Knowledge Center

Banking on KC - Lenora Payne of Technology Group Solutions

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us for this episode. It's a special milestone for Banking on KC because this episode is our 150th, and we're so grateful to you, to all of our listeners who tune in each week to learn more about the people and the organizations that are shaping Kansas City. We truly appreciate your support. Our guest today, Lenora Payne, has certainly been shaping the technology industry here in Kansas City and the region for coming up on 20 years. She is the CEO of Technology Group Solutions, also known as TGS. Lenora, welcome to our 150th episode, and a special congratulations to you, too, on your recent top ranking in The Business Journals' list of minority-owned businesses. That's quite an achievement.

Lenora Payne:

Thank you very much. It's not me. It's the whole team.

Kelly Scanlon:

Well, that sounds like you. No wonder you're doing so well. Let's talk about technology first. It is so broad. It can mean so many things. Talk to us about where TGS fits into the technology world. What niche do you serve?

Lenora Payne:

TGS provides a broad portfolio of quality IT service and solutions for today's business environment. We offer a variety of product and solutions to our clients. It could be sourcing of hardware, software, security, which is top now, cloud computing, network solutions, storage, and we got a cabling division that does low-voltage infrastructure and cabling. We do short and long-term projects, so I say TGS is a cradle-to-grave solution in the IT business.

Kelly Scanlon:

One of the things that I find fascinating about your origin story, Lenora, about the origin of TGS is that, and really goes to your tenaciousness that you talked about before, you were ready to retire, basically. From what I understand, or what I remember about your story, you were in a good place, and you could retire, and you still had a long life ahead of you, and then you started a business. Why did you? What made you do that?

Lenora Payne:

I had worked so hard in all those years. I had built me a custom-made home and my boys were grown and I started TGS. Isn't that stupid?

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah, but what was the opportunity?

Lenora Payne:

Well, what started all of this at the time. There was a large telecommunication company called United Telecom in Kansas City. Like I said, I was an inside support rep, and they had just gotten bought by a company called Sprint, and they would ask me, "Hey, Lenora, do you know a minority that cut grass, IT, paint, or anything?" "No." They just keep coming back asking, and they always asked about IT, and so back in 2004, maybe '04, or early '05, one of the guys I supported, Frank Martin and Doug Floersch, we all worked together at another IT company sitting around drinking coffee, shooting a breeze, and we all decided to start TGS. That's what started it, that launched communication company. It was a push for diversity spend to help minority businesses grow and we took the plunge and I have never regretted it. Never regretted it.

Kelly Scanlon:

Lenora, what inspired you to become an entrepreneur?

Lenora Payne:

I would say it was my mother growing up. We would go to garage sales, and it was to get clothes, so my mother store buying clothes for people that's not in our size at home. I said, what are you doing? She says, "I think I'm going to open up a business," so she started selling used clothes. Then one day she was at a garage sale and found some antiques and that started a whole new business. My mother gave up the clothing business and focused on antiques and jewelry. She taught herself the business and I am so proud that she did that. I love antique jewelry. That's my weakness. But if it wasn't for my mother, I don't think I would've ever done this, stepping out like she did. It was my mother. I owe her a lot.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah, so she inspired you, she picked up some of her entrepreneurial traits, and importantly, I think this is something that a lot of entrepreneurs don't realize when they get started, is that when you're running a business, it was going to be a lot of hard work. Some people have a glamorous idea of entrepreneurship and business ownership, but you knew better because I bet you were working with your mom, too.

Lenora Payne:

Yes. It's a lot of hard work. You don't cut it off from 8:00 to 5:00, no.

Kelly Scanlon:

Exactly. Here, now you are, you own a multimillion-dollar business. You get lots of recognition, write-ups, and publicity. You win lots of awards. But I'm sure it hasn't always been easy. People see all the accolades and they don't see what goes on underneath the surface. How have you maintained that steady, sustainable year-over-year growth, Lenora?

