Dynamic Duo

Darci Smith and Rick Lunt, a team in and out of the office, find it may not be such a bad idea to mix business with pleasure at Dynamic Business Solutions.

by Portland Helmich

At Dynamic Business Solutions, implementing accounting and manu- facturing software is secondary to provoking customers to rethink the way they've been doing business for years. "The business we're in is change," says president Darci Smith. Vice president and co-owner Rick Lunt elaborates on his wife's remark. "We change the way people pay bills, the color of their checks, and the sequence of stacks of paper on their desks," he explains. "We might be automating a new manufacturing system, and there'll be workers used to filling out their time cards with little check marks. Now they have to use a computer to wand their I.D.s through. It can be traumatic."

Darci Smith and Rick Lunt say their Williston-based company, Dynamic Business Solutions, has to constantly reinvent itself because of the breakneck speed at which the technology industry moves. "What you knew yesterday is obsolete tomorrow," says Lunt. "It's a voracious pace of learning the products, and the company has to constantly reinvent itself. What worked a year and a half ago don't count on it now."

Apparently, Lunt isn't exaggerating. During a recent training session at a manufacturing company, one employee was so overwhelmed by the changes being introduced at her workplace that she got up in the middle of her training and walked out the door. It was 2 o'clock in the afternoon. "Later, she returned," remembers Lunt, "and by 6 o'clock she was enthusiastic about the product. We'd convinced her the sky wasn't falling."

Years ago, businesses did accounting and kept track of things like inventory with pen and paper. Today, computers have taken over such tasks, saving time in the long run, but demanding more of employees in the short term. Over the five and a half years that Dynamic Business Solutions has been in existence, Lunt has experienced this phenomenon firsthand. "If there were 75 options for setting up a system three years ago, there are 175 options in that same software today. That makes the system more flexible, but also more complex. What used to take two days to teach customers can now take four."

This is where Smith, Lunt, and their team of application and technical consultants bring in the "fun factor." "The way to make change easier is to make it fun," emphasizes Smith, a CPA who used to work in public accounting. For inspiration, Smith and Lunt look to their idol: Walt Disney. "The reason we idolize Disney," says Lunt, who did a case study on the corporation in graduate school, "is that they're very much into customer service creating magical moments. Everything at Disney is a stage. Every employee is a cast member. When employees go through the door into the theme park, they're performers. If they're not prepared to play their roles, they don't go through the door."

We're in the same business," he continues. "When we're in front of customers, they're expecting us to show them confidence, courtesy, and respect." All of these qualities, Smith suggests, can be and are often best demonstrated while having fun. "We're silly," she says with a chuckle. "We get into it; we engage people. If you're not engaging people, you're not doing your job."

Smith and Lunt say that in addition to the "fun factor" part of what separates Dynamic Business Solutions from other computer software consulting firms is the company's structure and the experience and motivation of their 14 employees. Smith is in charge of sales; Lunt is in charge of operations, which involves managing both the application and technical teams. "Where DBS adds value," notes Smith, "is that the people on our application team have been bookkeepers and CPAs. Besides teaching customers to push this button or that button, they can also offer business advice."

Although Lunt is a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Clarkson University and two master's degrees (in manufacturing systems and engineering management) from Stanford he and Smith, who has a business degree from St. Michael's College, didn't realize the importance of offering technical services when they purchased the accounting software division of McAuliffe's (then called New England Business Software) in June 1995 and went into business together. "Basically, we bought a customer list and were trying to service that customer base," says Smith. "We thought we were strictly in the accounting software business, but what we found was that most of the questions we got weren't related to accounting software; they were technically related." Quickly, Smith and Lunt realized they needed a technical team to ensure their software would run properly when installed.

Such versatility is a selling point with customers. "They have it all," says Dave Laforce, president of Newport Furniture Parts. In 1995, the manufacturing company purchased a new accounting software package from Smith and Lunt's fledgling firm. "We were manufacturing about 600 different parts at the time, and we wanted a manufacturing package that would integrate with the new accounting software so they'd tie together and work as one." Over a year, Laforce worked with Lunt to create the new package. Writing custom applications that integrate into their product lines so that different software packages can communicate with each other is another offering that separates the Williston-based firm from its competitors.

"Rick's a genius," says Laforce. "There's not been a single thing that I've thrown at him that he couldn't do. What's nice, too, is that as the company's grown, Darci and Rick have been able to bring on people just as knowledgeable as they are. Today, I deal more with the people underneath them, and the service hasn't gone down. That doesn't always happen."

Laforce is likely speaking of people like project managers Ken Gingras and Barbara Ganey. Ganey had been a Dynamic Business Solutions customer for two years while serving as finance director of a non-profit company in Troy, N.Y. When she felt the need for a professional change, she called Smith and Lunt and told them she wanted to come on board.

"What I liked about DBS was that they had the capability of doing a lot of different things, but they also had the smarts and the integrity to tell you the things they couldn't do and then help you find somebody who would," Ganey says. "I thought, 'If I were running a business, that's how I'd do it.'" Moreover, she adds, "It's fun to see people who are so interested in what they do that customers get caught up in the enthusiasm."

"I like working here," agrees Gingras, "because there's a lot of positive energy. The environment is exciting and cooperative, and Darci and Rick have done an excellent job of setting that energy into the culture here."

