From an inconspicuous World War II-era building on the Southside, John Anthony Smith and his elite tech team are fighting the bad guys of the computer hacker world across the continents.
His Conversant Group data security firm is also enjoying phenomenal growth - rising from his $500 investment in 2008 to $18 million in revenue this year. It keeps appearing on the Inc. 5000 list as the client list keeps growing.
It started when his Baptist preacher father was driving home from church crossing the railroad tracks in rural Sequatchie, Tn. He turned to his eight-year-old son and told him, "You ought to consider going into computers. I think that's going to be a thing."
He also told his son he was going to go to college, though he added, "I can't pay for it so you'd better."
An uncle who was into computers also helped spur his interest and, at 14, he was on the IT staff at Thompson Machinery in Lavergne, Tn. About the same time he got his first computer as a Christmas present.
As a teen, he was involved with the initial roll out of multiple industry-leading technologies, including Citrix Winframe. At 16, he started Computech that serviced the early computers of the day.
He heeded his father's dictum and enrolled in the computer science program at UTC. He left, though, at the start of his final semester because he was itching to start another company, NetAlliant Technologies. This was sold in 2008, and Conversant got underway the next year in rented space at the former IBM Building on Chestnut Street. Later, he would complete his college degree through the Covenant College Quest program, which was in the same building.
In the early days of the company, John Anthony Smith often worked 60- to 90-hour weeks and sometimes slept on the floor on a sleeping bag under his desk. Initially there was him, his wife, Elaina, as the bookkeeper, and one other employee. After two months they were up to four on staff. He said, "I took a lot of risks."
He said the Conversant Group really took off around 10 o'clock one night when he got a call from a guy in New Jersey, who told him, "You don't know me, but I know you. I know how well you do your job."
The Jersey man, who was the chief information officer for a law firm, said the email service was down at the law office. Mr. Smith said, "He gave me his information and we got it back on in 30 minutes." He then told me, "Don't send me a bill. Trust me, I'll pay you back."
Did he ever. Mr. Smith said he began to pick up business from law firms across the country wanting the small Chattanooga firm to protect their office data. Conversant Group now protects lawyers in Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and beyond. From 70-80 percent of the business is law firms, and 95 percent of the clients are outside Tennessee.
Conversant offered several services, but found its main niche in finding ways to protect the data of private companies from the ever-increasing waves of hackers both in this country and abroad. He said, "We take a layered approach. It's not just good enough to have a chain link fence. We build a solid wall and then put in layers of protection beyond that."
He said the greatest hacker threats come from Russia and especially China. He says, "The Chinese are all out to steal the secrets of America's business so they can duplicate them. These hackers are very well financed. China is after our intellectual properties. They want that data."
Mr. Smith added, "These overseas hackers have such resources and American companies often have built in few protections so that the hackers succeed." He said the ultimate solution for a company is to put in the layers of protection, but also buy cybersecurity insurance.
He said, "Our job is to keep the thieves out. There are more bad guys out there than you would guess. It's the Wild, Wild West. We are fighting criminals and thieves on a daily basis. Every day it is something new - a new threat. We feel like we are the Super Heroes who swoop in to save the day."
In one case, he said a company with over 200 employees that had been in business for 65 years was on the verge of going out of business overnight because hackers had locked up the company's long-assembled and irreplaceable records. He said, "We made contact with the hackers who were holding the company ransom. There were negotiations and some money had to be paid. But the company was saved."
Mr. Smith said, "I am a big believer in the value of work and of keeping American jobs. We believe we advance and protect that commerce, while protecting people who have invested in a business."
The Conversant Group does not produce any new software, but relies on its knowledge of available protective products already on the market. A new client gets a detailed analysis of its vulnerability and what can be done to firewall it. The fix can sometimes be an expensive proposition. On one account, the labor involved in setting up the ring of security was close to $1 million.
As the company grew, it outpaced the rental space. Mr. Smith wanted to be on the Southside, where a growing number of clever entrepreneurs had set up shop. He also wanted to stay in Chattanooga, saying, "I love this city. It is a very welcoming place." He said clients who come here are always impressed with the scenic city.
Mr. Smith found an old building at Cowart and 16th streets that was in deplorable shape and on top of a brownfield site. He had the site capped and added vapor barriers, then hired architect Bob Franklin to draw up plans for a "cool" interior. Part of the mix ended up being three shipping containers that now serve as unique office space.
The new digs were quickly filled with the top-of-the-line IT experts Mr. Smith was able to secure. He said, "I pay them well and I treat them with love and respect. We make college payments for their children, which is a benefit you don't find everywhere." He just picked up a golf cart for employees to use on lunch jaunts along Main Street. The office also includes exercise equipment, an arcade, ping pong table and other distractions from the very serious work that is underway.
He said, "The local schools are not supplying the type of employees we need." He said most have to be recruited out of town, and many of those from eight different states are able to work in their homes.
A big believer in education, Mr. Smith financed the setup of the STEM program at Chattanooga Christian School, which he said "transformed the way they learn."
As new clients came in, the new building quickly filled up and there was not a place for everyone to park. He was able to recently reach a deal with his close friend, Calvin Grant, to purchase the Grant Auto Trim building nearby on Broad Street and several parking lots for $2.4 million.
Mr. Smith said a building will eventually go up on Broad Street for the growing employee base. He said he would like it to be as tall as five stories if approval can be gotten, noting that "the way the Southside is developing the buildings are going to have to be vertical."
He plans to call the new building The Calvin in honor of Mr. Grant. "I love that man," he said.
For his part, Calvin Grant is a great admirer of Mr. Smith. He said, "No one would know it, but he has built up a big operation very quietly and his revenues keep shooting up. He was one of Jack Lupton's favorites."
John Anthony Smith, who is still only 39 but looks much younger, said he may no longer work 90-hour weeks, but he is often at it for as many as 60 hours. Elaina now stays home with their two daughters and young son, while her husband keeps "fighting the bad guys."