Lenora Payne:

I tell my employees, "Follow through. Kansas City is so small everybody knows everybody. If you mess up something, your name will be out there, so follow through." That's how we get a lot of referrals because they know what we can do and we're going to follow through and do it on time, and everything is not perfect. If you gonna see a hiccup on the way, just be upfront with the client and say, "Hey, such and such happened and it won't be available until such and such day." Just keep them abreast. What's going on, follow through. That's the main thing.

Kelly Scanlon:

It sounds simple, but it's really difficult, especially when you've grown to the number of employees that you have to continue to get that message out there to all of them, and to continue that kind of a culture can be difficult. About five years ago, I'm thinking it was around 2017, TGS moved into a larger space, and that was so that you could accommodate a Midwest Technology Center. Tell us about your goals for that center and where things stand now with it.

Lenora Payne:

We moved into a facility a little over 22,000 square feet and roughly 50% of it's warehousing and the remaining is offices and conference room. Our whole goal was to get the community aware of IT. We work a lot with Centriq Training Facility. About a year ago, TGS started a SHIPS program. We wanted to help inner city kids get into IT. We work with the Kansas City Missouri School District and the KCK School District for high school kids to let them know what's available in IT. It's just not always hardware, what people think of, it's software, how to install it, and everything. It's the CEO challenge here in Kansas City where 12 large companies have committed to help us to grow the IT with minority individuals and it's taken off and it's really developing and helping us quite a bit. Here at the Midwest Technology Center, we'll bring them in, give them an overview on a day-to-day what's going on in it world.

Kelly Scanlon:

Okay. Do they get a chance to work on real-world projects, then?

Lenora Payne:

Yes.

Kelly Scanlon:

Wow.

Lenora Payne:

I mean, if you break, fix, you want to fix a computer install software, we're teaching them how to do that. It's an apprenticeship program for them and I'm hoping that they will continue and grow and finally say, "Hey, I want to be in IT when I grow up, too." It's just not for high school students, so I hope they really stay into this field

Kelly Scanlon:

When it comes to delivering services, you've likened your company to a candy bar. Explain what you're talking about when you say that, Lenora.

Lenora Payne:

Okay. Everybody likes a candy bar, so you're delivering and you're going to eat that whole candy bar. That's what it is. You're enjoying chunking down, especially chocolate and nuts, that's my weakness. That's what it is. I'm enjoying eating my candy bar.

Kelly Scanlon:

When you open up a candy bar, you commit to the whole darn thing.

Lenora Payne:

Exactly. Exactly.

Kelly Scanlon:

When you're there delivering exactly when you're out there delivering services, you're committing to from A to Z, making sure that customer's happy.

Lenora Payne:

Right, and don't drop a piece of chocolate. That is correct.

Kelly Scanlon:

It's way too valuable.

Lenora Payne:

Yes.

Kelly Scanlon:

That's right, that's right. As you've grown, Lenora, what resources have you tapped into here in Kansas City in order to expand?

Lenora Payne:

Networking, to spread the word about. If we're looking for engineers, admin support, even the clients through the chamber events, we're a member of a lot of the chambers, and a lot of our staff are out there just networking. You'd be surprised people that you run into.

Kelly Scanlon:

You have really taken advantage of a lot of the, like you said, the chambers, the Women's Business Center. And so many of the resources here in Kansas City

Lenora Payne:

Yep. Get out there and network with, like you said, the women's group, and the chambers. That's how you spread the word, they get to know you.

Kelly Scanlon:

You've cultivated a winning culture among your team, you just alluded to that just a bit, but expand on that. What is the core to that culture? How have you created that?

Lenora Payne:

We do have a superior team. One thing I like about the TGS family, we all get along. I see if we're working on a project and someone quite don't understand that there is someone they could ask and that person will step up and help that individual, I don't care if it's IT, admin, or whatever. It's just like a family here.

Kelly Scanlon:

You've said before on many occasions that you've been the only woman or the only minority in the room, so what advice do you have for other women and entrepreneurs of color who are trying to break into the tech industry?

