Historical Profile

Pack a Mac
Mac trainer makes stops all over the Southeast
by Ruth M. Bizot

hprof18This week, it’s horse breeders in Kentucky. Next week, it might be Carolina chiropractors or Georgia school teachers or Coast Guard technicians. The view from Jimmy Davies’ station wagon window is constantly changing.

Davies is founder and owner of MacMasters, a computer software training company based in Newport News. His clients all own Macintosh computers, they all need help to use them effectively, and they’re all over the map. Davies routinely covers an eight-state region with his customized classes.

Life on the road can be lonely, this Michigan native admits, but it has its rewards. You meet some nice people. You really do. There’s the North Carolina doctor who raises reptiles and amphibians, hundreds of them, as a hobby. Turtles in the back yard, alligators in the basement, recalls Davies, who helped the doctor set up an animal inventory database. There’s the South Carolina rug importer who also tracks her inventory more efficiently thanks to Davies’ patient tutoring. And a team of radiologists at Duke University who now use their Macs to interpret X-rays more accurately.

You have to learn what they do so you can help them, Davies says. I’m learning about rugs one week. Another week, about horses. Recently, on a swing through Kentucky, Davies helped staff at both Keeneland Race Track and renowned Calumet Horse Farm establish better record-keeping systems for racing and breeding. All of Davies’ courses are hands-on and customized for the client.

Despite his love for his Macintoshes, Davies is not your typical hacker. For one thing, he grew up B.C., before computers. In this type of business, I’m on the high end for age, says Davies. After college, he took his applied mathematics degree to work for the Social Security Administration as a claims representative. The work was steady, but not exciting. Looking back on it, it’s pretty obvious I always wanted to go into business for myself.

Eventually, Davies had enough of offices, time cards and somebody else’s schedule. In 1984 he quit his steady job, cashed in his retirement fund and moved to Hampton Roads to start his own business, a full-time janitorial service that he ran successfully for about five years.

Computers were almost an afterthought. Looking for a computer for his business, he visited a friend who sold Macs in Williamsburg. And that was it, he recalls. I remember the day. I remember exactly what the screen looked like. I was amazed.

The graphics were unlike anything he’d ever seen before, and he was hooked. Finally, he knew. Yeah, that’s what I wanted to do.

Four months later, in January 1988, he started MacMasters before he’d even bought his first Mac. He has about a dozen now. I call them my kids, he says, and he treats them with personalized attention. With his beloved Macintosh family stowed in the back of his station wagon, Davies takes training on the road: Charles Kuralt with a technical flair.

Selling his services was tough, in the beginning. Especially on Macs, which were supposed to be easy. DOS-based training companies were springing up like mushrooms, Davies says, but nobody was doing Macs then.

MacMasters landed its first real job, a training project for NASA, about six months after the company began. Since then, the work has built steadily. He’s conducted training for every branch of the military and for every school district in Hampton Roads, from Sussex County to Newport News, as well as many in other states.

Initially, growth seemed important to Davies, as it does to many entrepreneurs. He hired instructors and clerical staff, established offices in Oyster Point, paid rent and salaries and overhead. But big isn’t always better. I learned the hard way, he recalls. These days, he does most of the training himself. He has a back-up instructor who works with him as needed, and contracts with an administrative assistant to manage the business when he’s on the road.

I make less, but I keep more, and I don’t have the headaches that I had before, he says. This is much better.

Davies advertises mostly through direct mail, using ZIP code-specific mailing lists purchased from specialized magazines such as MacWorld and MacUser. He targets each state in his territory in turn, this time all of South Carolina, the next time Georgia or Alabama. While cities as big as Atlanta have their own Mac trainers, he explains, the medium-sized ones don’t: There’s nobody in Macon, Georgia; there’s nobody in Louisville, Kentucky. Birmingham, Montgomery, Charlotte and Raleigh are all on his regular route.

Classes are kept small, usually no more than eight. Davies sets up shop near his clients, often in hotel meeting rooms, sometimes in onsite conference facilities.

There’s a down-home feel to Davies’ operations. He designs and produces his own flyers. When it’s time to do a mailing, he recruits Denbigh high school students, bringing them in on a Saturday to fold and stuff and stamp. They get paid. His flyers get mailed. Everybody gets pizza.

Change is the only real certainty in the computer world, as Davies knows only too well. Apple Computer, maker of his beloved Macintoshes, is known as much for turbulence and conflict as it is for innovation. The computer itself will be around for a long time, Davies believes, but he’s less sure about the parent company. I think the Mac has saved Apple over the years, he says. People love the computer so much they buy it anyway.

Uncertainty about Apple’s future has actually helped Davies’ business over the last year. It’s made the demand for me greater, he explains. People aren’t getting into the Mac training business.

While the long-term picture is unclear, he isn’t particularly worried. He has enough to do just keeping up with all the software. A year ago, he says, there were approximately 8,000 pieces of Macintosh software. There are probably 10,000 now. Nobody can be an expert on every piece, he says, though clients often expect that. After a while, they think you know everything, and you don’t. You can’t.

A good trainer, Davies believes, needs patience even more than expertise. Patience, common sense and the ability to explain things in easy, everyday terms.

I’m not a technical whiz, he says. That’s not it at all. I’m the bridge between the high-end technical stuff and what you really need to know.

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