Wednesday, July 17, 2024

AvidXchange’s free spirit talks tech

By Michael Graff
Photo of Chris Elmore by Peter Taylor

At 49, he’s just getting started, he says, after authoring eight books. After going from making about $2,000 a year in 1993 to owning a Porsche and a Lake Wylie home in 2018. After the ’80s hair-band look, and later the button-down business look. After growing out the beard and getting the tattoos. And after securing his reputation as a startup wizard who helped build a $1.4 billion company from scratch.

By any measure, Chris Elmore has made it. He recently celebrated his 25th wedding anniversary with a woman he won’t stop talking about. He has four kids who look up to him. And he has unending respect from his peers and employees. But as we walk around the fifth floor of Charlotte-based AvidXchange Inc., the fast-growing financial-technology company where he was the first hired employee, he talks more about possibilities than accomplishments.

He can see AvidXchange, which helps businesses automate their accounts-payable and payment departments, growing its revenue fivefold or more. He can see himself moving on to another life as a teacher and speaker.

And, at this exact moment, he can see Dennis, who’s walking back to his desk with a cup of coffee.

“Dennis can tell you everything you want to know about smooth jazz,” Elmore says. Dennis laughs, hard. “We were doing [a team-building activity], and Dennis and I were matched up, and they said, ‘Write down what triggers you.’ And Dennis wrote, ‘Smooth jazz,’ and we’ve been friends ever since.”

Chris Elmore
[/media-credit] Chris Elmore

It’s like that, a constant string of jokes and laughs, throughout my time with Elmore on a fall morning. He calls himself the “company’s evangelist,” and the connection does feel somewhat spiritual — that he’s as much a part of AvidXchange as AvidXchange is a part of him. He’s lighthearted but goal-driven, someone who wants to take the business around the world but cherishes time at home with his kids. He’s the kind of person who’s learned how to perform Whitesnake songs on a ukulele and who can transform an office that performs the most mundane of tasks — helping businesses process payments — into one of the most dynamic workplaces in the South.

To understand him and how he became the vibrant personality for a premier Charlotte startup success, you have to go back to the middle-school classrooms of Watauga County in the ’70s and ’80s.

It’s there that Elmore learned how to see the world in a different way.

Growing up in Boone — “where we put our major appliances on the front porch because we [were] proud of them,” he likes to say — Elmore was the son of a schoolteacher and a college professor. Throughout middle school, he tried to hide something: He couldn’t read, at least not the way the other kids read, because of dyslexia. He still remembers the agony of being called upon in class.

“It was completely humiliating,” he says. “It was devastating. I can feel it right now, and this was 40 years ago. It was like a burning-hot sensation. But it wasn’t anger. It was pure, flat-out embarrassment.”

He learned to deflect, make jokes and develop a personality that would overpower his disability. It worked with the kids for the most part. But it only made the teachers, who then had little grasp of dyslexia, more frustrated. So they’d call home.

“Chris is just trying to be ‘Mr. Funny Guy,’” they’d say. “He has a lot of friends, and he’s always joking. He just needs to focus.”

Fittingly, as he shares this story with me, another employee walks by, and he stops to talk to her.

“This is Chandra,” he tells me.

“Without the ‘r,’” she corrects him. “Chanda.”

“One day I’ll get it right,” Elmore laughs. “She was a hairdresser for years and now works IT here. Isn’t that amazing?”

In that small moment, Elmore offers a glimpse of what’s made him successful: He may have botched the pronunciation of Chanda’s name, but he knows who she is and where she’s come from.

In the lobby of the AvidXchange corporate office, there’s a large, metal globe, and around it wraps a string of checks, starting at a flag that’s planted in Charlotte. It’s a metaphor for the company’s goal.

