April 27, 2004
1960 Cowley alumnus to be awarded at commencement
To say that Warren Koeller has come along way since high school would be an understatement.
Koeller, who didn’t have a clue what he wanted to do after graduating from Arkansas City High School in 1956, went on to become a successful businessman and entrepreneur. Now, Cowley County Community College is honoring the 1960 graduate with its Outstanding Tiger Alumni Award. The award will be presented to Koeller during the 10 a.m. commencement ceremony May 8 in the Robert Brown Theatre inside the Brown Center on Cowley’s main campus.
While pondering his next move after high school, the United States Army gave Koeller two years to think about it as it made good on its draft notice, even though the nation was between conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.
In January 1959, Koeller enrolled at Arkansas City Junior College. Thanks to caring instructors, Koeller began to find some direction. Perhaps even more importantly, Koeller was told he was good at something, accounting.
That early introduction to accounting would lay the foundation of a successful career as a businessman and entrepreneur.
“After the first accounting course with Barney Getto, I enrolled in the second, and Barney came to me and told me I was good at this,” Koeller said. “I said yeah, I notice other students come to me for advice. He asked if I’d ever thought of becoming a CPA. I said, what’s that. He instilled interest in me. I checked out the CPA profession, and it was very good. You could do a lot of things with it. I thought maybe that’s what I should do.”
Koeller, who owns one company and is president of another, went on to major in accounting at Wichita University, graduating in 1963. He passed the Certified Public Accountant exam in September 1965, and was well on his way to understanding the financial side of business. That knowledge helped fuel Koeller’s entrepreneurial spirit as he built companies from the ground up, and turned one on the brink of bankruptcy into a huge success.
Getto and ACJC printing instructor Tony Buffo influenced Koeller’s future.
“I look back at my life, and Tony probably did more to motivate me to be a good student and leader than anyone else,” Koeller said. “When I met Tony in junior high, I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t get that much direction or discipline at home. Buffo instilled direction in me that no one ever had. I became totally enthralled with printing.”
But there was a problem: Koeller was colorblind.
“I realized that I was very creative, and he (Buffo) was such a good instructor,” Koeller said. “My first career path took me into printing as a profession. I wanted to be a teacher and a professional printer. But since I was totally colorblind, I came to the conclusion that this wasn’t going to work. I knew all my life that I was that way. It was the first time I recognized I couldn’t do something.”
After ACJC, WU instructor Fran Jabara took Koeller under his wing.
“He said he was going to make something out of me,” Koeller recalled. “Fran was a consultant to the Lear family when the Learjet was just an idea. Fran would bring a lot of that back to the classroom. One day, he was saying something to us about the Learjet. I put my hand up and said that’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. Nobody’s going to buy a business jet for $500,000. Now, that same $500,000 business jet goes for $1.2 (million) on the market, if you can find one.”
So, Koeller was wrong. Learjet, of course, went on to become a large, successful corporation. And Koeller? That very well could have been the last time he was wrong about anything.
He was a practicing CPA for Arthur Andersen in the Kansas City area until 1970, when he grew tired of traveling and moving his wife, the former Lynn Cyrus of Ark City, and his family. It was during his last five years with Andersen, in its newly-created administrative services division, where Koeller’s creative wheels really started turning.
“Computers were just becoming affordable in the business community,” Koeller said. “I did programming and systems design work. The demand for that skill was really something. There was no education available. I just picked up a book and read it.”
As a self-taught computer network administrator and programmer, Koeller was on his way to bigger and better opportunities. He left Arthur Anderson to become executive vice president of 3M Business Products, covering Kansas and Missouri. During that time, he got the notion to install a multi-user workstation system within the business. It became one of the first computer networks.
“This was prior to IBM or anybody else getting into that,” Koeller said. “At the same time, I felt this system could handle telephone modems. Why not put phone modems on this and offer the real estate community a way to access real estate online?”
Why not? Koeller developed the system, offered it to realtors in the Kansas City area, and business took off.
