A new catalyst

Williamson County's burgeoning tech cluster could become the genesis for the next wave of economic growth south of Nashville [From the November/December issue of Nashville Post magazine]

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said there are no second acts in American lives, but he had never heard about Williamson County.

Already renowned as the community that lured Nissan’s North American headquarters away from Los Angeles and home to such well-known corporations as Mars Petcare and Community Health Systems, Williamson County is gaining notice for its growing technology sector.

Today, nearly four dozen technology-related companies call Williamson County home. At last count, they employed over 5,000 workers — a number boosted in August when Comdata Corp. announced it is creating 120 new jobs at its corporate headquarters in Brentwood. Already the county’s eighth-largest employer, the company will have more than 980 workers at its home office.

Technology companies are attracted to Williamson County for the same reason that in the face of the worst recession since World War II, individuals started up 156 new businesses here in September.

“That’s the most we’ve had since we began tracking new business starts,” says Matt Largen, director of Williamson County economic development. “That speaks to the entrepreneurial spirit of the community and to the creative individuals who are willing to take risks.”

It also explains why, from 2004 to 2009, almost 39 percent of the multicounty Nashville region’s job growth was concentrated inside Williamson County, according to a new report by Nashville’s chamber of commerce.

“We’ve been the economic engine of Middle Tennessee for job growth,” Largen says.

The result is a diverse economy that weathers economic storms better than any one-company town possibly could, says Cindi Parmenter, president of the Brentwood-Cool Springs Chamber of Commerce. In August, 93 percent of residents who wanted a job were able to find one, and only one Tennessee county had a lower unemployment rate.

So why aren’t Parmenter and Largen satisfied?

Williamson County has almost everything a technology-related company could ask for — great schools, easy traffic, affordable housing, interstate links to Nashville and the surrounding region, and access to the world beyond via Nashville’s international airport.

What it doesn’t have, says Passport Health Communications CEO Scott MacKenzie, is easy access to a nearby university comparable to Georgia Tech or the University of Texas, where the next generation of software engineers is being trained.

“The community in Nashville is focused on health care but not on high tech,” he says. Such an institution, he says, “would be good for the region.”

Parmenter and Largen recognize that more needs to be done to groom future tech workers. They obviously can’t create a university, but in cooperation with the Nashville Technology Council they are taking steps to encourage students in Williamson County’s schools to participate in a new Foundations of Technology program and begin to prepare academically for tech careers.

“If that’s the only problem we have, we can overcome that,” Parmenter says. “When we know there’s a weak area, everyone jumps in to fix it.”

Williamson County may be only taking its first steps in finding its next generation of technology workers, but the county’s technology companies, including the five profiled here — Passport, C3 Consulting, Comdata, Vaco and Cybera — are having no difficulty finding success in a county that is currently better known for its corporate headquarters than for its technology companies.

Comdata Corp.

Founded more than 40 years ago, Comdata helped establish Williamson County as an address for technology companies. The corporation, which provides electronic payment solutions for the transportation, aviation, health care, retail and construction industries as well as government, enables more than $23 billion in transactions each year.

“We manage the money and the data around the transaction,” says Todd Joseph, senior vice president for information technology.

Businesses like Comdata’s electronic payment solutions because they are substantially cheaper than writing checks — which can add several dollars to the cost of a transaction — and greatly reduce opportunities for fraud or identity theft. Adding even more value, programmers at Comdata’s Maryland Farms headquarters are constantly creating new software that allows customers to mine information from each transaction. It can, for example, guide truck drivers to locations where they can buy fuel for the lowest price.

Comdata’s services help Taylor Farms, a Tennessee customer, save money.

“Comdata’s payment solutions allow me to review transactional data such as miles per gallon, miles per gallon per unit, or miles per gallon by driver in real time,” says Gary L. Williams II, transportation manager for Taylor Farms. “Comdata also performed an in-depth fuel study for our business that allowed us to negotiate a better at-the-pump discount with our fuel provider.”

