December 2002: Vol. 82, No. 1

Check's in the mail . . . or is it?

ATM woes in college led to a software bonanza for Brian Geisel (BBA '83)

by Matt Waldman

As the founder of a banking software company that recently appeared on the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing companies in America, future Alogent CEO Brian Geisel was obviously making mental notes as he and his sister were running afoul of ATMs in college. Picture Geisel (BBA '83) taking part-time jobs so he could afford the $40-a-month rent to live with four Phi Gamma Delta fraternity brothers in a one-bedroom apartment at the old Fiji house. And then Geisel anticipating a night of beer drinking at the B&L warehouse or R.E.M. at Tyrone's—only to experience that sinking feeling when an ATM would spit out an "insufficient funds" receipt when he was positive he had money in his account. The person who actually had more trouble with ATMs than Geisel was his sister over at West Georgia, but the problem eventually made its way around to him. "There were always such delays," he says, "and I often had to step in and bail her out."

Geisel's Alogent software firm signed a $31 million agreement with European banks.
Recently named one of Atlanta's Top 50 Entrepreneurs by Catalyst magazine, Geisel tucked these frustrating banking experiences away in a future to-do file and eventually came up with software that streamlines the way banks process checks. Alogent recently signed a $31 million, nine-year joint venture agreement with three of the largest banks in Europe. The company's software is the core-processing platform for these financial institutions, which collectively clear more than 70 percent of all paper payments in the United Kingdom.

Creating software products evolved from an affinity for computers and a desire for a more lucrative part-time job. "I wasn't planning to go in that direction," says Geisel, who started out in pre-law and had a series of dead-end college-era jobs that included liquor store clerk, paper boy, and a grueling 72-hour-a-week summer job dying chemicals at a carpet mill. "But I took a couple of computer courses and I found it was like solving puzzles and building things at the same time." He got so good at it that UGA hired him to tutor Information Technology students. He also got a job as a programmer at the Small Business Administration. And lest we forget, this avid Frisbee player was also treasurer of the UGA Flying Disc Club.

After founding Alogent, Geisel went international, working with two of the largest banks in the U.K. to streamline the way they processed checks. To an industry mired in 1970s mainframes, he brought the versatility of open-system servers, workstations, and enlightened software. In the U.S., the need for banks to update their payment processing operations has become more urgent, as they cope with new legislative and industry trends, coupled with maintenance problems associated with 30-year-old mainframe systems. As Geisel learned from introductory economics and business classes, a changing landscape creates significant business opportunities.

"What I wanted to do was build a better mousetrap on a new lower-cost technology platform," says Geisel, whose Sierra Clearing software is on track to handle more than 1.1 billion bill payments this year in the U.S.

While many organizations in Georgia and around the country are downsizing, Alogent shows no signs of slowing down. Since 1985, revenue has grown by an average of 78 percent each year and the company workforce by 53 percent. For people standing at an ATM hoping to withdraw some of their hard-earned cash, that's welcome news.

Matt Waldman (AB '96) is an Athens freelancer and a former staff writer at The Red and Black.

Bertis Downs . . . in his own words

Bertis Downs (JD '81) is R.E.M.'s legal and managerial representative. He also holds an adjunct position at the UGA law school.

School days: Davidson College, bachelor of arts degree cum laude in history, 1978; UGA School of Law, juris doctorate cum laude, 1981.

Family: My father, a Presbyterian minister, was called to Taiwan, but was killed in a plane crash there when I was 7. My mother moved us to Atlanta when I was in sixth grade. My wife is the former Katherine Judkins (AB '88) and we have a daughter, Addie, who is 5.

Downs taught R.E.M. that there was a business aspect to music.
Music: In high school, I was a fan of the Allman Brothers and Neil Young. In college, I worked in radio and in the concert division, bringing acts to the Davidson campus. I never played an instrument, but I always liked the business. Later, a friend and I got a job at the Fairmont Hotel as bellhops. We got to wait on the Rolling Stones, carrying their luggage, bringing them room service. This was about 1975 and they seemed old to me at the time . . . they were in their early 30s.

