Getting With the Program

A cross-country bike trek opened the door for Carl Lorentson to make a major shift in his life

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

For a dozen years, now, Carl Lorentson, the owner of Renaissance Information Systems in Jericho, has designed heavy-duty, custom databases for almost a hundred clients of every stripe. He enjoys the challenge of learning about a particular business in order to solve its data processing challenges.

If Carl Lorentson had a personal motto, it might be "a straightforward approach." It's a theme that crops up again and again as he tells his story.

Lorentson is president of Renaissance Information Systems Inc. in rural Jericho. He designs heavy-duty, custom databases from a small office in his home. A happy guy, doing what he loves to do, he's been on his own for 12 years.

"Lots of businesses think you have to grow bigger this year than last year," he says. "I read an article a number of years ago in Fortune or Inc. where they described seven different kinds of entrepreneur: things like 'build a business to sell it and move on' or 'build it to create a legacy.' One of them was 'the craftsman,' and that's where I align myself. I want to do my craft."

This really came home to him about a year ago. Times were tough, he says, and people didn't have a lot of money to spend on programming projects. During the slowdown, Lorentson re-evaluated where he was what he really wanted to do and realized he was spending a lot of time on marketing and administrative work, while his employees, Tom Cooley and Noreen Sila, "excellent programmers" who worked from their respective home offices, were doing what he loves to do, which is solving clients' problems and programming.

"I realized that the best solution for me was to go back to being a craftsman." He turned Cooley and Sila loose. The change took a lot of soul-searching, he adds, but the shift has been rewarding.

Lorentson did not set out to be an entrepreneur. A native of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and the son of an IBM-er, he grew up around computers and had an aptitude for math.

He opted to attend the State University of New York at Albany, "because it was one of four university centers in the SUNY system, and I could get a broad range of perspectives, dabble here and there," he says. One of those areas for dabbling was psychology.

"Psych 101 was a course I really wanted to take," he says, "but it was a popular course, and there was no way I could get in as an incoming freshman." His counselor suggested that, with his strong math background, he might like to take a computer programming course.

"I just fell in love with it!" he exclaims. "I took FORTRAN programming language and BASIC, a precursor to what a lot of programmers use now. I've been doing computer programming and computer science work ever since then."

"Then" was 1975, when degrees in computer programming didn't exist. Lorentson graduated in 1979 with an interdisciplinary degree in applied mathematics and computer science.

He met Elizabeth Meyer, his future wife, at a dorm party. After graduation, he followed her to Burlington, where she was to do graduate work in psychology at the University of Vermont. He took a job as an applications programmer at the Howard Bank. He and Elizabeth married in 1980.

"She was going to school, and I was learning how to program in the real world as opposed to the classroom," says Lorentson. "And they are different!"

Carl Lorentson operates his business from a small office in his home in rural Jericho. His day begins at 5 a.m. and allows him time to get out later for a ride on his recumbent bicycle or just to enjoy a particularly beautiful day.

One of the first jobs they gave him required creating a single file from two files on two tapes. When his boss gave him a suggestion on how to do the job more easily, Lorentson listened. "I was looking at the neat gizmo tricks I could do, and the solution was really taking a look at the problem and finding the most straightforward approach."

That lesson to look for the most straightforward approach and not necessarily the latest technology has served him his entire career.

Lorentson thought he had his life figured out. "I grew up with a dad who worked his entire professional career at IBM. That's what I imagined I would do when I joined the Howard," he says.

Move forward to 1984. Avid bicyclists, he and Elizabeth dreamed of riding to the West Coast. Having been turned down for a leave of absence from the Howard to make the trip, the couple decided to quit their jobs and take off the next year, when Lorentson would be fully vested in his retirement plan.

Then they learned that friends of theirs who were getting married June 2, 1984, were planning a coast-to-coast bicycle trip before moving to Seattle. "We thought it might be good to have more folks with us," says Lorentson. He gave notice at the bank, and Elizabeth quit her job at Vermont Student Assistance Corp.

On June 3, their friends began their journey from Portland, Maine, and the Lorentsons left Burlington with plans to meet in Rochester, N.Y., and ride west together.

Not long after reaching Rochester, the Lorentsons received a phone call from their friends. "They had made it as far as Dorset, Vt., and decided that instead of riding bicycles across the country, they were going to take the money and go to Hawaii for a honeymoon," Lorentson says, laughing.

