Innovative Solutions owner takes unorthodox approach to management.
By Nicole Sheldon February 1, 2018
Many IT companies stick to the beaten path when it comes to growing and developing their business. But Innovative Solutions’ owner and CEO Justin Copie has a vision for the company that is just that: Innovative.
Business owners often mistake an unorthodox approach as an unfavorable path for a business. Copie, however, embraces his nonconformist leadership style. At 35, he is keenly aware of the stigma that can accompany young leadership, but working his way up the ladder at Innovative for the last 15 years has given Copie acute knowledge of the ins and outs of not only the company, but the industry.
Copie took over the company from former CEO Bob Titus in January 2016. Titus now serves as chairman. Copie acknowledges that reflecting on processes that have led to success at Innovative in the past is vital, yet he recognizes the rapid pace of technology and the perpetual threat of being irrelevant. Evolution is a vital element in the tech industry, and as the leader of Innovative, Copie ensures that the company undergoes constant evolution.
“Our mission is aligning leaders with massive potential to change IT forever,” says Copie. “So, we’re constantly looking for people in our organization to lead, and ultimately, to change something moving forward in our industry of IT, which is constantly on the move. If there’s anything that you take away about how our business operates, it’s that we’re constantly evolving and constantly moving forward. We never settle for status quo.”
Innovative Solutions, based on Winton Place in Henrietta, provides IT services and software for small to midsized companies around Western New York. Its application and database services include database development and analytics, mobile application development, SharePoint setup and configuration, software selection and integration and website and web application development. But those are just the services found on the surface.
While IT is Innovative’s bread and butter, what separates Innovative from other IT companies is its outlook that people come first and technology comes second.
“If our people don’t have what they need and they’re not able to focus on what it is they’re looking to grow in, then we’ve done ourselves an injustice because they’re not going to be able to serve our customers in the way that we need them to,” says Copie. “We have this belief that if our people aren’t taken care of, then our customers will never be taken care of, so our people actually come first.”
It is not a common approach, but it makes sense. The happier and more satisfied the employees are with their role and the organization, the harder they will work to bring success to the business. Copie also welcomes failure and encourages autonomy among his employees.
“I have a philosophy with employees: Never ever ask for permission; always ask for forgiveness if you think you have to choose between the two,” he says. “Doing the right thing is always the right thing to do. In the end, I believe everyone here has the best intentions and is working to serve and aren’t in it to gain anything.”
Copie values personal relationships, and makes an effort to get to know each and every one of the 75-plus employees on a one-on-one basis. In fact, he has three to four one-on-ones with employees on a daily basis.
“My job isn’t to do anything that their manager isn’t doing for them; my job is to do what their manager can’t or to give them another perspective,” says Copie. “I meet with folks and we have conversations around the fact that they need a place to grow in their career, are seeking opportunity, but don’t want to be bound by an artificial job description. So we work toward career pathing for every employee, at a very individual perspective.”
Copie goes beyond individual meetings to check in on employees at work. He also makes a conscious effort to catch up with employees outside the office.
“He makes an effort on a quarterly basis to connect off-site with every employee for dinner or breakfast or lunch or drinks,” says Evan Tzimas, director of sales for Innovative. “He makes an effort just because he’s genuine. As a young, successful leader, some people think he’s close-minded or there’s some sort of caste system, but he really likes to get on the personal level with every individual.”
Rather than be a tall, shadowy figure overseeing the entire company, Copie does not shy away from rolling up his sleeves and jumping in to help with projects.
“Justin is definitely hands-on, but not to a fault where he likes to dictate,” says Tzimas. “He just likes to know what’s going on in the organization. He deputizes the people in different roles and he wants to have a hand in what’s going on and challenge, but it’s all healthy. He welcomes and encourages feedback on anything and everything.”
Jamie Eisenhauer, director of human capital for Innovative, agrees with Tzimas.
“Justin leads not from above, but within,” she says. “He’s not your typical unreachable CEO. He’s accessible, involved and always takes the time to listen.”