Law: When I was in ninth grade, there was a trial in Atlanta about a guy who'd been kidnapped—Reg Murphy, editor of the Atlanta Constitution. I was fascinated by the trial and how the lawyers went about things in the courtroom. I went to see Judge Jack Ethridge about getting a summer internship in law. The judge mentioned there was no recreation program for inmates. So I recruited three friends and with a grant from the Fulton County Commission, we set up a program for the county jail.

R.E.M.: I came here for law school in 1981, and the band (R.E.M.) started in '81. When we met, Michael (Stipe) was in the art school, Peter (Buck) was undecided, Mike (Mills) was in English, and Bill (Berry) was in pre-law. I knew Bill from the concert committee and Peter when he worked behind the counter at Wuxtry. I did their early contracts and helped them realize there was a business aspect as well as an artistic aspect to music. Now they are the board of directors and I run the company. They finally decided this band could be a career. But, at that time, rock bands lasted about as long as NFL running backs. Now they're putting out their 14th record.

UGA: I've taught entertainment law since 1988. There was no class like that at UGA until then. I like it because it keeps me around young, fresh minds. That's important in as much as our (music) business and law is changing—and has to change because of technology. It's great to be around students who know more about that stuff than I do. I learn from them as much as they learn from me—with the Internet, digital rights, and how they consume music. I also teach seminars and give guest lectures to lawyers on entertainment law at universities around the country.

Athens: We have such a great downtown. This is a giving, caring, generous community and I like the balance we have in scale, feel, size, and the proximity to a big city without yet being part of the big city. I think we're at a critical point on issues of land use, historic preservation, and zoning. There are battles going on constantly to preserve what everyone loves about Athens and our way of life and there's a constant tension between what we have now and what we can become if we're not vigilant.

A similar version of this interview ran in the Athens Banner-Herald, which granted reprint rights.

Oh, Calvin!

From East Athens to Oxford and Cambridge, Calvin Smith is remaking his artistic future

by Heather Summerville (ABJ '01)

I like everything in my life to be scintillating," says Calvin Smith (AB '00), who has appeared on Broadway as Cecco the pirate in 'Peter Pan,' done three national tours, and years of regional theatre. Last summer, he appeared at the Fox in Atlanta in a production of "My Fair Lady."

Smith hopes to bring his background in theater and art history to the classroom.
But despite a long and successful career as an actor, Smith wanted more out of life and more from his lifelong appreciation for art. So he enrolled at UGA as an art history major and completed his undergraduate studies at Oxford with UGA's study abroad program. He has since returned to England to pursue further graduate studies in art history at Cambridge.

"I'm looking forward to my research at Cambridge because it deals with a very specific aspect of pre-Raphaelite art," says Smith, whose one-man trunk show christened Athens' newly renovated Morton Theatre in 1993. "Knowing my exuberance, I'm going to be running around the English countryside rediscovering lost canvases that have been out of the public eye since the beginning of the last century."

A new trend swept through American theatre in the early 1980s just as Smith began to seriously pursue a career on stage. Dubbed "non-traditional casting," it opened the door for African Americans to play roles that customarily went to white actors. Smith took advantage of the trend by landing featured roles in "Kiss Me Kate" and "Bye Bye Birdie" and then made his Broadway debut as Cecco, described by Smith as "the meanest pirate of them all and the inspiration for Steven Spielberg's black pirate in 'Hook.'"

While acting, Smith took independent study and night school classes, which earned him enough credit hours to graduate from UGA after only one year as a full-time student. So now, when he hits the road with a show, it affords him the opportunity to do both musical theater and explore the art holdings of famous museums.

"I couldn't wait for 'My Fair Lady' to go to Dallas," he says. "We got there on a Monday, and Tuesday morning before the sound check I went to the Dallas-Fort Worth Museum."

