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Soldiers of Fortune

"Business is a battlefield" is more than just a cliche for this company.

Approach Advanced Internet Technologies Inc.'s headquarters, and you'll wonder if you've got the right address. The two concrete buildings that house the Fayetteville, North Carolina, Web hosting company are protected 24/7 with cameras and alarm systems--even partially by armed guards and chain link and barbed wired fences. Founder and CEO Clarence Briggs started AIT in 1996 while still an infantry major in the Army, doing double-duty until he decided to pursue his venture full time a year later. Still, he hasn't forgotten his roots and demonstrates just how much military experience can be applied to business.

Briggs leads with the same sense of discipline and structure already instilled in him and much of his staff--80 percent have a military background, and seven of the eight senior executives have had top-secret clearance. Leadership management, good organizational skills, depth training and synchronization are four key principles he has implemented at AIT. "That's what we knew and understood," explains Briggs, 43. "It's effective, because there are a lot of similarities between the marketplace and the battlefield. You've got competitive forces, whether it's competing for resources, market share or key terrain."

Among the militarylike practices are quarterly staff reviews conducted by a three-officer panel, in which employees endure a 15-minute Q&A session, and monthly hands-on, role-playing war games used to reveal staff members' strengths and weaknesses. And although color-coded badges distinguish between corporate executives, managers and technicians, employees are cross-trained in a variety of positions, including chief officers who spend one day a month in the "pit," a 24-hour tech support center. "The most important thing we do is provide products and services to our customers," attests Briggs. "We don't ever want to get too far from that. You get insensitive when all you do is sit atop your ivory tower and read reports."

Though the company is more rigid than most, you won't see employees marching down the hallway or managers constantly barking orders. Instead, staff members win awards for innovation and commitment, as well as for customers' successes, which AIT sees as a reflection of their employees' efforts. With projected 2003 sales between $35 million and $38 million, Briggs attributes much of AIT's success to his staff: "We look for folks who supervise, follow up, multitask, mentor, take initiative and implement guidance creatively--whether they have military experience or not."

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This article was originally published in the May 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Soldiers of Fortune.

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