A couple of years ago Ken Mandler had an idea. The engineering firm he was working for kept a computerized file of environmental impact statements. Wouldn't the computer be put to better use, he suggested, monitoring planning-board decisions? This local legislative action was what really had an impact on business, he reasoned.
The firm wasn't interested. But Mr. Mandler's idea didn't end there. He soon recognized that the planning-board approach had a basic problem. Such boards are scattered all over the map, which would greatly complicate data gathering. But there are places - state capitals like Sacramento, for example - where legislative activity is concentrated. Such places, Mandler concluded, would be ideal for the kind of information processing he envisioned.
Following this chain of reasoning, and bolstered by an awareness that computer time-sharing had become a very economical proposition, Ken Mandler launched a company of his own - Legitech Corporation.
He set up shop in his apartment, made arrangements with a local time-sharing operation to use a Hewlett-Packard HP3000 computer, and hired a few people to help with the data gathering at the state capital. Now, some 20 months later, Legitech is comfortably situated in a new office right across from the Capitol and has expanded its list of clients from 20 to 75 over the past year.
''With a growth rate in line with realistic expectations,'' says Mandler, ''we hope to have 80 by the end of the year, and 150 by the end of 1983.'' He points out that the break-even point for the firm is 120 clients, a figure now clearly in sight, if the projected growth rate holds true.
What customers get for a start-up fee of $500, a monthly equipment rental of and phone hook-up to the main computer), and an ongoing $25 an hour charge for the service, is instant access to any bill, any vote, and, as an important bonus , any contribution to a legislator's campaign fund, explains Colt Stewart, a Legitech staff member. This information is gleaned from legislative chambers, hearings rooms, secretary of states' offices in the case of campaign contributions - and it's thoroughly double-checked.
Among the first customers were newspapers. But it wasn't long before businesses, lobbying organizations, and even state agencies heard about the new enterprise and looked into it. The present list of clients includes the Bank of America, the Los Angeles Times, Firemen's Fund Insurance Company, and the California Department of Justice, among others.
Among the most creative of his customers, Mandler says, has been the state's Republican Party. (The Democrats haven't signed up for the service, though Mandler hopes they will.) John Meyers, head of the GOP's Sacramento office, can't say enough about Mandler's operation.
''If Ken hadn't existed, we'd have had to create him,'' he says. Before Legitech came along, he recalls, a party staffer would take six months to update the voting records of legislators. Now, with the company's electronic assist, the job is done in a week. And this gives GOP headquarters some potent political ammunition, as Mr. Meyers found out during the recent campaign season.
''Our candidates were calling in two or three times a day, either asking for an opponents' specific vote on a bill or for a comparison of votes,'' he says.
Another Legitech customer, Gil Davis, former executive director of the state's Conservation and Planning League, used Legitech's services to set up a weekly publication, The Environmental Lobbying Network. The latest issue - the last for a while, since the league is reorganizing - listed some 950 bills according to subject, title, status (the stage a bill is at in the legislative process), and the date of the next hearing.
What's next for Legitech?
Mandler, whose easygoing manner and degrees in forestry and community planning hardly fit the usual mold for a business executive, has plans for expansion. He's already set up shop in Albany, N.Y., to keep tabs on that state's legislature, and his data gatherers are at work in Washington, D.C., as well, particularly on the congressional campaign contribution front. Beyond that , he's got his eye on Massachusetts and Illinois as two very politics-oriented states that might prove good markets for Legitech.