Interview with David Hutchinson, owner of Columbia Computer Center

Friday, May 11, 2007 | 2:20 a.m. CDT; updated 12:36 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
David Hutchinson, owner of Columbia Computer Center, works on fixing a computer. Hutchinson started the business buying junk computers and selling them in classifieds.

Q: How did you get started in the business?

A: Buying junk computers from the university auction. I bought one pallet of computers, and the guy at the end of the auction said, ‘All right, now that’s for all seven pallets.’ I had bought seven pallets of old junk computers instead of the one I thought I was bidding on. My 60 bucks went a long way. We matched up hard drives with computers and loaded the operating systems on them and put them with monitors and keyboards and mice that worked. We sold them out of the paper for 200 bucks apiece. I was selling two to three a week before I realized it. I was working for my father at the time, and I basically said, ‘I don’t want to work for you anymore.’

About the owner/About the business

David Hutchinson, 47, is a 1979 graduate of Rock Bridge High School. He started his first business, Custom Jewelry Repair, 25 years ago. Columbia Computer Center •Computer sales and repair company •Open 5 years •9 employees •About $750,000 in sales last year •1122 Lakeview Ave. •442-9445 •

Q: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned in your business life?

A: It’s not as hard to make customers happy if you just concentrate on doing what you yourself need. Just try to fill a gap that’s there. What I needed was computer repair when I came to this town, and I went everywhere and couldn’t get anybody to even talk to me about building a custom computer or anything. And so I figured, well, this sounds like a great idea — let’s do a little research into that. I figured out what I needed to learn, and I went out and learned it. When it comes to learning what customers need, it isn’t that hard. You’re a customer yourself; you know what you need.

Q: What did you learn from the best boss you ever had? Or the worst?

A: The best thing you can do is not be an ogre. You cannot yell and scream at your employees; you have to treat them with respect. If you show your temper more than about once a month, then you’re going to lose employees because people don’t work for hotheads; they don’t work for people who boss them around and micromanage them all the time, so I don’t do that.

Q: What parts of your life have you had to give up for this job?

A: Art. I’ve been a professional artist for 20 years. Jewelry-making is a huge art form, and that’s all I did for 22 years. I miss it a lot; making something new artistically challenging every single day, that is something I have given up for the computer business.

Q: Where do you see your business in five years?

A:Hopefully two businesses. One for the north side here where we are, and one in the south side because the south side is really exploding. A lot of people come from the southern portions of Columbia up to the north, and I think it would be a lot more convenient if they could have someplace down south a little bit like the Rock Bridge area to drop it off, but the rent is just really phenomenal down there. It’s not too farfetched that I would have at least two stores — maybe even one in Jeff City. I’d have to change the name though.

Q: What makes you stop what you’re doing and say, “What am I doing here?”

A:It’s a lot of hours. I spend a long time here, and sometimes I really think I should probably spend more time at home with the family and not so much time here. My kids love to come here, and that’s a real bonus because I get to spend more time with them because they like to hang around and play games. We network six or seven computers together and have LAN parties for the kids, and they get to come in and play against their buddies.

Q: What keeps you up at night?

A: Any time something bad happens like a customer loses their data. Computers are infinitely complicated, and if somebody here misses a lick and makes a mistake, and it costs somebody a file they wanted to save or something like that, honestly that’s the worst thing that can happen here and that’s what keeps me up at night.

Q:What Columbia business do you most admire?

A:Shakespeare’s Pizza. We work with Shakespeare’s and know Kurt real well, the guy who runs it. I really like the way he runs his shop. I’ve never heard the guy raise his voice in the 10 years that I’ve known him. My sister worked for him 25 years ago and said it was a great place to work and it still is. Every time you go in there you can see that the people are not disgruntled. They’re making pizzas back there in those hot ovens and everything, and you’d think ‘Oh my god, what a horrible job,’ but they seem to be having a great time. And I’m sure it has a lot to do with management, because it always does. Columbia Billiards Center is another one. The guy’s super nice, and he runs a great place.

Q:How do you motivate/pump up the people you work with?

A: Basically it’s just being nice. Don’t tell them how to do their job. If there’s something that needs to get done, there’s a better way to do it every single time than screaming at them. I try to pay well. I work hard for the money that I make, and I give a lot of it back to the main guys here. I try and pay them better than they would be if they were working at a restaurant or something like that.

Q: Describe the ideal employee in five words or less.

A:A very patient person.

Q: What do you try to read in a day?

A:I read ancient European history. I don’t read computer manuals and technical specs on new computers and stuff. I read science fiction. I’ve read every Harry Potter. I’ve probably read at least nine major novels in the past two months, so I read a lot.

Q:How many hours do you work during an average week?

A: Probably between 50 and 60. The only day I take off is Sunday; we’re closed.

Q: If you didn’t own your business, what would you really love to be doing?

A: Oh, other than being an astronaut or a fireman, I have no real other aspirations. If money was no object, I’d be designing really cool looking computers, art computers.

Q:What’s the motto you live by as a business owner?

A:Be fair to everyone. If anybody thinks they’ve ever gotten a raw deal from me, then they just haven’t talked to me because I’ll pretty much take care of any problem that ever exists between me and a customer. You can’t run a business and sleep at night if you’re not fair with people.

Q: Who’s your greatest inspiration?

A:Leonardo da Vinci. He was way ahead of his time, and I think he definitely was someone who, if he had a little more funding and a little more modern age instead of the time frame he lived in, would have done spectacular things.

Q: How is running a business different from what you thought it would be?

A: I’ve known about government intrusion into business and all the taxes and the crap and the endless paperwork. Every time you turn around, they want more money. Right now we just paid our taxes, and it’s kind of a sore subject. How much more I could make with my own money than the government can make with my money. It’s like a silent business partner that doesn’t give anything back. It really does hurt when instead of buying something for the store, like an awning, ... we had the money all saved up for it. Well, guess who got it? The government, for their taxes. What did they give me? They sure didn’t give me an awning.

Q: Would you rather be the Donald Trump or Google guys in your field? Why?

A: Not really liking Donald Trump a whole lot. I don’t like the whole attitude.

I think the Google guys are smart and innovative. They’ve taken their software, their particular search engine, and brought it to where they’re making huge amounts of money on it now. You can’t open a computer up without seeing Google.

This interview is an occasional feature about a business in mid-Missouri.

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