“We want to eliminate paper checks around the world,” Elmore says. Given that about 90% of U.S. businesses still use them, the company’s growth potential is hard to fathom. Yet turning that common-sense idea into a business required years of stops, starts and patience. Defying the stereotype of tech startups, AvidXchange wasn’t an overnight success. That’s a recurring message as Elmore speaks to business groups across the nation, or while teaching an entrepreneurship class at UNC Charlotte.

In 1996, Elmore was working for a direct-mail advertising company when he told a client that he was interested in finding a sales position. As it happens, the client had just met a new Charlotte resident named Mike Praeger, who was starting a recruiting and jobs website after leaving a job at a Boston private-equity group. Praeger hired Elmore, and the duo, working from the CEO’s bonus room, built what became

They sold the company in 1999, and Praeger started AvidXchange with David Miller in 2000, just as the dot-com bubble burst, sending much of the tech industry reeling. Elmore stayed at Careershop for about eight months before joining them.

The company’s first venture was developing electronic bid-management software for real estate. “Our big pitch was we were going to be the eBay of real estate,” Elmore says. “But people didn’t want an eBay for real estate.”

They dropped that and tried another idea, then another. Over the company’s first 14 years, it raised about $20 million, mostly from founders, private individuals and a small Charlotte venture-capital fund. It was during that third iteration of the company when a customer asked if it could send electronic invoices instead of paper ones. That’s how the idea for modern-day AvidXchange developed.

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Elmore and Praeger make for an interesting leadership combination, with the Southerner more wide-open and Wisconsin-born Praeger more focused.

“There’s moments when I make him nervous,” Elmore says. “But when you look at the success of AvidXchange and when you look at every success I had, it’s because of him. I take his lead in everything, and I’ve been doing that for over 20 years. There are just so many things I envy about that guy. … I always say that I’m gonna put on my resume that I’m a great rider of coattails.”

Investments have poured in over the last three years. In 2015, Bain Capital and other private-equity groups put up $225 million. In 2017, a group led by Mastercard pumped in $300 million.

Suddenly, a 40-person company grew to about 1,400, with plans to add another 1,229 employees over five years. AvidXchange now has employees in Boston; Houston; Sandy, Utah; and Somerset, N.J. Elmore manages the company’s relationship with Cleveland-based regional bank KeyCorp, which signed a partnership and investment in AvidXchange in 2015, helping legitimize the startup. But a big part of his job is serving as a mentor and coach for the company’s sales team.

Asked how much of the company he owns and how much he’s worth, Elmore smirks and says he doesn’t know. “I’m doing OK,” he says. “The thing is, it’s equity. And it’s private equity, so there’s nothing I can do with it yet.

“But everything I have is wrapped up in this company. There’s nothing diversified. I’m all in.”

While Elmore finished high school reading on a fourth-grade level, his memory is Harvard quality: He still remembers the burgundy “elephant ears” pants his wife wore the first time he met her.

He’d enrolled at Gaston College, then transferred to UNC Charlotte to major in history with a minor in museum studies. He’d joined the Smoking Guns, a band that favored ’80s rock music over the grunge trend emerging in the early ’90s. “All that social-consciousness destroyed my hair bands,” he says.

The Smoking Guns were playing a show one night — “June 28, 1992,” Elmore interjects — at a dive bar in Hickory when a young woman named Adella walked in. She remembers seeing him, too.

“He had this head full of curly, long hair,” Adella says. “Even back then, he worked the room really well.”

They found connections immediately. Adella also grew up in a home with educators; her stepfather was superintendent of schools in Hickory.

They married in late August 1993, a few months after Chris earned his degree. He cut his hair for the wedding.

They moved to Greenville, where Chris took a job selling insurance with his uncle. Adella, who’s a couple of years younger, enrolled in night school at Pitt Community College and began working at a pizza restaurant. He made $2,167.73 that year, or, as he puts it, “six figures.” She pulled in $35 a week, plus free pizzas.

They moved back to Charlotte a couple of years later. Adella took a position at a mortgage broker, and Chris with the direct-marketing company.

