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Rolling with the changes.

Computer Utilities of the Ozarks Stands to Gain From Belt-Tightening

TECHNOLOGY CAN BE frightening, but not for Herb Lair. This Harrison entrepreneur makes a living by anticipating the future and harnessing it with computer software.

Lair is president of a small but successful Harrison company called Computer Utilities of the Ozarks Inc., which provides information management services to cable companies around the globe.

Rapid technological developments in cable, coupled with the return of government regulation to the industry, are creating a big demand for Lair's services. Computer Utilities currently has $1 million-$2 million in annual sales. It is the country's third-largest company in the field.

"We're staying quite busy," he says. "The opportunities in the next year or so will be very exciting. We're looking at actually doubling this year, and possibly another doubling next year."

The name of the game is cost cutting. Since the Federal Communications Commission is rolling back cable rates, cable companies must find ways to eliminate staff and other expenses while maintaining a high level of service and programming.

Enter the friendly computer.

The company was formed in May 1973 by Lair, a University of Arkansas at Fayetteville graduate with bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics.

He began by renting computer time from local banks to provide billing services and computer spread sheets for northwest Arkansas businesses.

When the Rogers cable company became one of his early clients, his fate was sealed. In 1980, Computer Utilities released a billing management program called Cable/1, designed specifically to serve cable operators. This software package, and others to come, operated on an IBM Series 1 minicomputer that cost the company $50,000.

Expensive Equipment

Since most cable companies could not afford such computers, they began to rely heavily on outside services such as those provided by Computer Utilities.

Just when Lair was getting ahead of the curve, the much cheaper personal micro-computer became powerful enough to dethrone the $50,000 behemoths, and cable companies became more interested in maintaining their own billing systems.

Again Lair was ready, releasing new programs in 1985 that operated on the IBM PC.

In 1988, the company won a contract to support the cable system on the Pacific island of Saipan, then expanded its client base to Bermuda, the Dominican Republic and Trinidad.

Lair's experience in the industry led in 1991 to a flexible, easy-to-use program called Cableworks, the first subscriber management and billing program to operate on a wide variety of computer systems.

His intellectual property is being used behind what was the "Iron Curtain"; in the fall of 1992, Computer Utilities licensed its billing software to United Communications Inc. to service up to 600,000 cable customers in Hungary.

This year, foreign contracts will account for up to 25 percent of his revenues, and Lair has signed joint marketing agreements with Zenith Electronics Corp. and Scientific Atlanta to further increase the product's exposure worldwide.

The evolution of Computer Utilities' product line continues. The company unveiled its award-winning remote order processor in early 1992, allowing cable systems to receive and translate audio signals from the key pad of a touch-tone telephone. Among other things, the development allows customers to order pay-per-view programming with the touch of a few buttons.

As another way of reducing costs while maintaining customer satisfaction, cable operators are considering an a la carte programming system in which viewers pick and choose the channels they receive.

Not surprisingly, Lair's team has already solved that problem. Now, it's just a matter of time.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Industry Report; Computer Utilities of the Ozarks Inc.
Author:Haman, John
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Apr 12, 1993
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