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A Conversation with Jim Carreker

Atlanta, GA

This interview was edited by Roger Webb and David Hertling
 

Jim Carreker ‘got out’ of Georgia Tech in 1969 with his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and embarked on a remarkable career, not only for its success, but also for some unexpected twists in its trajectory.

Jim’s early career was fairly typical. He first went to work for a large telecommunications technology firm, took a year off to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering at Stanford, went to work at a small technology firm in Texas, and then moved back to California to work at a market research firm. After researching large business firm's call distribution operations, he decided that his entrepreneurial itch needed scratching. He started his own technology business, Aspect Telecommunications, in 1985 — a company that provides software to affect efficient operation of call centers which were rapidly becoming a significant factor in the operation of large businesses.

Aspect operated on venture capital funds until Jim took it public in 1990. As CEO of Aspect, Jim grew the business into not only the largest provider of call center software systems, but also a provider of consulting services to Aspect’s international clientele.

In 2000, Jim decided to move on to something else and left Aspect. He entered into a seemingly completely distinct path as a hotelier.  Jim and his wife Helen arrived in South Australia in 2004 and opened a boutique hotel and restaurant in Barossa Valley, Australia’s equivalent of Napa Valley. They grew that into a very successful business based on the same principles that governed Aspect, according to Jim.

In 2020 Jim launched the next phase. He and Helen retired, returned to the U.S., and embarked on spending quality time with their daughter Lauren and her family.

Throughout his career Jim has remained involved with Georgia Tech by giving generously of his time to serve on advisory boards, as well as his resources to provide funds for ECE to create an endowed chair and programmatic funds to support that position. The Carreker family connection to Tech has continued. Their daughter Lauren earned a master’s degree in city planning and a master’s degree in civil engineering and their son-in-law graduated with a B.E.E and M.S.E.E.

Suzy Briggs worked a great deal with Jim when she was the School’s development officer from 1995-2005, becoming close to him and his family. She conducted the following interview.

SB: Hi, Jim. Thanks so much for being amenable to this interview. Although I am no longer directly affiliated with ECE, I’m honored to be able to talk to you. 

JC: Suzy, I am always happy to visit with you and am pleased be part of the School’s newsletter.

SB: Why don’t we start with a bit of background. Where did you grew up, how did you decide to become an engineer, and why did you chose to come to Georgia Tech?

JC: I grew up and attended public schools in Athens, Georgia. We lived literally just a few blocks off the University of Georgia campus. I was certainly aware of Georgia Tech, having visited Atlanta many times during my growing up years. By the time I was in junior high school, I was interested in all things technical, and when I entered high school, it was clear that I would take all the science and math classes available in my high school, and that I would be interested in pursuing an engineering degree in college.

I began looking at colleges and focused primarily on Auburn, Duke, and Georgia Tech. Tech had a lot of strong things going for it. It was far enough away to leave home, but not too far away, and the value proposition was very compelling, as it still is. The cost of going to Georgia Tech versus the value of the degree was a very strong equation. I had narrowed my focus to electrical engineering, and the reputation of Tech’s School of Electrical Engineering was very high and well recognized nationwide. By the time I was a rising senior in high school, I knew that I was headed to Georgia Tech. There were over 200 students in my graduating class at Athens High School. Eight of us went to Georgia Tech and over 100 went to the University of Georgia. I was happy to have taken the step to enter Georgia Tech.

SB: Well, you clearly excelled as a student at Georgia Tech and ‘got out’ feeling good about the experience. Perhaps you can share some highlights of that experience and aspects that influenced your career?

JC: I knew from the first quarter that I had made the right choice of school and major. I think in the mid-sixties many students entered Tech with anticipation that by the end of the first year they might change schools or majors, not having a clear idea of what career path they might choose. That was not the case for me. I was happy to be in EE and wanted to move forward.

During my sophomore year, I took a course in digital systems design from (now Professor Emeritus) John Peatman, which I found very appealing. John encouraged students to think about design and to ask the key questions about the design at the outset of the design process. In my junior and senior years, I took many more courses from John and developed a close connection with him. I encountered many outstanding professors and enjoyed my interactions with them, but John had a unique way of engaging students outside the usual faculty/student context. One such engagement ultimately had a significant influence on my career. With John’s encouragement and help, I and two other students of his initiated and operated a program that came to be known as the EE Senior Seminar.

The concept was to bring in outside speakers to help raise the perspective of students about the many and varied career paths available to graduates in engineering, business, academics, medicine, etc. We were successful in attracting outstanding speakers, I think largely because it was a student run operation. I think it was useful for many soon-to-be graduated students. I know it was for me. I remember thinking ‘Gee, with this degree I have the keys to go in many different directions.’

SB: So, what directions did you take?

JC: I graduated in 1969 and took a job with a large telecommunications technology company in California. Then I took a year off to get a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University. After completing that in 1970, I took a job with a small technology company in Texas.

By the early 1980s, my wife Helen and I decided to return to California and moved into a home very near to where we lived the year I was at Stanford. I took a job with a market research firm helping others understand technology trends. During that phase, the entrepreneurial itch that started at Tech was rekindled.

In 1985, I decided to see what that meant and give it an opportunity to play out by starting a technology company. I had formulated the technical idea and wrote a business plan. My previous experiences enabled me to understand company financing. Furthermore, I understood the need for a company culture that enabled creating value for customers, for employees, for investors, and for vendors. Also, thanks to Helen’s insight, I came to understand that successful companies have a responsibility to create value for the community in which they reside. My business plan, in addition to the financial aspects, presented a matrix showing how we would create value in each of those five areas. I engaged the venture capital community in northern California to secure private funding sufficient to carry the company through the first and second development stages. After five years, we created the exit strategy for the venture capitalists by taking the company public. I led the road show and with two New York banking firms had an underwritten public offering.

