Originally published in Business Digest, February 1997

County Data is Lead Leader

by Kathryn Trudell

Worms and frogs in St. Albans. Real estate in Rutland. Computer data in Boston and Winooski. Ice cream and pizza in Yaroslavl, Russia. Although the list appears random, nothing could be further from the truth. These are all businesses started by entrepreneur Terry Allen, beginning in early childhood. Allen, the founder of County Data Corp. located at 136 West Canal St. in Winooski, tells his story with obvious zest. As he does, you are reminded of a contemporary Johnny Appleseed traveling throughout the United States and around planting businesses. After careful watering, nurturing, and growing the business, he scans the horizon for the next opportunity.

Allen readily admits to being an incurable entrepreneur. "I can't help it," he laughs. "I have been infected by the entrepreneurial bug ever since I was born. I love a challenge. I like to develop a new product or start a business, get it up and running, then sell it or turn it over to someone else to manage. I'm not a manager. The secret of success is knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. I'm great at starting a business and getting it on its feet, or creating new opportunities. Once the endeavor has been established and is successful, I like to move on, leaving the business in other capable hands. Many people -- like my sons -- are better managers than I am. My strengths lie in opening doors for others to walk through."

The understated white exterior and unassuming sign which mark County Data's long, low building in Winooski belie the hum of purposeful activity inside. The thriving company founded by Allen and now run by his sons Seth, Andrew, and Jared. The building, which runs from 130 to 146 West Canal St., is owned by Allen. Turmax Print and Copy, the only other tenant in the building, does all of County Data's printing and copying, making Turmax's landlord one of its biggest clients.

[photo] Terry Allen is the founder of County Data Corp., a Winooski business employing 80 people and growing, which compiles and sells new business and new homeowner information all over the country. County Data is just one of the 15 or 20 businesses Allen has created, ranging from publishing comic books to opening a Ben & Jerry's. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

Chet Brothers, Turmax's owner, speaks highly of Allen. "Terry is a brilliant businessman, yet I find him very easy to work with. He and his three sons get along amazingly well, which is not always the case in a family business. They do an outstanding, professional job together."

Brothers also uses one of County Data's products -- the labels from his new business leads. "They are very accurate," Brothers says. "Every time I do a mailing using his labels for my own business I get at least a six percent increase in new customers. That's an amazing percentage."

Allen sips coffee from a mug bearing a quotation from Napoleon -- "The right information at the right time is nine-tenths of any battle" -- as he discusses his early years. It is an apt summation of the workings of his mind. Allen does not see the landscape through which he travels as static. He is a born storyteller whose reflections are rich in detail and peppered with information, statistics, and ideas.

Allen and his wife, Debbie, live in Shelburne. He was born in Binghamton, N.Y. and raised in Springfield, Mass., the oldest of three children. The family spent summers in St. Albans, where Allen began his entrepreneurial pursuits. "When I was in the second grade, I caught worms and frogs and sold them to fishermen in the St. Albans area for bait. I had three paper routes. I mowed 20 lawns. I can't remember a time when I wasn't involved in a business of one type or another.

"They have written a case study about me at the Harvard Business School," Allen chuckles. "In fact, they have described me as a 'chronic entrepreneur.' If you look at my life, my skills are in starting businesses. I must have started 15 or 20 of them."

Allen is indeed easing himself out of the business he founded in 1983. He comes to the office only two days a week now; his three sons run the company. Andrew is president and CEO. Seth is County Data's top salesman. Jared is the marketing manager and production coordinator.

"We love it in Winooski," Allen says. "The community has been very good to us, especially Doug Scott, the director of the Winooski Community Development Corp. Thanks to Doug and people like him, we want County Data to remain right here."

Andrew Allen is proud of the company. "It's not really my father's business now," he explains. "It has evolved into more of a family business. Over the last five years, County Data has built a network of data collectors throughout the U.S. to compile a list of new business formations. Over 300 sources of data give us 120,000 new business names each month. Sold under the name The Lead Sheet, this list of businesses is made available to direct marketers an average of eight months before these businesses appear in the yellow pages."

