Articles Published by Todd Natenberg

Kansas City Business Journal

Friday, March 28, 2008

Newsmaker

Alexander lives life, leads AOS with integrity and honor

Kansas City Business Journal - by Todd Natenberg Staff Writer

When Gary Alexander was a 24-year-old seminary student in 1964, he and two friends ventured into the Deep South as part of a community project with a Mississippi ministry.

Despite the many protests supporting blacks' voting rights, Alexander had no intention of getting involved.

"I went to Mississippi believing that Northerners should stay out of the South's business," said Alexander, now 67. "When I got down there, the situation was a lot worse than I thought."

Shortly after his arrival, Alexander and his colleagues found themselves not only registering blacks to vote but also protesting in front of the Forrest County Courthouse in Hattiesburg. They were arrested for blocking the entrance and spent three nights in jail.

"It made me committed to standing up for equality, for every American -- white, black, man and woman," Alexander said. "I have lived that."

Whether serving as a volunteer chaplain in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, breaking up a fight in the Bahamas between 50 college kids on spring break and local staff or working as the CEO of Overland Park-based Alexander Open Systems Inc., Alexander has dedicated himself to helping others.

"One of the things my dad said to me is never start a fight, never walk away from one," said Alexander, who at 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds does not look imposing but projects respect. "Maybe I've lived this a little too well."

In 2008, AOS -- a value-added reseller and IT solutions provider -- recorded total sales of $122 million, up from $20 million in 2002. The company has 209 employees and ranks No. 1 on the Kansas City Business Journal's list of top area computer networking companies.

"To some people who don't know him well, he may seem like an intimidating man. That's just who he is," said granddaughter Hannah McEwan, who schedules the company's systems engineers for customer visits. "(But) he takes care of his own -- personal or professional."

McEwan's husband, John, served in the Marines and recently fought in Iraq.

Another former soldier who also served in Iraq and now works for AOS mentioned to Alexander that many soldiers who have specialized cellular phones with GPS tracking devices are safer than others. Alexander immediately decided to buy a surprise $500 gift for his granddaughter's husband.

"He said the phone saved his life," McEwan said of her husband.

Alexander's dedication to helping those in need traces back to his days as a seminary student. On another occasion, in 1965, he saw a man "slapping a woman around" on the side of the road. He confronted the man, grabbing him and telling him to stop. The man did.

Back then, Alexander sheepishly said, he was a mere 175 pounds.

"He asked if I was looking for trouble. I said no, but it looked like I found it," Alexander said matter of factly. "I just don't like injustice. I didn't really make a decision. It's what I had to do."

He grew up throughout the Midwest but graduated in Shawnee Mission High School's final class. His father was a nine-sport high school athlete who played minor-league baseball. Father taught son discipline and purpose at a young age.

That's how Alexander decided to become a minister. But he found that politics and bureaucracy frustrated him, and he thought about the financial repercussions of being a minister.

In addition, he was married at the time to his first wife, Pat, and had four sons by age 27. They divorced, and Alexander married wife Betty 40 years ago.

Alexander switched to business and hasn't looked back.

John Craig worked for Alexander for 20 years at Sperry Corp.

"I would say he was one of the best managers I ever worked for," said Craig, now retired and living in Shawnee. "He's not afraid to make a decision."

In 1992, after 21 years at Sperry, which became Unisys Corp. in 1986, Alexander founded AOS.

Because of agreements with Unisys, he did not take over the company until 1996. His wife and sons Chris, Scott and Thatcher ran it. In 1995, youngest son Duncan came on board to run sales.

"He has just been an amazing guy to work for," Duncan Alexander said.

A couple of years ago, Duncan Alexander met one of his father's longtime friends. The friend told Duncan that 30 years earlier Gary helped him kick alcoholism. Duncan never knew this.

One of Alexander's passions is coyote hunting. As a longtime member of the Mission Valley Hunt Club, Alexander and a group of as many as 50 meet weekly to ride horses, following a group of foxhounds racing to the scent of coyotes. Rarely do the members find the target, and if they do, they just move on to the next race.

"Everybody likes Gary. He's just one of the most popular people at the hunt," said Sandy Longan, joint master of the club. "He's always happy to see you."

In February, Alexander and his wife moved to St. Petersburg, Fla. Two years ago, Betty Alexander required open-heart surgery. The surgery was a success, but they felt it best to move to a warmer climate.

Despite living full time in Florida, he flies back and forth four days a week to run the business. On a recent day, wearing brown-rimmed glasses and a blue-and-white pinstriped shirt, Alexander wandered the office saying hello to all by name and offering a warm smile.

In his office, a photograph of him with his family from a hunt many years ago rests on the wall. Trophies from his sales days perch on shelves. In the corner of a bulletin board sits a picture of him and his great-grandson, Brock. Alexander is holding the infant in the photograph.

A wide smile fills his face as he looks at the picture. With all his success, he takes pride not just in what he's done but also that he's done it with integrity and honor.

"It's part of who I am. It's part of my relationship with God," Alexander said. "I feel God has had his hand on my company. I feel blessed. I feel blessed I get to work with my sons."

GARY ALEXANDER
Title: CEO, Alexander Open Systems Inc.
Age: 67
Education: Bachelor's in history, University of Kansas; master's of divinity, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
Family: Wife, Betty; sons, Chris, 46, Scott, 44, Thatcher, 42, Matt, 40, Duncan, 38; 11 grandchildren; two great-grandchildren
Hobbies: Coyote hunting with foxhounds, being a bad golfer