Customers “need to understand they are making the best use of their resources,” Joseph says. “It allows unlimited possibilities.”

Of course, there’s nothing new about using a credit card instead of a check, but imagine a credit card without the card. Partnering with MasterCard, Comdata is providing customers with virtual credit cards, also known as ghost cards. The customer gets a totally secure 16-digit code good for just one use.

“From a green perspective, you’re cutting down on all the paper,” Joseph says. “And there is less overhead and work effort required.”

Keeping up with the latest revolution in technology, Comdata’s engineers are even creating applications that allow customers to make payments using their smart phones. Customers in the trucking industry have an app that automates the online process of applying for permits.

President Brett Rodewald says Comdata, a wholly owned subsidiary of Ceridian Corp., relies on its Williamson County workforce to keep it on the leading edge of technology.

“We are known for our ability to deliver innovative solutions and world-class customer service, and our Middle Tennessee associates have played a large role in establishing that reputation,” Rodewald says.


C3 Consulting

C3 doesn’t make the technology its clients use. C3 helps them make better use of their technology. The Brentwood-based company provides business consulting, a health care practice and technology consulting.

“In nearly every engagement, we help our clients adapt to some sort of technology change,” says Beth Chase, president and CEO. “In the process, we are also helping them get through the ‘people change’ too. That’s our sweet spot. We work collaboratively with teams to ease the transition through ensuring buy-in, communications, accountability, and ultimately, results.”

For example, when a billion-dollar health care client needed assistance — C3 keeps the names of its clients confidential but says about half are in health care — the consulting company helped plan, design, develop and test a number of custom software projects.

Health care clients also rely on C3 to help them correctly implement complicated and expensive electronic health records, which are replacing paper in hospitals and physicians’ offices. Other clients are in retailing, manufacturing, insurance, education, government and, interestingly, technology.

Smart internal use of technology gives C3, with just 43 team members, a wide reach across many industries. A collaboration tool, SharePoint, enables companywide communication and sharing of best practices. A Web-based customer relationship management (CRM) tool allows C3 to manage its customers’ needs. Another Web-based tool manages back office functions, including time-sheet submission.

“Everything is Web-based, so it’s highly accessible to our consultants on the go,” Chase says.

Cybera

Thousands of restaurants and retail locations across the county rely on Franklin-based Cybera’s ClearPCI technology to guard against expensive security breaches and identity theft so they can spend their time concentrating on their core businesses.

The company has been rewarded with growth that has placed in on Inc. magazine’s listing of the country’s 5,000 fastest-growing companies for four consecutive years.

“As the number of identity theft victims continues to grow, the merchant industry, payment card industry and point-of-sale systems vendors struggle to cope with this growing problem. Cybera has developed a simple solution to protect sensitive cardholder data,” says Dan Glennon, Cybera’s senior vice president.

ClearPCI also simplifies the process of complying with the payment card industry’s strict regulations. Credit card processors can charge stiff fees for non-compliance. Glennon says fines, penalties and lawsuits could even force a merchant out of business.

Cybera markets ClearPCI, combining proprietary software and a nationwide infrastructure, as the quickest and most affordable way for merchants to avoid those circumstances. The company, which has about 75 employees, develops its technology at its Williamson County headquarters, which is also home to a security operations center that operates, in Glennon’s words, “24/7/365.”

Customers include Shell Oil, Chick-fil-A, O’Reilly Auto Parts, Books-a-Million, Captain D’s, Jack in the Box, Kirkland’s, Ted’s Montana Grill, Samsonite, Advance America and Lenny’s Subs.

Kahala, a fast-growing franchisor with more than 3,000 locations across 12 concepts including Blimpie and Cold Stone Creamery, relies on Cybera for a single comprehensive and easily deployable solution, says Greg Poindexter, company spokesman.

“We are able to protect our brands along with the integrity of our franchisees and their customers,” he says.

Cybera CEO and President Cliff Duffey says the company thrives by ignoring trends and focusing on its customers’ needs.