Smith has spent 20 years balancing his two loves, but one day he hopes to unite acting and art. Once he has his doctorate in art history in hand, Smith wants to bring theater to the academic podium.

"The art history lecture is still the same droll experience that has been going on since the early fifties," he says. "The slide falls into place. The lecturer reads the life of the artist. And unless you are a hardcore art history student, you fall asleep. I want to fuse modern devices such as moving film images, digital media, music—even food, dance, and song—into an academic art lecture. I want to activate the experience so the sights and sounds are so stimulating and so creative that you will walk out forever changed."

Having just turned 40, Smith has gone from stealing his first role—as The Grinch—from a childhood rival at Athens' Hilsman Middle School, to surviving in an industry that often hires according to stereotypes, a practice that can make it difficult for a black man to prosper in a way that's commensurate to his talents. For Calvin Smith, the University of Georgia has helped widen his avenues to success.

"My family is from East Athens," he says, "and I am on my way to Cambridge. How great is that?"

Heather Summerville (ABJ '01) is a New York freelancer and a former editorial assistant at Georgia Magazine.

Mark Maxwell's Lullaby

At hospitals around the country, the sweet sounds of an Athens guitarist help new parents celebrate the happy occasion

by Rachel Smith

When the staff at St. Mary's Hospital in Athens hears the sweet sounds of Mark Maxwell's Lullaby wafting through the halls, they pause and smile. In an environment where disease and death are an everyday occurrence, they take comfort in knowing that a new baby has just been born.

Maxwell (M '85), a classically trained guitarist and recording studio owner, was asked to compose the lullaby to improve morale at the hospital following a fire that killed two children 10 years ago. The fact that his wife was pregnant at the time provided added inspiration.

The lullaby celebrates births at 65 hospitals across the U.S.
"The hospital was depressed, and we wanted to celebrate all the good things that happen here," says St. Mary's retired vice president Marilyn Hill. "So we called Mark and asked him to write a lullaby that we could play every time a baby is born."

Maxwell got so into the project that he filled up an entire cassette with eight different blessed-event melodies; he wrote them in his head while riding his bike. "It's probably the neatest thing I've ever done," he says, "or ever will."

The album has sold 150,000 copies—mainly by word of mouth—and the lullaby is now a staple on OB-GYN floors at 65 hospitals around the country.

Maxwell transferred to UGA—from Georgia Tech, where he dabbled in football—to study guitar. He has three children, and his wife, Janis Tribble Maxwell (ABJ '89), sings and plays the piano on his albums.

Maxwell built his recording studio in 1994 by adding onto his house, but he has been recording the likes of R.E.M. and Kenny Rogers for 20 years. He is releasing three albums of his own this fall. Mothers have sent Maxwell letters asking him to write more lullabies, but thus far he has declined. "Those lullabies were written during an inspirational time in my life," he says. "The only reason to compose more would be financial, which is not a good reason."

With more than 1,300 babies born at St. Mary's every year, the lullaby has become a popular tradition. Mary Schroeder gave birth to her second child, daughter Elayna, at St. Mary's in October. The family had pressed the lullaby button when son Mason was born two years ago, and this time it was Mason who got to push the button to announce sister Elayna's birth.

"It's a special little touch," says Schroeder. "A special way to commemorate the birth of our little angels!"

Hospitals around the nation, from Florida to Missouri, have heard about Maxwell's lullaby and installed the First Tune system that enables parents to announce their baby with the push of a button. And each new mom receives a copy of Maxwell's Lullabies to mark the happy occasion.

Maxwell has been featured on CNN and local news stations around the country in segments that he calls "warm fuzzies." Despite a heavy workload in the studio, he is a devoted father himself.

"At 3 p.m., I'm out at the Y coaching my son's football team," he says. Besides music, his other passion is cooking. "To have a beer or glass of wine and grill out with the family . . . that is heaven."

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