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'Relationship capital' is the point at Seurat

Jim Kunevicius: 'This is my dream job'

By Porter Anderson
CNN Career

(CNN) -- "I started Vicious Systems in my dorm room in college."

That was 1998. By the second quarter of 2000, "we'd raised $65 million from a company called Frontenac in Chicago, which wanted to create Seurat" in May 2000. Instead of starting at zero, Frontenac -- a private equity investment firm in Chicago -- found Vicious Systems and said, "This leadership team has what we need to kick-start Seurat."

Kicking is not new to Jim Kunevicius. As he started that little company at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Kunevicius was kicking his way to two-time Soccer Academic All American status. He kicked it in the books department, too, graduating magna cum laude with Phi Kappa Phi national honors.

How much do you think a company's success can be enhanced by good customer-relations management of the kind Jim Kunevicius and Seurat work in?

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Today, still based in Charlotte, he holds the fanciful-sounding title Chief Creative Officer with Seurat, the company his Vicious Systems became. And where his own dorm-derived Vicious grew in 18 months to 60 employees, Seurat has 200 employees and offices in eight cities.

"This is my dream job right now," Kunevicius says.

He's 24 years old.

'Relationship capital'

It probably takes a certain amount of moxie even to carry off the title of CCO. Kunevicius (pronounced "kun-eh-vicious") lacks little in that department. "As CCO," he says without missing a beat, "I oversee the creative community at Seurat. I mentor a creative team with a diverse background."

Seurat, in turn, counts Bank One, power-tool maker DeWalt and the Home Shopping Network among its clients. And what it brings to those companies, Seurat's people say, is "relationship capital."

That's defined as "the present value of your company's tangible assets gained through enhancing your business relationships" -- relationships to customers, employees, partners and suppliers.

And if your eyes are glazing over -- as some folks' do when they get too close to a pointillist painting by the eponymous Georges Seurat -- Kunevicius is at no loss for words when it's time to talk about what he's doing.

"I never know what I'm going to do the next day. One of the challenges I had in moving from a small business owner to CCO of a large company was that I'd lose creative freedom. To the credit of the organizational leadership team here, creative freedom is an integral part of our success, both in terms of internal work and external clients.


"Now, a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that creativity equals aesthetics. In fact, it can mean good physical architecture to your office or a good interactive design in a technical plan.

"Each member of our 'experience creation team' here is a seasoned professional in their particular discipline. They could move out of the Seurat creative community and be the top gun elsewhere. Here, they love the diversity of the creative community and they like being able to focus on multiple disciplines.

"As CCO, it's my job to make the whole company" -- everyone who works for Seurat -- "a part of the creative community. A core group makes up the 'experience creation team.' It's their job to infiltrate the rest of the organization. Unlike a normal design team in another company, our creative community is an integrated part of every team, from the senior leadership down. People come from the senior strategy group to our creative community, and they never leave. So the community just keeps growing."

And so, Kunevicius says he hopes, the community of CCOs will grow. In fact, you can hear the soccer boy's eye on a prize here: "I just heard that a large agency here in Charlotte has appointed their CCO to CEO -- and that he retains both titles. That's a success for the creative community. Companies are recognizing creative (services) as a key component of their success.

One part of the "relationship capital" approach Jim Kunevicius and Seurat are working on involves converting a company's Web site visitors to customers -- and then repeat customers. Click here for a short demonstration of how they're conceptualizing this "conversion" for clients.  

"A lot of the Fortune 500 companies we deal with are stuck in years and years of doing things the same way. Seurat is trying to help them reinvent how they deal with their customers. It's a shift from a company-centric point of view to a customer-centric viewpoint.

"When a customer can look at a company and say, 'Not only do I buy this product or service because it's a good value but because this company recognizes me as an individual and customizes to my needs,' that's when you've built real relationships."

Getting to it

"Both my father and grandfather were entrepreneurs, in Cleveland," Kunevicius says. "I was exposed to startups and buyouts and management from a young age. In fact, when I graduated, I had offers at Microsoft, Sun, IBM -- but my heart was in Vicious Systems."

The creation of Seurat actually was a form of merger, Vicious being brought together under Frontenac's funding, with Allegiant Technology Group of Indianapolis. Kunevicius' co-founder of Vicious was Jerry Tylman and they'd finalized their strategy by 1999. One of their key clients originally was First Union Corporation, for which they concentrated on Web and e-commerce systems.

"What we did with that company was bring expertise in interactive customer-relationship management" to bear on corporate challenges," Kunevicius says. "We had a strong group of creative consultants and systems integrators and designers and marketing professionals who had built strong relationships with some of the largest companies in the country. The strength of those relationships is part of what was so attractive to Frontenac" when it decided to use Vicious as the seed from which Seurat could be grown.

Jim Kunevicius headshot
Jim Kunevicius  

"At school, I studied computers, business and art -- a hybrid of disciplines. Now, by expanding what we were doing with 'CRM' -- customer-relationship management -- for Seurat, we're focusing on the interdependencies of business. Frontenac realized we could do this. Vicious could make the transition faster and with less risk, moving from a mono-channel to a multi-channel, multi-constituent firm."

Kunevicius is single and still plays soccer -- "it's a great avenue for releasing stress." And in June, he was given one of Charlotte's "40 Under 40" awards, conferred by the Business Journal there on 40 people who are leaders in their field and making notable contributions to the community.

Kunevicius sits on the UNC-Charlotte Alliance Board of Advisers, the IT Advisory Council, the UNC-Charlotte Board of Visitors and UNC-Charlotte Business School Board of Advisers.

"We've all made mistakes on the way," says Kunevicius of himself and his associates at Vicious-cum-Seurat.

"But Seurat has grown as rapidly as it has because of our relationships. We help these clients see the light. We're very focused on delivering. In many organizations, talking about customer loyalty and service is lip service. We come in and execute and measure and quantify the increase" in what the company calls "relationship capital.

"The same characteristics I developed when I played on the Olympic development team for soccer are present for this work as an entrepreneur. Passion. Attitude. You refuse to lose. It's the same charisma, accountability, vision that employees are attracted to.

"Every person at Seurat owns part of the company. I think I'll always been involved with something very creative -- with growing something, exploring, leading. Right now, Seurat gives me all those things. It has not only the resources to become a powerhouse in the industry but also the passion and attitude to pull it off."



• Frontenac Company
• Seurat
• University of North Carolina at Charlotte

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