Vinod Chachra, PhD

Even the most seasoned entrepreneurs would bow to Vinod Chachra’s work ethic, and certainly to his investment in shoe leather. That’s because Chachra, as the president and CEO of VTLS Inc. — the first spinoff from Virginia Tech and the first tenant of the Corporate Research Center (CRC) — spent a big chunk of time in the early days writing letters and crossing the globe, pitching to people he’d never met. This cold calling approach is not for the faint of heart.

His efforts over three decades prompted the Virginia House of Delegates to issue its own citation singling out Chachra’s work in February of 2014. The General Assembly passed the unique House Joint Resolution 405, citing its “respect and admiration for his commitment to the advancement and development of innovative technology in the Commonwealth and around the world.”

Achieving this international stature was not easy. “To give you an idea of the pressure,” Chachra said, “during the first 19 months of the company, we were losing a thousand dollars a day, including weekends. There was a lot of negative cash flow going on. We originally thought that around the 12th or 13th month we would break even. That didn’t happen until the 19th month.” But Chachra was determined. The founding director of the Center for Library Automation at Virginia Tech had spirited the development of novel software to automate library processes. The technology was unlike any other in the world. And Chachra had a marketing strategy.

“Our vision was not to limit our marketplace to the United States — we would go global from the start,” Chachra said. “Very early in the game I traveled around the world, just buying around-the-world tickets that allowed you to go anywhere you wanted. I would just keep going, eastward or westward, stopping at all the major capitals that would be candidates for library automation. Along the way I would write letters, saying, ‘I am coming to your country. I would like to meet the national librarian. Would he or she be available to discuss a new technology?’ The ones I met — some would listen and just nod their heads. Others listened and had questions. But these were absolutely, 100 percent cold calls. The people I talked to weren’t looking to buy a system or anything like that.”

His first success came in Australia, when a single university agreed to buy the VTLS package. The jackpot was Finland. It was 1986, and the VTLS paradigm was about to change dramatically. In typical style, Chachra had arranged a meeting with a stranger, Antti Soini, the director of the Finnish National Library ITgroup. Chachra’s best expectation was to discuss a contract to automate a single library. Before long, the Finnish minister of education entered the conversation. “The minister of education was very forward-thinking,” Chachra said. “He said, ‘Don’t talk about one library — talk about all the university libraries in Finland.’”

Chachra would go on to visit Finland six times, working out details of a three-year project. The result was a contract for $1.8 million to automate 19 libraries. And then, almost as a bonus, something unlikely happened. “The minister believed the value of Finnish currency would fall against the dollar, and asked if we would be willing to accept prepayment for the work we would do in the next two years,” Chachra said. “It was wonderful. It got us funding in advance to grow the company, while we financed the delivery of the product.”

Chachra had learned how to build an enterprise from nothing since his birth. His family had migrated from what is now Pakistan to India. With no belongings, the family emerged from essentially a refugee environment solely because Chachra’s father, Nand Lal Chachra, was able to work. “My father said they can take away all your possessions, but they can’t take away your education. He was educated; he could find a job, and over the years he settled his whole family — brothers, nieces, nephews — everybody,” Chachra acknowledged.

So, Chachra attended the Indian Institute of Technology, where he received the gold medal for being the best-performing student. He came to Virginia Tech and earned his Ph.D. in industrial engineering and operations research, and eventually would join the faculty. Soon, another formative moment occurred. T. Marshall Hahn Jr., the 11th president of Virginia Tech who is credited with guiding the institution from college status to major research university level, singled Chachra out.

“After being at work in Burrus Hall for only a week, I saw this gentleman walk by. He looked at me and said, ‘You’re Vinod Chachra, and we are looking for good things from you.’ Here was the president of this institution, who sees a newly hired person, knows him by name, and can say a meaningful statement,” Chachra said. “I was tremendously impressed.” With the mantle of expectation upon him, good things followed. From 1972 to 1985, Chachra successively assumed roles of director of software development, director of computing and information systems, vice provost, and then vice president of computing and information systems.

VTLS began in 1975 as Virginia Tech Library Systems, an automated circulation and cataloguing system created for Newman Library. After more than five years of producing software and building a model for library networking, Chachra was asked by then Virginia Tech President William E. Lavery to lead the university’s first spinoff company. Lavery, who helped envision Virginia Tech’s CRC, thought Chachra was a prime candidate to help the university flex its economic development muscles. Virginia Tech was the majority stockholder in VTLS Inc., and Chachra, who had always been sure to “save resources for a rainy day,” purchased a stake in the company.

From the beginning, Chachra thought it was important to move VTLS outside of the traditional university framework for it to be successful. He explained that in a university setting, investigators and administrators must scrape for funding and regulatory approvals before research and development can even start. In a corporate setting, leaders can take a good idea, finance its R&D, and move it to the marketplace.

VTLS was in constant evolution. In the beginning, “there was a system to manage circulation, another to do purchasing, yet another to manage sales. We integrated all these components and called it library automation,” Chachra said. “Today, the old integrated systems are completely gone. We don’t even call the present systems by the old names. What we do is a continuous process of development. Practically every quarter we release new software, with new features, new capabilities, and new interfaces, and the base technology becomes obsolete. When that happens, you start over. It was during one of these moments, when we were starting our present product, when Virginia Tech decided, it was not going to take the risk and cashed out.” Today the VTLS acronym stands for Visionary Technology in Library Solutions, and it became an international leader in integrated library automation, digital asset management, and radio frequency identification technology. With six offices around the globe, it had a customer base spanning more than 1,900 libraries in 43 countries.

In southwest Virginia VTLS received the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council Hall of Fame award. And Chachra was a 2013 inaugural inductee of Virginia Tech’s Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame, a premier group of six mostly former engineering faculty members. VTLS’ global reputation allowed Chachra to sell the company in May of 2014 to Innovative, a provider of integrated library system software, based in Emeryville, California. He stayed on for six months as its Vice President of Global Expansion, traveling the globe one last time for VTLS, making two trips to Asia and another to Europe, to ensure a smooth transition of customers, technologies, and products.

In his CRC office overlooking a forest of buildings where once there were only trees, Chachra admitted combining his company with a larger one, forcing some of his 80 employees to relocate, was “hard for me personally.” But some opted for retirement; others were happy to make the transition, and now 27 remain with the new company and are still working from Blacksburg. Chachra retains his CRC office, using it for one of his first post-retirement jobs. The information technology guru is chairing the Broadband Committee to bring high-speed Internet to Blacksburg. This effort, supported by Virginia Tech, the town of Blacksburg, and the business community, has a goal of making an initial installation by August of 2015 and a completion date of 2017 when most of Blacksburg’s population should have access.

Chachra is a member of the Ut Prosim society of Virginia Tech and the College of Engineering Committee of 100. He is a past member of the advisory boards of the College of Engineering and the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE). ISE also inducted him into its Academy of Distinguished Alumni. He is the author of two books and numerous journal articles.

Vinod Chachra, PhD was inducted into the Southwest Virginia Business Hall of Fame in 2018.

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