Perlowitz runs Reliable business

Valerie Perlowitz didn't set out to launch a systems integration business. When she and her husband, Bill, moved to the Washington, D.C., area from New England in 1987, it was simply for a change of scenery.

Perlowitz, an engineer, had recently helped Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. officials figure out why Black Hawk helicopters were prone to crash in certain conditions. She made an impression on IBM Corp. officials, who were looking for partners to help on a Federal Aviation Administration contract.

"They said, 'If you've got a company, you've got a contract,' " she said. She started Reliable Integration Services Inc., hired her husband as chief technology officer and went to work alongside IBM on the project.

But it wasn't that easy. "Not only was I a woman, I was blonde," Perlowitz said. "We were sitting in contract negotiations, and the guy from IBM kept talking to my husband. [Later,] I would go to sales calls and people would say, 'You're my daughter's age. Isn't that cute?' "

But she remained persistent, a trait that she considers an important reason for Reliable's 16-year success record. "We always stuck to our guns about what we would do and what we wouldn't do," Perlowitz said.

Now, she sits in an office furnished with purple chairs. Colorful cut-outs of fish hang from the walls. It's not the sterile, businesslike environment one might expect to see. "This is us," she said. "This is who we are. People need to have fun at work."

The fish, in fact, reflect Perlowitz's devotion to a management philosophy created by fishmongers at the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle and popularized in a series of books and videos.

"It boils down to a customer service mentality," she said. "The customer is the customer, and the customer is not always right, but they need to get a lot of respect. They need to know you care about them."

Perlowitz has yet to see her company appear on a list of top integrators based on revenue, but she said she's working to develop the business. The number of employees has grown from two to 75.

"There's an advantage to getting big, but there are a lot of management headaches that go with that," she said. "I like having contact with my staff. I want to get big. Everybody wants to create value, but I want to do it thoughtfully."

Part of that deliberation comes back to her refusal to promise more than she can deliver, Perlowitz said. If Reliable can't tackle a particular task, she says so.

That spares her the pain of not living up to promises, but it also keeps the company below the radar, by some measures. "Even though we've been in business for 16 years, we're seen as a niche player," she said. "We're very selective in the work we do."

Perlowitz has become a leading figure in the Northern Virginia business community, said George Newstrom, Virginia's former secretary of technology. Newstrom, who ran EDS' Northern Virginia operation until 1998, said he saw Perlowitz frequently at Northern Virginia Technology Council events and similar settings.

"Not only is she a very outstanding executive of a good company, she manages to take time to give back to the community," he said.

"Many entrepreneurs are working so diligently at making their company a success" that they don't look for opportunities to help others until later, Newstrom said. "I think you have to do it in that order, but ultimately you have to realize that the community gives a lot to you, to your company and to your employees."

Perlowitz has mentored less experienced entrepreneurs and played a role in launching and cultivating technology organizations, he said. "She could have easily said, 'I'm too busy working to build my company,' " Newstrom said. "She did the exact opposite and took an active role."

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The Valerie Perlowitz file

Title: President and chief executive officer of Reliable Integration Services Inc., a Vienna, Va., company that designs, implements and integrates networks. She founded the company in 1988.

Education: Bachelor's degree in electrical and computer engineering, Northeastern University, 1986.

Family: Husband, Bill, who serves as chief technology officer at Reliable Integration Services.

Last book read: "Bannerman's Ghosts" by John Maxim. "My fiction [reads] tend to be spy thrillers. I hate romance

novels."

Favorite vacation spot: Italy.

Hobbies: Her interests in race-car driving and bonsai are seemingly worlds apart, but "they both require intense concentration," she said.

Philosophy: Models her approach to work on Fish!, a concept that emphasizes fun.

A fish story

How did a handful of Washington state fishmongers change Valerie Perlowitz's life?

As the story goes, more than a decade ago, workers at the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle began to liven up their workday by throwing fish around and catching them, to the amusement of customers and passersby, and generally engaging in the kind of time-wasting horseplay that employers frown on.

But the activity made them happier and more productive and ultimately spawned books and seminars that show other employers how to encourage their people to stop carping and have fun.

According to the book "Fish!: A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results," the philosophy boils down to four basic points:

1. Play and have fun at work. Engage others; make them part of the fun.

2. Make their day. Do something extra for someone at least once each day.

3. Be present. Pay attention, especially to

customers; take care of their needs quickly.

4. Choose your attitude each morning.

As simple as it sounds, Perlowitz says the

approach has made her company a more pleasant place to work than some.

— Michael Hardy

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