Terry Allen graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut where he majored in economics and played three collegiate sports. Turning down the chance to become a professional baseball player, (his father had been a minor league player and a coach at Springfield College), Allen enrolled in the Harvard Business School, earning an MBA degree in 1963. Although he didn't know how varied his business pursuits would become, Allen did know he wanted to live in Vermont. "As soon as I graduated, I got a list of every Vermont company that had 40 or more employees and wrote a letter to each one of them asking for a job."

He received three job offers, including one from Carris Reels in Rutland. He accepted the position, moved to Vermont, and became assistant to the president of the company. He worked for Carris Reels for one year.

In 1964 Allen bought an old schoolhouse in Pittsford and turned it into a ski lodge sleeping 160 guests. He started a real estate business whose first office was housed in the ski lodge. That business evolved into Better Realty, a real estate and insurance agency in Rutland. He became involved in land development and home construction from 1964 through 1969. He purchased a Taylor Rental Center and expanded it into a six-store equipment rental chain, Green Mountain Rentals. This led to the writing of his first book, Advertising and Promotion Ideas For the General Rental Store. It was during this time that Allen and his first wife, Leslie, had three sons -- Seth, Andrew, and Jared.

It was this book that led to the establishment of County Data several years later. One of Allen's ideas in the book was that rental store owners should get a list of all new home owners in their area and mail promotional brochures with discount coupons for equipment new homeowners were most likely to rent: wallpaper steamers and floor sanders, for example. He tested the idea successfully in his own stores, then offered other Rutland area merchants the chance to include their coupons in his mailings for a fee. The venture led to the founding of another business called Merchants Welcome Service. When Allen hired someone to expand his market, the employee signed up over unexpected 200 accounts in three months -- in Boston!

"Suddenly it looked like this was going to develop into a large business. Our accounts included The Boston Globe, Hood milk, and supermarket chains. I was trying to run this business from Vermont, and most of my customers were in Massachusetts. I decided I needed to move there to be closer to my customers."

Allen moved to Boston in 1970. Within a year, his business had grown to 70 employees, with 2,000 merchants under contract in various parts of the country. He describes what happened next. "I realized we had all these lists of new real estate owners, and wondered if people might be willing to pay just for the information." He sent out 5,000 mailings to real estate brokers offering a list of every sale that took place in their county each month. He received 500 responses, each with a $50 check enclosed, and another business was planted -- the Real Estate Transfer Directory.

Allen began to move in the direction of dealing strictly with information. He sold lists of new real estate owners to fuel oil companies -- a very lucrative market. "Usually the first fuel oil company that knocks on the door of a new home or business owner will get the account, and we were generating this information within 24 hours of the deeds being recorded."

Didn't anything ever go wrong in this seemingly charmed entrepreneurial life? Absolutely, according to Allen. "I got fired from my first job for being late all the time. Some of my businesses expanded too fast, before I really had them under control. In 1973, when the oil crunch hit, I lost all those lucrative fuel oil accounts in one week. They were the most profitable because they were buying our lists on a daily basis. We hung on for awhile, but in 1974 I went through a Chapter 11 reorganization and sold the company, hoping to use the money to live on while I studied for my doctorate in business. As it turned out, the buyers failed to make their payments as promised. When I founded County Data Corp. in 1983, I competed them out of business within two years."

In addition to his entrepreneurial pursuits, Allen is involved in the academic side of business. He has written three other books on marketing, which were used as case studies in college business courses. He was a research associate at the Harvard Business School in 1973. He has taught at the UVM, Northeastern, Babson College, New Hampshire College, and Castleton. While at Castleton he chaired their business education department.

