Datacom and telecom industries pack Inc. 500

Remember the movie Good Will Hunting--a story about the Ivy League-janitor-mega-genius who finally tapped his potential after getting some sense knocked into him? Here`s a similar story, although this one is about Kent Murphy, a guy who seemed destined to go absolutely nowhere in life.

--Mark A. DeSorbo

Remember the movie Good Will Hunting--a story about the Ivy League-janitor-mega-genius who finally tapped his potential after getting some sense knocked into him? Here`s a similar story, although this one is about Kent Murphy, a guy who seemed destined to go absolutely nowhere in life.

In his 1978 high school class of 430, Murphy finished 427th. Soon after graduation, he found himself landing in one dead-end construction job after another and working as a janitor in the evenings at itt (Roanoke, VA). "I always thought school was a waste of time, and I thought that I could work my way up to being the vice president. After awhile, I knew that it was never going to happen," Murphy says.

Things got even worse when he injured his shoulder in a football game. With that kind of injury, Murphy knew he`d be out of work, so he approached his supervisors at itt and asked if there were any jobs in the laboratories. That`s when Murphy landed a job polishing fiber-optic cables. And the rest is history.

Fred McDuffee, a co-worker of Murphy`s and the Robin Williams of this story, encouraged Murphy to go back to school. "He really helped me. He helped me learn the technology while I was going to school. With his assistance, I was able to get a few patents that were in my name," Murphy says, adding that McDuffee now works for Sumitomo Electric Lightwave Corp. (Triangle Park, NC).

In 1990, after getting a degree in engineering science and mechanics and then a master`s, Murphy founded Fiber and Sensors Technologies, now called F&S (Blacksburg, VA), which manufactures fiber-optics-based instrumentation. In fact, his master`s thesis project was the prototype for a fiber-optic sensor--the first product manufactured by F&S. Here it is, almost nine years later, and Murphy--Dr. Murphy, that is--earned a Ph.D. and more than doubled the F&S workforce to 41 employees. Last year, F&S grossed more than $4.7 million in sales and managed to catch the eye of Inc. magazine. Out of all the companies listed in Inc. 500, the magazine`s list of the 500 fastest-growing companies in America, F&S is ranked 224th.

F&S is not alone on the Inc. 500 list. Many of the companies listed provide some kind of data-communications or telecommunications service or component, ranging from telephone to cable TV to computer-network installation to semiconductors for the wireless market. In fact, 7% of the list, Inc. reports, consists of companies that provide either a telecommunications service or product. The number-one- ranked company, Justice Technology (Culver City, CA), is a telephone "callback" service that allows someone outside of the United States to call another country by contacting a callback-service-operated switch, a computerized version of an old-fashioned switchboard. According to Inc., the 500 companies on their list generated more than $12 billion in sales, one-third more than those on the 1997 list. About 71,000, or 18% more jobs, were generated, and a record 14 companies broke the $100-million sales barrier.

Not far behind F&S is Scope Communications Inc. (Marlboro, MA), which is ranked 280th. News of the ranking broke right around the same time the developer of handheld network test equipment announced that it had been acquired by Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP--Palo Alto, CA). "Our handheld testers add an important physical element to HP`s existing solutions for local area network testing," says Scope president Peter Williams. "HP`s worldwide presence will allow us to bring these and future products to a global customer base. Both companies have strong reputations for new-product innovation that will serve our combined customers going forward."

Founded in 1993, Scope grew from 10 to 50 employees by 1997. Last year, the company grossed more than $9 million--a huge leap from the $799,000 it made in the first year.

Ranking 497th is Spectrum Communications Inc. (Corona, CA), a company that was literally started by accident. Owner Robert Rivera and his then-girlfriend, Sherry, who is now his wife, were scooting on a moped around the city of Corona, CA, when a car made a left-hand turn from the right lane. Both sustained minor injuries, and Rivera received an insurance settlement of $2500 months later.

In 1984, with $1500 of the insurance settlement, Rivera bought some business cards, a separate telephone line, and an answering machine and started Spectrum, which focuses on the consultation, design, installation, and maintenance of voice and data-communications systems. In 1993, Spectrum had five employees, and in 1997, it had 45. The company grossed more than $4 million in sales in 1997, up from $547,000 in 1993.

As far as the recognition goes in Inc., Rivera says the data-communications and telecommunications industries deserve it. "We have the managers and the personnel in place. We have spent a lot of time and energy working with vendors and training new hires," he says. "Netscape had its time, Microsoft had its time. Now it`s our time."

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