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OFFICE WORKS: `MIDLIFE CRISIS’ SPAWNS NEW FIRM - A THRIVING, GROWING YOUNGSTER

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When Gerald L. Unzicker had his midlife crisis five years ago, he didn't buy a motorcycle, take up hang gliding or run off to Mexico to find the meaning of life. Instead, he launched a new business.

"I wanted to try something new, something different. And at the same time, I wanted to build on my administrative strengths," he recalls of his decision to become an entrepreneur.Today, Unzicker's midlife crisis is long past, but OfficeWorks Inc., the business he launched with his family in 1985, is doing just fine.

Actually, better than fine. OfficeWorks has become the largest company in Utah specializing in executive office suites, tele-messaging and general business services.

While his competitors - mainly real estate developers looking for a quick way to fill empty space - usually concentrate on a single project, OfficeWorks controls 80 suites in three downtown locations.

At City Centre (also known as the Chamber of Commerce Building) OfficeWorks has 8,000 square feet under lease; at Triad Center it has 11,000; and at the Boston Building 6,500. For now, that's plenty, says Unzicker.

"Right now the market is good and we have demand for our downtown space. For future expansion, I'd like to open up in South Valley," he said.

Unzicker said he gets a lot of calls from developers who want him to come into their buildings, but he turns down almost all of those requests. "We don't want to spread ourselves too thin," he notes, pointing to the many startup companies that grew themselves into bankruptcy in their initial years.

Ironically, Unzicker says his biggest mistake in launching OfficeWorks - originally named The Office Staff - was in getting off to too good a start.

"We started with too much money," he said. "We didn't stay as lean and mean as necessary to generate more profits sooner. Never overestimate cash flow."

But the company overcame that unanticipated hurdle and profits went from "dismal to very respectable."

How did Unzicker make the turnaround? "By placing a heavy emphasis on service. We give the customer what he or she wants. We always have something new - like our telemessaging system - on the horizon."

It seems to be working. OfficeWorks' sales grew 80 percent from year one to year three, and year five was double year three. The company expects a 40 percent gain in 1990.

The typical OfficeWorks tenant is a one to-three-person business that needs all of the support services of a typical office - operating space, telephone answering, secretarial help, copies, faxing and postage - but doesn't want or need the capital outlay and overhead costs of going it alone. Often, they can lease an OfficeWorks suite and its accompanying amenities for the cost of a secretary alone.

A startup company, a professional firm or a branch of a larger corporation are likely candidates. OfficeWorks tenants include Oracle Corp., Westinghouse, Maritz Motivation, GE Capital, Tracy-Locke Advertising, Encore Computer Corp., Lexpertise and Bailey Controls Co., among others.

Unzicker believes there is also great potential for those who don't want an office but desire a state-of-the-art telephone messaging service. To that end, he is upgrading his "voice mailbox" system with installation of a $50,000 Amtelco PC-MX system which he describes as the most sophisticated in the nation. It differs from a traditional phone answering service, he says, because it offers so many options:

- As soon as someone calls in, the computer screen automatically flashes the name of the company being called, along with a detailed description of its products or services.

- The screen also conveys temporary "scratch pad" messages left by the subscriber such as "at lunch until 2 p.m." or "page me if Mark calls."

- The system allows callers to talk directly with a live operator, to either leave a message with that operator or to record a detailed message on a voice mail system. The live operator can even record conversations with the caller if that's requested.

- During a check-in call, a voice tells the client how many voice and how many secretarial messages are waiting. The client can immediately listen to the voice messages, then push a button and talk to a telephone secretary.

Unzicker expects the new telemessaging system to add up to 500 new clients to his business and alleviate his current dependence on office tenants for his income.

"The secret of the office suite business is keeping occupancy up," said Unzicker, "and you need to be able to expand the business without committing yourself to a lot more real estate. That's the beauty of the telemessaging system, you can expand your base without a lot of risk that comes from taking down new space."

Unzicker, his wife Lee (who handles bookkeeping for the company) and daughters Lynn and Cheryl, are originally from Chicago where Gerald earned a degree in electrical engineering. Before coming to Utah, Unzicker had worked 12 years in Philadelphia with Leeds & Northrup Co. That firm later transferred him to Salt Lake City where it has a facility at the Salt Lake International Center. From there, came Unzicker's decision to go out on his own.

Unzicker believes that as goes Utah's economy, so goes OfficeWorks, and thus far he's optimistic. "We're encouraged by our current high occupancy rates, which are driven largely by Fortune 1000 companies. Current occupancy rates are 100 percent at City Centre, 94 percent at Triad Center and 60 percent at the Boston Building, our newest facility."

What does the future hold for OfficeWorks? "Three years from now, I picture this company as stable, with a well-trained management team and staff. I picture us as Utah's dominant firm in telemessaging, as well as executive suites. Ten years from now, I picture us as a multistate operation via acquisition or franchising."