ROANOKE, Va. - When Roanoke entrepreneur Bonz Hart recently sold his software company, Meridium, to General Electric for $495 million, he became one of Roanoke’s all-time great success stories.
It’s safe to say that Hart has done very well for himself. He owns a wonderful home at Smith Mountain Lake, but he says he could have lost it and more.
He’d been fired from his job as a software designer and wanted to start Meridium, but he didn’t have the capital to start the business.
"They let me go the week before Christmas, and we spent a lot of time, my wife and I, just staring at that fire saying, 'OK, what are we gonna do now?'" Hart said.
Venture capitalists said they would fund him, but he would have to move away.
"In order to do that, I went to venture funding. They all said that's a great idea, we'll fund you, but you have to move to Atlanta, Silicon Valley or Boston. We're not going to fund you in Roanoke, Virginia," Hart explained.
Not wanting to move, he turned to Alcoa and Mobil, the potential first customers, as well as local banks, who wanted the house and all its furnishings as collateral. If the company failed, Hart and his family would lose everything.
"And then we got to the grandfather clock, which her grandfather actually built, and she said, 'Well they wouldn't take that, would they?' and I figured I better explain the real situation, and said yeah they take everything," Hart said.
Hart went to work from his office above the garage, designing software that would tell companies when their equipment would break down and how to prevent it.
At one point, officials from Alcoa -- who didn’t know Hart was such a small operator -- said they wanted to see his offices and meet his team.
"So I flew up to Toronto with frequent flyer miles and I went to Home Depot and I rented a place for two days and I got all these desks set up. And I called my friends and said you've got to show up and you've got to have your wife, and we staged a real office. And Alcoa came in and walked through and we went in the conference room and they said, 'Ok,'" Hart said with a bit of a sheepish grin.
Hart smiles and admits the phones on the desks weren’t even connected.
After three years, the company began to get traction with major players. Chevron bought in, and then companies in other sectors, like chemical and power, discovered the value. Hart was on his way.
Eventually, he moved to the now-well-known building in Downtown Roanoke, and the number of employees grew to about 500. The software was being used in 80 countries.
But growth was still tough.
"We never missed payroll but we gave it a good shot a few times. And had to clean out 401(k)s and checking accounts in order to make payroll," Hart admitted.
So when GE made a bid for the company, Hart realized that it was in Meridium’s best interest to sell.
"They wanted to hire and they wanted to grow at a much faster pace than I could, so I thought it was going to help Roanoke; going to help the region," he said.
What’s it like to retire with hundreds of millions of dollars?
"I find myself going the extra mile to save a few dollars and then you're going on maybe I didn't need to do that," he said, laughing.
So Hart is traveling with his family -- seeing the world from a non-business perspective and trying to figure out what’s next.
"I have enjoyed it. I know that the money we were blessed with is just ours to hold for a while and see if we can benefit others. And then when I go it's gone," he said.
Hart says that when he sold, he shared a large portion of the money with his employees. He won’t say how much – but he wanted to thank them for helping to build such a successful company.
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