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Up Close | Diana LaTour

She once described the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Central Florida as, “The Wild, Wild East.” A vivid description coming from a true Silicon Valley veteran whose resume for founding, building and exiting one successful technology, healthcare or communications company after another puts her in a very elite class. Since moving to Orlando she has been deploying her vast experience to mentor not only the startup community, but business and economic development leaders in attracting investment capital to stimulate the local Trep environment. In addition to the numerous boards and companies LaTour serves as an advisor to, she is an Operating Partner for the Minneapolis based LFE Capital, which was founded by Leslie Frecon ,the former CFO of General Mills.

EW: Your career sounds fascinating. Tell me about the journey.

DL: I was always interested in business; my mother was a VP of Union Bank, so I grew up in an environment where it was very natural for me to develop an inclination in that direction — it was household conversation. I majored in math because that was where I had aptitude and psyche because of my interest in organizational structures, not people on couches (smiling). At USC they allowed me to do a dual masters in math and behavioral psychology, with a business administration minor. Later I went to Harvard in their Advanced Management program.

I worked for IBM as an undergrad and upon graduation they made me a systems engineer. At the time IBM was under a consent agreement from the government to hire women for 25 percent of their technical positions. I was in the right place at the right time. I didn’t set out to be in high tech, in fact at that time there was no computer science degree, it was pure luck. IBM was looking for people with mathematics and musical ability. It was all about logical thinking and I fit the bill.

EW: Describe your first entrepreneurial venture.

DL: At IBM I worked with universities, the movie industry and the first IBM 360. Then I was involved in some technology companies, before launching a startup with my brother. He was an optical specialist, working on a patent for the manufacture of molds to cast multi-vision (what we now call progressive) plastic lenses. To raise capital, we bought an optical dispensing company, completed the patent and then sold the company to American Optical in 1968.

Several years later I did a frozen food company, Chateau LaTour. My husband used to like to cook quiches and croissants and a friend who owned a health food store in Long Beach asked if he would make them for their restaurant. It just grew from there and we started a company which ended up supplying to institutions, which we sold to S.E. Rykoff.

EW: In perusing your resume, it repeats, I don’t know how many times, ‘founded…acquired by…, founded…acquired by,’ over and over. Was that your strategy from the outset?

DL: It was more circumstantial. With the optical business, we had to find a company to whom we could license the patent, which became the company that acquired us. That planted the seed. The same was true with Chateau LaTour. In the 70s my thought was to do IPOs, but all my advisors said, ‘You really don’t want to do that. You’re better off selling.’

It became how I approached all venture capitalists or investors; I told them I don’t plan to make a public offering, but to spend two to three years building the company and driving value for acquisition. I always courted my strategic partner right at the beginning. It made it easier to fund companies, because I knew and investors knew what I needed to get that company to a certain valuation, and we usually had an existing relationship with a potential acquisition partner. When that is your goal, you manage the company differently.

EW: What attracts you to a company or an idea that could be a company?

DL: My first question is, ‘Does it really solve a problem or provide a benefit?’ Take for example, ContourPak. A woman developed a gel that when the cold pack was frozen, it was pliable. She had a patent on the product and she designed it in a package that conformed to your knee or elbow, held on with Velcro. Having been a skier I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ice-packed my knees. When I saw it I thought, ‘That is something worthwhile.’

I’m not so much the idea person, I’m the executor; though I may be a founder, in all likelihood the product concept didn’t come from me.

EW: In that formative and growth stage, what is your primary role?

DL: I’m the team builder and the strategist. I’m one of those rare people that can go from ten thousand feet and drop to an inch, look at the big picture and then ask what is the next step? I’m the one who usually builds the team, sets up the structure, defines and clarifies the market, makes sure the product or service is clearly executed. Then I go looking for the strategic partner to sell to.

EW: What are the keys to building successful teams?

DL: Each member needs in depth knowledge of their area of responsibility. If they are technologists or engineers, they have to have subject knowledge, but they also need managerial expertise; that is sometimes a real challenge. Marketing is essential, so I look for someone at the top of their game; the same with finance, they safeguard your profitability. Then you have to ensure the team meshes.

EW: Okay, and how do you do that?

DL: I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked that question and I still haven’t come up with a good answer. I guess in my case it is intuitive. I do use DISC and other systems to evaluate people’s fit and compatibility. Also, I have no qualms about firing someone if they don’t mesh or meet expectations. The CEO’s job isn’t to be popular, but to make the company successful. No matter how good you are, some won’t work out and you’ve got to cut them loose.

EW: On the strategic side, how do you maintain that balance of seeing the big picture while knowing the next steps?

DL: The CEOs I coach are sometimes so narrowly focused they lose sight of the larger picture. You have to have a visioning session with the team and ask, ‘What is this going to look like?’ If everyone agrees it is a $50 million company, what will that look like, how many people will it take, what kind of resources will we need, what products will we introduce? Then what will it take to get there?

EW: You were in Silicon Valley during its most formative growth years. What was it like?

DL: A friend introduced me to a venture capitalist, Henry McCance the founder of Graylock, which is the oldest VC firm in the country, started in Boston. He opened a door for me in 1981, then introduced me to a VC firm in the Valley. At that time everything moved at the speed of light. In the 80s and early 90s there was so much money, because so many millionaires had been created. You could go to Sandhill Road and talk to 50 VCs and never leave the same parking lot. All of the technology was new and quickly evolving. The 2001 bust really matured the Valley, along with the whole Dotcom era. The difference between Silicon Valley and other places is the money and the risk tolerance is there.   

EW: What was it that attracted you to here?

DL: I moved here to stay with a friend and sort out my next steps. But was amazed at what I found when I came here — it was totally unanticipated. When I first moved to the community I read about a company graduating out of the UCF Incubator. I had experience with incubators in the Valley particularly, a non-profit we founded called the Enterprise Network. When I offered to volunteer at UCF I found out about how many incubators there were in the area; in the Valley we only had one, UCF alone has almost a dozen. It was mind boggling to me; not only that, but state and local governments are helping to fund it.

The only thing this area lacked was an abundance of early stage money. That led me to get involved with a number of organizations that are all focusing in on this need. The difference in this area is people are very open to introducing you to others here; in the Valley it was very proprietary. Another difference, the focus is on employment and jobs; in the Valley it is wealth creation.

What we need to do is to tell the world what is going on here, the other half people don’t know about. We don’t celebrate our amazing successes, but we need to. We also need to focus on the second stage companies and develop them. The potential is all here, we just have to get the word out.     

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About the author

i4 Business

i4 Business magazine has become one of the most trusted voices for and about the Central Florida business community. Each month through our print and digital platforms, we provide access to meet, to learn from and to learn about some of the incredible entrepreneurs and business leaders who are shaping our region.

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