Written by Arthur Treff | Photos by Anthony Harden
Robert Beatty’s journey from cloud computing innovator to New York Times Bestseller.
‘Serafina and the Black Cloak’ is a middle grade mystery thriller that takes place in the Vanderbilt mansion. The villain is a cloak-wearing specter who is making children vanish. Here’s the real-life mystery: How can the author of this best selling novel for young readers also be a wildly successful high-tech entrepreneur? More importantly, how did this versatile businessman find success on two such different professional fronts?
The mystery was solved when we spent some time with this Fletcher, North Carolina resident. We discovered that he — like all the entrepreneurs we write about — is driven by a singular fascination with business. But Robert Beatty has followed two passions: the power of the computer to bring order to chaos, and the therapeutic power of writing.
Founder and CEO of Plex Systems, a company that provides management information systems to manufacturing companies worldwide, Beatty was the chief architect of the ‘Plex Manufacturing Cloud.’ He was a pioneer of cloud computing. (Plexus has been renamed Plex. For more information visit www.plex.com.)
Robert has written ‘Serafina and the Black Cloak’; a mystery novel published by Disney/Hyperion that is #2 on the New York Times Bestseller list and into its second printing.
Robert’s mother read two or three books a week, so he too became an avid reader. His genre was fantasy: Tolkien, T.H. White, anything containing swordplay. At age 11, he complained that he’d run out of books to read. The answer was an old electric typewriter. ‘Here, play with this,’ his mother said.
“I knew this was something I had to do,” says Robert, “I felt it the first time I sat down to write.”
Young Robert began to write but was not content with short stories, instead he wrote books. Robert discovered that he loved the process. He’d lose himself in a world of his own creation. It was cathartic; he felt happy when writing. His first passion was born.
Robert’s second passion had multiple inspirations. His father gave him a TI-99 computer. It was the early days of computing, and Windows did not yet exist. To make a computer do something worthwhile, the user had to program it for the task at hand. Robert taught himself to code and loved it. As his command of computer languages grew, he realized that he needed a bigger computer.
Aided by one of his former teachers, Robert was granted access to a local college’s mainframe computer, which gave the him a huge advantage as he continued to teach himself computer coding. By the time he entered college he was fluent in six programming languages.
Young Robert’s mind was opened to the real-world possibilities of computer programming when he was shown two applications of its power. During a visit to the energy conglomerate his father worked for, he saw a large control panel. A network of rudimentary computers controlled the extensive network of natural gas pipelines.
At age 15, he was hired as a part-time draftsman by a local company that built automated assembly lines. While drawing these complex systems, Robert found that he had a knack for identifying potential problems and optimizing workflow. He was satisfied, keeping the job until he went to college.
When Robert wasn’t studying or working, he was writing. He began corresponding with publishing houses in search of a book deal (and collecting rejection letters).
Robert observed that the successful people in Detroit were engineers, so he majored in mechanical engineering with an emphasis in computer science.
He also took some literature courses, and continued to evolve as a writer. College also raised his awareness of environmental issues, and he indulged his love of nature and his concerns for the environment by writing about it.
As an experienced draftsman studying mechanical engineering, Robert had no trouble securing a co-op job with a local manufacturer. MSP was a metal forging house that made specialized parts for the auto industry, and he drafted parts and tooling for them.
Although MSP hired Robert as an engineer upon graduation, he was frustrated.
“In school, I was learning about factories of the future,” says Robert, “but the place I worked was a factory of the past….it was chaos.”
During his first year on the job, Robert had redesigned a part MSP was manufacturing, so he drew it and asked the shop to make him some samples he could test. If they worked, he’d propose the changes to Ford.
The next day, he discovered that the parts had been made all right, but due to miscommunication, his untested, unapproved parts had been shipped to Ford. It was an engineer’s nightmare.
Robert stormed into the office of MSP’s owner and president, Richard McDermott, and said,
‘This place is crazy! I quit. There’s no automation, no accountability, no one communicates. I want to go work for a real company.”
Richard listened to Robert’s frustration. In the course of the conversation he discovered the young man had programming skills. So he offered Robert a new job — fix MSP.
It was a dream come true; the chance to create his own communication system. Robert threw himself into the task with the same dedication with which he pursued everything else in his life.
He went through MSP, department by department, learning every person’s job. He documented their role, and observed how work progressed among departments. Armed with measurable data, he wrote computer program segments to automate information flow.