“Through this focus, Cybera has been an industry leader and innovator in bringing unique and more advanced security solutions to the payment card industry,” he says.

Vaco

Even the most powerful technology solutions are only as effective as the people who use them. When a client needs an infusion of talent, Vaco provides it.

Vaco partners with clients on projects and critical talent acquisitions in the areas of finance, accounting, administration and technology so clients can concentrate on their core mission, says Vaco CEO Jerry Bostelman, who founded the company in 2002.

“Since the cutbacks of ’09 the ‘new normal’ client profile is comprised of an incredibly lean and highly skilled workforce that leverages technology aggressively. Vaco is busier than ever as clients utilize our specialized experience and vast network to compete for technological game changers,” he says.

The company has been rewarded with growth that has placed it on the Inc. 5000 list of the country’s fastest-growing companies for four years in a row. Vaco also is a member of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Future 50 Hall of Fame, which recognizes high-growth companies in Middle Tennessee.

“Clients need customized solutions and often need them yesterday, if not sooner. We rely on our real-world experience to craft the right strategy with them, then utilize our deep relationships with thousands of candidates and consultants to deliver the right players quickly and efficiently,” Bostelman says.

Vaco also relies on technology to help make its own corporate structure successful. The company is organized into 26 independent limited liability companies, which it calls the Vaco Nation, spread across the country. A robust intranet and shared service technology help make that work.

It’s not unusual for other technology companies to turn to Brentwood-based Vaco for assistance finding talented IT professionals. Cybera, the provider of data security and payment card industry regulatory compliance solutions for thousands of retailers and restaurants, relies on Vaco for consultants and permanent staff in application architecture, Web applications development and other areas.

“Sometimes trying to fill a position can be time-consuming and stressful,” says David Abbott, Cybera’s senior vice president for engineering and technology. “Vaco does a great job of relieving my team of the search burden, which allows us to focus on more critical business matters.”

Passport Health Communications

One in three U.S. hospitals and 5,000 physicians clinics and other health care providers rely on Passport’s technology to avoid bad debt and reduce instances when they provide care without knowing how much they will be compensated — or whether they will be paid at all.

“We help providers understand the patient’s benefits at the point of service,” says CEO Scott MacKenzie. “We do that before they get care. Up front. No surprises.”

Retailers and restaurants expect to be paid the amount on the price tag or the menu, and customers know up front what they’ll pay. Health care providers and their patients interact without that certainty.

There are roughly 48 million Americans without insurance. Many self-pay, but others might qualify for free or discounted charity care. Others might add to the provider’s bad debt load. Even patients with insurance can be a source of payment uncertainty. Medicare, Medicaid and different private insurance policies have different limitations and pay different rates.

That’s why 1,700 hospitals, including those operated by HCA and Community Health Systems, the two largest Nashville-area hospital companies, and thousands of other providers rely on Passport’s technology to verify insurance eligibility before non-emergency care is given.

“Everybody benefits, and the patient knows,” MacKenzie says.

Each of Passport’s three divisions provides unique services to solve the payment riddle.

The Passport division’s eCare technology provides solutions for patient insurance verification, compliance and payment management. A new software product, Payment Navigator, allows hospitals to perform an in-depth financial analysis for uninsured patients prior to service and recommend the best payment avenue, including Medicaid, charity care, up-front payment or financing.

The company’s Health Works division’s OrderChecker technology validates outpatient diagnosis and procedure codes to make sure that each payer’s reimbursement requirements are met. The Nebo Systems division’s technology improves claims accuracy, monitors claims status and reconciles insurer payments.

Founded in 1996, Passport employs 300 people and has appeared on the Inc. 5000 for four consecutive years.

Teams of software engineers are at work every day at Passport’s Franklin headquarters, creating the next new product to serve the evolving health care industry.

“Our software has to evolve,” MacKenzie says. “Think about GPS and the iPhone. You have to reinvent yourself.”