Communication rests at the top of Copie’s priority list so that he can fulfill his passion of helping those around him grow in their positions and discover fresh opportunities. Evolvement of employees stimulates growth in the company, which drives Innovative’s continued success. Innovative’s retention rate alone is roughly five times the average retention rate of the IT industry.
“In the end, what we’ve created for our customers is a consistent set of team members,” says Copie. “Our people don’t leave every year. In IT the average retention rate is 11.5 months. Here, it’s eclipsing five years.”
“As a service-oriented business, our people are what drive our success,” says Eisenhauer. “This is exactly why we’re obsessed with building a culture that’s so focused on engagement and fulfillment.”
Delivering an extraordinary experience
At Innovative, customers are guaranteed to work with the same individuals on projects, rather than facing a revolving door of service providers. The consistency plays a role in Copie and Innovative’s shared goal of providing a unique experience for every single customer that they cannot find anywhere else.
Additionally, many IT companies implement a system based on the billable hour for their customers. Copie, however, has done away with the billable hour at Innovative.
Other IT companies “will do things like acting as a retainer for their customer and take money from their customer in advance, telling the customer that they bought a block of time and can chip away at that block over the course of the year. That doesn’t make sense to me; businesses change, why would you hold a customer’s money?” says Copie.
“That’s a very old school way of operating a business. My real issue underneath all of it is that IT service providers are not focused on customers’ business outcomes. They’re selling a service because it’s the service that they think is right for the market, to benefit themselves not the customers. Our model is exactly the opposite because we want to make sure the customers don’t have the burden. We take on the burden for them.”
Copie’s forward-thinking nature has charted a course for Innovative that is quite different than most IT companies. Darrin Nelson, vice president of software solution sales at Sirius Computer Solutions and a member of the Innovative board of directors, enjoys observing Copie as he pilots the company and strives tirelessly to turn his vision into a reality. A friend of Copie’s for nearly 20 years, Nelson has watched Copie grow up and mature into the leader he is today.
“I think Justin is taking a very disruptive approach to technology and technology consumption. He doesn’t care a whole lot about history,” says Nelson, chuckling. “He doesn’t care about how this business has evolved and how clients interact with technology providers. He very much looks forward to anticipate how his clients want a relationship, and molds a business model that extracts the client from the complexity of technology … and tries to put (the business model) in a context that is meaningful to the client.”
Roadblocks and future plans
Even though Copie and Innovative Solutions as a whole are dedicated to developing a gratifying environment in which employees feel a sense of personal growth and accomplishment, every company faces challenges.
According to Copie, he is consistently working on mediating between generations within the organization. Members of the new generation in the workforce have contrasting views compared to employees who were new 20 years ago. With a mix of generations working under the same roof toward a common goal, opinions collide.
“Quickly embracing ideologies and perspectives from a younger workforce has been the biggest challenge,” he says. “And I think any business where that’s not the biggest challenge is doomed. I think they’re way behind. This generation will make up 50 percent of the workforce by 2020.”
But Copie’s mediation between generations has enhanced the culture at Innovative to create a working balance among the different age groups.
As for the IT industry as a whole, Copie says he feels that Innovative has a leg up because of its constant efforts to adapt and evolve with the changing technology and needs of the customers.
“Customers have a choice, and we’re not always the choice, but when I watch how some service providers are not adapting to change, it is unbelievable to me,” says Copie. “First of all, (I worry about) companies in our space not creating any succession plan. How can you run a business and not have a succession plan if something happens to you? Mind blowing. What are you going to do for your employees if you’re not there?”
Copie is passionate about seeing the IT world become better every day. In addition to building Innovative Solutions into a powerful company that touches countless lives, he wants to share everything with any and all competitors. Everything.
With the economy traveling down a consumption-based path, Copie knows that the way to affect and improve billions of lives is sharing Innovative’s products, services and strategies.
