A Grafton business owner draws on his roots.


As a child, Alex Reneman spent every Memorial Day dressed in white. Like many other kids who grew up in Grafton, he would carry flowers and flags through the streets during the town’s annual parade. But it was the final part of the days’ activities Alex remembers most: walking out onto the grounds of the Grafton National Cemetery and placing those flowers on the graves of soldiers, the atmosphere shifting from noisy celebration to quiet reflection.

Reneman’s parents were heavily involved in Grafton’s VFW post, so he listened to the stories of veterans as a young man. He eventually joined the National Guard and, though he couldn’t know it at the time, the nation would soon call on him the same way it had for the soldiers he’d visited as a child.

This tradition of service helped define not only Reneman’s personal values, but also the culture he aims to instill at his Grafton-based company, Mountain Leverage. “When we’re with a customer or partner and things go wrong, we don’t just tuck our tails and run. We stay and fight and sacrifice,” Reneman says. “You might walk in here and think, man, these are a bunch of hillbilly hippies, sitting around the fire singing ‘Kumbaya,’ talking about love. And that’s true. But when the battle starts, look out. You don’t want to be on the other side. That mix of culture is tough to pull off.”

Departure

Alex Reneman began attending West Virginia University as a political science major but soon headed in a different direction. “I realized that business was the same thing, except you make money,” he says with a laugh. So he switched his major to business administration with a focus on management information systems.

He planned to start his own construction business after graduation. He had spent summers in Washington, D.C., working construction and felt he understood the field. As he was preparing to make this dream a reality, he got a job interview in Pittsburgh with Deloitte, one of the world’s largest accounting and consulting firms. A trusted WVU professor advised Renemen to hedge his bets and take the interview. He did, and had a job offer on his answering machine by the time he returned home. Renemen took the position.

Rather than being an obstacle to running a business, the job turned out to be the perfect preparation for it. He was excited by the intelligent and talented people he worked with, and it opened his eyes to what was going on in the business world. Reneman says it’s easy to get pigeonholed into a specific set of tasks at big companies like Deloitte, which can make for a less diverse—and less interesting—career path. But entering the job market in the early 2000s, just as e-commerce was taking off, he managed to avoid this pitfall. “I saw all kinds of different business models trying, succeeding, failing. It was a wild ride. I got to do a little bit of everything, which was great experience.”

Then came September 11, 2001.

Taking Stock

“Any event that shakes you to your very soul makes you do a personal inventory. I think a lot of us thought, what are we doing in life? Is it important?” Reneman says. He realized living in Pittsburgh and traveling often made him feel separated from the things he valued most. “My family was back here. My community was back here. And I wasn’t providing any value to them. I wasn’t connected,” he says. He left Deloitte in the fall of 2002 and started up Reneman Enterprises in his hometown.

Then, only six months later, his National Guard reserve unit was called to serve in Iraq. With Reneman facing years out of the country and away from his business, his mother and several friends stepped up to help with the administrative functions of keeping the company alive, but in hibernation.

In one sense, accepting the responsibility that he had honored as a child in Grafton had suddenly become real. But he was also forced to delay other responsibilities he felt, and to put dreams on hold. And so, it was in a desert halfway around the globe that the idea of Mountain Leverage began to take root. Reneman says that the name is drawn from his desire to leverage the culture and the people of the Mountain State on the national business and technology scene.

Return

Growing up in West Virginia, Reneman saw businesses leaving or shutting down, and the businesses that remained were mostly passing money and services around the community. But he didn’t see much money coming into the region. He wanted to fill that gap, even if it was just tax revenue from employees.

In the spring of 2004, Reneman arrived back in the state for good. While helping a friend with a roofing project soon afterward, he received a phone call from a former Deloitte colleague about a voice company called Vocollect in Pittsburgh that was doing interesting work converting text to speech and vice versa.

It was six years before Apple released Siri, its voice-based intelligent personal assistant. But Reneman says Vocollect—now owned by multinational conglomerate Honeywell—had been working on the technology for years. He was impressed with what he saw. Industries using the company’s software in production and shipping seemed to have plummeting rates of human error and skyrocketing rates of efficiency. He also saw how the technology could be integrated into existing shipping systems—and Reneman knew that was something he could build a business around.

In the following years, Reneman began working with companies all over the world. The voice system acts as a personal assistant for employees, guiding them by voice through enormous warehouses to find the parts they need to fill orders. The voice tells them which direction to go, which shelf to look on, and how many items to pick. In addition to the 99.9 percent accuracy and time-saving benefits, the system also eliminates the cost and hassle of paper lists and heavy RF scanners.

Even as Reneman was growing Mountain Leverage, he was also running a plethora of other businesses under Reneman Enterprises: an IT company, a bowling alley, a restaurant, and a computer repair business, just to name a few. Reneman describes himself as “the peanut butter man” at this stage, always spreading himself extremely thin. That’s when an older gentleman offered some guidance: “Son, if you want to help your community, you need to let the rest of this go and focus on Mountain Leverage.”

It turned out to be sage advice. Since 2004, Mountain Leverage has become a world leader in voice integration and automation, securing clients like Nike, eBay, and Volkswagen.

With this success, Reneman hopes to leverage the growth to bring more jobs, more money, and more opportunities to the state. He is currently organizing a new tech hub for startups and has worked with the Coal to Code initiative, which trains out-of-work coal miners in marketable computer skills.

Reneman intends to bring out the best of West Virginia by integrating Grafton’s culture into modern industries. “I’m not here by apology, I’m here by choice,” he says. “I think people need to realize that we have some really unique cultural assets here in West Virginia and in the surrounding areas that we can leverage to be highly successful.”

written by J. KENDALL PERKINSON

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