In 1998, a year after Elmore joined Praeger, Adella quit her job as they prepared for the birth of their first child. They moved to Lincolnton, about 40 miles west of Charlotte and near her parents. To help cut expenses, they shared a car.

“I was like 60% or 70% of our household income,” Adella says. “We were making what people might say are crazy decisions. But we’re both very positive people. You can always find the good when you look for it.”

That good came in moments like when their son took his first steps, and Adella’s parents were able to get to the house within five minutes to celebrate.

Each year around the holidays, Chris makes a list of goals for the following year. Adella remembers how, on one of the early lists, he wrote that he wanted a new cellphone.

“He’d say, ‘Oh my gosh, people are ragging me about my phone. I have to get updated,’” Adella says. “Those lists of goals have changed a lot since then.”

A few years ago, around the time the nine-figure capital investments started pouring in to AvidXchange, Elmore decided he wanted to overhaul his appearance.

It had been nearly 20 years since he chopped off the long hair for his wedding and business career. Finally, all those years of lists and goals had led him to a place where he’d repaid his debts and bought the Porsche. He went to Charlotte’s Modern Salon & Spa and had one request for a hairdresser named Annie: “Make me look cool.”

The results included hair parted but slicked back a bit, a bushy beard, some trendy glasses and tattoos. But the changes were more than cosmetic; it was a total rebranding, partially to force him to think about a life beyond Avid, whenever it comes. “I’ve got to be aware that the people we need to move this company forward one day — it’s probably not me,” he says. “I could accidentally get in the way of progress.”

With the new look, he took more public-speaking gigs and opportunities to advise entrepreneurs, and he started teaching at UNC Charlotte. He has plenty of lessons worth passing along.

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He thinks that Charlotte — with its low cost of living, access to capital, and an airport with short flights to most financial centers — is the best place in the country to bootstrap a company.

“The thing I believe Charlotte’s missing is great ideas,” he says. “We get this all the time: ‘Well, Charlotte just has no early-stage funding.’ I don’t believe that for a second. I believe if you have a great idea, money finds you.”

Any entrepreneur, Elmore says, must be willing to sell in order to woo potential clients or investors. He believes that so much that he changes the word in order to ease people’s fears.
“I’d love to rebrand ‘selling’ as ‘teaching,’” he says. “Because that’s what you’re really doing.”

That philosophy becomes obvious as we walk around AvidXchange’s offices, which start to feel like a big classroom. Elmore facetiously asks if I have any military training, because the IT workers have Nerf guns. Sure enough, when we walk through that department, they start firing.

“Let’s get out of here before I get shot,” Elmore says.

Sure, it’s part-shtick, but isn’t that a trait of a great classroom? The teacher’s tricks can be cheesy if the students bond and the work becomes fun. Here, even the cheesiness seems more honest than a sales pitch. In just a few hours that morning, Elmore introduces me to dozens of employees by name.

There’s Katie, holding the coffee cup.

There’s Stavros, getting a drink from the vending machine: “He’s my favorite Stavros, by far,” Elmore says.

Vice President Becky Hughes is in a room near the lobby, speaking to her team. “She started out as a part-time invoice scanner,” Elmore says.

We pass a trim middle-aged man named John Chaffier. “He’s 53, and look how young he looks,” Elmore says. “He just started a motorcycle gang. They’ve asked me to join the gang, but I don’t like violence, man. I’m passive.”

It goes on and on until we get downstairs, and the security guard named Caroline asks him where he got all that energy.

“I’ve never smoked weed,” he shoots back.

“OK, Bill Clinton,” she says.

“I’m dead serious about that,” he says, seeming fairly sincere.

A few days later, I call Adella and tell her about my morning with her husband.

“That’s Chris,” she says. “He has two speeds — wide open, and asleep.”

Later, I ask what might be on their family’s list of goals for the next 25 years of marriage.

“I don’t know, but I know it’s going to be good,” she says. “It just keeps getting better.”

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