People and Companies

One on One with CEO of Smart City Marty Rubin

Marty Rubin certainly considers himself lucky, having ridden the wave of digital technology like few others in Central Florida.
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Variations on the memorable quote, “The harder I work, the luckier I get,” have been attributed to statesman Thomas Jefferson, movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn and champion golfer Gary Player. Perhaps this diversity of sources is because the maxim is so universal. Marty Rubin certainly considers himself lucky, having ridden the wave of digital technology like few others in Central Florida. But this 2005 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award winner in technology has become lucky with hard work, a daring appetite for risk, and a penchant for innovation. All this along with a commitment to better the community he is in through all the companies he has built, especially the one he is best known for, Smart City.

EW: You have been at the epicenter of the technology industry for decades; what has been your biggest surprise as you have watched it evolve over the last four decades?

MR: The digital transformation of the world economy, by that I mean social media, big data, cloud computing and the proliferation of mobile devices. We saw these things coming to some degree, but no one saw how fast and how diverse the digital revolution would be, its affecting and shaping every industry worldwide. We now have a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) to keep us ahead of this developmental curve; there are probably less than 500 of these nationwide.

EW: I’ve never heard of a CDO; what motivated you to establish that position?

MR: We realized that our senior staff and engineers were not raised in this digital environment and we needed someone who was and could keep us current.

EW: You lived through the dot-com bust, how did that event educate the industry and investors so that this wave of innovation was more sustainable?

MR: The investors have done a much better job of vetting business plans because of that experience. Time, however, will only tell how savvy the market really is. When you have a $50 billion evaluation of Uber, you wonder, and I don’t know.

EW: I’ve read you grew up in a “notoriously bad high school,” but you went from there to Wharton School of Business. How did you focus and get to that place?

MR: I concentrated on going to Wharton from the time I was in junior high. My grandfather was an entrepreneur and I was always intrigued by his life and what he had done and I decided that was what I wanted to do as well. In the debate “Are entrepreneurs made or born?” I’m in the born category. I started reading Forbes when I was 12, and they said Wharton was the place to go.

Though my school had its negative sides in Yonkers, many of my fellow students went on to become entrepreneurs of very interesting business.  One friend was the CEO of Lotus 1-2-3, another guy I used to play Risk with started Priceline. We shared a drive to do better.

EW: How did you get started as an entrepreneur?

MR: In the early 90’s we were in satellite communications in an unusual niche, automobile junkyards, called AutoInfo. It was connecting these junkyards, throughout the United States and Canada, so they could buy and sell parts from each other. We then found we could sell that information to insurance companies, because they needed it to settle claims. Because of that we were able to go public with an IPO and later sold it to a bigger company. It was very exciting seeing that dream materialize.

EW: Where did you go from there?

MR: We saw the advent of the Internet and built the first firewall software. We initially asked ourselves, how many customers could we have for this technology, and we came up with six! I left that company and later it became the firewall division of Symantec.

EW: And Smart City?

MR: Being satellite based with our parts business, I met another guy in that industry and we came up with a business plan for what became Smart City. Our strategy centered on the recognition that cities were looking for ways to revitalize their downtown core in the early 90’s and were focusing on convention centers. If people came for conventions, all the other support businesses, like restaurants or attractions, would flourish. These convention centers are owned by municipalities, so they needed outside firms to do all of their communications work.

Initially we only provided telephone, but of course it expanded from there. We built an interesting model by going to a city and saying, “We’ll install all the equipment, we’ll hire and train a staff with the best hospitality practices and we will give you a percentage of the revenue back every month. No risk, only reward in return for a contract for so many years.” Now we have 35 major convention centers throughout the country.

EW: How many employees and if you don’t mind, what are your annual revenues?

MR: About 450 employees nationwide and a little over $110 million.

EW: One of your major coups was landing Disney World; how did that happen?

MR: Disney decided to sell Vista United, their in-house telecommunications company. We submitted a bid to buy it though when I went to my board, I said, “We don’t have the funds, nor do we have the expertise to run it and I doubt we can get regulatory approval since it’s a public utility.” My board said, “You’re an entrepreneur, what are you waiting for?” We had to raise a significant amount of money, which in 2001 wasn’t a good time, but we got it, along with the regulatory approval.

EW: How has being a tech entrepreneur changed during your watch?

MR: The technology changes rapidly, but the fundamentals of the business don’t. Like starting with a business plan that can scale, otherwise all you have is a small business.  Second is capital, how much do you take out? Where do you go for capital? Third is putting together the right management team and staff, which is easier said than done, to hire according to your corporate values.   

EW: Beyond what you have done in the private sector, you are also blazing some trails in the independent sector?

MR: We got involved with Children’s Home Society (CHS) through our acquisition of Vista United. CHS was a large organization, well-funded, with a statewide reach and what I loved was they were very open to new and innovative methodologies.

They have some 2,000 caseworkers statewide and they are based right here in Winter Park, with an endowment of about $25 million. One of the first projects I got involved with was Evans High School. At the time it was an F-rated school. We were able to put an office in the school, partnered with various organizations and created components to turn it into a true community school, which focuses on all aspects of the child, not just academics and sports. Like healthcare, we put a medical and dental clinic on the campus. We worked to upgrade the food quality. It is now a B-rated school, and has grown from 1,800 to 2,500 students and the alumni is reengaging.

EW: CHS also landed a sizeable grant from Microsoft, correct?

MR: This funding is to use technology to change the caseworker and the child/parent experience. Caseworkers have a huge amount of paperwork, spending on average 12 hours a week at home, working on these reports. This dramatically lowers job satisfaction, because they aren’t doing what they signed on for. Microsoft was excited because it was using technology to affect child welfare across a state with the potential of impacting the nation. By automating the paperwork, it reduces caseworker turnover and results in better outcomes. According to our research, if you keep the same caseworker with a child, the outcomes dramatically improve.          

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This article appears in the October 2015 issue of i4 Business.
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