Steven LaVoie had a vision for transforming freight traffic across the country and called it ArrowStream. Within months of forming the company, he hired technology expert Tony DeFrances to help him build his dream.
Fourteen years later, former colleagues who worked with the two during the company's infancy are trying to make sense of what happened Thursday morning in LaVoie's 17th floor office on LaSalle Street in Chicago's Loop. DeFrances pulled out a 9 mm pistol, shot LaVoie in the head and the stomach and then fatally shot himself in the mouth, according to a Chicago police report. DeFrances had learned days earlier that he was going to be demoted.
The former colleagues had trouble reconciling the shocking events.
"One was a good man, and the other was a good man, and he just snapped," said Gary Davison, a marketing analyst who was one of the company's first hires. "It is something of a demonstration that everybody has their limits. I was surprised and saddened Tony reached his."
Peter Benda, who co-founded ArrowStream and now runs his own firm in Virginia, referred to both LaVoie and DeFrances as "kind people."
"It's not the Tony I -- I am shocked," he said, his voice trailing off.
Police said LaVoie was downsizing at the company and had told DeFrances late last week that he would be demoted from his post as the company's chief technology officer, one of its top executives.
DeFrances asked for a one-on-one meeting and entered LaVoie's office shortly before 10 a.m. Thursday, police said.
DeFrances pulled a gun and the two struggled before DeFrances shot LaVoie twice and then killed himself, police said. Alerted by co-workers who heard shots, officers stormed into the office, not knowing if the gunman was still alive, according to the police report. LaVoie was still breathing, but DeFrances was dead at the scene, a gun in his right hand, police said.
According to a police source, DeFrances, who did not have a firearm owner's identification card, used a German military pistol in the shooting, but Thomas Ahern, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the trace of the gun has not been completed.
LaVoie remained in critical but stable condition Friday after neurosurgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, a family spokesman said.
The former colleagues said LaVoie and DeFrances were talented and hardworking and together built and sustained a company through difficult economic times.
"Steve had the vision and had the financial background, and Tony brought the technical part of it," said Benda, who was laid off in 2002.
LaVoie received a bachelor's degree from the University of California at Berkeley and a master's in management from Yale University and gained experience working on Wall Street, Davison said. He came up with the idea for ArrowStream while he was president of The Sterno Group LLC, which Davison said was a logistics-heavy company.
LaVoie's goal was to make the business the FedEx for hauling freight by truck, Benda said. He hoped to create efficiencies by consolidating truckload shipments and reducing logistics costs.
"When I was introduced to Steve, I saw somebody who seemed to really know what he was talking about," Benda said. "We saw an opportunity to transform the way freight moved in the U.S."
The company started in 2000 in LaVoie's attic in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood around the time Nasdaq hit its all-time peak, Davison said. It was still refining its concept and trying to win over customers when the tech bubble burst in 2001.
"Suddenly, there was no money available. It was very challenging," Benda said.
Still, the company survived and grew, moving that year from one abandoned startup space to another, modifying its vision when necessary. Ultimately, the company focused on technology for food service companies that shipped freight.
"Steve was a very thoughtful business manager, so he was able to grow the business very far with limited resources," Benda said.
Some six months after the company's start, DeFrances was hired to build its technology platform, Benda said. With experience starting his own technology company, DeFrances seemed like a good fit. The founding team of three hired him within a day of his interview.
"We were delighted to have him join the company," Benda said. "He was a visionary in his own right....Tony was practically a founding member as well."
DeFrances, he recalled, worked "crazy hours" to develop the critical software, at times sending emails throughout the night to the company's team of about eight people.
"Tony and I spent a lot of our time putting our heads together, moaning and saying, 'How are we going to do this?'" said Davison, who was laid off with Benda and three others in 2002.
LaVoie and DeFrances had a good business relationship, Benda said.
"Some interactions I've had with them since then, everything was positive," Benda said. "They were very collegial and had a strong working relationship."
DeFrances was able to stick with the company through the years, Davison believes, because of a combination of technological savvy and the ability to remain calm in the face of the chaos inherent in trying to build something that has never been built before.
"Basically there had to be a strong element of caring here for things to go this horribly wrong," he said. "It wasn't indifference that drove this. Indifferent people do not do this, at least certainly not people like Tony who have done a lot and have better options."
Tribune reporter Jeremy Gorner contributed.
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