The company VP is still in high school

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 24, 2011 - 6:32 AM

The New Hope executive who drives his dad's car to work has shown impressive leadership skills. He was also Robbinsdale Armstrong High School's soccer captain -- this year.

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Alex Houg

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Company vice president Alex Houg was summoned to a speaker phone and asked to simplify a complex issue for a client. He did so in seconds. The client was impressed.

"Alex hit it out of the park," said Blacksmith Marketing president Ron Grams.

"I wonder what our client would have thought if he knew that Alex is still in high school."

Alex Houg just turned 18. Two months ago, the home-schooler captained the Robbinsdale Armstrong soccer team and was named all-conference. In October, he also was made a full partner of Blacksmith Marketing, a New Hope Internet-marketing consulting business.

Houg's workday has a different rhythm from that of most executives. He gets up weekday mornings, begins his online high school classes and then borrows his dad's car and goes to work. After a full day at the office, he returns to his Plymouth home, takes out the trash, does homework and plays video games like "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare."

He's an Eagle Scout who hiked 83 miles in New Mexico mountains over 10 days. He started his own Internet company at 14. He has a girlfriend. He's a church leader. He plays for an elite-level club soccer team.

"He's not perfect," said admiring mother Jennifer Houg. "I wish he was better at keeping his room clean."

The older of Jennifer and Michael Houg's two boys -- brother Aaron is 16 -- Houg says he was asked in kindergarten what he enjoyed.

"Counting money and math," he responded. He explained this week, "I liked being able to see figures."

At 14, Houg started an Internet site that optimized the use of search engines, his father recalled. At 15, he was making as much as $600 a month from the site. At 16, he sold the site "for a very nice profit," his father said.

Charming and blessed with an enticing smile -- "I owe that to God and my orthodontist," he says -- Houg looks and dresses like your normal teenager who decided to skip college, in part, "because he'd constantly have to answer questions that his professors couldn't," said Sarah Burt, Blacksmith's office manager.

Better than college

Houg didn't take the college-board exams. He loves the movie "The Social Network," chronicling the rise of Facebook, and has studied the careers of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft's Bill Gates, and the late Apple chief Steve Jobs -- none of whom completed college. He concludes: "Even the smartest people on the face of the planet drop out of the top universities."

"The opportunity of being a business owner seems way more interesting than going to college," he said.

His parents were a bit skeptical when Houg announced during the second semester of his sophomore year at Armstrong that he wanted to home-school himself by taking online courses. But now his dad said he's thrilled that his son "is taking the entrepreneurial route instead of the traditional one, where he'd graduate from college with student loans and a subpar income."

Michael Houg works for Wells Fargo's home mortgage department. As a kid, he had two paper routes, two jobs and played drums. Jennifer Houg is a technical paraprofessional at Wayzata High School and has an equally strong work ethic, her husband said.

"Alex is as tenacious as they come," said Armstrong High soccer coach Kent Getchell. He's "a natural leader that every kid on our team looked up to. He's a phenomenal player, but I'm just in awe of his leadership qualities."

Once in a lifetime

So was Grams. At 48, Grams recently became a grandfather. Yet he had no problem making a high school kid his partner.

He felt he had no choice.

"You don't want to lose young, talented people," he said. "Alex is a once-in-a-lifetime talent."

Grams thought that Houg, with his Internet skills, determination, energy and affable demeanor, was the perfect fit when he hired him in August as a consultant to his fledgling company. Blacksmith Marketing makes Internet commercials for companies that can be seen through links to that company's Web page.

Grams' wife is an actress who earns her living making commercials and doing voice-overs. His son has his own production company. They've turned Blacksmith Marketing into a family affair.

Enter Houg, whom Grams knew through the Brooklyn Park church both attend.

"Within two or three weeks, Alex showed he had a genius for this," Grams said.

"When you find somebody this good, you know it instantly. It wasn't awkward at all for me to ask him, 'Why don't I make you a partner?'"

Houg once thought about a career in the military. Now, he's thinking about the day he can retire, "turn off my phone, get away from technology, go camping, sit under the stars and watch them reflect off of a lake.

"First," he said, "I want to earn my high-school diploma."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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