Hard to kill

”I’ve earned my stripes,” Jim Weaver says, placing his forearm on his desk.

You can’t miss the first one — a thin, eight-inch long white scar that runs down his left forearm. If you look closely, you can also see the small indentation, right in the center. It’s a divot in the skin, courtesy of a two-ton Cadillac Fleetwood that pinned and nearly killed Weaver on a blustery summer evening in 1978.

Weaver owned a body shop and towing company back then, a small, six-man operation just outside of Canton. He received a call from the State Highway Patrol, an organization he frequently towed for, asking him to pick up an abandoned Cadillac left on Whipple Avenue in Canton.

The car had a flat tire and was locked. The owner was nowhere to be found. It was a typical pain-in-the-you-know-what job for any tow truck operator, especially at night. Worse, the car was in gear. So after hoisting the front end up with his truck, Weaver climbed underneath to disconnect the gear linkage.

Perhaps because it was late and he was tired, Weaver neglected to put a safety block behind the wheel before he started working. Without warning, the 5,200-pound Caddy slid off the truck, broke loose from the chains and landed on Weaver. Whether it was luck or divine intervention, Weaver’s arm was between his chest and the car when it landed, providing a cushion that meant the difference between life and most certainly more serious injury or death.

Weaver cheated the Grim Reaper twice that night. Arm or no arm, he couldn’t breathe with the car on him. The lone state trooper, ”a little guy,” Weaver says, wasn’t able to lift the car off its suffocating victim.

As Weaver blacked out, two Jackson Township police officers pulled up and managed to lift the car enough so the third man could slide Weaver out. The trooper said Weaver’s face had turned purple by then.

”You know that life after death experience thing?” Weaver says, holding up his hand as if taking an oath. ”Been there. Done that. Been out in the sunny field. I was there.”

Weaver spent a week in the hospital, but his only real injury was a broken arm.

It was the first and only time he neared physical death, but he has been to the brink and back with his business ventures over the last 23 years. He has earned his stripes there, too. From running a body shop to a software design firm, Weaver has weathered industry transitions, betrayals by business partners, near bankruptcy, a consolidation threat and IRS problems, only to emerge each time a bit more confident in his future.

Weaver’s company, North Royalton-based Tracker Management Systems Inc., sells office and communications software for towing companies. He just inked a partnership deal with ZIM Technologies Inc., of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, that provides capital and software development assistance.

ZIM’s chief executive, Michael Cowpland, was the founder of Corel and co-founder of Mitec. Cowpland’s claim to fame was going head-to-head with Microsoft in the late 1990s with Corel’s WordPerfect software program. That earned him a reputation as a Microsoft basher and provided his nickname, ”The Bill Gates of Canada.”

For Weaver, the deal means something else. It underscores the realization of his years of perseverance and belief in his abilities. Simply put, like Weaver himself, good ideas are hard to kill.

Weaver’s agreement with Cowpland includes an undisclosed financial investment. It allows Tracker to further develop its wireless towing and roadside assistance software and propel the two companies to the forefront of the emerging telematics technology.

Telematics allows a driver to push a button on the dashboard, a cell phone or a pager to signal for roadside help. General Motors unveiled the service in America in 1996 with its OnStar system for its Cadillac Northstar. Now, Tracker is positioned to help towing operators catch up with GM.

As a sign of validation, Weaver’s 15-year-old company has been named a preferred supplier for towing communications and operation management systems by the American Automobile Association. The auto and travel services giant will help market Tracker to its more than 13,000 affiliated tow truck operators out of the 36,000 towing companies across North America.

Weaver doesn’t write most of the code to his software; his wife, Terri, does. What Weaver does is sell. It’s what he does best.

Like most salesmen, he loves to talk. But what you notice about Weaver is the way he talks. It’s not a pitch. He doesn’t use marketing jargon. It’s never calculated or condescending, but it is fast. His brain seems to be moving a step ahead of his mouth, often forcing him to stop mid-sentence and ask, ”Can I back up for a second?”

His folksy style is part of the reason he’s been such a successful salesman over the years. It’s certainly what attracted his first business partner, a former professor from a large state university. But it was likely Weaver’s lack of business sophistication that attracted the professor more — like a hungry lion is attracted to a gazelle.

He got the mine, I got the shaft,” quips Weaver, quoting a favorite line of his. ”We split six months later; it had nothing to do with me.”

After three years as a U.S. Army air traffic controller during the Vietnam War, Weaver returned to Canton and borrowed $500 from his mother to open an auto body shop and towing business. It did well, a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, but the profits disappeared on the books.

