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Endless possibilities at Geneca

Updated: May 8, 2012 8:04AM

Mark Hattas sees his success developing a custom-software company as an opportunity to explore the kinds of touchy, feely stuff that many businesspeople try mightily to avoid, even in the midst of Easter and Passover — self-forgiveness, living in abundance and pursuing one’s purpose in life.

He discovered his search for something greater when he felt he was riding a roller coaster of emotions as he ran his business, Geneca, based in Oakbrook Terrace. The company’s name, with the emphasis on the first syllable, is a variation on the name of the sister of CEO Joel Basgall, Jenica, who was adopted from Romania when she was a baby. It is meant to signify endless possibilities in new directions.

The company, which makes custom software and software products for businesses such as FTD, Inc. florists’ network, Redbox movie and videogame rental company and a division of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, has grown from two employees 14 years ago to more than 100 today.

The company’s growth, reaching about $20 million in 2011 revenues and slightly more than $20 million in 2010 revenues, ranked it among the 50 fastest-growing companies in the Chicago area in 2010.

From the start, Hattas, a 39-year-old father of five who started the company at age 26, felt unsettled.

He started keeping a daily journal, at first periodically and then, 11 years ago, on a regular basis.

“One day I realized, ‘When everything is about me, it gets worse. In my lows, I would turn to prayer. I would get guidance. In the highs, I would turn everything over to my own ego and take ownership and responsibility for my own success,” he said.

Hattas’ theme, which he is working to publish as a book, reflects people’s struggles with self acceptance.

“Our fears are reinforced by self-doubt, self-hostility and beliefs that we’re not good enough or that society won’t let someone like me accomplish something remarkable,” he said.

Hattas is open that his transformation was also because he accepted that a higher power is in control.

“Life didn’t just get easy, but I was able to consciously turn things over to a higher power and not think the good was of me,” he said. “I got to a point where everything was of God, and I turned everything over, and that’s when things really took off.”

At the same time, Hattas was leading a reinvention of his company’s business processes, using the same idea of transformation.

He and a team of experts identified “best practices” aimed at achieving predictable, winning results, based on the philosophies of Bob Zimmerman, who Hattas hired as Geneca’s chief technology officer.

The first step, which might seem obvious, is to create a common vision, or alignment. Yet businesses rarely get a team together to talk about what they’re trying to achieve and how, exactly, to achieve it.

Zimmerman said one of the stumbling blocks is the human tendency for a boss to unexpectedly ask an employee to do the initial task in three weeks instead of the original four.

“The employee is now 25 percent over scheduled and over budget, and he hasn’t even started,” Zimmerman said.

The second step, commitment, requires making upfront, clear agreements on when projects can be completed, with the ideal being that the team will bet their paychecks on meeting the deadline.

The third step, visibility, is openly agreeing on the point at which a project is in so much trouble, it won’t be completed on time.

Then there’s a more elusive factor.

“The best practices are half of the equation. The other half is the culture,” Hattas said.

“We need people who are willing to make and honor commitments,” he said.

That may seem like another no-brainer, but Hattas said the IT industry is known for hedging its bets, since it’s an imperfect science.

So asking people to be held accountable and make and honor commitments is a leap.

Yet Geneca’s clients who benefit from the company’s ability to execute projects as promised have started adopting the practices themselves.

“We are not a training company, but we prefer to co-source our development teams” so that the client company can use the software for its best utility and value, he said.

Meanwhile, Hattas is exploring his next opportunity. He wants to give the world clean water and is fascinated by clean energy alternatives and medicines based on DNA mapping that target a person’s individual health problems.

“For me, it’s creating global collaboration to foster smart, intelligent innovation.”

Howard A. Tullman, president and CEO of Tribeca Flashpoint Academy, a two-year, digital-media arts college in the Loop, seconded the need for entrepreneurs to gain consensus, but he sees a bigger goal, too.

Tullman spoke as he accepted the University of Illinois-Chicago’s 2012 Chicago Area Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award.

“In this life, you’ll each have a chance, a moment, an opportunity to make something special and spectacular and to make a difference — if you have the courage of your convictions, the confidence in your abilities and if you’re willing to make and stick to the hard choices that inevitably arise.”

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