People - May 2007
When shareholder activist - some say corporate raider - Carl Icahn wants to invest in their companies, many CEOs run. Not Ryan Wuerch of Durham-based Motricity Inc., which provides software that allows cell-phone and other wireless-device users to download ringtones, videos, games and other content. Despite Icahn's reputation for throwing his weight around at companies such as TWA and Motorola, Wuerch welcomes him. "He comes in and shakes things up. Someone with his track record of creating shareholder value, how can I not be excited?"
Icahn approached the company last fall, but negotiations took until late February. His $50 million investment gave him less than a 10% stake but made him one of the top five shareholders. Brett Icahn, his son, got a seat on Motricity's 10-member board. The company got cash for acquisitions and moved closer to a potential initial public offering. It has received more than $215 million in venture capital, a record for a Triangle company.
It was formed in 2004 after Wuerch merged his Nashville, Tenn.-based Power by Hand with Durham-based Pinpoint Networks. He wanted to keep the headquarters in Tennessee but was persuaded to move by his wife, Shawntel Smith, the 1996 Miss America. "Nashville is known for a lot of great things. Writing code and software is not one of them."
Born in Dallas and raised in Tulsa, Okla., Wuerch, 39, graduated from high school at 16. He spent a year at Central State University in Edmond, Okla., but dropped out because the professors were "not practical." He sold and developed real estate nearly a decade, then worked as senior vice president of a nutritional-supplement company. He left in 1997 to become president of Nashville-based Learning 2000, which sold educational software.
His inspiration to get into cell-phone software came in 2001, when the minister of his Nashville church took out a Palm Pilot and asked the congregation to turn to a Bible passage. About two dozen people did the same thing. "It was one of those defining moments." He sold his stake in Learning 2000 and began Power by Hand, focusing on software for personal digital assistants.
After the merger, he moved 20 employees to Durham, giving the new company about 60. Now, it has about 350, with 300 at its headquarters. That's down from more than 400 last year before a layoff to cut costs. Wuerch won't reveal revenue or project when the company will reach profitability.
In the past three years, Motricity has signed deals with Alltel, Cingular Wireless, MTV, NBC and CBS, among others. Another deal with Icahn may be in the works. Not that Wuerch minds. His business motto? "Always make sure you have the smartest people on the team."