Peter B. Gardner is back selling Niigata injection molding presses, after a brief but high-flying stint at Colo.com, an Internet data-center company.
Last October, Gardner became vice president and general manager for Niigata operations at DJK-Global Ltd. in Itasca, Ill.
Gardner, 39, was a co-founder of Colo.com in 1997. ``We started this little company in the ghetto of San Francisco with really no money, and no pay,'' he recalled wistfully.
He was young and single, and had friends in the telecommunications industry. ``I told myself, you know if I'm gonna take a chance and do it, I'm doing it now. The Internet was kind of like the gold rush of the end of the 1990s.''
As vice president of sales and marketing at Colo.com, Gardner, who sold imported plastics equipment as his first job out of college, became one of those young-gun Internet pros covered by the financial magazines. Growing quickly to 400-plus employees, Colo.com raised more than $525 million in capital in 2000, second only to online grocer Webvan, Gardner said.
Colo.com constructed 21 buildings that house the hardware of the Internet, things such as electronic switching gear, routers and telecommunications equipment to run Web servers. Known as collocation (hence the company name) data centers, the facilities have sophisticated backup power generators and security systems.
``We were being flown around the country by different financial firms, to be courted as high-net-worth individuals,'' he said.
The founders planned to go public in 2001. Then the air began seeping out of the Internet bubble.
``We had to pull our [initial public offering] because we just realized we weren't going to be able to raise enough money. Then we looked to get private funding. Well, by then, private funding started to dry up and everything, too. So we filed Chapter 11 reorganization,'' Gardner said.
The founders ended up selling Colo.com to an investment firm that put together ClearBlue Technologies, now called NaviSite Inc.
Now Gardner is back explaining features of injection molding machines. But don't cry for him. While much of his riches were just on paper, Gardner said he managed to pull a good amount of money from his stock and the sale. He took a year off before rejoining Niigata.
``I'm not hurting or anything,'' said Gardner, chuckling.
Gardner comes across as laid-back; you can picture him wearing sandals back in San Francisco, pulling a late-nighter, eating Chinese carryout.
In reality, the roots of his working life are pure Midwest. In 1988, after graduating from the plastics engineering program at Illinois State University, the Chicago native took a job at Machinery Systems Inc. in Schaumburg, Ill.
There he met Mike Santa and Paul Caprio - who have gone on to become top executives at U.S. injection press sales operations, Santa now at Battenfeld of America Inc. and Caprio at Krauss-Maffei Corp.
``We're all still real great friends,'' Gardner said. ``We're friendly competitors. They're good guys.''
Caprio said the three keep in touch. ``We still get together for beers,'' he said.
Machinery Systems was less than glamorous; they uncrated machines, put them together and tried to sell them.
``We sold used equipment and Chinese equipment, and that's really where myself and Paul Caprio and Mike Santa all started really selling injection molding machines,'' Gardner said. ``Those guys had never really sold molding machines before, and I was only familiar with it through my plastics education.''
The company brought in a line of new Taiwanese molding machines, then in the early 1990s expanded to Japanese brands of Niigata, Shinwa Seiki and Ube.
Niigata hired Gardner as regional sales manager in 1993. He still worked directly with Machinery Systems. But then Santa left to join Krauss-Maffei and he recruited Caprio to join him. Niigata decided to go with direct sales in the United States, teaming with Daiichi Jitsugyo (America) Inc. in Itasca. That firm now is called DJK-Global.
Gardner stayed at Niigata until the Internet lured him away to help create Colo.com.
Gardner's return comes as DJK-Global has reorganized its Niigata sales division. Bob Columbus, formerly general manager, has been assigned to the newly created post of business development manager. Columbus still sells and manages Niigata manufacturers' representatives in the Midwest. He also is working on special projects with big accounts.
Bill Ball, who had been vice president, now is key-account sales manager on the East Coast, working closer to his home in New Hampshire.
Niigata Machine Techno Co. Ltd. is based in Niigata City, Japan. The company, under new ownership, formed after Niigata Engineering Co. Ltd. emerged from protection from creditors earlier this year. It includes Niigata Plastic Machinery Co., which makes injection presses, and another unit that makes metal machining centers.
At first glance, industrial machinery seems to be miles away from a hot Internet start-up. But Gardner sees some parallels: ``[Colo.com] was an incredible learning experience of how to build and promote a company, and I'm trying to bring a lot of that with me to Niigata now.''
One example is speeding up customer communications.
``We used to get a [request for quote] and type it up basically on the computer, print it out and then mail it out to the person. Then our sales person would have to try to call and find out if they got it, and schedule a follow-up call to answer questions. You know, it's hard to get hold of people.''
The old method could take a couple weeks.
Now Niigata is putting its product literature and quote forms in electronic files, ready for e-mailing. The customer can e-mail back with more questions.
``We can get a dialogue going ahead of time to make sure that we're not barking up the wrong tree, and that we've quoted it properly, before we set up the follow-up call,'' Gardner said.
Niigata also is developing Web-based customer training courses.
Turning to technology, Gardner said Niigata made the right decision to focus only on all-electric molding machines. The company still will make hydraulic toggle presses on a special-order basis. ``But everybody who's made the switch [to all-electrics] doesn't want to go back,'' he said.
At NPE 2003, Niigata molded parts on two horizontal all-electric presses with clamping forces of 110 and 385 tons at its booth, and two 35-ton machines at other companies' booths.
Colo.com owned hard assets, buildings and electronic equipment, and those still exist. But many Internet companies were based on dreams.
``I come to Niigata and I don't have to make something up. We actually have a great product. What I think Niigata has not done well in the past has been to promote itself, through the proper channels,'' he said. He hopes to change all that.