“Every process, every tool, every technology, every belief, every philosophy, everything we do I want to be available for every competitor,” says Copie. “People say it doesn’t make any sense, we’re going to go out of business, et cetera. I believe in my heart that if we don’t share everything that we do, we limit the amount of people we can have an impact on. Our mission isn’t to be the best IT company, it’s not to build the tallest building by tearing everyone else’s down. We want to do it by helping everybody succeed. In the end, we’ll have a tall building and that’s pretty cool, but our mission is to change lives and impact an industry.”
In order to reach this lofty goal, Copie says Innovative is in the midst of productizing everything that they do so that it is available to the public in a consumable way.
“I think people will pick up our stuff and help us make it better, and we would all benefit from that,” says Copie. “Nobody can replicate what Innovative does because we’re our own identity, we’re our own brand. You can take all of our stuff, but you would never be Innovative, you would be you. And that’s OK.”
Copie is a Rochester native who now lives in Webster on Lake Ontario. He graduated from McQuaid Jesuit High School in 2000 and from Rochester Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s degree in information technology in 2004.
“McQuaid changed my life; I have a very soft spot in my heart for McQuaid. I was a very free spirit growing up. I got in trouble so much,” recalls Copie. “I used to have this belief that I wasn’t naturally good at anything, so I had to learn things the hard way. I went to McQuaid starting in eighth grade and it changed my life. I instantly got a dose of discipline, and that translated into this whole notion that you can learn from other people’s mistakes and if you just open your eyes and ask more questions you can quickly see where people go on the right path or wrong path and you don’t always have to go down the wrong path.”
Copie recognized his entrepreneurial spirit and passion for IT at a young age. At 17, he started his own IT services company, Rent-A-Geek. With a $120 loan from his mother to advertise his business for three weeks in the Penny Saver, Copie’s business took off as he drove around town making house calls to fix people’s computers. His business philosophy was simple: if he could not solve the issue, he did not charge the customer.
“This is where my obsession with making sure people had a good experience really started,” he says. “This is where I learned how afraid people were of technology in the earliest days. I gained a lot of perspective around what it takes to not only advertise, but ultimately to build a business.”
Copie started out at Innovative Solutions as a co-op student in his third year at RIT in 2003. He already had a great deal of foundational knowledge, but “I learned more in my three-month co-op block here than I did in my first three years at RIT,” he says.
Choosing to co-op at Innovative certainly paid off for Copie, and he has been working with the company ever since. In 2003, Copie was hired as an inside sales representative. Fifteen years later, he owns and runs the company.
But Copie says that his biggest accomplishment has been surviving the loss of his brother, Jordan, three years ago.
“I had the choice of going down one or two crazy roads. The one road was that I was going to let my brother’s death really take over, and I don’t think I would have survived it,” admits Copie. “The other road was to find the silver lining, find the peace, find the gift that lies within it and be very real about that with not only myself but with those around me. There’s nothing I’ve gotten through in life that is of more significance than working through the initial stages of that. I’m very proud of how my family and I have worked through such enormous pain.”
Copie found the silver lining in his brother’s son, Kaiden. After Jordan’s death, Copie made a commitment to always be there for Kaiden and help his brother’s legacy live on.
Outside of the office, Copie can be found with his nose in a book, listening to Kendrick Lamar or with a can of paint and a paintbrush. He is the loving owner of three dogs, Zara, Chloe and Boss, who take turns coming to the office during the week.
Like his mission for constantly moving Innovative forward, he is always pushing himself forward. Copie finds himself in an endless race to his future self, a testament to his determination and drive.
“There’s always this future part of me that I’m chasing, that I know I’ll never get to, but I’m always chasing me at 45 looking back at me right now at 35 because I know he’s laughing,” he says. “When I get to 45, I’ll be looking to me at 55 thinking the same thing. It’s this perpetual, non-gain. But I’m at peace with it because it keeps me moving forward. The day I stop doing that is when I know I’m done.”