Too late to change their minds they had quit their jobs and rented out their condominium for the summer they continued west. After an 11-week trip out, they flew back from Seattle and began seeking jobs.

Lorentson found work with the
Holstein-Friesian Association in Brattleboro, but they didn't really care for the Brattleboro area. When Elizabeth received an offer of a job with the state in Waterbury, they decided to take their condo off the market and return to Burlington.

The person who had replaced him at the Howard Bank was planning a move to Systematics, which was running the data-processing center at the Chittenden Bank. Lorentson grins, remembering that when he learned the Howard had made a counter-offer, "I knew before anybody on the street that Systematics would have an opening for somebody with my skills." He joined Systematics in February 1985.

He was unhappy at Systematics, though, and a year later, he jumped at the chance to join the founders of Second Foundation, a fledgling company developing a medical information system. "They had a contract with the National Cancer Institute to maintain the information database. This was the first attempt at getting out to physicians and laypeople the latest information about cancers and treatments and the people and organizations doing it," says Lorentson, adding, "This was in the days before Web sites."

During his years with Second Foundation, he rose from applications programmer to division manager in charge of the National Cancer Institute operation. "That was my first real experience with a relational database, and I loved it."

In 1993, when Second Foundation was sold to Vencor Corp. and was to move the company to Louisville, Ky., Lorentson remembers it well. "When I came home and said, 'They're moving to Louisville, Ky.,' Elizabeth said, 'Well, what are you doing for your next job? We're not going to Louisville.'"

Lorentson decided it was time to start his own business.

"I was fresh off a relational database project," he says, "and we're talking 1993-1994, the very early years of office suites. Word Perfect Office with Paradox had just come out; Microsoft Office wasn't even out yet. So I took a look at the relational database, what it meant to the small business owner who would be buying these suites and trying to build their own. They were going to have a tough time, because they weren't computer programmers, they were business people."

With a nest egg from the sale of Seccond Foundation stock options as a buffer, he spent the first year joining every organization he could in order to get his name out there. "Sometimes, even now, somebody I talked to years ago will call me up and say, 'Remember that project we talked about in 1997? We're ready.'"

He's served close to a hundred clients in the last 12 years, creating databases for organizations such as Fletcher Allen Health Care, Johnson Controls and the Lane Series.

Rather than work in a particular industry segment, Lorentson likes to focus on the technology and the database, preferably for small businesses. This way, he says, "I get to do what I love, programming computer design and databases, and I get to learn a lot about a lot of businesses."

Clarke Thibault, information systems manager at Peregrine Outfitters in Williston, has worked with Lorentson since 1998, when, with Y2K looming, Peregrine had outgrown its old system and needed to convert its data to a new system. "Carl did a great job," he says. "The data came over perfectly."

Lorentson has worked at home from the start. "First of all, it's cheap," he says. "I can get up at 5 in the morning, do an hour's worth of work and be here to help get the family ready to head out the door. I can be here at 3 in the afternoon when Jeffrey walks through that door." Jeffrey, 11, is the younger of their two sons; Alexander is 16.

Over the years, he's learned how to keep his work and home lives balanced. His early start gives him a chance to break for bicycling an activity he still enjoys, these days on a recumbent bike, having injured his back a couple of years ago. He also runs and plays guitar.

Lorentson believes in giving back to the profession, and is active in several trade associations, including the Vermont Consultants Network, where he will be president next year, and the Vermont Software Developers Alliance, a new organization where he serves as board secretary.

Julie Lerman, owner of the Data Farm in Huntington, is another software developer, presenter and technical writer who knows Lorentson from their volunteer work. She runs the Vermont Dot-Net
Users' Group and serves with him on the board of the Software Developers Alliance. "He's a real professional and a nice guy," she says. "Clients have got to trust us to give them good advice, because what we do is a mystery to a lot of people. He doesn't take advantage of it."

The best thing he ever did, says Lorentson, was take that bicycle ride. "When Elizabeth and I kicked ourselves out, I said I didn't know where I was going to land when I came back. If I hadn't done that and learned what I learned about myself, I wouldn't be here now." •

Originally published in June 2005 Business People-Vermont