Note: This is part of an ongoing series of community spotlight pieces where we feature inspiring stories of local entrepreneurs and community members. If you know somebody who should be featured, let us know!
What Bill Lenherr, CEO of Greenbrier Technologies and Electric, aspired to be was an architect. Growing up in the Charlottesville area and Clifton Forge in the 70s and 80s, technology wasn’t a part of every-day life. Bill enjoyed the outdoors as a child; he was born in the era just before the advent of the home computer. Although he fiddled around with the Commodore VIC-20 and actually wrote some programs on it, his plan was to go to college and become an architect.
As fate would have it, his high school guidance counselors steered him wrong. They encouraged him to apply to the School of
Architecture at Virginia Tech instead of applying for General Studies at the school and then applying for the School of Architecture. Unfortunately, Bill didn’t get in, but he didn’t quit on his dream. He instead chose to study Design and Drafting at the local community college.
While trying to pay his way through school, Bill was eventually tapped for a position with an architect from Lexington, Virginia. While Bill still has no idea how the architect found him, he does remember what the architect said to him.
”You can either continue going to school and get a piece of paper, and that will open doors, and you’ll get a job. Or you can come work for me, and you’ll get experience, and that will open doors for you as well.”
It was a winning proposition for a young college student with no money. He took the architect up on his offer and developed a design portfolio. After some time, he landed a promising job at ABB, an industrial technologies company located in Lewisburg, WV.
Making the Leap from CAD to IT
In that era, computer-aided design was in its infancy. The drawing boards were still heavily used, but parts of the design process were computer generated. While Bill continued working for ABB, doing drafting and design work, the industry was being infiltrated and inundated with computers. “I was one of the first ones doing computer-aided design work,” Bill humbly admitted. While IBM computers permeated the company for business purposes, in the engineering arena, complex computer systems were required. The IT people who took care of the business systems weren’t used to dealing with the engineering computers that had big video cards and were running Sun operating systems. Since Bill had experience using these systems and a knack for technology, he took over maintaining the engineering workstations and servers, as the engineering system administrator. His newly created position was how he eventually made the leap from CAD to IT.
There’s Always More Work to Be Done
“It got to where I didn’t have time to be doing design work anymore” Bill reminisced. The CAD part of his job inevitably became rote, while the IT administration tasks grew more intriguing. Not wanting to shirk his duties, Bill decided to write programs to automate parts of his daily responsibilities. His boss eventually made the remark that he was working himself out of a job. Bill responded thoughtfully, “there’s always more work to be done.”
Bill clarified, “I think the takeaway is that so many people do their job, and do it the way they were taught to do it because they’re afraid they could lose their job if they automate it or make it more efficient. But if you’re talented, there’s always something else to be done.”
Bill’s passion for IT eventually invaded his off-hours as computers were no longer relegated to the corporate world and started becoming more of a small business and consumer product. No one was immune to noticing Bill’s passion for all things technical, so naturally, Bill was the one to go to when you needed help with a computer. Eventually, local professionals who bought these shiny new machines were asking for assistance in setting up their new toys. Excited by the prospect of playing with these devices, Bill would help set the computers up; sometimes without charging a dime. Eventually, overwhelmed by all the work, Bill decided to create a business around his new hobby in order to not feel guilty about turning some jobs down.
“It Wasn’t About the Money; I Did it with Aspirations for Internet Access”
While deciding on a name for his new company, he realized that the next cool thing in technology was going to be the Internet. Bill shared, “Back then, you had to login to a University to access the Internet, so I decided that if I was going to have a company, I wanted to be an Internet provider.” He dubbed the fledgling company Greenbrier Communications and went to work figuring that he could do some consulting, buy some equipment, provide Internet, and maybe make some money. Bill admitted that money wasn’t the only driving factor for him. “Sure, people would subscribe to it, but it was also so I could have that direct access to the internet myself.”
Bill’s new company took off, but he was hesitant to walk away from his corporate job. Despite being told he was good enough to go full-time, he balked at the idea of becoming an entrepreneur. He reasoned, “I was raised my whole life to believe the goal was to have a secure job, with benefits, and insurance.” Leaving ABB behind to go into business for himself was a foreign concept. It took some prodding, but Allen Carson, one of his customers and a business owner, finally dangled the carrot that got Bill to take the plunge. He helped Bill incorporate the company and build it to a level of sustainability where he felt comfortable enough to leave his position at ABB a year later and become a full-time CEO of what is today Greenbrier Technologies and Electric.
“I won’t say that we got to where we are today because I was the smartest guy. It was more because I made some good decisions early on and agreed that having partners made sense.”
With the help of his associates, his business took off. He credits his associates with having the entrepreneurial drive, connections, and know-how that complemented technical acumen. Bill acknowledges that surviving in small business these days is tough. Without a good team to hold things together, more than a few businesses fail.
Passion and a Willingness to Help Others Can Take You All the Way
Bill’s passion for technology has taken him to incredible heights in business, but this self-effacing and genuine CEO hasn’t let his success go to his head. He has an incredible work ethic that is contagious. One of his rules for himself and his employees is to stay busy.
“If you don’t have something to do, find something that needs to be done and do it.”
Those words and other lessons have carried Greenbrier Technologies and Electric from two or three guys to twenty-something employees. Bill advocates for his employees to work smarter and not harder. He’s less concerned with inventing the perfect mouse trap and more interested in exceeding customer expectations.
One of the things that sets Bill and his company apart from other options is knowledge. By serving a variety of businesses and encountering different technology-related problems on a regular basis, Bill and his staff have built a repository of knowledge that in-house techs who operate in a bubble just don’t have. His business also offers a standard of reliability that in-house IT can’t compete with either. Having IT support that can be called in whenever it’s needed is a huge advantage. With in-house solutions, you might have to wait until the IT guy gets back from vacation, or returns after a sick day. Bill feels that reliable tech support is an absolute necessity in this day and age.
While Bill Lenherr didn’t set out to start a fruitful and innovative business, it’s easy to see how his talent and contagious passion for technology led to the inception of Greenbrier Technologies and Electric. Like the Wizard of Oz, Bill is the guy behind the curtain that’s able to see things and make magic happen for his customers. While a good technician doesn’t always make a great business man, there are certainly ways for a technological wizard to get around that. By surrounding himself with a great team, Bill has built a life and a business around his passion for technology and a genuine desire to help others.
Good luck Bill – we’re happy to have you as part of our community!
Are you working hard to make a difference in the community? Do you somebody who has a story others should hear? Contact Valley Inbound today and let us know!