Work was never billed and overhead costs got out of hand. Weaver discovered for the first time that he was good at sales but bad at management. He knew he needed help.

He began taking business courses at a nearby state university and started a conversation with his professor one day after class. The professor seemed unusually interested in Weaver’s problem; he also needed $600 in repairs to his car, which Weaver took care of for some business advice.

The first thing the professor discovered was that Weaver didn’t have a lease on the building. He took care of that. He then organized Weaver’s bookkeeping and other paperwork procedures and put a process in place where there was none.

The nave 27-year-old Weaver, perhaps a little intimidated by his adviser’s business savvy, was afraid for his business and wanted to keep the professor involved. He asked him to become a partner. The professor agreed, but demanded 51 percent of the business for his $4,000 investment.

”I thought I’d rather have 49 percent of something very successful than 100 percent of something that’s losing money,” Weaver admits, though he regrets ceding over control of a business he spent three years building.

After winning over Weaver’s employees, some of whom were understandably resentful at being passed over for partner, the professor told Weaver he wanted to buy him out. Weaver refused.

”Too bad,” the professor told him. ”The lease is in my name. If you don’t want to sell, then move.”

Backed into a corner, Weaver agreed to sell the business for $2,000 and $12,000 in back taxes. Again, the consequence of his poor financial management reared its ugly head.

The professor went out of business in a year and left town. Shortly after, the IRS called Weaver and demanded its $12,000 in taxes — the professor never paid that bill.

It was strangely fitting that Weaver would take a job managing a body shop at a Cadillac dealership after one nearly crushed him to death.

”That’s funny, I never thought about that,” Weaver laughs, and without missing a beat, adds, ”I guess I could’ve claimed intimate knowledge.”

Weaver’s life took yet another direction in 1979 after he re
ad a
Wall Street Journal article about the potential growth of the personal computer industry.

”I wanted to get involved with (computers) because it was technology and it was a tool,” Weaver says. ”I was left with no other talent than to pump gas or something, but I figure if I get a head start on you, even though you’re smarter, I can keep up if I get a good enough head start.”

Weaver took night classes in computer programming. He also set out on a campaign interviewing business owners, both successful and unsuccessful. He estimates he talked to at least 150 over the span of a year and half. Having been burned badly, he wasn’t about to jump back into business without learning a little more about how to not let it happen again.

In the beginning, he stuck with what he knew. He and his wife created a program for body shop estimates. Weaver showed it to body shop owners, they critiqued it, and at night, he and Terri changed it. He used the program at his Cadillac dealership and for his claims as an insurance adjuster. Many owners were begrudgingly pleased to learn that computers did make running a business easier.

But before he could build his insurance empire, Weaver discovered a firm in Boulder, Colo., which had a nearly identical program. He called the company and found it was just a couple of University of Colorado students operating out of their bedroom. He asked what it took to sell their system.

”Go sell one,” they told him.

For six months, Weaver traveled around Cleveland trying to sell the software system. The first year, he sold three. Two years later, he helped 60 body shop owners computerize their businesses.

Despite footing the bill himself for all of his expenses and marketing of the software, once again, Weaver was betrayed. The students, who had designed the system more as a hobby than a business, started allowing other sales reps to move into Weaver’s territory, which included all of Ohio and some surrounding areas. Body shop owners played Weaver against the other two reps, driving the price down until his profit margin was close to zero.

Fed up, he quit. It was 1985, Weaver was 34 years old, and he was once again starting over.

Terri Weaver calls herself a pragmatist, which nicely balances her husband’s unbridled optimism.

Their conversation styles are a study in opposites, too. Jim speaks in torrents of sentences, one idea popping up in front of another before any are finished. Terri ponders her words before they leave her mouth. Each thought is completely delivered. Their differences make them a perfect business couple.

”Jim gets very bubbly and excited at times,” Terri says. ”I’m always telling him, ‘Well, let’s see how it goes.”’

Terri responded with her typical cool-headedness when Jim told her he was leaving the body shop software company to create his own office management software system. This time, the software would be for tow truck operators, and it would be the last time Weaver would switch careers.

He marketed hard. He went to every trade show, about 12 each year. In his first year, he made only one sale. Everyone was interested in computerization, but it was far down the priority list for most tow truck operators.

But at each trade show, Weaver and his wife helped develop the product by interviewing more than 100 tow shop owners, finding out what they liked about the software, what they didn’t like and what was missing. They gave three systems away for owners to evaluate.

The next year, Weaver sold 12.

