David Williams' Columbia-based marketing company makes heavy use of data to help business clients reach customers and maintain their loyalty.
As a racecar driver, the CEO of Merkle Inc. also sifts through data to improve his performance on the track.
"It's amazing how the use of data has evolved in motor sports," Williams said. "There is a computer in my car that captures more than 100 elements associated with the vehicle — G-forces and speed and brake pressure. We are capturing all this information in real time from that car, and after a race or qualifying or practice session, we download all that data into a computer and we can analyze foot-by-foot around that racetrack how fast we were going."
Williams will be driving a Porsche 911 in the IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge, the first year the Grand Prix of Baltimore festival is featuring this race. Other corporate executives, including the CEO of Patron Spirits Co. and the chief financial officer of Hunt Valley's Alpine Bagel Co., also will be behind a wheel in races during the three-day event.
The 50-year-old Williams sees many similarities between business and racing.
"Motor sports is a lot like building a company," he said, explaining that both require determination, calculated risks and the right people on your team.
"It's not enough to have the best car, because if you don't have the skills, you won't win. It's not enough to have the best skills, because if you don't have the car, you won't win," he said. "And if you have those two things and don't have the right team dynamic, you won't win."
In the past 25 years, Williams has built Merkle up from two dozen employees to an international customer relationship management agency with about 2,000 employees in 14 offices, including one in London and two in China.
Williams, who was born in Baltimore but spent much of his youth in Doylestown, Pa., started drag racing in high school. He inherited his interest in motor sports from his father, a fan of British sports cars.
The son favors German-made Porsches and an early goal of his was to acquire one by the time he turned 30. Williams met that deadline with a month to spare.
After a neighbor told him about racing lessons through the Porsche Club of America, Williams signed up.
"I did one of those events, and I was completely sucked into it," he said.
He ended up ripping out the interior of his Porsche to add a roll cage, a protective frame in racecars.
"My wife thought I was crazy," he said.
He club-raced for a half-dozen years, and then stopped in 1998 to devote more time to his four children and his growing business.
Williams had acquired Merkle Computer Systems a decade earlier at the age of 25. Merkle's business then was mostly helping organizations manage their membership files and mailings.
Merkle started to focus on direct marketing at a time when that industry was taking off, Williams said. Direct marketing went from a $20 billion industry in 1990 to $45 billion in a decade.
"We really rode that wave," he said.
As the new century dawned, Merkle moved more into digital marketing, an area of torrid growth.
"We are using information we know about consumers to try to put the most relevant ad before them," Williams said.