Keynote speech by 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year John Alexander '74, MBA '76
Alexander, an "accidental entrepreneur," credits Cornell for much of his success
An entrepreneur disregards limitations and makes the best option possible, said John Alexander '74, MBA '76, speaking as 2012 Cornell Entrepreneur of the Year April 19 as the keynote speaker of this year's Entrepreneurship@Cornell Celebration, April 19-20.
Since Alexander founded the CBORD Group in 1975, the company has grown to employ more than 240 people and serve more than 4,000 clients with, among other products, cashless card systems and food and nutrition management software.
Alexander learned to program as an undergraduate working for Cornell Dining, he said, where to earn money for tuition, he wrote software to manage functions from inventory to nutritional analysis.
"Cornell really gave me a great push to start my company … saying, we were really serious about that bursar bill we sent you," he joked. Alexander later returned to Cornell to license the system he had created, started CBORD and prepared to sell to other universities. "That was how I became an accidental entrepreneur," he said.
Alexander and his business partner made their first sale to Syracuse University. "We did a strategic analysis of the national and international markets for food services … and then we said, let's go try to sell it to Syracuse because we can drive there," he explained. To raise capital necessary to grow CBORD, Alexander worked as a vice president at Bankers Trust Co. (now Deutsche Bank) and founded TYMAR Management Services, a provider of currency arbitrage and trading software.
In 1979, Alexander moved back to Ithaca to work on CBORD full time. The "secret sauce" or key to CBORD's success, he said, was fairness and responsibility at all levels of the company. "We were successful because of a deep-seated need to please … a genetic corporate flaw that made it hard to accept failure for any client," he said. CBORD's business model incorporates customer feedback to improve the product, Alexander explained.
Alexander said he credits much of CBORD's success to Cornell. He served as a Cornell trustee 2000-04, a board member of the Cornell Center for Technology Enterprise and Commercialization and the Cornell Research Foundation, a member of the Entrepreneurship@Cornell advisory council and as a member of the Johnson Advisory Council. He has also taught classes. "I love the fact that we can bring together people who have been titans of billion-dollar businesses and people who have run little pickle factories and all of them have something to share," he said. "We're a great place here because we can get access to those kind of insights."
An active philanthropist, Alexander emphasizes giving back: "I find that I've spent the first part of the day... trying to figure out how to make money... and I spend the afternoon trying to figure out how to give it away," he said.
Alexander serves as an emeritus member of the board of United Way of Tompkins County, ran the first capital campaign of the Food Bank of the Southern Tier and co-chaired the Hangar Theatre's capital campaign with his wife, Elaine '77.
This story was originally published in the Cornell Chronicle, April 23, 2012.
Erica Rhodin '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.