By Amy Spooner
Most of us turn on faucets or lawn sprinklers with no thought as to how the water got there. Glenn Oliver, ’87, wants to make sure it arrives in the most cost-effective, efficient way possible.
In 2006, Oliver launched H2bid, a Detroit-based online exchange connecting water utilities with vendors. The first-of-its-kind company provides online bidding software, transaction data, and information services that enable both sides to better manage the bidding and contracting process—from helping vendors access the largest database of bid opportunities in all 50 states, to aiding utilities in finding the best product or service. “If a utility advertises a bid, every company that does business in this industry should have access to that opportunity immediately,” he says. “Every vendor should be able to see competitive pricing when preparing a bid response. Water is the only utility that mankind cannot do without. We’re bringing efficiency, cost savings, and smarter decision making to a critically important industry.”
Oliver gained an insider’s view of the industry in the late 1990s as a member of the Detroit Board of Water Commissioners, one of many hats he wore as group executive under Mayor Dennis Archer. As a member of Archer’s executive staff, Oliver served as public safety director, supervised eight departments, oversaw legislative affairs, and managed the mayor’s staff, budget, and political appointments.
Adding another responsibility to his sizeable list wasn’t enticing, but the water board appointment turned out to be life changing. Detroit’s water department is one of the largest in the country, and Oliver was amazed that commerce in the water industry was so fragmented. He believed the burgeoning power of the Internet could transform the industry, a thought he held even when he returned to private law practice after leaving the Archer administration. And he was right. Since Oliver quit his practice to manage H2bid full time, the startup has enjoyed buzz from Fortune and Forbes, and in October 2013, it snagged top honors at a start-up expo hosted by the prestigious Silicon Valley Forum.
Oliver’s passion for entrepreneurship was ignited by working as a child with his grandfather, a small-business owner. Oliver chose a career as a lawyer in part because he saw that he could pursue his entrepreneurial interests by developing a practice, whether in a major law firm or on his own. Turns out, he has done both. But launching a business based on a novel idea is entirely different, says Oliver. “To be an entrepreneur, you must be willing to embrace risk—even more so when you are disrupting an industry like the centuries-old water industry. What matters is toughing out the initial challenges to meet your customers’ needs and make the business successful.”
As a Detroit-based startup, Oliver is a proud member of a new wave of entrepreneurs in the city. “I am glad to be a part of the ecosystem that is helping to reinvigorate the start-up culture in Detroit,” he says. “When people think of Detroit, they think of the auto industry as it exists today. But don’t forget that, long ago, Henry Ford was a Detroit entrepreneur with a startup.”