Highlands Live went into overtime last week as LabWare Founder & CEO, and Goober’s Diner Proprietor, Vance Kershner, dispensed insight, wisdom and expertise gleaned from his more than half century as a global entrepreneur, pioneering everything from lab systems to blueberry farms. What follows is a lightly-edited transcript of that conversation.
Lindsey DiSabatino: Tell us about your corner of our community? Favorite spots? Views?
Vance Kershner: I can’t think of a better place to live than The Highlands. It’s really a place that is hard to replicate anywhere else – certainly in the U.S. It’s really nice to be close to my office. I made 3 Mill Road so I don’t have to fight with a lot of traffic to get to work every day. It’s also just beautiful. Kentmere Parkway is one of the most beautiful places to live not just in Wilmington, but pretty much anywhere. The neighbors and the people are so nice. There’s just so many attributes about it. And of course there are options to get to anything you need; you don’t have to go more than a half a mile to get anything.
Benjamin Wagner: I would add that the calculus for me, Vance, when I moved here just about a year ago was the access to 95 and all the airports and the lack of friction getting out and about in the world at large.
Vance: I agree 100%. I’m in the software business. My business doesn’t have a need to be in a specific location. So when I started the company, I really thought about well, okay, well, where in the world do I need to locate this. This is the place to be. Because you have a huge market on the on the Eastern Seaboard that’s accessible very easily either through planes or through trains. And also Europe. When you look at the world, being on the East Coast of the U.S. is the best place to reach markets. And the drive to the Philly airport is shorter for us than it is for people that live in the greater Philadelphia area! Yeah, I did think about that strategically, and it really is a good place to be.
Benjamin: You grew up north of Philadelphia in Huntington Valley. Can you give us a sense of what it was like to be a kid there? Let’s say 1971, ‘72. So you’re getting keys to a car right about that time?
Vance: Huntington Valley is a suburb of Philly. And it was pretty representative of a lot of the suburbs of Philly. It had a real mix of people. A lot of them took the train to work down in Center City, Philadelphia, but there was also still industrial work going on. So there were a number of things that were happening in a community that don’t really see so much today where they’re actually making – that has gone away for most of the places where people live in America. I got to see that.
My father made pretzels. He had a pretzel factory in Philly, Philadelphia Soft Pretzels. I got to spend a lot of my time working there. Where I started my entrepreneurial stuff was in eighth grade; I started a lawn mowing business. I ended up with about 30 customers around the neighborhood. It was a busy time because I didn’t want to sit around. I never watched TV, so I was always looking for things to do.
Lindsey: You graduated U of D with honors in mechanical engineering in 1978. Who was your early role model or champion? Who inspired you?
Vance: I had an uncle who worked for DuPont. He was a chemical engineer. He was the most educated person in our family. I had spent a lot of time with him. I was really impressed by that. And as I was thinking about what to do after high school, I was always hands on with things, always making things, fixing things. I was interested in what Uncle Bob had to say about it. So I chatted with him. And he said, “Well, if you want to go to University of Delaware, you can come live with me.” And so I did.
I didn’t live on campus. I lived out in Campbellsville with my aunt and uncle. And that was a great experience because I got to see a world I otherwise wouldn’t have understood. Because being an engineer, he was doing that every day. We talked about it. And I understood better what it really meant.
Benjamin: Your first new car was a 1973 Plymouth Road Runner. Your goal with that car was to crack 100 miles per hour and get air every day. How would you describe for us that experience for us? What’s happening in that instant when you’re going 100 miles per hour and or getting air, Vance?
Vance: That was a daily occurrence. And I still have that car. It’s restored. Where we lived had the opportunity, within, I would say, a half mile of the house, to get airborne. If you’re coming to where I lived, almost every angle you came in on it, whatever vector you were following, there was going to be some big over the top hill or, you know, something that was a little hump that was there that because it was going over, a little tiny bridge. Or the biggest one would be that you’re going down this big steep hill, and there’s railroad tracks, and then it drops down some more. I did that every day. And that doesn’t mean that I was reckless. I was very careful. People my age were always getting in tickets and getting in trouble. And well, I didn’t; I chose my moments. I was a very careful, safe driver, and I wasn’t going to go do something like that. I just thought it was a challenge.
Benjamin: Is that still a goal today?
Vance: I restored the car. And I decided that I thought it would be really cool to also make a new version of that. And that’s what took me to Vegas last week. I work with guys locally here. And we said, “What would we do if we were going to invent this car again, in modern times?” And so I have multiple Road Runners: the originals, and now we’ve created this one would be well, if the factory was going to come out with this today, what would it be like? And we built it.
Benjamin: For the layman, what kind of gaps did you close?
Vance: The original Road Runner, for the day, was a quick car: about 275 horsepower. The new ‘73 is 1000. It’s actually 1200, but they call it 1000. And so it has a lot more power. Now if you have a car that needs a lot more power in a design that was from the 70s, you need to change it to be able to handle twisting the frame and all that. So when you look at the car, you see a ‘73 road runner. But everything technology wise is completely different. It’s got a full chassis under it, much more modern suspension. It looks like a factory car.
