As a pioneer in computer mapping, Jim Anderson, president and CEO of Urban Science in Detroit, turned a simple request for plotting home addresses into a global, multimillion-dollar company.
President and CEO
Urban Science, Detroit
Why he is a Champion of the New Economy:
As a pioneer in computer mapping, Jim Anderson, president and CEO of Urban Science in Detroit, turned a simple request for plotting home addresses into a global, multimillion-dollar company. Today, with branch offices in Munich, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, and elsewhere, Anderson and his team of 750 employees help automotive clients and dealerships meet or exceed sales, marketing, operational, and customer service goals.
How did you get started?
I received my graduate degree in civil engineering while working my way through college, and I stayed on at Wayne State University as an instructor. I was part of the team doing early research on computer mapping in the mid-1970s. There were no PCs or BlackBerrys. We had dumb terminals, and we used punch cards to tell the computer what to do. Our students were involved in computer mapping, and one of them went to work for Cadillac. They asked her to map all of the automaker’s customer addresses in the Chicago area. To complete the project you would go to the store, and get a large map and lots of dots to stick on the map — I think it worked out to 37,000 dots. Cadillac needed that information to help locate their new dealerships. My student asked her boss why they didn’t use computers, and he said they had tried it, but it couldn’t be done.
So what happened next?
She said there was a guy who could do it. So I started working on the Cadillac project in 1977, and we got it done fairly quickly. As more work came in, I was working two jobs, but it wasn’t fast enough for Cadillac. They said we needed to find a way to speed things up, because it took so long to work through the university. So I promised everything I owned to the bank, spent $40,000 on a plotter — which today costs about $99 — and left the university and went to work for myself. We still have Cadillac as a client today and I still am with Comerica Bank, as they loaned me the money.
What are the drivers of your business?
We listen to our customers, we seek out problems that haven’t been solved yet, and we stay with a client as a new job is rolled out. We’re always asking our clients what they need next, or we try to figure out what they need that they might not have thought of yet. If it comes down to a mathematical or analytics equation, it emerges as a computer problem, and we develop software programs to get the job done. Today, we leverage our software around the world. We plan to apply our processes and software outside the auto industry in the next two years. One area of growth is in financial services, which is very data-rich and global in nature. Another possibility is health care, but it’s more of a regional issue, particularly in the United States. The communications industry is another possibility.
How do you stay ahead of the trends?
We’re always in a state in reinvention, either improving on what we’ve done or inventing the next solution to a problem. For a long time, we were known as a computer mapping company. But if we had stayed in that business, we wouldn’t be here today. A mapping project might have cost $500 and took a few hours to complete. Today, it costs 50 cents and takes five seconds to produce. We evolved with our clients, and we studied what they were trying to accomplish in the sales and marketing world. They had the data, and we brought in our tools from science and engineering. We turned their problems into equations, and then provided them with solutions. We help our (auto) dealer clients with measuring customer service goals, operational issues, marketing, and a number of other activities.
What is your business philosophy?
I read a lot of books that detail the characteristics of companies that stand the test of time. I’m not getting any younger, so I want to make sure what we’ve built will last. We have a vision and a mission that everyone in our company understands. We call it Plan VMS521. The ‘V’ stands for the vision of a perfect world, and how to get there. ‘M’ is for mission or what we are striving for. ‘S’ is for our cornerstone strategies, which involves our people – our most important ingredient. Also (vital to our success) are our clients and product excellence as well as our operational efficiencies, and our desire to be an independent company as it relates to diversity and growth. As for the numbers, five is for our five-year outlook, and one and two are our one-year and two-year tactics to get there.