Lenora Payne:

Don't be afraid. You're going to make some mistakes, but once you make a mistake, you'll correct it, and you'll follow through. It's not easy. I started in IT over, oh, Kelly, I'm telling my age, over 40 years ago, and I was an inside support rep. I would do server configuration, only minority, and a woman, and it was hard, but long as you follow through, people will respect you.

Kelly Scanlon:

Tell us about your relationship TGS relationship with the African American Cisco Partner Community.

Lenora Payne:

Sure. Cisco in the United States looked at all their African American partners and only eight that Cisco reached out to us based on our goals. They have committed 50 million to these eight partners over the next five years to continue our growth. Well, I should say four years now left. Like engineers, if I need engineers on my staff, I just, "Hey, this is what I need to increase our growth. I need to get engineers. I need to get technical people. I need to get salespeople." $50 million cisco has committed, so I'm very, very proud of the TGS family, and I'm the only female, so that says a lot. I am so proud of our staff.

Kelly Scanlon:

When you say that if you needed an engineer, you would have access, does that mean that you would have the funds to go hire those engineers, or does that mean that they have a pool you can tap into, a talent pool you can tap into?

Lenora Payne:

Both.

Kelly Scanlon:

Both?

Lenora Payne:

If we have somebody, they would provide us funding for their salaries and training and so forth. I am just very, very fortunate we have this opportunity because it is so hard to find people. The last couple of years, everybody has been struggling, and with this commitment through Cisco, all we're going to do is continue to grow our business.

Kelly Scanlon:

You're well-known in the business community, not just for your business prowess, you have some very big customers like the Kansas City Chiefs, and some of the other well-known names, but you're also well-known for your philanthropy, especially for your support of organizations that benefit women and children. Why is that important to you?

Lenora Payne:

Well, as growing up back in the early '60s, and being a minority, you were rejected all the time, and I know how it feels to be on that side, so I always try to give back to women and children because I want to block that stereotype. Being out and networking, you see women and kids, especially kids that have a disability, and people kind of turn their face away from them. I just want to spread the word, you need to give back to the community. They're human, just like you are, so that's why I do it, for the women and children, because I know what they're going through, and I've been there.

Kelly Scanlon:

Sure, so helping to build that self-worth and confidence and when you start with individuals, but then it becomes a community-wide people throughout the community then benefit from the skills and the talents that those people have, right.

Lenora Payne:

You hit it right, Kelly.

Kelly Scanlon:

Why do you stay in Kansas City, Lenora, as your business has become more and more successful, as TGS' footprint expands? I mean, I think you have offices now in four markets. Why do you choose to stay here in Kansas City?

Lenora Payne:

I've traveled all over the United States and overseas, vacation and everything, but Kansas City is so friendly. You see people, they always smile. Men open up the door for you. Kansas City is a happy city. That's why I love Kansas City. I think about moving. I said, "No." Maybe it's the four seasons we get, except for the winter one, but Kansas City is a friendly city, clean city, and I like it here, and I think that's what keeps me here.

Kelly Scanlon:

What's the future for TGS?

Lenora Payne:

Oh, we'll continue to grow. I have a lot of good people here. A lot of people refer other people to come work for us and even clients refer other clients here, so we'll continue to grow and expand. I just want us to see how big the business will continue to grow.

Kelly Scanlon:

Wish you the best of luck with that growth. Thank you for all that you are doing, not just from a business standpoint, but from a community standpoint too, with getting urban children involved in IT, and with all of the support that you provide to organizations that serve women and children. Thank you so much, Lenora.

Lenora Payne:

Thank you, Kelly.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Lenora Payne for meeting our guest on this 150th milestone episode of Banking on KC. Like the other innovators, entrepreneurs, civic leaders, and nonprofit professionals who have been guests on this podcast, Lenora's grit and determination have not only driven her business' success, but also improved Kansas City, this place we call home. When we launched Banking on KC three years ago, our goal was to shine a light on the people who shape our community, who step up to create a better experience for everyone economically, socially, and culturally. As we celebrate the 150th episode of Banking on KC, we say thank you to our guests, to our listeners, and to everyone in this community who changes Kansas City for the better each day in ways large and small. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, Member FDIC.

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