The seed for David Waits' SST software company really was planted years ago when he spent a decade helping his dad run a cattle ranch. He turned the idea over in his head, as the wheels turned on the John Deere tractor he was driving.
Waits knew the soil across the field was variable, and thought there had to be a way to keep from, for example, fertilizing areas where nothing grew and double-fertilizing others. The solution crystallized in the mid-'90s with the refinement of global positioning satellite (GPS) software.
Soon after, Waits founded SST Software in Stillwater, a firm that provides information-based management technologies to fertilizer dealers, crop consultants and other agriculture service providers to help farmers worldwide improve productivity and lower costs. Customers use SST's online geo-referenced, site-specific data on 65 million acres to navigate and collect and bar code soil samples from different fields to be tested intensively for acidity, potassium, phosphorus and other elements.
They marry their maps with results from dozens of soil-testing labs that electronically send their results.
“The real story is how farmers did,” Waits said. “With the layering of data on SST's maps, farmers can see how their soil treatment affects crop yields. There are sensors on combines that, for example, harvest corn. As they move across the fields, the sensors are reading that much grain, that much grain, that much … .”
Waits recently was named the Oklahoma small business person of the year by the Small Business Administration. His company, which serves customers in 44 states, eight Canadian provinces and 22 countries, had $6.7 million in sales last year, he said.
SST, which has branch offices in Champaign, Ill.; Des Moines, Iowa; and Milwaukee, Wis., employs 55, and more than 20 of those have a decade or more in service.
From his offices at 824 N Country Club Road, Waits, 58, recently sat down with The Oklahoman to talk about his professional and personal life. The following is an edited transcript:
Q: Can you tell us about your roots?
A: As a boy, I lived in Buffalo, OK. My father taught vo-ag there and farmed wheat, corn and milo on 1,000 acres his family originally homesteaded in 1902 north of Woodward. When I was 15, he bought a 2,000-acre cattle ranch in Ashland, Kan., where I, and my younger brother and sister, graduated high school. I played trumpet in the band and, from 13 on, had a dirt bike. Today, I own and ride Harleys.
Q: And college?
A: I went one year to what's now Southern Nazarene University and one year to OSU, but dropped out to help my dad on the cattle ranch. My first wife Dana (who was my high school sweetheart and died of breast cancer in 2007) and I wanted to get married. She was also a ranch girl, so the opportunity to run the ranch was attractive to her as well. But after 10 years, we both wanted new opportunities and decided to return to OSU to pursue our undergraduate degrees in economics. We lived in married student housing and, when we went back to school, our boys were 7 and 5.
Q: What sparked your interest in GIS (geographic information systems)?
A: I was introduced to the technology through an elective geography course my senior year, and naturally — because of my 10 years ranching — thought of the applications for agriculture. While Dana completed her undergraduate, I pursued a master's in geography.
After I earned it, I felt like I needed more experience with the technology, so I applied for and was awarded a fellowship for an interdisciplinary doctorate in land use management at Texas Tech in Lubbock, where Dana worked for a marketing company.
Q: Can you tell us about your early professional career and how it led to your forming SST?
A: Upon graduation from Texas Tech, I worked 18 months for a NASA commercialization center in Mississippi, which was conducting remote sensing in agriculture — and where I realized I wanted to own my own business. In 1992, we moved back to Stillwater, where I taught the technology for five years in OSU's geography department.
I started SST in 1994 with a farmer friend from Ashland, who I later bought out. We originally leased space, but in 1996, moved to our current 10-acre location where we, as of April, doubled our size with 18,500 square feet of renovated space.
Q: What lies ahead for SST?
A: We want to finish what we started. My son Matt, a '99 OSU ag econ graduate, pretty well runs the company now, and he's helped position us to be a leader in the market for years to come.
• Position: Chairman, SST Software
• Birth date: Sept. 6, 1953
• Family: Cindy, wife of four years; sons Matt, 35, SST president, and Mark, 33; four grandchildren, ages 1 to 6
• Education: Oklahoma State University, bachelor's in economics and master's in geography; Texas Tech University, interdisciplinary doctorate in land use management
• Community service: Serves on the boards of OSU's Cowboy Technologies and its Center for Innovative and Economic Development
• Passions: Motorcycle rides; relaxing in Eureka Springs, Ark., where he and Cindy have a vacation home; and raising registered Brangus cattle on his 2,000-acre ranch 15 miles west of Stillwater on either side of State Highway 51.