Princeton Financial Systems: A Memoir

Having worked with some masterful brand developers and marketers, I’ve come to realize that corporate brands mean something. Businesses spend years building their reputations through their commitment to clients and their commitment to employees. The ideals of a business are imprinted on their brand by the actions of each and every employee. This week the Princeton Financial Systems website closes down as the brand is decommissioned to become part of the larger State Street Global Exchange community. I grew up professionally at Princeton Financial Systems or PFS as we called it, having spent over 19 years working there. I started at PFS as a software developer and team leader and departed a little over three years ago as its CTO. It is fair to say that I could not have developed into a business-focused technology leader if not for my time at PFS. There is not a week that goes by where I don’t apply a lesson learned from my years there. I feel it is fitting to mark the passing of the PFS name by sharing some of those lessons.

Having Fun

I interviewed at PFS in 1993. This was about a year after they received venture capital funding and was a period of high growth. I was part of a major wave of new hires. After two rounds of interviews, I found myself face to face in an interview with Jerry Finsen, one of the two co-founders of the company and the technical brains behind the operation. Jerry did not ask me anything about my background or skills. Rather, he was curious about my opinion of the new hardware and software suite he was assembling for his new sailboat. We had an entertaining and animated discussion about the computing and networking technology of the day and how he intended to use it to outfit his boat. I recalled that we laughed a lot during that interview. While I found the interview odd at the time, I realized later that Jerry was gauging my passion for technology. He knew that I had passed interview muster with the others at PFS, and he wanted to see where I truly stood with my chosen trade. He valued passion as well as skill. PFS was populated by passionate and skillful people!

Not too much later and after I was offered and accepted the job, Jerry and I discussed work at PFS. He noted how much fun he was having and told me, “Why would you want to work at a job that wasn’t fun?” PFS was a fun place. We worked hard to grow the client base as is typical of a company in the “take-off“ stage striving to go public or get acquired. We played hard too. I remember working late nights and weekends while laughing and joking over great meals brought in from “Chicken Holiday” and other local eateries. We had company outings at the Hopewell Valley Country Club as well as golf and softball leagues. While the annual user group conferences were serious business, we always took time out to have fun!

Commitment to Clients

Early during my time at PFS, I had been working with a particularly challenging client. One particular day after having had a difficult phone call, I mention to a colleague about the difficult client. One of the network engineers sitting nearby and without turning from his monitor, quipped, “Remember that those clients pay your paycheck.” I can still hear those words from Rich Fox to this day. He had been one of the early employees and had built the technical computing infrastructure that supported the business. He cared deeply about clients and never forgot (or let anyone else forget) from whence our bread was buttered.

In addition to supporting clients who hosted the software themselves, Rich took the business from its early days hosting the product on our servers in a client service bureau through the Application Service Provider days and later to the SaaS era. Starting with a “server in a closet” model, Rich shepherded the PFS infrastructure to a tier 3 professional data center. In all those years, here never lost his passion and commitment. Rich was typical of PFS employees who always maintained a sharp line of sight to clients and supported the business by expertly serving them. Rich died in February 2010 while shoveling snow. He was my friend and a respected colleague. He was among the best of PFS, and I think of him often!

Enriching Partnerships

As with many new software products, they are built to serve a niche. PFS was no exception when they pioneered the automation of insurance regulatory accounting and reporting. PFS built it, and they came. However, PFS was more than just a product vendor. The hallmark of the company was building deep abiding relationships with clients. Scott Ferrante was the COO at PFS for many years and presided over the building of the core functionality of the product and growing the support organization for the client community.

Scott coined the term “Squeeze a Vendor, Hug a Partner.” He was keenly aware that partnerships were the key to sustaining relationships. The partnership ethic differentiated vendors who just sold wares from partners who were invested in the mutual success of both the clients as well as the company. Scott imbued the organization with that ethos from top to bottom.  PFS customer care was top shelf and reached from sales and product management through to the software development organization to the business and technical help desks. Scott was never afraid to make hard decisions when it came to clients. Those decisions were always tempered through the lens of partnerships and mutual client/company benefit.

A Company with a Heart and Soul

Jim Russo, the long-time company CEO was once asked what his job was at PFS. His answer was simple, “To keep sneakers on the feet of the employee’s children.” Jim was a savvy and hard-nosed businessman. At the same time, he was dedicated to each and every PFS employee. I had the privilege of reporting directly to Jim for over ten years as CTO. Jim was my mentor, and Jim continues to be my friend.

Jim believed in the management principle of “subsidiarity.” Simply put, this meant that he wanted decisions made closest to the point of effect, i.e., at the lowest level of the company where possible since the people at that level were closest to and most knowledgeable about the problems. He knew that employees needed to be armed with the information needed to make good business decisions then supported in making and executing on those decisions. Jim embodied this in abundance. I think much of the success of PFS was directly related to well-informed employees making the right decisions at the right time. I’ve never forgotten Jim’s lessons and continue to do my best to apply them today.

Times weren’t always idyllic at PFS, and we went through some rough patches where we had to make hard decisions regarding staff allocations in a global environment. Jim’s direction was clear: We must maintain the dignity of the individual regardless of the circumstance. Maintaining employee dignity continues to be a valuable lesson in an era of a mobile workforce and reduced corporate loyalties in the face of a global workforce. While some left the company under unhappy circumstances, most left with their dignity intact.

In my opinion, Jim was the heart and soul of the company. He was an ethical leader who was not afraid to make hard choices. However, he never forgot that PFS was made up of committed and well-intended people who deserved respect and compassion. I learned most of what I know about management from Jim, and I am grateful to have worked for such as him!

Thank You and Best Wishes!

Businesses are made up of people focused on a common vision, driven by a common mission, and striving toward a common goal. The people at PFS were smart, passionate, committed, and compassionate. They deeply cared about their customers as well as each other. PFS was about leveraging technology to serve business, respecting and partnering with clients, empowering employees to do their best and treating them with dignity, and having fun while doing it! PFS was a proving ground for talent and a forge that tempered many into better business and technology leaders. There are many notable CEOs, COOs, and CTOs counted among their alumni, and many new businesses arose around them. I am proud and grateful to have been part of the PFS experience.

To my former PFS colleagues, I want to thank you for sharing the PFS journey and enriching my life and career. Without you, I would be less than I am. To those who remain in service of Princeton Financial Systems’ clients and products, I wish you success in the next phase of your journey!

Best,

Charlie