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Alumni Profile in Excellence: The Tenacious Entrepreneur

July 29, 2008

The Profile in Excellence award is given by the OBU Alumni Association to a former student who has "demonstrated recognizable accomplishment in his or her profession, business, avocation, or life service in such a way as to bring pride and honor to the University." Each year, Profile In Excellence recipients are featured in OBU Magazine.

Richard Cole is not a geek.

He's proud that, in 2005, the Hapton Roads Technology Council named the 1975 OBU alum as High-Tech Entrepreneur of the Year. Yet, aside from the power button, Cole doesn't know the first thing about computers.

"If you open a computer, I don't know anything about what's inside," said Cole, the co-founder and CEO of the fast-growing IT solutions company Geeks on Call, headquartered in Norfolk, Va.. "I have no clue how to do anything but turn the computer on. Nothing. Nada. Zip."

However, Cole knows how to identify a need, create a solution and take such an entrepreneurial endeavor to amazing success.

During his years on Bison Hill, Cole completed a degree in philosophy, expanding his vision of what's possible in life. He learned from such notable professors as Dr. Don Wester and Dr. Robert Clarke.

"Those guys let you learn how to think," Cole said. "They would let you take apart your belief system, but they would make sure you understood how to put it back together.

"I think it's very important that we understand why we believe what we believe - and not just religious beliefs, but also socio-political beliefs. I want to own it. And that's what OBU allows you to do and equips you to do."

The first 20 years of his career, Cole banked his business on believing in what he did. As a turn-around specialist, both as an employee and later self-employed, he took billboard companies in disarray, reorganized and recapitalized them, then resold them for a profit. Such ventures, however, require great personal and financial risk and sacrifice. Cole and his family relocated around the country as needed; he leveraged "everything" - and he did it 11 times in 20 years.

"The risks are very high, but the rewards are very, very high," Cole said.

In 1996, at age 43, Cole was set to retire. It lasted about three months. "My wife looked at me and said, 'This isn't going to work,'" he explained.

Cole went to work for a communications company in Norfolk, Va., the first time he had worked for another company in a couple decades. They desired to own a billboard company, so he built one. After he did what he did well, it was time to move on.

In 1999, at age 46, he retired again. It lasted about three months. "My wife came to me and said, 'This isn't going to work,'" he recalled.

One evening, Cole and an attorney friend lamented how they couldn't get their computers serviced - it was a chore to unhook all the cables, carry the machine into a store, wait for the repair, take it back home, re-attach the cables, and still discover it did not work properly. The friends decided to launch an at-home computer-repair company. They hired two men who knew how to repair computers and decided to name their new venture "Geeks on Call." They placed an advertisement for their new company in the Yellow Pages. Calls began coming in - and they haven't stopped.

The mission of Cole's company remains simple, and yet it's ambitious: to be the leading provider of professional IT solutions for small businesses and residential markets in the United States.

"When you call here, they will answer 'Geeks on Call World Headquarters,'" Cole said, referring to the toll-free call center in Norfolk, Va. "If you don't think that way, you'll never get there."

Cole found inspiration for excellence during his time on Bison Hill from Dr. Warren Angell and Dr. William Tanner, who he knew best in roles as mentors and friends rather than faculty and administrator. Cole and Angell both were members of University Baptist Church, and their friendship was forged over Wednesday night church dinners.

"I got to know Dean Angell - not the Dean of the College of Fine Arts - but Warren Angell, the man," Cole said. "There was a lot of advice and wisdom he dispensed on Wednesday nights, and I listened."

Cole's sophomore-year roommate was Bill Tanner Jr., son of OBU President William Tanner. Cole and Tanner Jr. spent as much time at the OBU President's home as on the rest of campus, and through these casual encounters Cole grew to know Dr. William Tanner and his wife, Ellen, as second parents.

"I had the opportunity to know and appreciate the man Bill Tanner and his theology, and you don't often get to do that with a college president," Cole said.

Despite his wealth of personal relationships, the Oklahoma winters provided Cole's fondest memories of OBU."There is nothing like being on the OBU campus when it snows," he recalled. "There is nothing like walking from Brotherhood Dorm (now Agee Residence Center) to the chapel with the snow crunching under your feet. It's just a postcard."

Today, Cole doesn't see much -- if any -- snow at his residence at Virginia Beach, Va. He gets in the occasional round of golf, sings in the choir at Bayside Baptist Church and volunteers (under the leadership of his wife, Cathy) in the church kitchen. His wife is a self-described "book widow," as Cole is an avid reader.

Looking forward, Cole is preparing for what he hopes will be an exciting 2009 for Geeks on Call as the company continues to build its national footprint. And yet, he realizes that what God has so generously provided -- prompted by that single Yellow Pages ad -- could just as quickly disappear.

"I really believe this isn't about me," Cole said. "Whatever success I've attained in life is because there are a lot of talented people who committed to going along for the ride. Our company is based on Christian principles, and with that comes a dose of humility.

"All of this is given to us by our Lord, and He can take it away as easily as He gave it. I don't get to decide where (the company) goes, I just get to make some decisions along the way. God is in control."

Click the following link to view a full list of previous Profile in Excellence recipients.