In fact when, I was at SEMA –SEMA is the largest exhibit in the US regarding anybody that has anything to do with making parts for cars or car manufacturers – the car was the most popular thing there. People were blown away! Was this a new car that Dodge is going to come out with? Because when you open the door, it’s all modern.
Lindsey: You’ve got the classic, and you’ve got you know the modern underneath the hood. It’s kind of it’s a perfect balance.
Vance: And that resonated with a whole bunch of people there. That’s why we were so popular because, you know, it’s got the satellite radio and navigation and all those things. And yet it’s a very cool car. It’s got launch control, paddle shifters and all of that.
Lindsey: You left DuPont to start your own company, Labware, which develops laboratory information management systems. What was your inspiration?
Vance: From the beginning of time, when I was cutting grass, I always wanted my own company. And so wasn’t really my choice to go to work for DuPont. They came to University of Delaware and it said to me, “You’re coming to work for us.” And, and so I did. I’ve never been on a job interview in my life. They sought me out.
So I went to work for them. But that was in, like, 1978. There’s a whole bureaucracy around how these big companies operate. DuPont at that time was probably one of the most powerful companies in the world. But the politics in the way that it operated, I didn’t think was very conducive to what we at that time would call intrapreneurship. Intrapreneurship was a term that was coined back then to me how to be an entrepreneur within a company. And, and you really couldn’t do that in DuPont.
I always wanted to do my own thing. So, in parallel to working for DuPont, I was looking at the market. And I understood the market through the lens of somebody who worked for DuPont; I didn’t have a world view at that point in time. But I could see that there was a need for automation around how you could interface with laboratory instruments and other computer systems to be able to have results delivered in a timely manner. So you could make better decisions around any kind of lab testing. So I set out to solve that problem.
And again, I had my day job. And then I had my job outside of DuPont. And I did solve that problem. DuPont heard about what I was doing. And their first reaction was, “Well, that’s our technology. Read your employment agreement.” That’s it. I read my it. The upshot of all of that was little me is fighting with the council while an employee of the most powerful corporation in America at the time. And I won. They recognized that I’d done it on my own time using my own equipment. I didn’t use any intellectual property or anything from DuPont. And they became my first customer.
Benjamin: What a great origin story! Let’s pivot to a different kind of confidence: creative confidence – the ability to ideate and create and make connections. How do you cultivate creativity in yourself and in your company? You just can’t execute on all of your ideas. Right. So how do you interrogate and kind of prioritize your ideas?
Vance: That’s a great question. When it comes to doing new things, whether it’s in or outside the company, I prioritize things I don’t know anything about. And the reason I that I do that is because I want to learn from doing something. I don’t just want to do something; I want to learn from it. The best way for me to learn is to do things that are the are far flung from what you know my daily job would be. And even in my daily job, which I’m defining is working for LabCorp, I’m the owner and CEO, but I don’t look at numbers.
It’s a global company. We’ve got offices in 27 countries around the world. So I spend my time problem solving, trying to invent new things at the tech level. My interest is in creating new things; I want to make the world a better place. And, you know, it’s not through making a bunch of money. It’s about innovating and doing things that people haven’t done.
There’s a saying, that was popular in my time: “Take the road, less traveled.” Right? I prefer to take the road that’s never been traveled. That’s what I gravitate towards.,, things and do stuff people haven’t done before, because that’s the way you’re going to learn the most. And that’s how you can have the most impact on the world. And I want to leave this world in a better place, you know? That’s that’s what that’s what I’m about.
There’s this concept of entropy. And what entropy is about is it that naturally, systems go to disorder. Entropy increases. If you don’t do anything, things fall apart. So in order to correct that, you have to put energy into, into it. I’m on a mission to fight entropy, to try to bring back that are that were historic, that I want to preserve, and then create new systems that will be hard to destroy.
Lindsey: You lead hundreds of people at LabWare. What attributes do you look for when you’re creating a culture? And how has that vision evolved over time?
Vance: Everything in business is about people. That’s certainly the most important thing. People are your best asset. In any business, it’s the people that that matter. And you want to try to create a culture and an environment around whatever you’re doing wherever it is in the world, where the people want to be in your circle. They want to be there. And how do you do that? Well, number one is you have to respect them. You have to try to look at the world through their eyes to say, what, ‘What are their interests and priorities?’ And mostly, that means that you communicate with them, and you and you talk to them, and you don’t get on your high horse and look down at people.
When I created LabWare coming out of DuPont, you know, the organization chart was a big deal. And because we’re working in industries where people audit us because of GMP and all that sort of stuff with pharma. People come in, they look at the org chart, and they look and they were very confused. And the reason they were very confused was because they see the people, and then they see me at the bottom. I wasn’t at the top, I was at the bottom, because my job is to help those people be successful in what they’re doing. They’re not there to take orders from me. I’m there to facilitate them been able to do what they need to do to be successful.