By 1988, he opened a corporate office in a glass towered building on Chagrin Boulevard in Beachwood. Including his wife, he had six employees. Sales skyrocketed, but they came with financial problems. Checks often bounced. Taxes weren’t paid. Employees were overpaid, but Weaver was afraid to lose them.

Finally, on a warm spring day, his accountant stopped by his office to deliver the news that Tracker was broke. Weaver’s first thought was, ”How could I be broke? I still have all these blank checks.”

He owed $60,000 in back taxes. His accountant told him he was in danger of slipping into bankruptcy without serious cutbacks, including the fancy office. The software he created to help tow truck operators get their businesses organized nearly cost him his business because he wasn’t watching his own books. The irony isn’t lost on Weaver.

”The key to success in business is the office,” he says. ”All money is made or lost up there. It has nothing to do with science and it has nothing to do with hard work. It has to do with diligent detail. That’s what I did wrong.”

Weaver closed the office, laid off his employees and moved the business into the basement of his family’s Garfield Heights home. More important, Terri assumed control of the checkbook, and Jim never wrote a check without consulting her. Within six months, the taxes and all the bills were paid, and they never bounced a check again.

”I never thought we would go out of business,” Terri says. ”I’ve always had a lot of faith in Jim and a lot of faith in Tracker. I always thought we would be successful and we’d get through whatever we needed to get through and do whatever we needed to do to make it happen.”

The Weavers worked out of their home for a year. They built up a war chest of about $20,000 and moved into an office condo in Oakwood Village.

In a year, they had nine employees and $900,000 in sales. Then the bottom fell out again. This time, it wasn’t because of mismanagement. The market fell apart. No one was buying. Sales slid by $600,000, and the Weavers moved back home again.

”We did the necessary things to stay profitable this time,” Weaver says. ”We didn’t just continue to bleed. We did a controlled shrink back down and came home.”

Over the next eight years, sales climbed, but it was controlled growth. By 1998, there were 14 employees working out of the Weavers’ basement office, forcing them to move to the company’s current home in North Royalton.

For once, Tracker was stable — and Jim Weaver hated it. The status quo was killing him. He would go to the office, do nothing all day and leave. If he worked for anybody else, he would’ve been fired or quit. Depression started to set in.

Entrepreneurs love building and creating,” he says. ”They hate maintaining. That’s the most boring thing in the world. There’s no thrill, no excitement. It just is. I truly wanted the business to fail so I could start over.”

And, although it was his company, Weaver didn’t feel a part of it. He didn’t feel like he was in control. His top sales rep was following his own lead, making strategic business decisions without consulting Weaver and barked orders at fellow employees. The problem was, Weaver was afraid to lose him, just like the professor before him.

”When you surround yourself with intellect, some of them are very difficult personalities because they’re proud, arrogant and knowledgeable,” Weaver says. ”All of a sudden you feel like you can’t live without them because they’re doing things you can’t do. That’s why you hired them.

”So how in the world do you run your business if you’ve got this guy who’s very knowledgeable and very good at what he does, and you can’t do it? You start putting up with him.”

With his depression lingering, Weaver considered selling his business to a national software consolidator. The company had $1 million in investor backing and offered to pay Weaver and his wife $100,000 each per year to stay on and run Tracker. The couple was only paying themselves about $40,000 a year at the time.

Selling the company excited Weaver. He liked the idea of helping build something much larger than Tracker. Customers and friends were telling him to sell.

”Either sell or you’ll get rolled-up,” they told him.

But Weaver didn’t sell. After several meetings, he lost faith in the consolidating company. The owners lacked vision. They seemed to be in it for a quick buck.

”I could just sense it wasn’t going to fly,” Weaver says. ”I didn’t want to lose everything I had built up.”

Weaver backed out just in time, in 1999. The Y2K craze hit, and everyone, including tow shop owners, was affected. There was a huge demand for Tracker’s Y2K-compliant software, which at that time had just switched from MS-DOS-based to Microsoft Windows-based. It was the greatest sales year of Weaver’s career.

The consolidator that nearly purchased Tracker was floundering. It overspent on acquisitions and was having problems upgrading its software.

Turn the calendar to Jan. 1, 2000. Like every other company tied up in Y2K consulting or upgrades, Tracker took a hit. Weaver had to lay off four employees in one day, but he was still afraid to fire the sales rep who caused him so much grief.

The depression returned. He didn’t think it could get any worse. Then, it did.

His older brother, Bud, died of cancer at 65. The youngest of eight children, Weaver grew up with his nephew, Larry, who was only two years younger than Weaver. In April, Larry walked into his boss’s office and said he was having chest pains and needed a doctor.

Moments later, he passed out. He died that day of a ruptured aorta. One month later, on Mother’s Day, Weaver’s mother died in her sleep.

