By Alex Purugganan
Ever imagined yourself partnering up with a long-standing business rival? That's exactly what Michelle Clery and Bruce Keenan did, putting down the sparring gloves and working together to create a computer and software systems integration business. The partnership has certainly paid off: Their company, Prosys Information Systems, hit this year's No. 1 spot in our Hot 100.
Prior to forming the Norcross, Georgia, tech firm, Clery, 37, and Keenan, 47, both excelled as sales representatives at competing firms in Miami. For years, the two battled each other in pursuit of the same clients. "Michelle would win some. I would win some," Keenan says. "Out of everybody I competed with, she was the person I always had the most respect for."
Tired of making money for huge corporations, the two ended their rivalry to form Prosys, launching in 1997 with personal investments totaling $200,000. But with only four employees-and Clery and Keenan serving as president and corporate secretary/treasurer, respectively-the fledgling business faced problems. "Establishing a name and reputation for the company [was difficult]," explains Keenan. "We were competing with large, national resellers like CompuCom and Intex."
Clery says that first year was "all hours and no paycheck." But they remained confident, and in the following year, sales skyrocketed to $32.9 million. Those figures rose again last year (when they finished at No. 5 on our list) to $49 million. By year-end 2000, with added help from more than 80 employees-sales should hit nearly $100 million.
In addition to handling large projects for several Fortune 500 clients, Clery and Keenan also help small businesses and educational institutions. Treating customer service as No. 1, they make sure they have personnel available 24 hours per day and stock products locally for immediate delivery. "Make the customer happy," Clery says. "And then beg for forgiveness."
Success hasn't spoiled the two, either. If anything, it has let them concentrate on the world beyond business. For the past year, Prosys has worked with the Nepalese Children's Organization to raise funds for mentally handicapped children. "We're just lending a hand where there's an enormous need for help," Keenan says. When you consider how much these former competitors have already achieved, the obvious question is: Why didn't they partner up sooner?