From its entrepreneurial beginnings in the 1970s to the present, the company not only has delivered innovative solutions to its clients but also has maintained long-term relationships with many of them. Today, Aptech serves more than 3,500 properties, some of which have been customers for more than 25 years.
In March, Aptech celebrated its 50th anniversary. Although daily operations are now handled by Jay’s son, Cam Troutman, and longtime employee Jill Wilder, Jay’s influence still resonates in both the office and throughout industry. In addition to being an author and lecturer, he is active in a number of organizations, including HSMAI, HTNG, HFTP and ISHC. Most of all, he is known in hospitality circles as a friend, mentor and all-around nice guy.
Hospitality Upgrade recently sat down with Jay to discuss his background and career, get his perspective on hospitality's future and talk about a few non-business topics.
HU: Where did you grow up?
JAY: I grew up in Dormont, Penn., a working-class suburb of Pittsburgh. I knew every street and everyone in my class of 190 students.
HU: Did you have a high school job?
JAY: I had several jobs. One of the most interesting was working in a research department run by Dr. Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh. His team was studying viruses linked to mammary cancer in mice. My paid work was cleaning the mouse cages, but I was allowed to assist the researchers after I finished. It was a terrific learning experience, with a little paycheck to go with it.
HU: Where did you go to college and what did you study?
JAY: I majored in electrical engineering and industrial engineering at Cornell University. To go through both EE and IE programs, I took an overload of courses but ended up one liberal arts credit short of graduating. A regret at the time, a footnote now.
HU: Tell us about your first business.
JAY: My first business was birthed in the student lounge of Cornell’s hotel school, where my sister Pam was a freshman. That place had the best coffee I had ever tasted, and the pastries were prepared fresh every day by the culinary students. The problem was it was only open to hotel students. We engineering students had to trek 10 minutes to the student union for coffee and donuts—both of which were usually old and stale—even though the engineering school was directly across the street from the hotel school. So, a friend of mine named Dave Hamilton and I approached the dean of the engineering school about opening a coffee and donut business in the engineering lounge, and we offered to pay the school a percentage of the profits. He laughed but encouraged us to proceed. Within weeks, our business was up and running. My sister put me in touch with a purveyor of restaurant blend coffee in New York City, and a small bakery in Ithaca delivered donuts every morning. We hired a grad student’s wife to prepare the coffee and clean up. At the end of our last year, Dave and I had paid our way through Cornell and had a cash surplus.
HU: That’s amazing! Any other entrepreneurial ventures during college?
JAY: Yes. Dave was captain of the Cornell golf team, and I was designing, coding and programming computers. So, we came up with the idea of computerizing the process of calculating golf handicaps for country clubs. We used our surplus funds from the coffee business to work on the programs, forms and reports and then brought the idea to our hometown golf clubs, where it was met with a good response. At the time, volunteer committees had to manually revise the handicaps, usually every other Sunday afternoon during the season, and it required at least four to six hours. Dave and I charged $2 per member for the season to computerize the entire process.
HU: What happened to that business?
JAY: After Cornell, Dave went to work at Panelite in Kalamazoo, Mich., and I accepted a job with U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh. The golf handicapping was a part-time business operating out of my basement. I rented midnight computer time on weekends, hired part-time keypunch operators for data entry and picked up and delivered everything from the clubs in Pittsburgh. Dave mailed in his clubs’ score sheets from Kalamazoo. We eventually built up our golf clientele and expanded the business by adding country club billing and accounting. By 1970, we were processing for more than 50 clubs, which allowed me to leave U.S. Steel, incorporate Aptech and start building the business full time. I programmed and called on clients during the day, ran the production at night, and my wife answered phones and helped with endless details—all with three small children. It was a busy time.
HU: How did you get into the hotel industry?
JAY: As minicomputers emerged, Aptech transitioned from the IBM mainframe service bureau business to a reseller of minis. Our first clients were the country clubs where we moved our software over to the minis. Based on our reputation for club accounting, we were invited to bid on a minicomputer project for a local company that had just started a hotel business. Their CFO (Ted March) told us he was also looking for a hotel accounting software system that met his specifications. At the time, there was nothing on the market that was hospitality-specific. Two companies had already tried—and failed—to develop something, and he wanted to know if we were interested in the project. Long story short, we accepted the challenge and developed a sophisticated software accounting package that met his specs and then some. Although the work was incredibly demanding, it was our springboard to a national presence. That small company was Interstate Hotels, which grew to become the largest hotel management company in the industry. And our software was in every property.
HU: What do you think makes Aptech unique?
JAY: Innovation is certainly one of our strongest assets. We were the first company to develop a hospitality-specific accounting software system, the first to introduce business intelligence to the industry and the first to bring sophisticated hospitality budgeting to hotel clients. Our people also set us apart from other companies. The same key leadership has been at the helm for many years, and we provide a seasoned hospitality culture.
HU: What do you like most about your work?
JAY: I love finding ways to use technology to help the industry be more efficient, more profitable and smarter about its businesses.
HU: What do you think is the biggest challenge hotels face today?
JAY: Thinking pre-virus, there are always challenges in finding talented employees, particularly in the disciplines of technology and finance. Hotels that have strong leaders and good teams in those areas are among the most successful performers in the industry.
HU: What’s the ‘next big thing’ you see in the hospitality industry?
JAY: My perspective is finance and accounting, which is rarely known for ‘next big things’, but I think we’ll see improvements in automation. Machine learning, for example, can be used with tasks like accounts payable invoice entry. Also, I think there will be broader adoption of APIs to help with data exchanges.
HU: What is your prediction for the hotel industry in light of the current pandemic?
JAY: Hotel demand almost went to zero following 9/11, as did our business, but both came back. We adjust and we adapt. I’m an optimist and see great resiliency in our industry.