A vision realized
Astyra founders get business league's Entrepreneurs of the Year Award
In 1986, freshmen Ken Ampy and Sam Young Jr. were too green to schedule their Old Dominion University classes comfortably late in the day -- and too hungry to sleep in.
At 6:30 a.m., they would be the only diners in the cafeteria at that impossibly early hour for college students.
The two young men began sitting together, discovered both were fans of "Star Trek" and the Dallas Cowboys, and were majoring in computer science. "We ended up being roommates," Ampy said.
The pair of would-be computer programmers and video-game developers were sitting around their college apartment one day.
"One of us looked at the other and said, 'Why don't we start a computer consulting business?'" Ampy recalled in a recent interview. "And the other one said yes."
Twenty-three years later, after struggles and dead ends, long days and fitful nights, Ampy and Young, founders and owners of Richmond's Astyra Corp., were honored this winter with the Metropolitan Business League's Entrepreneurs of the Year Award.
Today, Astyra is a growing technology consulting and staffing company with 200 employees and $10 million in annual revenue.
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As a middle school student in Henrico County, Young dreamed of owning a Commodore 64 home computer. "We couldn't afford it."
But his father bought him the owner's manual and programming guide. It cost $49.99, Young remembered, and he devoured the book. "I was such a geek kid. I was writing programs before I had a computer," he said. "They all worked."
Ampy grew up working -- hard -- on his grandfather's Dinwiddie County tobacco farm. But Dinwiddie High School had some computer classes, and he took them all, working his way into an internship at Fort Lee for low-income, high-achieving students.
"I got to touch all sorts of equipment," Ampy said, and he became the de facto tech support specialist for the Army Logistics Management College. "My experience at Fort Lee was better than any classroom education I ever had."
Young's experience mirrored Ampy's, working in the Richmond public schools' media and technology department before he headed off to ODU. "I wasn't afraid to dig in and look at the technology," he said.
By 1990, the two were back in Richmond, working in the IT field for government agencies and corporations. On the side -- and on a shoestring -- they set up "Ken and Sam's little business," Automation Concepts.
"We did whatever we could to earn a few bucks," Young said: building computers from parts for resale, printing wedding programs on an overtaxed laser color printer, writing database applications, improvising smart home technology.
"And, what? We made $2 net profit," Young said.
Bill Cooper, the University of Virginia's director of supplier diversity, met Ampy and Young through the Virginia Minority Supplier Development Council. At council social functions, Cooper said, "they couldn't even afford to bring their wives."
In 1997, the men were working for heavy business hitters such as Philip Morris, Dominion and Capital One. "Sam questioned whether we'd have time for the little business," Ampy said. Then they asked themselves: "What if we didn't give it up, and we changed it to consulting and contracting?"
Ampy and Young incorporated their little company and set out to find themselves full-time jobs, but working -- out of rooms over their garages -- for themselves, not someone else.
"They started slow, they built the business, they built the contacts," said Jim Dunn, former president of the Greater Richmond Chamber, now with Bon Secours Richmond Health System.
Ampy and Young rounded up their IT friends' résumés and went looking for work. At a trade fair, they ran into a Reynolds Metals representative who needed a COBOL programmer. "I had a résumé for a COBOL programmer," Ampy said. They had just become prime contractors.
"A relationship with someone like Astyra, which allows us to match up the right people for the right contract, rather than have to hire all those employees in-house -- it's a home run," said Tim Davey, a managing principal with the Timmons Group civil-engineering firm here.
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There were bugs in Ampy and Young's business program. "Neither of us ever took a single business class at ODU," Ampy said. "Just Business 101 would have helped."
As a consequence, they made the typical start-up mistakes: not anticipating funding needs, not staying on top of accounts receivable, not managing employees effectively, trying to do too much too soon. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," Ampy said. "We're like Hercules."
By 2003, Automation Concepts had changed beyond "Ken and Sam's little company."
"We felt it had grown enough to have its own identity," Ampy said, and the partners reinvented their firm, rebranding the company as Astyra -- no one else owned the Web address, and the name starts handily with A -- and setting their sights on bigger goals.
"The logos changed, the attitudes changed, the way they communicated with people changed," Cooper said. "It was like they went into the big time."
Instead of chasing a $50,000 contract, Ampy said, "it's a $2 million one."
The men started to cast their net across the Richmond community, cultivating relationships and beating the bushes for new and larger clients. "Richmond is more like Mayberry with big buildings," Young said. "You do business with people you know pretty doggone well."
One of those personal connections paid off in a partnership with Timmons to handle geographic information systems and IT work for the large engineering firm.
Former Gov. Mark R. Warner, who came from the tech industry, appointed Ampy to ODU's board of visitors.
"I am impressed with Astyra's continuing success," said Warner, now in the U.S. Senate. "Ken has always shown a deep commitment, especially in areas related to public education, and I am always impressed with his willingness to show others the value of giving back to the community."
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Ampy and Young own the company 50-50, and while they divide responsibilities for functions within the company, they make decisions by consensus.
Ampy's the cautious one and Young's the aggressive one. "Left to our own, neither one of us would have been as successful as we've been," Ampy said. "I would have been on one end and he on the other."
Their firm has grown in hard economic times because of a combination of planning, luck and paying their dues, they said. In the end, Young said, "there's no substitute for hard work."
Astyra qualifies as a minority-owned business, but that isn't the company's ultimate identity.
"They're virtually colorblind," said Dunn, the former president of the Greater Richmond Chamber. "They want to be recognized as an upstanding business that is going to provide outstanding service to their clients, and they work very hard at that."
The partners plan to succeed because "we do great work," Young said, "and, oh, by the way, a couple of black guys own the company."
"They give good service, as evidenced by the repeat business they get," Dunn said. "Even in this current economy -- knock on wood -- they are doing very well."
Contact Peter Bacqué at (804) 649-6813 or email@example.com.
Kenneth E. Ampy
Ken Ampy is chief executive officer, co-founder and co-owner of Astyra Corp.
Education: Old Dominion University; executive management programs at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business and Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business
Wife: LaTrice Ampy
Children: Ken Jr., 12, and Taylor, 10
Community: Old Dominion University Board of Visitors, Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, Leadership Metro Richmond, Virginia High-Tech Partnership, Virginia Minority Supplier Development Council, Virginia Council of CEOs, Team Up Richmond
Church: Village of Faith Ministries
Recreation: Golf, video games
Samuel S. Young Jr.
Sam Young Jr. is president, co-founder and co-owner of Astyra Corp.
Education: Old Dominion University; executive management programs at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business
Wife: Nikki G. Young
Children: Trey, 12, and Tyler, 11
Community: Virginia Minority Supplier Development Council, the Jackson Ward Business and Technology Resource Center, Leadership Metro Richmond, Wells Athletic Association, and Big Brothers Big Sisters
Church: Fourth Baptist Church
Recreation: playing RockBand with his family, coaching football, fishing