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Mark Smith

Mark Smith

Mark Smith was born in Birmingham, AL in 1940. Even as a freshman in high school, Smith displayed the presence of mind characteristic of a future leader. On winning a science fair, and the award of a handshake with the famous Wernher Von Braun, he had the chutzpah to ask Braun for a job. He not only got one, but one for every summer of his college years with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, or ABMA, the predecessor to NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration). On graduating from Georgia Tech in 1962 with a BSEE with Honors, he returned to Huntsville to work for ABMA. When he was invited to join others he had worked with at ABMA to start a new company, to be named Spacecraft Incorporated, later renamed SEI Systems, he didn’t hesitate. It was exciting, but after six or seven years, he concluded he did not want to forge a career built on innovating one-of-a-kind engineering projects, regardless of how successful, but to start a company to manufacture needed products profitably.

So he and a buddy put up $30K, and they started looking for that unique opportunity. Their first ideas proved too little too late, but not the idea of modems as promised by the Carterfone decision. By August of 1970, they had built ten Bell 202 compatible modems and Smith resigned from SEI Systems, and they founded Universal Data Systems (UDS). The first years were a struggle, and even into the middle of the 1970’s, UDS sold primarily OEM modems – they sold to companies who labeled UDS’s modems as their own. When they introduced their version of a 2400 bps modem, it became a “big seller.” Then Vadic sued them for patent infringement, a suit UDS eventually won. In December 1980, the need for shareholder liquidity motivated UDS’s sale to Motorola for $22.5M. UDS’s revenues were $11M, two/third of which were OEM’s. UDS’s sales slightly lagged those of Vadic’s, their chief competitor, whose revenues were $10M in 1978, the year they were acquired by Racal Electronics for $20M.

Smith retired from UDS in January 1985. Revenues of UDS had grown to $110M. Smith’s integrity, since affirmed by his dealings with Robert Galvin, the Chairman of Motorola, a man whom Smith held in the highest regard, led Smith to promise his new “start” would never compete with UDS, even for personnel. Consequently, George Grumbles (See Interview), the Vice-President of Marketing and Sales, became President of UDS. I interviewed Smith in the corporate headquarters of ADTRAN, his new start founded in 1986, and a short taxi ride from UDS.

Keywords: Universal Data Systems (UDS), Motorola, Vadic lawsuit, Vadic, Codex

Mark Smith Interviewed by James Pelkey 11/28/88