”In one year, I lost three people,” says Weaver. ”That will change your philosophy of what’s important.”

After he returned from his mother’s funeral, Weaver called his employees one by one into his office and told them the company was changing. He explained where the business was going, how they should treat customers, how decisions would be made and how he was going to grow the company.

The problem sales rep agreed to the new rules, but was soon fired for returning to his old ways.

Born in Sussex, England, Michael Cowpland made his name in the late 1980s and early ’90s as the CEO of a Canadian company, Corel Corp.

Sales of its hugely successful CorelDraw graphics software prompted Cowpland in 1996 to tackle the word processing market by purchasing WordPerfect to go head to head against Microsoft’s Word program. The gamble didn’t pay off, although most analysts agree WordPerfect is as good or better, not to mention cheaper, than Microsoft Word.

After a failed acquisition of California software developer Inprise/Borland and a steadily declining stock price, Cowpland stayed on at Corel long enough to stabilize the company before resigning in August 2000.

Less than one month later, he joined the technology advisory board for ZIM Technology, a small software developer in Ottawa, Ontario. In February 2001, he bought a majority stake in the company and assumed the reins as president and CEO.

Part of Cowpland’s attraction to ZIM was that its software could be used to develop applications for wireless devices like cell phones and pagers. With the growth rate of wireless at 600 percent a year, and an expected 1 billion devices on the market by 2005, Cowpland sought to position ZIM to benefit from the growth.

That same month, he got a call from ZIM founder and former CEO Blake Batson, who told him about a Cleveland-based software company that used ZIM’s software to create a program that helps tow truck companies manage their businesses.

A five-minute phone call between Cowpland and Weaver led to a four-hour conference call with Cowpland’s development team. In March, the men announced the agreement between the two companies to develop a ZIM application that will allow truck drivers to receive text dispatches on their cell phones.

”It will provide a fully integrated solution,” Cowpland says from his Ottawa offices. ”If you look at the motor clubs, they’re all getting their information from their call centers and it’s keyed in digitally. But until now, it hasn’t gone to towers digitally. AAA has gone part of that way, but now we’re trying to take it all the way right to handsets in the towers’ hands.”

The agreement between ZIM and Tracker includes undisclosed financial backing and a revenue-sharing arrangement. Weaver predicts the partnership will help grow his company by 1,000 percent over the next few years. After hours talking over the phone, the men finally met in person at the International Tow Show in Florida in April.

”(We) spent some great quality time with him and his team, and they’re really a great bunch,” Cowpland says in a British accent a little diluted from too much time spent in North America. ”It was nice to find out that Tracker already had the market lead in their industry.”

The deal couldn’t have come at a better time for the companies. Nearly every automaker has or is working on some form of telematics system for its vehicles. OnStar is in most GM cars now, as well as in some Acura and Volvo vehicles. Ford Motor Co. officials have announced the company will have a similar feature in 3 million of its vehicles by 2003. Soon, millions of drivers will be able push buttons on their dashboards for help.

”When that’s all said and done, the call has to go out to a service vehicle,” Weaver says. ”Nobody’s working on the service vehicle end except for us.”

Cowpland’s involvement notwithstanding, Weaver’s greatest coup to date was his deal with AAA. AAA, North America’s largest motor club, wanted Tracker to be its preferred supplier for towing communications and operations management.

AAA’s 13,000 tower affiliates won’t be required to use Tracker, but it will be the system its field representatives recommend. The agreement, in effect, expands Tracker’s marketing force by several hundred employees, without Weaver having to put one more person on his payroll.

Success begets success,” Weaver says. ”As soon as we got their endorsement, the phones started ringing.”

Now, with strategic partnerships in place, Weaver is poised to take Tracker farther than ever without the danger of getting sidetracked by poor management or market downturns. In control of his employees, his finances and his market, Weaver says he’s poised to expand Tracker’s market out of logistics and management solely for tow truck operators. Fleet-based service, EMS, local courier and message delivery and taxi services are new targets.

From borrowing $500 from his mother to start his first body shop to his top-level dealings with multibillion dollar companies, Weaver’s learned as much about himself as he has about business. He’s had help from his wife and key employees, but it wasn’t until he stood firm in his own vision for the company that he began to benefit from his persistence.

”I’ll be 50 in two months, and I’m just pulling it all together,” Weaver says on a balmy morning in early August. ”All of a sudden, I just have total faith and belief in my ability to manage, to take (the business) and grow it.

”It’s there for the taking.”

How to reach: Tracker Management Systems Inc., (440) 843-9273