Automated messaging business gets the word out

2012-11-07T00:15:00Z 2012-11-08T08:41:08Z Automated messaging business gets the word outScott Bandle
November 07, 2012 12:15 am  • 

When Paul Langhorst is at a party, somebody might ask him about his business. He replies with a big smile:

“We wake parents up.”

Actually, Langhorst doesn't get on the telephone himself. He is the chief marketing officer for GroupCast Messaging Services. The business is mainly known for SchoolReach, an instant messaging service for the parents of students in more than 4,000 schools across the country.

The system sends out automated messages by telephone, e-mail, text or computer to alert parents about snow day cancellations, schedule changes, emergencies and meetings. 

“I don't know how popular we are with parents when we wake them up at 5 a.m. because of snow, but they appreciate knowing as soon as possible,” Langhorst said. “For the schools, a secretary doesn't have to spend time on the telephone making calls. The kids don't have to watch television to see if school has been canceled.”

Langhorst, 50, and CEO/President Joe Palacios, 65, co-founded GroupCast in 2002. They and a staff of four people worked out of Langhorst's Des Peres home, starting with two clients. A few months later, the company moved to a bigger space in Sunset Hills.

In 2003, SchoolReach went on line. The first customer was Langhorst's parish, St. Clement of Rome Catholic Church and School in Des Peres.

"It was an exciting time for both of us," Langhorst said. "I had always wanted my own business. We got SchoolReach going and it kept growing."

SchoolReach operates out of a Sunset Hills office building. It is staffed by 50 people, including technical workers and sales people. They all proudly wear long-sleeved shirts with the SchoolReach logo on the upper left front.

“We're St. Louis through and through,” Langhorst said. “Almost everybody on our staff was born and raised here.”

The St. Louis area districts that use SchoolReach include Affton, Bayless, Hancock Place, Lindbergh, Mehlville, Hazelwood, the St. Louis Public Schools, Wentzville and Warren County. Almost all of the St. Louis Archdiocesan schools use it.

If district administrators need to send a message, they go to the SchoolReach website. They type or telephone the message, then give instructions where and how it should be sent. The system takes over. Each district has its own program. The messages can be tailored for all of the parents in the district or down to just one grade in an elementary school. The parent of a single child can be notified of an illness or of an unexcused absence.

Langhorst and Palacios take pride that SchoolReach was one of the first school services in the country. They are two of five owners.

When they met, they were involved with mass messaging companies used by businesses.

“It's just a simple concept,” Palacios said. “When we started in 2002, mass notification had been around for a long time, but schools weren't part of it. We just used that technology for schools.”

The service recently was used by school districts on the East Coast as Hurricane Sandy churned to  shore. The messages warned the students that schools were closed. The system will notify them when classes start again.

SchoolReach has expanded with the CyberBully Hotline, which is used by the Hancock Place, Bayless, Affton and Wentzville districts and the Special School District. This service allows students and parents to anonymously text or e-mail school counselors if they have come across students who are having trouble with bullies.

Palacios is proud of the hotline.

“As parents, we're always thinking of our kids,” he said. “You don't want them having problems, and bullying has become a problem in our schools.”

The districts are charged per student. For SchoolReach, the average is $2 per student for one year. The CyberBully Hotline costs $1.50 per student for one year.

SchoolReach clients account for 80 percent of  GroupCast's business, Langhorst said. Businesses clients, such as retailer Costco and Hardee's fast-food restaurants, make up the rest.

Business clients use the system to notify workers not to come into work because the computer system might be down, or to take certain products off shelves.

"The system works well, but we're always refining it," Langhorst said. "We're always looking for ways to make it work better."

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