Positions were added and consolidated, some departments were eliminated entirely. After 18 months of 90-hour workweeks, Robert had done it. His custom communication system was called Plexus. It was one of the first systems of its kind; that are now known as ERP systems.
By implementing Plexus and the latest management techniques, the MSP team transformed the company. Their standing on Ford’s preferred supplier list rose from number 24 to number 2. The Plexus system was running MSP, and Robert’s standing in the company rose as well.
Supersizing, Writing, and Revising
Armed with increased MSP revenue and Plexus, Richard began buying up and turning around distressed manufacturing companies. Robert was sent in to “Plexus-ize” them, which was the same process he followed at MSP: organize and document one department at a time until the company was healthy.
It worked. MSP grew with each acquisition, and Robert learned more about the value of Plexus as a tool for transformation.
Throughout this productive business cycle, however, Robert continued to write novels, tried to get them published, and collected more rejection letters. His writing needed as much attention as his day job, but free time was scarce.
“Things could be going really well for me on the software business side of things,” says Robert, “but if I didn’t write, I felt like I was wasting my life, like I wasn’t doing anything worthwhile. Writing makes me happy. It’s not a stress reliever as much as a sense of purpose.”
Plexus as a Product
In 1995, Robert and Richard formed a new company; Plexus Systems, LLC. The software was already in demand due to the buzz created by MSP’s transformation, so the new venture did incredibly well. It yielded 35% to 40% annual growth and 30% profit increases in the first few years, rare for a startup.
US Manufacturing Cultural Shift
Plexus hit the market at the perfect time. It was the mid-1990s and American companies were trying to emulate their Japanese competitors, whose quality and cost control were unassailable. Shrewd American CEOs realized that systems like Plexus could help streamline manufacturing, making them more efficient and competitive.
Robert’s new company was busy and prosperous. Each Plexus customer received a custom-designed software suite, many of which were well above $1M in price. Plexus had a staff of computer engineers on payroll, but key ingredients of each customer’s system had to be created by Robert. Realizing that this wasn’t scalable, he cloistered himself for several weeks to figure out the solution.
Robert’s Crystal Ball
Isolated from day-to-day interruptions, Robert realized that a software platform could be written to function as a common backbone, with triggers that could be tailored for specific needs. To the customer, Plexus would still appear as a specialized software platform, but in reality, all customers would be using the same common data center.
The new system also resided on a server accessed via the Internet. Customers no longer needed expensive computer hardware, or the staff to support it. The term was not yet coined, but Robert’s idea would come to be known as cloud computing.
Robert knew that if he could foresee this, so could his competitors. In the near future, selling custom software, like Plexus, would be dead. Robert knew he had to turn Plexus around, and quickly.
Cloudy with a 100% Chance of Resistance
Robert called a company meeting to outline his plan. Life was good at Plexus Systems. The product was in demand, the employees were well paid, their future looked secure. The Plexus System was written in a computer language called Progress. Robert’s engineers were all master level Progress programmers. His new cloud computing model would require that all of them learn a new Microsoft language called Sequel Server. It was akin to the engineers being Jedi Knights, and Robert was asking them to step over to the Dark Side.
“I got up in front of all these Progress experts and said, ‘Forget about what you’ve been doing, what we’ve been successful at, we’re going in a completely different direction. Forget the language you’ve taken 10 years to become experts in, we need to change. We’re starting from scratch! Who’s with me?’”
Only one employee raised his hand; it was his first day on the job. The rest thought their boss was crazy.
Even in this cutting edge, entrepreneurial company, a paradigm had become deeply rooted. Engineers can be stubborn, but Robert remained calm and led by example. He began designing the system by himself and eventually won over his engineers one at a time.
By 2005, Plexus Systems was transformed; all their products were in demand and ran in the cloud. The company was profitable and growing. Robert felt that he had accomplished exactly what he set out to do: develop a software tool that would revolutionize manufacturing, and people wanted it.
He had worked very hard for 20 years and loved every minute. Plexus had gone beyond automotive and was also working in the defense and aerospace markets. The company was in its growth phase. The work to be done fell at least as much on the marketing, accounting, and legal departments, as well as to Robert’s strengths in technology and manufacturing.
At the same time, Robert’s wife, Jennifer, learned she had cancer. It was a wake up call; a stark reminder to Robert that if he focused too intently on one aspect of his life, he would sacrifice the others.
Together he and his business partner, who had his eye on acquiring a large new manufacturing company, decided to sell the majority of their shares in Plexus to a private equity firm.
