Three high-level corporate jobs and retirement weren’t enough for Jim Kearns. When the last job ended in 2004, he went out and started a small business — and then another, on top of that.
Despite living the last 20 years in the Grand Rapids area, the New Jersey native and licensed master mariner still has a slight East Coast accent, which helps explain why he feels “the only thing wrong with Lake Michigan is it has no salt in it.”
But that’s just a joke: Kearns loves Lake Michigan. He spends a lot of time on it, and it is the key ingredient in his latest business venture, founded in 2009: Advanced Nautical Training LLC.
The retired corporate executive also serves as a volunteer with three organizations: the MI-SBTDC FastTrac NewVenture course at GVSU for people who want to start their own small business; SCORE, “Counselors to America’s Small Business,” a group supported nationally by the U.S. Small Business Administration and housed at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce; and the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.
Kearns was 19 in 1967 and looking for a summer job after completing his first year at Pace College in New York. He landed a job at the IBM Data Processing Division in White Plains, N.Y.
“I was like a junior programmer, learning how to program the machines” that IBM was making then, according to Kearns. IBM only built large mainframe computers back then; the personal computer was still years away.
When school resumed in the fall, IBM asked him to go to work permanently, on the night shift, and he accepted the offer.
He discovered later that he had not been taking enough college credits each term to qualify for a student deferment, and soon he was targeted by his local draft board. Kearns explained his predicament to IBM and then, in 1969, decided to enlist in the Marine Corps, which at that time was almost a pre-paid ticket to Vietnam.
“The good news is, I wasn’t there very long” — only about four months, he said. One day a general asked him what he had done before the Marines, and when Kearns said he had worked for IBM, the general ordered him transferred to Camp Pendleton, where the general was soon going to be put in charge. That was how Kearns became an IT guy at Pendleton.
After his Marine Corps enlistment expired, Kearns headed back to White Plains and got his IBM job back. Soon IBM asked him to become a manager in charge of one of the shifts, and he accepted, although he wasn’t sure he wanted that kind of responsibility.
“It was the start of a long and wonderful management career” at IBM, he said, that finally ended in 1998 when he opted for retirement.
An inside joke at IBM is that it stands for “I’ve been moved,” said Kearns, and indeed he was. Before coming to Grand Rapids, he had lived in seven different places. IBM brought him here in 1991, with Kearns expecting he would only be here a couple of years before being transferred again.
However, he found out that he “really liked this place,” especially when he was able be out on Lake Michigan. Now, he said, “you can’t get me out of here.”
His IBM title was director of global services, and he was responsible for a profit-and-loss center with billions of dollars worth of contracts in place, developing software applications and upgrades for life sciences companies throughout the U.S.
“I had 2,000 professionals that worked for me in multiple states, on the East Coast and the West Coast,” he said.
“I lived on an airplane, and my family lived in Grand Rapids,” he joked. He said his young daughter thought that his job had something to do with the airport because that’s where he would head on Monday mornings.
The constant travel was a challenge, but it was interesting and exciting working for IBM, and Kearns knew he could retire after 30 years with a full pension. Working beyond 30 years at IBM did not add any more to the pension, so he decided to retire and start drawing it while working somewhere else.
Career No. 2 was at Old Kent Bank, which Kearns joined in 1999 as senior vice president in charge of technology services. He was with Old Kent until it was bought two years later by Fifth Third Bank.
“I left because there were too many senior vice presidents hanging around and I had a retirement from IBM — I didn’t need the nonsense of waiting around with a whole bunch of other guys with big titles. So that weekend I got picked up by a company called Covansys.”
Covansys, he said, was “a global technology company, and I was their senior vice president of global delivery,” in which role he managed six centers in the U.S., two in Europe and one in India.
And he was still living on an airplane.
In 2004, Covansys was bought out by a group called Computer Science Corp. At that point, said Kearns, he decided he had had “three nice careers. I’m going to do something different.”
So in 2005 he launched his first business: I.T. Matters LLC.
“It’s a play on words,” he explained. “People used to say, ‘IT doesn’t matter.’”
IT people didn’t seem to get a lot of respect, Kearns said. People would say to him, ‘You’re an IT guy? Where’s the propeller on the top of your beanie?’”
But he knew that IT does matter, because he had known senior executives with global projects who were in trouble due to IT difficulties.
“I had the decoder ring and I knew the secret sauces,” he joked. “I knew how to help them fix things.”
Kearns apparently learned that he liked teaching. At Old Kent, he said, “every (IT) vendor in the world called on me,” trying to sell hardware, software, etc. So at I.T. Matters, Kearn offered sales training at some of the small companies he worked with.
“I would role play; they would try to sell to me. It was a good way for them to learn in a penalty-free environment, from a guy who had been there.”
“I was leveraging everything I had learned in the corporate world. But the good news was, I didn’t have to work 90 hours a week and I wasn’t flying around,” he said.
“Since the economy went to hell in a hand basket, there is a lot less money for consultants,” he said. I.T. Matters isn’t as robust as it once was, but he expects it to recover.
“I still run it. It’s kind of like my winter job,” he said.
In the meantime, last year he started his dream business: Advanced Nautical Training LLC, a natural progression from his 10 years or so as a volunteer with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.
Coast Guard Auxiliary members are civilians who volunteer their time and the use of their own powerboats or aircraft to assist the Coast Guard when possible. Kearns owns a 40-foot Tiara Express, equipped with twin 435-horsepower diesel engines, which he also uses in his Advanced Nautical Training business. He holds a 100-gross ton master license (above a captain’s license) from the U.S. Coast Guard that also permits him to do commercial towing of disabled vessels.
“Lake Michigan is a very large, unsupervised water park. Any fool who can push a boat into the water can go out there — and unfortunately, we have had too many accidents,” said Kearns.
His Advanced Nautical Training LLC had up to about 30 students this year, although he’s hoping to get that number up to about 100, eventually. His six training programs range from four hours to 16 hours and cost from $150 to $900.
None of his students are new to boating, he said. They have realized they need some training to feel more secure out on the Big Lake.
“It’s on the water. It’s serious; it’s rigorous; it’s hands-on training,” he said.
Many people today own sophisticated power boats with lots of electronic equipment, “but they don’t know anything more than the power-on, power-off switches,” he said. He teaches the basics of radio operation and tuning the radar, but also use of nautical charts, both paper and electronic.
“On any given day, you could lose the power in your boat, and you’d better know how to read the charts,” he said.
One of his specialty classes is called “Spouse in Command.” If the operator of a pleasure craft out on Lake Michigan is suddenly disabled with a stroke or heart attack, said Kearns, “can the spouse use the radio to call for help? In a lot of cases, no. Do they know how to turn the engines off? No. Do they know how to maneuver (the boat) so they can at least get it in the channel? No.”
The class is very popular, he said, because training of a spouse by a spouse often doesn’t work too well.
So far, his nautical training business pays for his boat expenses, but that’s about it, he said. However, he hopes to qualify some day for the Michigan business tax, he said, chuckling.