For Ahmed El-Haggan, managing email passwords for 3,800 students at Coppin State University in Baltimore used to be a major hassle.
In 2000, that challenge was going to get a lot worse because Coppin State was expanding its online learning program. El-Haggan, the university's vice president of information technology and chief information officer, used to mail a letter to each new student with an email address and password. His staff then had to answer calls from students who inevitably forgot their passwords.
Then, El-Haggan found Fischer International Identity, a Naples-based company whose mission is what industry insiders call “identity management.” With Fischer's help, El-Haggan automated the university's password systems for functions such as new-student email addresses and department networks. “What we used to do in a week takes two minutes,” he says. The number of password-reset calls dropped 90% and Coppin's information-technology department saved 22 hours a week while doubling the number of online-student registrations.
Fischer's name may not be widely known because its founder, Addison Fischer, is a private man who rarely grants interviews. A news search of his name on Google only produces a single result: a Wikipedia entry.
But Fischer, a longtime Naples resident, is well known among computer-security pioneers. He was a founder of VeriSign, the cyber-security company now owned by Symantec. Fischer also was a major shareholder of a cryptographic software company called RSA Data Security that sold in 1996 for more than $250 million, according to a news account of the deal in the New York Times.
Leading Fischer today is Andrew Sroka, a machine-gunner veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who played college ice hockey in upstate New York. Sroka declines to share Fischer's annual revenues, but he says sales grew 71% from 2011 to 2012, on top of 66% growth the prior year. “We're up 50% this year already,” he says.
Protecting your phone
El-Haggan says Fischer's single focus on identity management is one of the reasons he selected the firm. That's because larger rivals offer a variety of other software services and as a result aren't as solely dedicated to this issue, he says. “It's their bread and butter,” El-Haggan says. “They deliver and they're easy to work with.”
Higher education now accounts for 65% of Fischer's business. That's partly due to the fact that bigger competitors such as IBM, Oracle and others haven't penetrated the higher-education market.
Fischer, which has partnered with Dell as a reseller of its services, now provides “several million users” with identity management programs, including students, faculty and alumni at 28 universities and college consortiums.
What's more, universities are boosting their online learning programs, expanding their virtual campuses to thousands of prospective students in remote locations. “Higher education will become a global affair,” says Sroka.
Fischer's service is subscription-based, so the company will grow as universities expand and add students. The company's business model is based on yearly subscriptions, and it charges from $1 to $11 per person per year depending on the level of service. It can establish security systems on networks located on campus or on remote “in-the-cloud” servers.
Fischer also provides identity management services to retailers such as Dick's Sporting Goods and airlines, banks and petroleum companies that prefer not to disclose their names for security reasons.
That business is getting more complex as employees and students demand to work from remote devices such as cell phones, tablets and other mobile devices. “It's not going to get easier for companies,” Sroka says. “Companies have been steamrolled by the explosion of these devices.”
Sroka says some of the biggest security breaches haven't been the result of outsiders hacking into a system. They've happened because someone stole an employee's laptop or they left their phone in the bar. “These are inside jobs,” Sroka says.
One solution on the horizon is visual recognition. For example, a phone might not allow a user unless it recognizes a physical feature. That's critical because Sroka estimates 80% of business is now conducted on the phone or computer tablets.
To keep up with the fast-changing technology, the firm employs 48 people in Naples and another 30 in India. About 60% of the staff is involved in research and development, Sroka says.
Sroka and the team at Fischer made higher education a priority starting in 2008, in part because the sector is economically counter-cyclical. The downturn boosted university enrollments and colleges raced to develop new online learning programs. “People needed to retrain,” Sroka says.
The growth hasn't been restricted to the U.S. because 35% of Fischer's business is international. “Europe is fantastic when it comes to adopting technology,” Sroka says.
Other parts of the world are adopting Fischer's technology, too. For example, Fischer recently announced a partnership with Saudi Arabia-based Naseej, a reseller of software services to universities, cultural centers and government organizations in the Middle East. “The international [business] has really been moving a lot in the last 18 months,” Sroka says.
Having a staff in India helps the company sell its services in Asia through reseller partners such as Wipro, the giant India-based information-technology company. “Our Indian subsidiary was started in 1998,” Sroka says.
Sroka says he doesn't have to travel to India to manage the operation there. “A lot of what we do can be conducted efficiently over the Internet,” he says.
Increasingly, Sroka says the company says it has been able to find software talent in the Naples-Fort Myers area. “For years we went outside the community,” he says. Now, he notes, “there's a growing base of talent to draw from.” Plus, the lower cost of housing as a result of the real estate downturn makes it more affordable for employees to stay.
For one thing, universities such as Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers and Hodges University in Naples are turning out computer-science graduates. “The schools have become much more productive,” Sroka says. “Our goal has been work with these institutions. I would much rather take someone straight out of college.”
Sroka says he's noticed a growing number of high-tech companies growing in the Naples-Fort Myers area. “There's no reason why we can't create a tech corridor,” he says.