What Smith and Lunt have also set into company culture is open book management and an incentive-based compensation package. "We'd worked in firms where we didn't feel our voices were heard," says Lunt, "so we share management decisions and financial information with our employees, which gives them a greater sense of participation and ownership." Smith acknowledges that such a cooperative paradigm doesn't necessarily satisfy everyone. "As we get bigger, there are more opinions. Not all of the opinions get implemented, but people get to voice them."

Darci Smith has found an incentive-based compensation package helps attract highly motivated employees. Nearly half of employees annual income is derived from commissions and profit sharing.

The compensation package was devised as a means of attracting highly motivated individuals. Employees are given a base salary, but 40 to 50 percent of their annual income comes in the form of incentives: commissions and profit sharing. "The harder you work, the more you make," Lunt says simply, adding that he and Smith were conscious of the need to eliminate "dead weight" when they began their joint enterprise. "We'd been in too many companies where we did all the work. It's hard coming to the office every day when you've got a full schedule, and you're making the same amount of money as the guy next door who's having coffee and reading the paper and at the end of the year, you both get the same raise."

"We worried that it might make it more difficult to attract good people," Smith adds, "but we're being told by our employees that people who would be turned off by the compensation package aren't risk-seeking enough for our world."

Ironic words coming from a self-proclaimed conservative. When the opportunity to purchase McAuliffe's accounting software division came Smith's way, she had just taken on a job as a controller for a division of Resolution, a local video duplication and distribution company. "The last thing I was thinking about was changing jobs," she admits. I thought, 'Do I want to be a business owner?' Rick, though, was immediately excited about the potential. He's more entrepreneurial than I am."

The two met sailing in 1993. At the time, Smith was a controller at Autumn Harp. Lunt, who had worked as a manufacturing engineer at IBM for seven years, was then general manager of the Burlington Futon Co. "He was looking for a date, and I was looking for a manufacturing manager," Smith laughs. With management experience freshly under his belt, Lunt switched jobs and went to work for Autumn Harp, leaving a year later to start Constant Change Consulting, his own manufacturing consulting firm.

In 1995, Smith looked into New England Business Software while searching for a new accounting software system at Resolution. When she chose not to buy it, a sales representative asked her why. "I said that it didn't seem like they understood my needs," Smith recollects. Not long afterward, she was offered the business for sale.

"It was very scary," says the native Vermonter. "It seemed like a huge risk being responsible for other peoples' livelihoods, putting our financial well-being at risk, and entering into a business relationship with a significant other." (Smith and Lunt were married in 1999.) Lunt, who grew up "throughout New England," was more optimistic. "I'd done a series of small businesses," he explains. "I'd put myself through college by painting houses and sold skis to pay for my expenses. The consulting firm I had was very profitable, so I'd had some successes and was excited about pooling our resources."

While Lunt's enthusiasm and experience may have eased some of Smith's anxiety, the practical number-cruncher recognized that she, too, had experience she could bring to bear. She had implemented some of the very same accounting software while working as a senior accountant at Gallagher, Flynn & Co. for three years. "We actually feel like the company has come full circle," remarks Lunt, explaining that Smith had worked for six years as a controller at Entre Computer Center. In 1989, McAuliffe's bought Entre's Shelburne store (which later became New England Business Software) only to sell it to Smith in 1995. "Basically, I've been an employee and an owner of the same company," she jokes.

As they near six years in business together, Smith and Lunt are pleased with their decision. "We love being our own bosses," Lunt remarks. "There's a real level of autonomy." As for their relationship, it appears to be working well. "We don't cross each other's lines," explains the president. "We have different skill sets, and we respect what the other one knows. The business splits itself up nicely that way."

Project managers Ken Gingras and Barbara Ganey describe the work environment at DBS as exciting and cooperative. "It's fun to see people who are so interested in what they do that customers get caught up in the enthusiasm," says Ganey.

What is challenging for Dynamic Business Solutions whose customers are usually northeastern manufacturers and professional services companies grossing between $1 million and $100 million annually is the breakneck speed at which the technology industry moves. "What you knew yesterday is obsolete tomorrow," offers Lunt. "It's a voracious pace of learning the products, and the company has to constantly reinvent itself. What worked a year and a half ago don't count on it now."

Over the next year, Smith and Lunt want to concentrate on developing even more in-depth knowledge of their product lines and on communicating more consistently with customers. "We have to get better at articulating what we do because customers can read it, but they may not understand it," Lunt admits. Moreover, the co-owners want to make sure that their high-energy philosophy permeates every facet of the company.

While not actively looking for new employees, both say that if the right person walked through the door, they would happily find him or her a spot. "The work's there," Lunt says. "It's a matter of whether we want the work or not, and that's regulated by our ability to find great people."

If Smith and Lunt keep doing what they're doing, that shouldn't pose too much of a problem. General manager of Franklin Paint Co. in Franklin, Mass., and a customer since 1999, Robin Lander believes more companies should follow Dynamic Business Solutions' example. "Even though I make paint, I know it's customer service that keeps people coming back. Everyone at DBS always follows through, and they treat every single person the same way. I wish I had more vendors like them," she says. "I know if I lived in Vermont, I'd go work for them."

Originally published in March 2001 Business People-Vermont