Richard bought his next company, and Robert had the time and money to slow down and care for his wife and two daughters. He decided that he couldn’t stay in Detroit for fear he would be sucked back into his former life. The Beatty’s moved to Asheville in 2005. Jennifer made a full recovery, and Robert was free to dedicate more time to writing.
It is important to note that throughout his business career, Robert Beatty didn’t just write his stories in a vacuum. There was a method to his self-taught curriculum. When a book was finished he gave manuscripts to anyone who volunteered to read them and sought their feedback. He welcomed their critique. Robert believed that all criticism moved him closer to his goal of becoming a successful writer.
While at Plexus, he had little time but more money. Robert attended seminars taught by the most successful editors and authors in the business. He stopped writing to publishers directly, but attended conferences where he pitched his story to literary agents for feedback.
Finding His Audience
By the time the family arrived in Asheville, Robert had written fourteen novels and received over 500 rejections, but still he soldiered on. His daughter Camille came into his study one night and asked if she could read what he was working on.
“No honey, this is for grownups.”
“Oh, okay, Dad.”
A few days later she reappeared.
“Now can I read what you’ve written, Dad?”
“No honey, this is strictly for grownups.”
The next night, Camille returned, plopped down a tattered manuscript, and asked, “What’s this?”
“That’s something I wrote a long time ago, when I was a boy. I don’t write books like that anymore.”
“Well, you should because I read it and love it! Write more books like this!”
The manuscript was called ‘Lioness’. To his girls’ delight, he rewrote the tale. He shopped the title to literary agents and for the first time in his life the rejections were much more positive; his self-taught writing education was getting results.
Robert then decided to write a brand new novel that his daughters would want to read, and he sought their feedback extensively. The story was named, Serafina and the Black Cloak. In addition to depicting a dark villain who terrorized the Biltmore House of the past, it contained lessons about rejection, acceptance, love, and courage.
At his family’s encouragement, Robert attended a conference in New York called, ‘Thrillerfest’. He eagerly pitched Serafina to 10 agents that day; all of them wanted to represent the book. He selected the agent with the most experience selling to the large publishing houses.
Disney Hyperion (an imprint of Disney Publishing Worldwide) purchased Serafina, a giant accomplishment. But when Robert researched the trends in the publishing world, he soon learned that even books with big name publishers don’t always do that well; 99% of published books die in obscurity.
“I was determined not to let this book die.”
In the early years of Plexus, Robert hadn’t paid much attention to sales and marketing, but he learned his lesson. He now knew that marketing was as critically important as the product itself. He applied his business experience to the project and mapped out the book’s marketing plan. Much of the buzz would be created via social media and would center on a video book trailer.
Robert hired Asheville’s Bonesteel Films to produce a book trailer for the novel, filmed at Biltmore Estate. Robert’s eldest daughter Camille (15) coordinated social networking content, while his middle daughter Genevieve (13) played the role of Serafina, and his wife made the key costumes.
The plan worked: Serafina and the Black Cloak received thousands of new Facebook followers per day. The book was released nationally on July 14, and within the first week, Serafina became #4 on the New York Times Bestseller List. (As of this writing, it’s been on the list for five consecutive weeks and has risen to #2.)
Book sales were impressive, which prompted Disney/Hyperion to do two things: sign Robert for two more novels and expand Serafina into a series.
Return to Manufacturing
The Beatty’s do not have a television in their home, so when the girls want to learn anything new, Robert is fully available, and the sky’s the limit. When daughter Camille became bored with taking things apart to see how they worked, Robert suggested that they build something new together.
“Let’s build a robot, Dad!” was her reply.
The family launched the robot project with the trademark discipline Robert brought to his business career. As an experienced software programmer, he found learning a new software language easily. However, they all had to teach themselves how to machine metal parts and design robotic control circuits. The Beatty team also had to learn how to make and assemble circuit boards.
The robotics project is chronicled in a blog, www.beatty-robotics.com. The girls are having a blast. Their Mars Rover clone has garnered the attention of science museums that want rovers of their own. Beatty Robotics now has a backlog of purchase orders to fill, keeping the girls and their dad busy.
In Detroit, Robert helped create factories of the future, and in Asheville he and his family continue to build robots and write books. There are clearly good things to come.
What will happen in the Serafina sequel? Will there be a movie? Where will this family’s robotic business lead them? In many ways their tale is just beginning.
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