine engineering graduates, so Ellis and Paine went to Orono’s engineering department to ask why. The answer: “They don’t know you.”

But landing highly skilled grads was more than simply introducing Kepware to the students. The company invested in the university by establishing three computer technology scholarships of $7,500 each. “That’s less than the cost of hiring a head hunter,” said Ellis.

In addition, Kepware offers four summer internships at $20 per hour, which equates to about a $40,000 annual salary. Kepware gets a look at emerging talent while college undergraduates earn about $10,000 for three months of summer work in downtown Portland. That’s a win-win.

Today, 30 of the 40 programmers are from the Orono and Portland campuses of the university system.

Despite its success in filling the pipeline of potential job applicants, the education program Kepware has so carefully nurtured appeared on the University of Maine’s list for elimination in the most recent budget cutbacks. As determined entrepreneurs, Ellis and Paine made phone calls and sent e-mails to appeal the recommendation. Gratefully, the program will survive the cut.

Why the university put the program on the chopping block, however, begs a question about its priorities, its mission and its perception of the program’s effectiveness.

Kepware is preparing to go deeper in its quest for an educated workforce.

Ellis believes it is time for businesses such as Kepware to connect the needs of Maine’s workplace with the teachers of Maine’s K-12 classrooms. He already has begun to reach out to math and science teachers in high schools and is enlisting other business leaders to expend their financial, social and political capital to ramp up both technical education and students’ aspirations.

In this undertaking, Ellis is much like his little box that connects systems to produce an efficient output.

Ellis sometimes wonders aloud who should be leading the effort to produce qualified work-ready graduates. Fortunately for Maine, Ellis and others see the answer every morning in the mirror.

That work of making connections cannot be delegated to government. It requires employers using personal energy and company resources to connect classrooms to job opportunities in Maine. In short, it requires much more civic leadership from the private sector.

What do you think and what are you doing about it?

 

Tony Payne is executive director of the Alliance for Maine’s Future, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that focuses on the effects of public policy on the state’s economy. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]