Take Five is an ongoing RBTC question and answer series where we glean insights from local CEOs and technology leaders in the Roanoke-Blacksburg area.
We recently talked with James Rancourt, Founder and CEO of Polymer Solutions. James “Jim” Rancourt is a Massachusetts native who received his B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Lowell. After gaining industry experience he relocated to Blacksburg, Virginia where he earned his Ph.D. in Polymer Chemistry from Virginia Tech. He finished his Ph.D. while simultaneously starting Polymer Solutions Incorporated (PSI) in 1987.
Jim has grown PSI through complimenting his passion for helping others with his love of analytical chemistry. He has built a team of brilliant scientists and support staff which, coupled with the practice of great science, has resulted in PSI becoming the premier independent testing lab for plastics, polymers, rubbery, and metallic materials.
PSI serves companies in a broad range of market segments including the Medical, Pharmaceutical, Packaging, and Consumer Product industries. PSI’s clients range from the largest companies to small and promising innovative startups. Jim is recognized as an authority in his field and is frequently called on to provide expert testimony for a myriad of litigated matters involving manufacturing defects, design defects, misappropriation of trade secrets, failure analysis investigations, and patent infringement. He has given over 55 presentations, holds 7 United States patents, and has been published over 60 times.
Jim was also recently inducted into the Virginia Tech Entrepreneur Hall of Fame. You can read an in-depth article about Jim’s background, recent award, and Polymer Solutions here. When Jim isn’t busy at Polymer Solutions he enjoys running, biking, and spending time with his family – especially his grandchildren!
RBTC: What are some of the regional resources that have contributed to your success?
James Rancourt: Four regional resources come to mind immediately.
First, a great banking relationship with National Bank of Blacksburg. NBB has been supportive of Polymer Solutions throughout our various growth phases; from being house-based, to being located in several leased facilities within Blacksburg, and most recently with the financing of the construction of our state-of-the-art laboratory facility in Falling Branch Corporate Park in Christiansburg. With NBB and our other banking partners I have always operated on the basis of full disclosure, preemptively letting them know how the business was doing. Through the years I have heard horror stories from many businesses regarding their banking relationships. I view banks as a critical supplier to my business.
Second, the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, Polymer Solution’s first real home. We were a very early tenant in the VTCRC and located our first laboratory and office in the third building of the VTCRC. The VTCRC provided critical resources and we immediately had real business neighbors. The VTCRC also has always had great cycling and running opportunities, a trail through the woods, and was a great place for my children to visit and explore.
Third is the Roanoke Blacksburg Technology Council. The RBTC has contributed to our success over the years by providing programs with relevant content, peers with specialized experience, and events for networking. It has always been pretty easy to get experienced insights from one of the other members.
Fourth, the Montgomery County Economic Development Authority and the Town of Christiansburg have contributed to the success of Polymer Solutions. From my perspective, both organizations are refreshingly relevant and tangibly “pro business.” The EDA and the Town of Christiansburg were vital to the success of my recent construction project, created no obstacles to our progress, and offered valuable assistance and prompt responses to my many questions.
Of course, there are many other organizations and resources who have contributed to our success in addition to these specifically named.
RBTC: If you could give one piece of advice to a fellow entrepreneur, what would it be?
James Rancourt: I think it is critical for an entrepreneur to step out of their business for periods of time as a part of their growth strategy. “Stepping out” can be for an hour or two a week, or a few days a month. I believe this needs to be planned because the demands on entrepreneurial endeavors is consuming of all resources; time, energy, finances, and potentially even relationships. It can be addicting and even a bit of maladaptively fulfilling to “work all the time.” Participating in RBTC events was my first proactive step toward getting outside of my business for some new insights and perspectives, to meet people, and to find out what else was going on in the world. I tell people that I waited far too long to take this simple first step. There is an appropriate time to have one’s “nose to the grind stone” but I have learned it should not be all the time. With regard to “stepping out of the business” I took this to a bit of an extreme this past year by embarking on a CEO sabbatical. I was completely detached from work for 50 days; not running or looking at financial reports, not dealing with timesheets and other administrative functions, not checking emails, and not interacting with clients. It was a huge break from the daily grind, offered bigger than usual growth opportunities for several of my key staff, and transformed how I now work in my nearly 30 year old company. Right here, right now, I challenge the reader to plan periods of time to step out of the business for an hour our two a week or a few days a month. If you have been running a business for more than 10 years with virtually no break, consider a sabbatical as a way to gain new energy, focus, and insights.
RBTC: What is one lesson you have learned over time that has made an impact on your business’ day-to-day operations?
James Rancourt: In my business I have tried to focus on excellence, not perfection. This became easier to do as I saw the results of this change in mindset. It is much easier to delegate tasks and business functions when the expectation of performance is topped out at excellence. In business, the amount of time and money available to advance projects is usually in the realm of an excellent solution more so than a perfect solution. It is a risk to most businesses for a mindset of perfection to prevail. Of course, the level of excellence needs to be balanced with risk.
RBTC: What makes the Roanoke-Blacksburg region such a good fit for your company?
James Rancourt: I moved to Blacksburg in 1983 “for a few years” to attend graduate school at Virginia Tech. As I was nearing the completion of my degree I did the normal round of interviews across the country. There was no other place that I visited that had the characteristics that I had come to appreciate in our region. A significant factor in me starting Polymer Solutions was simply to stay in this area. The Roanoke-Blacksburg region had specific characteristics that were a good fit for my company. In the early years, the ability to collaborate with researchers at Virginia Tech and to purchase analytical services were critical to the success of my company. The VTCRC created a great environment for my business by providing a lot of critical infrastructure that at the time I did not have the time, money, or skill to have implemented on my own.
RBTC: How would you like to see the Roanoke-Blacksburg region develop over the next 5 years?
James Rancourt: I would like to see the Roanoke-Blacksburg region to find its unique and collective “voice.” If we do a great job understanding all of the aspects about the Roanoke-Blacksburg region that are unique to this region, all the strengths and weakness, the natural environment, the collection of businesses, and the people who make up this region, our region should prosper. If we do this really well, perhaps the Roanoke-Blacksburg region will be a leader and set trends that others will want to emulate.
The other characteristic of the Roanoke-Blacksburg region is the level of connectedness. There are significant differences between Roanoke and Blacksburg. A clear understanding of the “features and benefits” of both communities may foster a stronger message to others.