Jeff Collard's appetite for entrepreneurial success was first whetted during a meal with his in-laws.
The industrial products salesman was having dinner with his brother-in-law, Doug Bannister, one evening in early 1999 when the conversation turned to Mr. Bannister's small company, BCD Systems Inc.
Mr. Bannister had been writing software in the basement of his home in Nobleton, Ont., for nearly a decade, helping clients such as financial institutions put headlines and stock ticker data onto light-emitting-diode (LED) pixel boards.
Many of Mr. Bannister's customers had recently bought plasma screens -- large, thin, state-of-the-art monitors -- "but they were just using them as big televisions," Mr. Bannister said.
That conversation inspired Mr. Collard to found Omnivex Corp., a private software firm that has become a world leader in a growing niche market. With the right software, Mr. Collard realized, a large plasma monitor could become a multimedia pastiche of live video, stock prices, charts and other information. And his brother-in-law's experience with LED boards suggested that many institutions would buy such sophisticated displays for trading floors, in-store advertising or airport information screens.
Mr. Collard, now 42, was attracted by the technology's potential and was ready for a change from his sales and marketing job at the Mississauga-based subsidiary of Swedish welding equipment maker ESAB AB. "I was looking for a challenge," he said. "I took a deep breath and went and quit my job."
It proved to be a good move. Mr. Collard founded Omnivex in 1999, with one employee -- himself -- working from Mr. Bannister's basement. The company reported revenue of $50,000 in its first year, but income grew to $500,000 in 2000. Halfway through this year, Mr. Collard said, revenue has already surpassed last year's total. He now employs a staff of eight at a facility in Concord, Ont.
Finding good employees has been the toughest task so far, Mr. Collard said. He hired some friends from the welding industry to handle sales but had to contract BCD's programmers to write the first version of the software. It took about 100 interviews before he found his current staff of four programmers.
Another difficulty, Mr. Collard said, was adjusting to the culture of a tech startup after working for a multinational corporation.
"My guys are here until ridiculous hours of the night," he said. "We have a dog in the office. They stop and throw a ball around. You have to manage these people very differently."
But the effort is paying off. An impressive list of institutions now uses Omnivex software, including Bank of Montreal, Deutsche Bank, Sears Canada, General Electric and the Montreal Exchange. At an industry convention in Las Vegas in June, NEC Corp. of Japan said it would bundle the program with each monitor it sells, starting this year.
NEC's announcement was just the latest collaboration between Omnivex and one of the world's largest makers of plasma screens. Scott Evans, senior product manager at NEC, still remembers the day two years ago when Mr. Collard first walked into his Chicago office and plugged in a pair of plasma screens to show off the program. Mr. Collard took inputs from four kinds of video cards and taught the NEC executives to arrange the images on-screen.
"It worked, it was easy and we immediately saw the potential," Mr. Evans said. "We never hesitate to recommend it to our customers."
Mr. Evans said similar software exists, but Omnivex programs have the widest array of functions and unique capabilities to prevent screen burn.
Even if competition heats up, analysts say, Omnivex is well positioned in a rapidly expanding niche market.
A report by Stanford Resources of San Jose, Calif., estimates that worldwide sales of plasma screens will jump from 314,000 units or $2.7-billion (U.S.) in 2001 to 6.2 million units or $16.4-billion in 2007.
Bob Rakes, a senior analyst with Jon Peddie Associates Europe Ltd. in Surrey, England, said his estimates are more conservative -- he puts worldwide unit sales this year at about 150,000 -- but he agrees that plasma will become much more popular in coming years as prices fall dramatically.
"There's going to be some blood spilled in terms of pricing," Mr. Rakes said.
Although cheaper units may hurt manufacturers' margins, he said, they can only help a company that makes software for the screens. Best of all for Omnivex, Mr. Rakes said, most plasma screen sales are for professional use rather than home entertainment.
Mr. Collard said he has been fortunate -- and not only because business is good.
"In my career," he said, "I've never had as much fun as I've had this year."