Montpelier Summer 1999
Long before he studied marketing at JMU, John Rothenberger ('88) set his sights high. Eleven years later, as though to drive home the point, he has chosen the name, Aspire Technology group, for his $20 million information technology services firm in Chantilly, Va.
Rothenberger needn't have troubled himself, however. He could have avoided the risks of starting a new business and opted for safety and security instead-- graduate from college, work for awhile in the job market to gain some outside experience, then step back into his family's established Pennsylvania dairy, where he had honed his entrepreneurial skills in the first place. If his present success is any barometer, he might even have hoped to take it over one day.
But Rothenberger wanted to pull his own strings, not the family udders.
"I've had enough lactose," he says, chuckling with characteristic dry wit. "We're a huge milk family. We drink more milk than three families put together. I'd had my share of dairy, put it that way."
Though he doesn't take himself too seriously, he does take running his own business seriously. His father, G. Richard Rothenberger, still runs the dairy, and his mother, Gretta, teaches at a Montessori school. Rothenberger says his parents' example encouraged him to work for himself.
"When I look back on it, we talked about business at the dining room table when I was growing up," says the 32-year-old Arlington, Va., resident.
He must have been listening pretty carefully in between bites of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. The 5-year-old Aspire Technology Group, formerly known as Clover Technologies, now is one of the fastest-growing companies in the country. It pulls in about $20 million a year, selling information technology services and products to clients from Richmond to Washington, D.C. Rothenberger is keeping his eyes open for more customers still farther into the northeast corridor.
In fact, Inc. magazine last fall ranked it No. 334 in its top 500 list of the nation's fastest-growing privately held firms. Virginia Business last year ranked it fourth on its "Fantastic 50" list of the fastest-growing small private companies in the state.
Of course, because of familial bucolic pedigree, Rothenberger knew business would be his major when he arrived at JMU. He just wasn't sure of the kind of courses he would take.
Entrepreneurial courses, particularly family business, he did well in, for obvious reasons. He had some interest in the field.
Clover Farms Dairy is a success story of its own. Founded in 1937, the Reading, Pa., company ("Your Hometown Dairy") has gone from a 10-man operation to 275 employees garnering $100 million a year. It homogenizes and pasteurizes milk and then sells it to wholesalers and retailers.
One would think Rothenberger would have known all one could know about running a business. His father, along with uncle John B. Rothenberger and grandmother Betty Rothenberger, put him to work at Clover Farms when he was 14.
Still, Rothenberger learned a few things at JMU. Some of his business courses hit Rothenberger close to home.
"At the time I was in college, the family business was in its second generation," Rothenberger says. "There was not a lot of discussion as to how to move and migrate into the third generation.
"It was interesting to learn how some of the processes, communicationwise, were totally different from a non-family firm." For instance, he said, replacing a CEO in a family business is dicier than in a non-family business. Sibling rivalry or high parental expectations, he added, could also be "through the roof, just unrealistic compared to a normal job."
And if there's even a simple disagreement on the job, it's not the same as with colleagues who aren't relatives.
"I don't have to sit across the table at Thanksgiving from our executives," he says. "In a family business, you have to go eat turkey with them. You'd better be able to do that."
In the sales and customer-oriented classes, Rothenberger identified well because of the family dinner experience.
"Discussion always came back to winning and keeping customers," he says.
When he graduated from JMU in 1988, Rothenberger made his first big decision -- to start small.
"The game plan had always been to go out and work in the workplace and get outside company experience before I was invited to come into the business," he says.
He chose to start out in sales with a small information-technology firm based in Fairfax. It was a crucial decision. Rothenberger figured that information technology was the fastest-growing industry, and northern Virginia is one of the highest info-tech centers in the country. A sales job in a small firm would force him to learn every aspect of that type of business.
"I would highly recommend it to people who are starting their own business from scratch," he says. "Being part of a small business, as a young working person, you're privy to decisions about marketing, advertising, operations, sales, hiring, firing -- every aspect of large and small business is there. And you're involved in all of that.
In a large company, you are focused on a specific job. You don't get into human resources one day and operations the next. At a small company, you're wearing all of those hats."
In April 1993, after gleaning as much info-tech knowledge experience he could, Rothenberger set out on his own. He plunked down $15,000 of his own savings -- and no bank loans, venture capital or public stockholders. He started with a personal computer, a fax machine and two telephone lines from his bedroom.
That's known as a 7-by-24 in our industry," he says, chuckling. "It's an experience unlike any other working experience.
There's an extreme amount of risk and a lot of luck involved. You really don't know whether you are going to make it during the first two years. Let's put it this way: I don't want to do it again."
His company specializes in enterprise consulting, information technology infrastructure and support services surrounding the Internet. Rothenberger describes his firm as purely market driven, going after a specific customer base of large commercial customers and customizing services around their needs.
"We're focusing on enterprise consulting and integration services to large commercial customers above $200 million in revenue," he says simply.
Rothenberger employs 40 people and expects to raise that to close to 75 by year's end.
This rapid success in today's hottest business sector makes Rothenberger a valuable resource. Today he sits on the Executive Advisory Council at the JMU College of Business. "It's good to give back," he says. Rothenberger visits the college several times a year and assists the deans with various programs and planning. But this isn't the first time his acumen made him in demand.
"I was asked to come back to the family business in the first year of the company," Rothenberger says. "It was a very hard decision to make, but I decided to stay in the information technology field."
There is no shortage of confidence in his voice when Rothenberger speaks about his company. He told Dawn Kopecki of The Washington Times that he wants to expand his business northward, doubling its annual revenue as well as its staff. That's why he's in the D.C. area, where he intends to work his way into government contracts. He looks at today's culture as relatively young and aggressive, and that " breeds quality service, quality expertise, professionalism, responsiveness and flexibility."
Combine that take-charge philosophy with more basic, human tenets he learned down on the farm: Be friendly, be on time, do your job, work hard, pay attention to details and create a happy work environment. Oh, yeah, and know what you want, make a plan, and go for it. John Rothenberger has done all that -- and you can bet he's not just waiting around for the results.