Following that, I was the company CEO for the next 10 years. By year 2000, I had been intensely focused on developing and running that business and decided it was time to pass the baton and move on to something else. The something else turned out to become a hotelier, not an obvious choice.

SB: That must have been a challenging transition moving from a technology business to the hotel business?

JC: Well, our technology business had been one in which our customers were dealing with their customers 24/7, and I had observed that the companies that did the best job of meeting and exceeding their customers’ expectations seemed to thrive. We thought that the hospitality industry provided a great way to engage with people and create the value of the enjoyment provided. It’s a very different field, but the same principles of understanding your customers/guests and creating value for them and the employee team and becoming the preferred employer in the area applied. Also, since we were able to do the financing ourselves without investors, etc., the cost of entry into the hospitality business in terms of time and capital would be relatively modest.

We decided to model our business along the lines of the great hospitality operations we had visited in Napa Valley, southern France, and northern Italy and create a small luxury boutique hotel with a great restaurant in a wine region. So, having the business strategy well defined, the remaining question was where to locate. We spent 2002 doing worldwide market research and settled on a wine valley in southern Australia called the Barossa Valley which is to Australia like what Napa Valley is to the U.S. It was a well-established and highly regarded wine region but did not have a destination hotel or a great restaurant. So, we decided ‘if we built it they would come,’ and by 2004, we were there and on our way. Helen and I built a very successful business and operated it for 16 years.

In 2020, we decided to move on to the next phase of our lives, a much more obvious transition of retiring, returning to the U.S. and spending much more time with our daughter Lauren and her family.

SB: You’ve had a fabulous career and used the ‘keys’ creatively and well. I can imagine that building and operating two successful businesses was very time and energy consuming. But, through it all, you’ve managed to very generously give back to Georgia Tech, serving on advisory boards and providing endowments. Perhaps you could speak a bit about that?

JC: I stayed engaged with Georgia Tech throughout my career. The EE Senior Seminar continued year after year, and I was invited as a guest speaker several times, enabling renewal of my relationship with John Peatman and other faculty.

When Roger [Webb] became School Chair in the late 1980s, he set about establishing an external advisory board and asked me to join. The board, which met twice a year, was comprised largely of EE alumni who had gone on to establish successful careers in a variety of fields. Roger expressed the view that the School had the potential to become recognized as a member of the top echelon of electrical engineering programs in the country. He defined the metrics for school ranking and recognition and challenged the advisory group to help advise him on a multi-year pathway to enhance the School’s visibility locally, nationally, and internationally. Very many different approaches and experiences were brought to those discussions. I felt like Roger received great advice from the group, was open to the advice, and followed and enacted upon it. I think it had an early and positive result. I found all that to be a fascinating experience and think it had a lot to do with my decision to establish an endowment for the School.

Later, I was asked to become a member of President Clough’s advisory board, GTAB [Georgia Tech Advisory Board]. I also found that to be fascinating. That was at a time when Tech was expanding across the expressway and spirited discussions were held about that and how to avoid dividing the campus.

There was also consideration regarding broadening the student population to include more women. Encouraging entrepreneurship was also a consideration. One of the most satisfying outcomes of my service on GTAB was the opportunity for Helen and me to become personally acquainted with Wayne and Anne Clough. We remember fondly when Wayne and Anne invited Helen and me, our daughter Lauren and husband Jay, and my parents to a private luncheon at the president’s home. 

Circling back to the endowment thing; I did not expect the outcome of starting a company would provide resources in excess of what we needed. So, by the time we reached age 50, Helen and I felt like we had the opportunity to give back and it was natural to begin discussions with the ECE School development team.

There were many open pathways and we to fund an endowed chair, and with the Georgia Research Alliance, to co-found a center known as the Arbutus Center. Our intention was to name the endowed chair the John Peatman Chair, thinking it would be a great way to honor John for his 40 years of teaching and working with students beyond the classroom, but John would have no part of that. He felt that while he was still an active faculty member it would be uncomfortable to have a faculty colleague holding the John Peatman Endowed Chair and requested that the position be named something else until he retired. We initially named it the Arbutus Chair. But when John retired we, with John’s agreement, had a small ceremony and announced that the Chair would be henceforth be the John Peatman Chair and tied it back to my student experiences with John and my desire to recognize him for that.

The John Peatman Chair was utilized to attract Ed Coyle to join the faculty. Ed had previously been at Michigan and Purdue, where he had successfully initiated programs to enable students working in teams to engage in creative activities. Ed brought that idea with him and, through the Arbutus Center, initiated the VIP program, which has flourished.

SB: Yes. I worked a bit with Ed on a Department of Energy solar decathlon project. It was proving difficult to get students to commit to participate. Working with Ed, we were able to integrate the project through VIP (Vertically Integrated Projects), enabling students to get academic credit for participation, and it made a huge difference. I think the same notions of teams of students working together on creative projects and getting academic credit have also been incorporated in the Create-X program, which is also flourishing.

JC: I can’t imagine a better way to engage faculty and student teams in real-life problem-solving activities that cut across disciplines, and I do think a key element in the success of such programs is the academic credit thing. I give a lot of credit to Roger Webb’s leadership of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering in pushing that concept and finally obtaining Board of Regents approval.

SB: I thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me, Jim. I wish you and Helen success in this new phase of your lives.

JC: Suzy, it is always a pleasure to visit with you and I thank you for taking the initiative. Being a part of the lives of Lauren and her family as opposed to being the grandparents who showed up at Thanksgiving is already making a world of difference. This new phase is an important and very rewarding change for us.

Last revised May 16, 2022