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AT&T Mavericks Do It Their Way

Restoring America's Competitive Edge

December 01, 1985|DEBRA WHITEFIELD | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Employees are united in their devotion and unbridled enthusiasm for a company they all were fed up with and preparing to leave only two years ago.

There was a time in Alan Wlasuk's career with American Telephone & Telegraph that he would stay in fine hotels and fly first class. But when he went to San Francisco on business recently, he took a $35-a-night room at MaryAnn's Guest House--and shared it with another AT&T worker.

You'll hear no complaints from Wlasuk. It was the 35-year-old computer graphics wizard's own idea to stay in the cheap room, saving the company money. And his feelings for his job border on reverence.

"I don't think anybody views this as a job anymore," says the soft-spoken Wlasuk. "This is our child." Talk to any of Wlasuk's 10 compatriots at AT&T's first new-venture company, lodged in a secluded two-story house here on the wooded outskirts of Indianapolis, and the story is the same: Devotion and unbridled enthusiasm for a company they all were fed up with and preparing to leave only two years ago.

What transpired in the interim was the breakup of the Bell System, formation of an incubator to tap and coddle unconventional new-business ideas and an environment suddenly ripe for new ventures. When word spread that top management would let these business upstarts bend some longstanding AT&T rules if that's what it took to get a jump on the competition, Wlasuk and company were back in the fold.

Four months after they went to work on Wlasuk's idea for a computer graphics board that would let home-computer users call up TV-quality pictures instead of the usual cartoon-character images, the new-venture team had its first product on the market. Having shaved 14 months off the usual AT&T product cycle, they then tackled a more sophisticated board. It was out two months later.

To stay ahead of the competition, their goal is to introduce a new product every six months, a rigorous schedule they already have surpassed.

With electronics buffs and industry trade journals praising the first board as one of the more significant microcomputer products of 1985, sales soared. And by June of this year, just nine months after the first board hit the market, the venture was profitable--13 months ahead of schedule.

Of that achievement, AT&T's new-ventures chief, William Stritzler, says: "I couldn't be more proud." That this group of young mavericks (average age 32) was able to take four products to market in a year when the AT&T videotext outfit for which most of them worked previously didn't develop and market a single product in more than three years lends credence to the wisdom of the move at many companies to smaller, more entrepreneurial work groups.

Stritzler is a believer. "There's not one" employee at the Indianapolis venture, he asserts, "who doesn't have a gleam in the eye and fire in the stomach."

What a difference two years make.

Wlasuk was "headed for the outside" after AT&T decided to kill the graphics-focused home computer that he and several of his current teammates were developing. That decision followed months of tense encounters between the young developers and top AT&T executives and marketing managers.

Raring to Go

"We were like a racehorse raring to go and the gates wouldn't open," says Rose Ann Alspektor, now in charge of marketing support for the graphics-board venture.

In hindsight, Wlasuk recognizes that the home computer was a high-profile venture and major corporate commitment for AT&T. It "was going to affect the stock and the image of the whole corporation." So, management was bound to be more cautious and slower moving than it can afford to be with a small, low-cost, low-profile computer graphics board.

Nonetheless, when the home computer group was disbanded, most of its members started looking for other jobs. "Being blended back into the AT&T mainstream was unacceptable," says Wlasuk, a most unlikely candidate for the corporate suite in his attire of blue jeans, faded blue T-shirt and thongs.

Wlasuk approached consumer products director Hans Mattes to vent his frustrations. Mattes heard him out and suggested that AT&T's consumer products group might be persuaded to take a closer look at an idea Wlasuk had hatched while working on the home computer.

Computer graphics is Wlasuk's hobby. He dreams about producing a short computer graphics movie, a small-scale version of the creative full-length film "The Last Starfighter." So one day, while playing on the computer, he idly shaded in some images of balls flashed upon his computer screen. The results were surprisingly dramatic: The images appeared three-dimensional and far more lifelike than pictures usually do on a computer terminal.

Persuaded Executives

Mattes liked the idea of an affordable computer board that would give consumers access to television-quality pictures and pitched it to AT&T executives. They were sold.

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