Audience: How have you separated the platforms you built your services on from the services you provide? Because the platforms themselves, the tools – whether object-oriented programming languages, whether a COBOL – they evolve over time. And at the same time, you’re actively providing services, and business functions to your clients. How have you decoupled that so that you could continue to evolve over time?
Vance: That an incredibly important question. That was the key to the whole business that I built. I could speak for hours on it, but I’ll try to boil it down and keep it simple.
Let me let me just preface this by saying that the time that I entered the software realm was when we were going from mainframe computers into client server computing. So that was sort of the time which I entered all of this. We weren’t talking about writing programs on green screens, we were talking about writing programs within the PC realm – which at that time was primarily IBM PCs.
I looked at the market, and there was Apple, and Microsoft, and I was really looking at, well, I need to do a couple things. The way that I approach the problem of developing the software is that it has to be language independent. I cannot say I’m going to do it in Visual Basic, because Microsoft controls it. And I don’t know where that’s going.
I also was very aware of object-oriented programming. And I wrote the first commercial application in object-oriented programming, that was my product. But the key was, I need to have it be that all of the rules and logic of how it works are either configuration driven, because you’re going and tables in a database and choosing options. Or if you have anything that’s quote, a language, it’s something that which is stored in the database, and you never want to customize anything. Like I said, I could spend hours on this. But the key is that I have my first customers are still my customers, because I can upgrade their systems. And it’s push-button upgrade. We can change things without new technologies changing all the time. In fact, I’ve, we’ve developed – and I was a key part of this – mobile technology where I can run code that I wrote 30 years ago on my phone.
Benjamin: Per your previous observation, just like your Road Runner with Sirius Radio …
Vance: It is. But that’s not the way people think about technology. I think long term. I want the company to be here for 100 years. I want to I want my customers to be here for 100 years. I want to be able to not have to throw everything away every five or 10 or 15 years and start over again.
That was a very, very good question. Because it’s the heart of my success in business with LabWare and a lot of other things is that you have to do things – and it goes back to entropy thing – you have to be able to do things which are long lasting and have a path forward where nobody can take you out. And upgradable.
Audience: Can you tell us about your car collection? Which are your top five cars?
Vance: So almost every time somebody goes into the garage, they say, “What’s your favorite car?” And I say, “What’s your favorite kid?” You can’t answer that question!
The cars are so different. The theme of the garage is American cars, and the oldest car’s from 1899 all the way through to modern times, we have a little bit of a gap in the ‘80s and ‘90s because we didn’t have great Americas cars. The key here is that I don’t have a favorite. Everything in the collection has something unique about it, and something which separates it from other stuff.
The key to this thing is that they all run. So you know whether what I said earlier is from ‘99, it runs. We want to make sure that we don’t just have something that you stick into a garage as a museum. It’s actually something that’s functional, and you can understand how it works and talk to people about it. So that’s what interests me the most about all of the cars in the collection.
Audience: What is your favorite menu item at Goober’s?
Vance: Whenever I go in there and I’m getting food, I always make sure – and it’s the same thing at Buckley’s – I always get something different. Because I want to make sure that it’s working. If you’re trying to get other people to come into your place, you want to make sure that there’s good stuff for everybody to have a favorite.
Audience: I’d love to hear how your farm in South Africa is doing, and what sort of innovations you’ve done there?
Vance: When I was a kid, my parents, when I didn’t want to finish my dinner, they would say, “Think of all the starving children in Africa.” And I pondered that as a kid. I’m like, Well, okay, so what does that mean? Because if I don’t finish my dinner, how am I going to send it there after? That’s how you first thought about it. But then I realized that what it really meant was that the continent of Africa had a lot of people who are really suffering – and wasn’t by any choice of their own. And it was very difficult for them to be able to, quote, rise out of that situation. So what it really meant was, you know, you’re here, and you’ve got options in America, and you’re not thinking about the people in the rest of the world who don’t have as easy as you. And so you should be thinking about what their needs are. And that resonated with me.
So I have a footprint in Africa. And one of the things that I’ve been involved with some partners of mine … we created a blueberry farm out in the middle of nowhere which one of the biggest in the world. The purpose of it was to be able to uplift the community. We employ during the harvest season 600 women from communities that have never had a job. They’re the pickers. And it’s a state of the art operation. It’s ISO certified. And it’s in the middle of nowhere, all surrounded by wild animals and all this stuff. And it’s an investment into really trying to uplift the community and take people to a place where they wouldn’t otherwise be. And it echoes back to my statement that I want to leave the world a better place. This was an opportunity to do that.
It’s going well. We have a couple challenges now around just freezes in the winter. I really wish there’d be some global warming to help warm things up because we’re having to heat it up for a couple weeks. All kidding aside, it’s an amazing operation. The people there are amazing. And when people go through it, they can’t believe that you’ve got this state of the art operation which you would view a state of the art in the US. For example, in the systems that are running, you know, packaging this stuff, there are 70 pictures [taken] looking for blemishes and figuring out this one’s that this scarred or this one’s a keeper. It’s state of the art. But the real reason is to help the community.
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