“At that point, my only goal was to bring in enough money to pay for the system,” he said. “Low and behold, the phones started ringing immediately, and I was overwhelmed with demand for the system in other cities.”
Koeller was ready to do his own thing. He and a programmer formed Realty Information Systems Company, now known as RISCO. It didn’t take long before more employees were hired. Within years, the company’s 13,000 square-foot facility was too small, and it was replaced by a 34,000 square-foot building.
“By the time we outgrew that, we had 200 employees,” Koeller said.
Koeller sold the company in March 2000 at the very height of the dot-com craze. Two men from Indianapolis, who had a lot of money to throw Koeller’s way, bought the company. The very next day after Koeller closed the sale, the dot-com market crashed.
“These guys had raised a bunch of venture capital money, and they had an idea for a new product to tie into what I was doing,” Koeller said. “I was not at all interested in selling the company. But these guys had more money than they had sense.”
The new owners never got a second round of financing, and within 10 months, they were broke.
But Koeller had kept the real estate out of the deal. He sold the company for cash and took a long-term employment contract, “which basically said I don’t have to do anything.”
Back in the early 1990s, Koeller started a manufacturing division within his company that built lock boxes realtors use when they list a house. His company manufactured the mechanical and electronic device.
“It started in 1995, but it was a hard sell,” Koeller said. “It was so revolutionary, it took years to take off.”
The idea eventually caught on, big time, and Koeller’s company turned large profits. The lock box uses an infrared transmitter. When a realtor uses the electronic key, information from the box, including the identity of the realtor, the company, and the time and date the house was shown, is transferred.
“All of that was sold originally to the guys from Indianapolis,” Koeller said. “But when they went broke, a bankruptcy judge stepped in and sold the company in two pieces. One was the MLS (Multi-Listing Service) division, which sold to Fidelity National, a huge company that owns nearly all title insurance companies in the U.S.
“The second, the lock box manufacturing business, was sold to General Electric. That part of it is so easy and stress-free, I chose to take my employment contract with it. That’s all I do is run a company that manufactures electronic lock boxes.”
Koeller said that 2003 was a profitable year for his company, having rented nearly 100,000 lock boxes and 20,000 electronic keys to realtors in all parts of the nation. Realtors who use the boxes pay Koeller’s company $10 a month for six years. Koeller said his company installed boxes in Salt Lake City last fall, where there are 7,000 realtors.
As if the lock box company wasn’t enough, Koeller has added another company to his portfolio. Koeller rescued Kantronics of Lawrence a couple of years ago from financial disaster and has high hopes for the manufacturer of wireless data controllers.
“This company supplied all of the data transfer to the Mir space station for seven years and it worked flawlessly,” Koeller said. “But nobody’s heard of the company.”
It’s a company with seven employees and about $1 million in annual sales. Much like his other business ventures, Koeller said the company needed to make the product an all-in-one plug-and-play unit.
The system will track school buses so parents can go to a web site and actually see on a map where the bus is located and which direction it is traveling. The system works with global positioning satellites, and Koeller’s box converts the signal to data and transmits it to radio waves to a central site. From there, it is uploaded to the web where parents can see the bus route.
Just about everything Koeller does is big, and he owes it all to his accounting background.
“The background I gained in my accounting career has been invaluable,” he said. “I can’t imagine running a business and not knowing the accounting end of it as well as I do. It gives me an edge.”
Koeller is often asked why he has so many irons in the fire at age 65. To Koeller, the answer is simple.
“I do it because it’s fun,” he said. “Some of my friends are retired and don’t do anything. I enjoy it. This is my latest venture, and it’s going to work.”
When Koeller isn’t at the office, he and Lynn spend time with their children and grandchildren, play a lot of golf, and travel.
“I’m a firm believer in keeping active,” he said.
Koeller also finds time to tool around in his Boxster S Porsche, the ninth Porsche he’s owned in the last 35 years.
“I’ve always had to have the best car I could get my hands on,” Koeller said.
Despite Koeller’s penchant for sports cars, he’s never gotten a speeding ticket, or any other ticket for that matter.
Kind of surprising for a man who’s constantly on the go.