It's an unlikely setting for the headquarters of a booming high technology company.
But here, nestled near the front of a residential street in Los Altos, outside the hub of Silicon Valley, Ask Computer Systems Inc. is producing software that makes life easier for manufacturers.
"The reason we are here is because there is a lot less traffic," explains Sandra Kurtzig, the 35-year-old founder and president of Ask. "That means our employes spend less time commuting. We felt we would rather pay extra rent and give our people more time to devote to their families."
By itself, this probably doesn't make Ask stand out in an area known for trying to keep its employes happy. But there are other factors. Ask, which had $10 million in sales in the first half of its fiscal year, is the nation's largest independent supplier of integrated financial management software systems.
And there is Kurtzig herself, who started her firm 10 years ago in a Mountain View apartment with $2,000 in capital and today is the only female president of a publicly traded high technology company in Northern California. Kurtzig isn't sure that this is part of the Ask story, but then that suggests something about her and her management style.
"I just think of myself as a person who happened to start a company," Kurtzig says. "I really don't see being a woman as anything that unusual. We don't favor women over men here."
Kurtzig has grand visions for her company, with the goal of making Ask a $100 million concern within five years. That's a far cry from what she had in mind back in 1972, when she quit a sales position at General Electric to start a small contract programming business at home and later rear a family with her husband.
She had two sons, now 6 and 8, but she also found herself with a much bigger business than she anticipated. Before long, she was developing a standard set of software packages for manufacturers. Then, in 1974, Tymshare Corp. of Cupertino, the computer time-sharing service bureau, licensed and began selling her programs on its network.
The following year, Kurtzig designed software to run on early Hewlett-Packard minicomputers. That was followed by the design of systems for H-P's 3000 series minicomputer in 1978 and a tremendous surge in growth.
Ask, which at that point had eight employes, now has 120 scattered in a complex of four, one-story office buildings on Distel Drive and in 16 sales and service offices nationwide.
Ask's ManMan programs--a nickname for manufacturing management--total one million lines of computer instruction, or what Kurtzig likes to call "a man century" of programming time. The programs, which are used in minicomputers, tie together information throughout a plant with the aim of streamlining operations.
Among other things, they're used to handle standard accounting functions, optimize inventories, reduce operating expenses and improve customer service.
"The goal of a manufacturing company is to produce a high-quality product as least expensively as possible and to get it out the door as fast as possible," Kurtzig says. "Our systems help companies do that by taking information from different parts of the company and making it readily available to the departments that need it."
Most of Ask's revenues flow from sales of its software in conjunction with H-P minicomputers, which it buys at discount and sells as a "turnkey," or complete, system.
The company is developing software that will be sold with Digital Equipment Corp. minicomputers later this year. Ask also offers ManMan programs on a time-sharing basis, a program that was started a year ago. This now accounts for almost 10 percent of revenues and sets the stage for turnkey sales as clients grow.
Analysts say this is the kind of marketing savvy that sets Ask apart from other software houses, and the company's success is readily apparent in its financial statements.
Sales in the first half of fiscal 1982, which ended last December, rose 104 percent to $10 million. Net income increased 61 percent to $1 million, or 22 cents a share. In the past three years, Ask revenues have averaged an annual compounded growth rate of 157 percent. (The company went public last October with the sale of 1.4 million shares of stock at $11 a share.)
"All you have to do is look at Ask's record to see that the market wants what it's offering," says Alfred Berkeley, an analyst at Alex. Brown & Sons, a Baltimore investment banking firm that follows the company. "They can put a system in place, teach people how to run it and walk away."
Hewlett-Packard of Palo Alto sells computer systems in conjunction with several hundred software makers, but Executive Vice President Paul Ely says Ask is clearly one of the most successful. Its customer service excels, Ely says, and Ask was clever to develop specialized systems for manufacturers.
"It's very easy for a software company to be too many things to too many people," Ely says. "Ask has avoided the pitfalls of the business."
Ask has about 250 companies, half of which are divisions of Fortune 500 companies. But it says its turnkey systems--which sell for $150,000 to $300,000--also make sense for much smaller firms. Kurtzig says some companies have bought Ask software before clinching their first sale.
Many of Ask's customers previously tracked their operations manually, but Kurtzig says even more are switching over from use of mainframe computers and "batch processing." This usually involves feeding information into a large computer at the end of each day, which means the data base isn't as timely as it could be.
A minicomputer user, on the other hand, updates the data base as soon as he relays information through a computer terminal. The difference may not seem all that great, but it means companies have a more precise handle on inventory levels at a time when the prime rate is 16.5 percent.
"To know the right decision to make right now, you have to know how much stock you have right now," says Thomas Lavey, Ask's vice president of marketing. "Waiting for tomorrow's report to find out how many parts you have is like reading yesterday's newspaper."
Overseeing a company like Ask is obviously no small affair. Kurtzig says her workday starts at 8:30 a.m. and goes until 7:30 at night, and she usually takes home a couple of hours of work. "It is difficult sometimes," she concedes, "but we have a live-in housekeeper and my husband is very dedicated to the children during the week."
Like a lot of entrepreneurs, Kurtzig had to undergo the metamorphosis of running all aspects of a tiny business to delegating authority in a sizable company.
"It was certainly a transformation," she admits. "But you learn to release the rope and let people hang themselves if necessary." s far as her subordinates are concerned, however, Kurtzig remains close to the everyday affairs of the company. She still goes out on sales calls. Her corporate managers and executives say she often assumes the role of a devil's advocate, making sure they fully weigh the implications of their decisions.
"Sandy hires you and has you do your job," says Gary Yost, director of corporate communications. "But she really questions you on why you do things a certain way so she can feel comfortable that the right decision is being made for the company." CAPTION: Picture 1,Sandra Kurtzig, 35, founder and president of the Ask firm.;Photo by Jim Geiger for the Washinton Post; Picture 2, Ask, started 10 years ago with $2,000 in capital, recently reported half-year sales of $10 million. Photo by Jim Geiger for The Washington Post