Lakewood Ranch web-tech company sees genius in local growth

mjohnson@bradenton.comJanuary 7, 2014 

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Even though it touched $5 billion in transactions last year, Genius Central Solutions may as well be hiding for the notice it gets in its hometown.

The web technology company, which started in a Sarasota garage 14 years ago, is nondescript in its third-floor office space off University Parkway. But behind plain cubicle walls, 15 software developers maintain and update the digital engine that powers stocking, web ordering and loyalty programs at more than 3,000 natural and organic food markets around the United States.

This may be a big year for Genius Central. It starts 2014 with national grocery chain Sprouts Farmers Market as a new client. Its CEO plans to add 30 employees to its current 80-employee payroll. And it's only months away from automating business consulting in the natural foods and products sector.

All of it will keep company CEO Dan Clarke busy thinking of better ways to connect natural products with retailers. His company's job is to help retailers choose the right products for their shelves.

"It's staggering," he said. "There are 10,000 new products introduced every

month. Our retailers could change out 50 percent of their inventory."

Those are big numbers, bigger than any grocery store stocking and ordering department can handle with pen, paper, and calculator. That's something that one of the company's founders, Jim Sheehan, learned from experience.

When he, his wife, and a few other partners set out to open their own market, Living Naturally, in 1999, they quickly learned that even as a bricks-and-mortar business, they needed information-age tools to compete in a dot-com world.

"As we investigated opening a market, we wanted a nice website," Sheehan said. "We wound up focusing more on websites."

The market never did open, but Living Naturally quickly became a top website builder for other natural products retailers. The company, which changed its name to Genius Central last year, now manages more than 1,500 client websites.

In the years since, the company has introduced ordering software, a mobile app, an e-commerce platform, inventory software, and electronic loyalty program products. Both product producers and retailers use the tools.

Local retail clients include Richard's Foodporium, Healthy Living Organic and Natural Market, and Earth Origins Market.

Kimberly McClure, the marketing director for Richard's, said the natural market chain has been using Genius products for about a decade. The system allows retailers to instantly place special orders, find and order new products that appeal to customers, and to capture shoppers who like to shop online.

"It's given us much better shopper engagement," she said.

Retail clients buy Genius Central software and products on a subscription basis. Websites through the company can cost as little as $99, while mobile apps and loyalty programs start at $199. Linda Loren, Genius Central's vice president of marketing, said retailers having the same tools built for them on a custom basis could spend thousands.

Clarke said his company's integrated network of clients - which sells a combined $5 billion annually -- acts very much like one of the big retailers in the national market. While Genius Central doesn't necessarily produce economies of scale like those that drive down prices at giant grocers such as WalMart and Target, it does give producers and retailers instant access to one another. That is no small feat.

"If you're trying to reach 1,700 smaller retailers, it's very challenging," Clarke said.

Retailers can use Genius Central ordering software to filter for specific shopper preferences. For example, the company recently formed an alliance with the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit that certifies whether a particular product does not contain genetically modified material. The project's database is now part of Genius Central's ordering software, allowing retailers to use that certification as a search parameter.

This year, the relationship between technology provider and retailers could get closer. Genius Central's new business analytics software is presently under beta testing, but is already being marketed as the go-to tool for making business decisions. Clarke said. Promised features include being able to select "hot" products at the touch of a button, and making decisions about how much or how little to sell.

If the software is as much of a growth engine as the company's other products have been, it will be a big player in the area's information technology industry. Sharon Hillstrom, the CEO of the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp., said much of this industry is under the radar in Manatee and Sarasota counties.

"A lot of these tech companies are just a couple of people working out of their home," she said.

Genius Central is a long way from the garage. Its staff, which is spread between Lakewood Ranch, Phoenix, and Chicago has doubled in size in the past year. The company is looking to hire its next round of employees in the Bradenton-Sarasota area.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027.

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