Lou DeSorbo, B.S.’78, M.S.’80
An Attitude of Gratitude
By Carol Olechowski
Photo credit: Ned Mataraso
Lou DeSorbo realized long ago that no one attains success completely on his own. The founder of the Latham, N.Y.,-based The WERCS (Worldwide Environmental Regulatory Compliance Systems) attributes his professional achievements to a succession of “great people, each coming at just the right time and making a key contribution that became a milestone” on the road to success.
His parents and grandmother, a cleaning lady, exemplified the virtues of hard work. Consulting-business owner “Ed H.” hired DeSorbo, assigning him to work at General Electric in Schenectady with “a great guy, Paul F., who expected me to write a program in the morning and another in the afternoon.” “Mimi,” who wore curlers and worked in an office “the size of a janitor’s closet,” referred DeSorbo’s inquiry about a job opportunity to Chase Manhattan Bank. There, “Tom S.” proceeded to interview DeSorbo, “yelling at me while his face got more and more red” – and offered him a job that required him to start his own business, then serve as a contractor.
DeSorbo’s wife, Lori, encouraged him to accept that position. (The parents of three grown children work together: For 15 years, Lori has done billing at The WERCS. Sister-in-law Kim DeSorbo handles other accounting responsibilities. They stepped in when “we had maybe eight employees and 15 software clients,” said Lou. “Now, we have more than 6,000 customers. And Lori still does all of the billing.”)
“Terry S.,” whom DeSorbo met at a software conference, helped him land another consulting position, with GE Silicones. DeSorbo also began to build his company, “adding people over the next nine years.” His staff, including “Tina D.” and “Tom C.,” would take the firm in new directions, as would adviser “Bill B.” and the board members he and DeSorbo brought together.
IBM mainframes were still used in the 1980s, but with PCs becoming more commonplace, “I decided to look at selling software as a product, rather than computer programming as a service,” DeSorbo remembered. Of the 40-plus programs his staff had done for General Electric, “Tina” identified the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) as potentially marketable. The program was producing output in 12 languages, “and we were working on adding Japanese.
“In 1992, I didn’t know that software could produce anything but English output. It hit me that this program could be sold around the world.” The following year, GE granted DeSorbo the right to commercialize it, and he began transforming the business from software consulting to software sales. “Tina” – who would leave shortly thereafter to raise a family – suggested the name “The WERCS” for the software package. “I loved it. I owe Tina a lot,” noted DeSorbo.
Desperate for sales by 1994, he found inspiration in Sprint, the telephone company that offered customers unlimited calling on “Free Fridays.” DeSorbo began faxing – every Friday to hundreds of chemical companies – a self-designed one-page sales sheet describing The WERCS. “For $749, the potential customer could purchase the software. We sold our first 20 packages.”
He rejected a buyout offer in 1996. Instead, “Bill B.” helped him form an eight-member board representing a broad range of business expertise. Heart Information Systems was renamed The WERCS “to match the product name.” An entity’s name, DeSorbo believes, “has a big impact on what it will become over time.” Initially, The WERCS had no customers, “but we had the audacity to call it ‘worldwide.’ Today, we’re in more than 30 countries with thousands of customers.”
A call from Wal-Mart in 2005 brought more business to The WERCS. “Tom C.” and his team “designed a system that reviews consumer products containing chemicals so that retailers will more fully understand the regulatory requirements of those products, including how to transport and dispose of them, handle spills, and so on,” DeSorbo recalled. Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, The Home Depot, Target, Sears, CVS, Rite-Aid and many other major retailers now require their suppliers “to go through The WERCS to get their products on the shelves.”
The WERCS software
The company’s 2013 acquisition by Chicago-based Underwriters Laboratories (UL) “heightened our visibility and supercharged our ability to draw upon resources,” said DeSorbo. “I wanted the office and the people to stay here; that was all agreed upon. We received authorization to hire 35 more people. The company employs more than 100, primarily in Latham, but also has people in Mexico, India, Europe and elsewhere.” For the time being, DeSorbo remains managing director with The WERCS, which will append “UL” to its name.
“I’m extremely excited about what we do. We want to become more and more a worldwide standard. We’re changing the ‘S’ in The WERCS’ acronym from ‘System’ to ‘Standard.’ That’s our goal. UL’s reputation is built on trust, credibility, and product certification and analysis,” added DeSorbo, recipient of the 2013 Alumni Association Excellence in Entrepreneurship Award and a University at Albany Foundation director.
A Colonie native who had watched the uptown-campus construction from his childhood home, DeSorbo applied only to the University when it was time for college. The physics major often walked to school along Fuller Road, “or over the railroad tracks and through the woods.” A small inheritance from his grandmother funded his undergraduate studies. To earn money for his master’s in computer science, DeSorbo played guitar with the band Tight Squeeze and worked for a year as a part-time computer programmer at the New York State Higher Education Services Corporation (HESC). His first job after graduation was a position with the New York State Office of Mental Hygiene; he remained there until accepting his colleague “Ed H.’s” employment offer.
When the DeSorbos vacation, avid birdwatcher Lou packs his binoculars. “It’s a lot of fun for me,” he observed during a January interview at his office, where photos and drawings of birds decorate the walls and a glass-topped table displays a hardcover copy of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America. “As they say, birding is ‘hunting without killing and collecting without taking.’”
DeSorbo, who still plays guitar, has been known to strum a few tunes during the Thursday “pizza day” that’s become a winter tradition at The WERCS. At his Niskayuna home, he gardens and plays badminton.
“You can’t possibly think you started and operated a business all alone,” commented DeSorbo. “I’m not good in any of the fundamental things it takes to operate a business. The talents of every individual are extraordinary gifts. If you get the right people involved, you’ll be successful. I owe it all to a lot of great people.”