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'Small' computer company often leads giants in the pack

Harold E. O'Kelley types with just two fingers And wh en he wheels his chair over to the data processing terminal in his office, he can't always make the thing do exactly what he wants. He sometimes hits the wrong key. He enjoys himself, though.

But as chairman of the San Antonio-based Datapoint Corporation, Mr. O'Kelley has hit very few wrong business keys lately. And he enjoys that, too.

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He also enjoys his place as head of one of the few "smaller" data processing companies among a group that includes Texas Instruments, IBM, Data General, and Digital Equipment. What he most enjoys about this situation is the fact that Datapoint introduced many of the concepts those bigger companies are coming out with now. And while they are tough competitors, he is moving to expand Datapoint's offerings.

Mr. O'Kelley came here in 1973 from the Harris Corporation in Florida when Datapoint was in serious financial trouble. The company needed a business manager; but more important, it needed someone who understood the technology. Equipped with both qualifications, Mr. O'Kelley made his losses. The company has increased revenues every year since; for the fiscal year ended this July 31, revenues were up 37 percent, to $318.8 million. Earnings were $33.4 million, compared with $25.2 million is fiscal 1979.

Mr. O'Kelley attributes this success to two strategies: pursuing a three-niche policy of product development, and catering to the technical people is his company.

On the latter point, he believes in giving his technical people free rein, letting them come up with a product, then finding a market for it. He has been known to let blue-jeaned, long-haired engineers take over the presentation of a new product at press conferences, because, he felt, they had developed it and could do a better job of communicating the enthusiasm behind it. And he is the only one at Datapoint who makes more money than his top research person.

"Our objective is to kill paper," Mr. O'Kelley says bluntly. For the executive, this means that he will be able "to spend more time at home and less time on airplanes." By being able to carry a small computer terminal with him, the executive will have access to all of a company's computer power -- whether he's at home, on a business trip, or even on "vacation."

His strategy to accomplish all this is to identify and fill three distinct niches, so as to come up with one electronic office system aimed at more refinement of the automated-office concept.

The first is called dispersed data processing. It uses desktop processors that can perform all the tasks required of a computer operator. A key to this is the microprocessor, the "computer aon a chip" that permits a desktop computer to perform many of the functions of a large, mainframe computer.

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"Now, a secretary with a little training can put most of the information in a computer that it used to take a computer programmer to do, and in less time," Mr. O'Kelley said. Often, he explained, a keypunch operator, who is only copying what is on a piece of paper, can make mistakes because he or she does not understand the nature of the particular job.Putting data processing in the office where the information began, he added, "meant we could move the small computer closer to the people who knew what they were doing."

The second niche uses products that provide more control and accountability for a company's telephone system.

A US Supreme Court decision in 1968 opened up a field that had been all but monopolized by the American Telephone & Telegraph Company.Now, other companies were free to develop systems to make the phones work faster and keep better track of their use.

The Datapoint equipment permits a phone system to be monitored by computer, collecting information on the length of every call, showing where it was placed, how much each call cost, giving a signal to the calling party every five minutes , telling the user when a phone line is down, and putting a call through when a line is open. The system can also send and receive messages and provide a rundown on the handling of customers' calls -- how long they had to wait and how many hung up without getting through.

All of this can be connected to the same Datapoint computer that handles data processing, which can also coordinate the use of outgoing phone lines. In doing so, if often cuts the number of lines a firm has to use -- and pay for.

The third niche "we're just getting into," Mr. O'kelley says. This is word processing. It, too, uses the same computer system.

All three niches reflect Mr. O'Kelley's feeling that programming is more important to a customer than hardware.

A native of Florida, Mr. O'Kelley has no regrets about his move to San Antonio. "San Antonio has all the advantages of a big city. It has a major symphony, an NBA basketball team, good theater arts, and an excellent highway system."

Admittedly symphatetic to technical people, he feels San Antonio does a better job of attracting them than other Texas cities, such as Houston or Dallas. "the pace is easier," he says.

Mr. O'Kelley and his technical people should have more room to expand Datapoint when they move into a new 1 million-square-foot facility in northwest San Antonio. Plans for the campus-style complex, announced early in September, will make it the city's largest construction project, and could cosnow occupies 37 buildings in and around San Antonio.

One deficiency the city has, he feels, is the lack of a good engineering school -- a problem he is working on. He is leading an engineering education council made up of prominent citizens, professionals, politicians, business people, and educators. Their goal is to develop an accredited program at one or more of the colleges in the area.

Datapoint would certainly be able to use some more technical people. "When you're growing by 40 percent a year," Mr. O'Kelley says, "you're creating new positions so fast you don't have any problem finding work for good people."

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