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Now playing: A deluge of corporate data


At the Varsity Theater in Ames, you have to pay your way in to see “Be Cool,” “The Merchant of Venice” or “House of Flying Daggers.” A few doors west on Lincoln Way at the former Ames Theater, they’ll pay you to spend a few hours in front of a screen, but it’s going to be a flat-panel computer monitor and you’ll be watching the latest news about securities, subsidiaries, and mergers and acquisitions.

Kingland Systems Corp. moved into the long-vacant moviehouse last summer, right across the street from the Iowa State University campus and its abundant supply of computer-savvy students. After a $1 million renovation, the company has an unusual setting for an unusual business. Working with information from electronic sources, Kingland gathers essential corporate data for the “Big Four” accounting firms: Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

With just 10 full-time employees in the company’s Ames, Clear Lake and Rochester, Minn., locations, Kingland relies on about 100 part-timers to handle data collection and research in the old theater. These “business analysts” fit their jobs into their college schedules, work an average of 21 hours a week and earn $7 to $11 an hour, depending on their experience and job responsibilities.

Once admitted through the locked outer door, students pass under the original red neon tube glowing on the ceiling and into the wide-open theater seating area. The seats are gone, replaced by rows of white tables that hold about 60 computer monitors, but the aisle is still lined with white lights. Up in front where the stage and screen used to be, a towering glass wall gives everyone a clear view of an office used by the managers and a conference room.

However, a 16-foot screen can be lowered from the ceiling for the occasional Friday movie, just to break the routine.

Junior business analysts working on special projects sit in the top row of the balcony, with more space yawning below them than in any other office you’re likely to visit. The top-ranking business analysts and J.D. Feilmeier, the company’s vice president of sales, occupy the projection room.

All in all, Kingland has 8,000 square feet at its disposal here. The company’s headquarters in Clear Lake occupy 50,000 square feet of a 200,000-square-foot building that it owns. Its Rochester office takes advantage of the computer environment created by IBM Corp.’s large manufacturing presence there. And a disaster recovery facility in Lake Mills takes advantage of being on different power and phone grids from the other offices – and besides, it’s the hometown of company founder David Kingland.

The organization began as a broker dealer, Kingland Capital, in the early 1980s. David Kingland incorporated Kingland Systems as a technology division in 1992 to fill the needs he had observed as similar companies grew from pure brokers into more complicated financial organizations.

Eventually, the Big Four issued a “request for proposal,” and Kingland Systems found itself bidding against much larger companies to provide comprehensive data. “The data providers were out there, but nobody was doing a good, comprehensive cleansing of the data,” said Lon Gretillat, senior vice president for business development.

Kingland won the contract even though it wasn’t the low bidder, Gretillat said. “Our existing relationship with two of those accounting firms helped. Also, we put together a complete solution. We pitched a service.”

That service is to collect and categorize information the accounting firms need to have before starting to work for a new client. “When an accounting firm goes out to audit a company, they might not know if it’s a subsidiary of another client,” Gretillat explained. “There might be a conflict of interest.”

By collecting and cross-referencing information about ownership percentages, management relationships, advisers and so forth, Kingland Systems helps the accounting giants avoid conflicts. “They need to make sure they’re in compliance with the rules and regulations in every country where they operate,” Gretillat said.

More than 3.5 million securities based in 80 nations come under the scrutiny of Kingland’s data providers – companies such as Lipper, Morningstar Inc. and Dun & Bradstreet Corp. The raw data pours into Clear Lake, which has an impressive fiber-optic infrastructure, then is routed through Des Moines and back up to Ames. Kingland’s software automatically sorts the raw data before it comes to the business analysts in the theater.

There, “our business analysts take the data and populate the database we use,” Gretillat said. “Also, they do go out on the Internet and look at some company Web sites.” Gretillat, who divides his time between Ames and Clear Lake, supervises along with two other managers. The workday runs from 6 a.m. until midnight.

Gretillat said the company has 15 to 30 openings each semester and gets three times that many applications from students in various academic departments. Applicants take an online competency test and the best performers qualify for an interview where they’re asked about their Internet experience and knowledge of financial terms.

“We thought we would need specialists, but what they need is really good research skills,” Gretillat said, “and Iowa State must do a good job of teaching that across the board.”

As the marketing manager, Feilmeier is looking for ways to expand the client list. “We have a number of brokerage clients using our software, and we need to get them to use this service to augment that,” he said. He listed investment bankers and traditional commercial banks as potential customers.

The Ames site is capable of doing more research by adding part-time employees. “It’s designed to go up to 150 workstations here,” Gretillat said. He also expects the focus of the work to change. The first eight months have been consumed by assembling the first complete version of Kingland’s database.

“It’s been ‘all hands on deck’ so far,” he said. “Now we’ll have time to do market analysis.”

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