For 30 years, ECRS has made Boone one of the grocery and retail software and hardware capitals. And founder and owner Pete Catoe is ready to push ECRS to future growth while maintaining his roots.
ECRS, which stands for Electronic Cash Register Software, is a tech company that develops innovative hardware and software for grocery and retail store checkout areas.
“We have a deep appreciation for the town of Boone and Watauga County and all the townspeople who have supported us over the years,” Catoe said.
Over the last three decades, ECRS has grown into one of the little giants of the grocery retail software industry. And it has done so with a long-term core of dedicated employees, from Pete’s wife Kim to Senior Developer Steve Smith, who has been with ECRS for 27 and a half years.
Currently, ECRS is made of approximately 160 employees, most of whom are Boone natives and/or Appalachian State University graduates who feel ready to take on the world.
But before there were that many employees, the desire to take on the world of retail drove Pete Catoe to leave ASU three classes short of graduation to start his own business in the late 1980s.
“He felt like he needed to move to Charlotte to start his business — he felt like he needed the bigger city,” said Kim Catoe, who recently retired from ECRS but still sits on the board of directors. “So I said, ‘I’ll move to Charlotte, but you’ve got to marry me, I’m not going as your girlfriend.’”
After getting married and moving to Charlotte, the first business failed and Pete had to pay back a $7,000 loan the bank gave him. That’s when Pete found Curt Kennington, who gave him to the money to pay the bank in exchange for 50 percent of a new company based on retail software.
“(Kennington) accepted my business offer, and oddly enough, no money was ever directly invested in our company, which I had already decided to call ECR Software Corporation or (ECRS),” Catoe wrote in an article about Curt when he died in December 2016. “Between his wisdom and my ambition, we built ECRS from the ground up, completely self-funded, as it remains to this day.”
Later, Kennington sold his share back to Catoe, who today owns 100 percent of ECRS.
After starting ECRS in Charlotte out of their apartment and struggling for two years, Pete decided to move back to Boone in order to finish his degree, just in case the business didn’t work out.
“So we packed up our two cats and moved back to Boone,” Kim Catoe said. “It’s like the planets aligned. Within two months of moving back, he started getting customers and it started working. He didn’t go back to school.”
“It was meant to be in Boone and meant to be in the mountains,” Kim Catoe added.
ECRS moved into downtown Boone, taking up rooms in the Hardin House through the 1990s, which employees still call “the white building.” ECRS eventually took up most of the rooms in the building.
“When I first joined, we could all fit in one office,” said Director of Escalation Karen Petrey, who has been with ECRS for 19 years.
“We were having meetings on Tuesday morning with the entire company in one room,” said Vice President of Development Mark Noble, a 21-year ECRS employee.
Employees in the 1990s often wore multiple hats, including current Vice President of Software Design Burt Aycock, who said he cleaned the building every Sunday night for two hours.
In 2002, ECRS bought the Winkler Motor Company Building on Howard Street, where it presently resides.
“When we bought it, that building had gone into decline,” Kim Catoe said. “We gutted it and started over.”
Now, ECRS also has local offices located on State Farm Road and New Market Boulevard, plus remote employees across the country.
Growth has been a constant at ECRS, as it keeps on taking on bigger competitors in the retail solutions world with a combination of slow and steady growth, a mantra of taking care of customers and maintaining a tight-knit work environment.
“It’s kind of like a roller coaster, we’ve been climbing and climbing and climbing and we don’t know where the top is,” Petrey said.
Having Catoe at the helm is a positive that is echoed by his long-term employees.
“We constantly are innovating,” said IT Director Rob Lewis, a 25-year employee. “Pete as our leader has amazing vision for what needs to happen with the company and our product line going forward. He seems to always get it right.”
“Biggest key that keeps ECRS going and successful is that we take care of our customers and we’re consistent in how we take care of our customers,” said Senior Vice President of Sales Otis Fleith, who will have worked with ECRS for 20 years this January.
“It’s a great mix of hyper-focused work for clients and creative autonomy — it’s a really neat blend of that,” Aycock said.
Staying in Boone is something ECRS employees see as an advantage. Aycock said 70-80 percent of the employees are ASU grads and/or Boone residents beforehand and the company looks to hire from that pool specifically.
“We work to hire from the community,” Kim Catoe said. “It takes a certain type of person to live in the mountains — they come up here and don’t want to leave. We call it the gravitational pull of the mountains.”
“You don’t have to be in the Research Triangle, you can be in Boone and be a part of a company that is cutting edge with technology in our business and it’s wonderful,” Petrey said.
Consultant Mac Mast, a 23-year employee, says that when he’s returning from an install somewhere across North America, he always smiles when going up the U.S. 421 or 321 escarpments as he knows he’s almost home.
Pete Catoe said nowadays, ECRS is comparable to being in the second stage of a rocket launch, where the company is heading skyward.
“We like to think of ourselves as the Rebels against the Empire,” Noble said. “It’s very challenging, but very rewarding to succeed against some of these bigger competitors.”
As the company evolves and changes, one thing that won’t change is who’s in charge, as Catoe wants to keep the company private and not bring on any venture capitalists or quick money influxes.
“We’ll be a much larger company over the next five years,” Catoe said. “But the goal is to keep it headquartered in Boone and create a lot more high-tech jobs.”