Joseph C. Ott’s steelworker father gave his son just one bit of career advice: Don’t grow up to be a steelworker.
Mr. Ott, who died Friday at age 77 of esophageal cancer complications, heeded that advice, influenced by his father’s mid-career decision to leave the mills and start his own mechanical contracting company. Mr. Ott, in turn, started several of his own companies after he returned home to Pittsburgh from California. Area entrepreneurs held him in such high regard that he eventually was board chairman of the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute For Entrepreneurial Excellence.
“It’s really a sad day for our organization,” said Bob Stein, interim executive director at the institute. “We lost a great man.”
Mr. Ott, most recently of Ohio Township, bounced around the Pittsburgh area as a youth, eventually graduating from Langley High School. He briefly worked at his father’s company, trying his hand at plumbing and heating, but he found he “wasn’t particularly good at either of these fields,” he said in a 2008 interview. Instead, he pursued a civil engineering degree at Pitt.
That degree was conferred not long after the Soviets had launched Sputnik into orbit. As a result, the nation’s young aerospace industry was offering “every engineering grad in the country a job so we could catch up with the Russians,” he said in 2008.
That’s how Mr. Ott landed in California in 1961, with what was then known as Douglas Aircraft. He was randomly assigned to the company’s computer programming wing, he said in an interview. As a programmer, he played a role in the design of missile simulations for the Nike Zeus and Skybolt missiles and the Saturn IVB rocket booster, according to his family.
After his return to Pittsburgh in 1963 and a short stint with the City of Pittsburgh’s planning department, he co-founded the first of his three software companies: Ecco Consulting, a company that built custom systems for corporations as well as municipal governments. Next came Acclamation Systems Inc., a benefits management company that he co-founded in 1989 and sold in 2008 to EBIX Inc. for $22 million cash. The next year, he bought Tower Systems and subsequently renamed the company TowerMetriX Inc.
“He really loved the art of business,” Mr. Stein said. “One of Joe’s talents was that he could strategically envision how to take the business not to the next level but many levels” beyond.
During his battle with cancer, he was still mentoring young businessmen. Brian McMahon, a Pittsburgh entrepreneur who has launched several companies, said Mr. Ott gave him feedback and insight regarding his latest venture, a service that helps connect myeloma cancer patients with potential clinical trials.
“We were meeting every couple of weeks,” Mr. McMahon said. “Even in his illness, he was helping.” Before Mr. McMahon set out to start his own companies, he worked for Mr. Ott at Acclamation Systems, first as a summer intern, then as a full-time personal assistant. Mr. Ott allowed him to work in different parts of the company, he said.
“He was putting me through the paces [in] learning everything about how the business worked,” Mr. McMahon recalled. “Joe’s really played an instrumental role in my life” and in many others, by acknowledging their innate curiosity and forcing them to confront and solve problems rather than giving up on them, he said.
Mr. Ott was also a formidable fundraiser. From 1999 to 2004, he was board president of Achieva, formerly ARC Allegheny, a nonprofit that provides services to more than 7,000 people with mental and developmental disabilities. He had volunteered with ARC and Achieva in some capacity for two decades, his family said. Achieva’s “Joe Ott” award is now given annually to the organization’s longtime supporters and contributors.
Mr. Ott is survived by wife, Rae; a daughter, Michelle Crookenden of Connecticut; a son, Douglas Ott of South Park; sister Joan Davies; brother Patrick Ott; and several grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 2-4 and 6-8 p.m. Wednesday at Schellhaas Funeral Home in Franklin Park. Memorial services will be at 11 a.m. Thursday at the funeral home.
Bill Toland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2625.