In 1975, Allen began studies for his doctorate at the University of Virginia, but didn't finish until eight years later. "The reason it took so long was that I kept starting businesses! I just couldn't say no when an opportunity came along." While a doctoral student, Allen started an educational comic book publishing company called EDU-Press. In 1979 he moved to Chicago and became involved in the stock options business. He bought a seat on the Chicago Board of Options, and traded on the floor of the exchange. After six months, he hired someone else to work the floor, but kept his board seat for many years.

He returned to Vermont in 1980 and moved to Hinesburg. There he started All About Town, a promotional board game of cities from Burlington and the New England area as far west as Colorado. He later sold that business to a west coast publisher.

Allen started County Data Corp. in Massachusetts in 1983. From then until 1991, CDC's sole product was a compilation of new homeowner information from four states, including Vermont. Half the sales were through County Comps published for real estate brokers and appraisers. The other half were to local service providers who wanted the names of new home owners. During this time, County Data developed the ability to create and deliver custom lists in a wide variety of media alternatives.

In 1986, Allen expanded County Data into Vermont, renting the basement of the former Toy Chest store across from the Shelburne Museum. A year later he moved the business to a trailer in Shelburne behind some buildings near the post office. "When we outgrew the trailer in 1987, I bought our current building in Winooski. It used to be the storage facility for bales of wool for the American Woolen Mill," he explains.

In 1991, County Data began to compile information on new businesses as well as home sales, expanding its data collection and delivery skills to the sale of new business names as well as new homeowners. Since that time, the compilation and dissemination of these new business names via The Lead Sheet has grown dramatically, accounting for 95 percent of County Data's sales. The company has 82 employees, 62 of whom are full-time. Four independent contractors provide programming and graphic arts services. Clients include The Wall Street Journal, America Online, Wal-Mart, MCI, Viking Office Products, Inc. magazine, and Blue Shield. In addition, more than 200 real estate agents buy County Data's County Comps service in Vermont.

According to Andrew, County Data values employee input. "We are actually a flat working structure rather than a traditional hierarchy. Our employees are placed on teams, and we work as a team. I try to apply a common-sense approach to cooperation and openness, involving everyone I possibly can within the organization in the direction we want to go."

Since The Lead Sheet started in 1991, County Data has increased sales an average of 3l percent each year. In 1996, County Data generated $4 million in gross billings. More than 120,000 new businesses are registered in this country each month. Karen Ramey, County Data's national list manager, explains that lists of these names can be generated on a nationwide basis, or narrowly targeted for specific service providers, such as accountants, in a particular geographic area. Ramey enjoys her work. "I love it here. This company is operated by a family who really cares about their employees. When you are hired, they bring you into the family and treat you with the greatest respect."

On the informational playing field, County Data is an acknowledged power. Six months ago they were approached by American Business Information, a publicly-traded company searching for the largest and most accurate list of new businesses in the nation. They felt County Data could provide that product. ABI subsequently offered to buy the business, while still allowing Allen and his sons to operate it autonomously. The purchase was finalized in November 1996.

Allen has started businesses in some unusual places. He owns 50 percent interest in a consulting business that helps companies in European countries set up to do business in Russia. In 1992 he went to Yaroslavl, Burlington's sister city in Russia, with a delegation of Vermonters to distribute two tons of medical supplies. While there, he was asked to give some lectures on free enterprise and marketing. He met an English-speaking Russian and the two men decided to start a business together. This led to the opening of a pizza store and a Ben & Jerry's scoop shop in Yaroslavl -- the only two such stores in a city of 600,000 people. Allen, true to form, recently sold his share of the businesses to Russian owners.

Andrew Allen summarizes where County Data is heading in 1997 and beyond. "This company was started because my father had vision. He provides long-term perspective on where we should be in a certain number of years. We take care of getting the job done."

While Andrew and his brothers are getting the job done, their father will be building a new client for them. "I have just purchased another building in Winooski, where I hope to start a completely different business," Allen says. "Eventually I hope to become my sons' biggest customer."