Lyle Small is self-proclaimed nerd, an inventor who makes color-changing ink, but finding his inner CEO might be his greatest discovery.
Small is a scientist with half dozen patents, including one for his color-changing ink that can be printed on a variety of surfaces.
One of his most visible clients is Coors Brewing Company. Their Coors Light cans feature the mountains that turn blue when the beer is cold.
Small’s company, Chromatic Technologies in Colorado Springs sells its special-effects ink for products in 50 countries. In recent months, CTI signed deals with Anheuser-Busch and Hansen Natural to use the color changing technology on Busch Light and Monster energy drink cans. With these new deals, CTI expects revenue to be between $11 million and $14 million this year.
“I was able to turn this little obsession of mine into a business and was fortunate enough to invent some things that other people thought were great,” he said.
His company has gone from five guys losing money on a monthly basis in the early 1990s to 37 employees and profit margins of a company three times its size.
And that meant Small had to undergo a CEO metamorphasis.
In recent years, Small has devoted as much time to transforming himself into a CEO as he has to the science of thermochromic material and all of its applications.
“All the things about my personality that make me a great nerd make me a rather ineffective executive,” Small said.
He’s not alone. In 2007, Egon Zehnder International, a global executive search firm, surveyed business leaders and biotech firms across the Globe and concluded that the transition from scientist to CEO is “fraught with difficulty and has a different set of expectations.” Some people simply cannot make the transition, the report said. Scientists are focused on the scientific competency and results while CEOs are focused on strategy and leadership.
“These people have nothing in common,” Small said.
But, in the early days when Small was bootstrapping the company, there was no need for a CEO. They five-member team came to work, turned water-based capsules into oil-based high speed inks, and left with goopy ink stained shirts everyday.
When he finally hired the company’s first CEO, he embezzled what little money it had and never paid taxes.
“I fired the guy and took back all his shares in the company,” Small said.
But, his trust was shaken and he was not about to let go of the CEO reins easily.
Instead, he became the default CEO and the company limped along with a few clients who bought his color-changing ink for receipts, checks and other documents.
By 1997, CTI had its patents issued and convinced investors to let go of $1 million. That kept them alive for the next two years. And then, in 1999, the year Small nearly shut the business down, he got the idea of making color-changing ink that could print on aluminum cans.
He spent the next two years holed up in the 500-square-foot lab measuring temperatures, taking notes, taking photos of his creations and documenting every aspect of ink. He sought advice from an ink expert and learned all he could about printing and metal decorating ink.
“I refused to believe the people that told me it was a bad idea, including my family who said ‘you’re crazy, what are you doing with your life?’ “ Small said. “But, because I loved it so much it was easy not to give up.”
In 2003, CTI sold its color-changing ink on aluminum cans in Korea. But, Small still had to figure out how to print the ink at faster speeds if CTI wanted to land larger accounts, like beer companies that print billions of cans. Back in the lab, Small and his team figured it out and “had a technical breakthrough so that we could print at high speeds,” he said.
In 2007, Coors Brewing Company put the color changing ink on its Coors Light cans. The account doubled CTI’s revenue.
But the business major who switched to biological engineering after falling in love with science in his freshman biology class had been winging it at CEO, he said.
As a scientist, he was precise, he was curious about the mundane and he didn’t care about interpersonal qualities. That didn’t go over as CEO. His take no prisoner-style of management had chased employees away, he said.
He hired a management coach and then enrolled in Harvard’s “Owner/President Management Program” and realized, “I’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said. “I’m the biggest stumbling block to my own company’s success.”
He got out of the lab and behind a desk and started thinking about strategy. He hired scientists, marketing experts and operations experts and said; “getting out of their way is a big part of my job now.”
“Emotionally, it’s difficult,” he said. “This is what I love. I love to be in the lab. But hiring scientists who specialize in certain things is better for the business.”
He went from spending 100 percent of his time in the lab to spending 2 percent of his time there and these days, all of his shirts are clean.
“I was trying to make myself into someone who could run a business and grow a business,” he said. “It’s has been a struggle for me.”
He put a sticky note on his computer that said, “Shut up and listen.” He learned that he didn’t have to solve every problem. He was humble. He was grateful. And, he fought his insecurities, he said.
“He struggled with it,” said Rob Ugianskis, CTI vice president of operations. “He struggled with trying to learn how to let go of those decisions, how to become comfortable with allowing other people to do the same things he is doing — which is to grow into roles where they can be responsible for technical decisions.”
But, reinventing himself is what has contributed to the company’s growth, Ugianskis said. It’s like Small lifted the ceiling on the business, he said.
“There is no question, that the business is large enough now where (Small) can’t be involved in every decision that is made,” he said.
In 2010, CTI moved into a 25,000-square-foot building at 1096 Elkton Dr., which doubled the company’s space and gives it room to grow when it now faces a new challenge: competition.
Dainippon Ink and Chemicals, the world’s largest ink company, is chasing CTI with its version of metal decorating ink and selling it on products in South Africa. With the behemoth breathing down its neck, CTI will step up its game this year and expects to file a half dozen more patents in the U.S. and in Europe to strengthen its position.
Armed with a stack of new designs, CTI is spending the next six months making pitches to other beverages companies, including Coca Cola and Pepsi. And Small is thinking about how to strengthen his team so that they can make the big decisions, he said.
“I do go into the lab, I can’t help myself,” Small said. “I get to scratch my nerd itch.”