University of Southern California

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Thomas Unterseher Class of '92

Thomas Unterseher Class of '92

Flat Worlder

Thomas Unterseher ’92 learned you can go home again and still feel connected to USC - even if that home is a town of 4,000 people in the middle of South Dakota.

Along with his wife, Heather Bohr, and USC cinematic arts grad Don Tyler ’91, Unterseher started multimedia publishing company Cultural Designs in 1990, selling ESL products with MTV-style production values. By 1994, the company was strapped for operating cash. Seeking cheaper office space, the couple moved to his hometown of Mobridge, South Dakota. While looking for a local graphic design firm, he called an ad agency in nearby Aberdeen that, unbeknownst to Unterseher, happened to be owned by another USC cinematic arts alum, Troy McQuillen ’87.

“We both came back to South Dakota to start our own companies because L.A. was too expensive,” says Unterseher, 43, whose bachelor’s degree is in music recording. “And when the Internet took off, we both started doing business with the world from these small towns.”

As Unterseher shipped his own products, friends began asking if he could do order fulfillment for their goods. By 1999, Unterseher’s business had shifted to providing order fulfillment, call center and e-commerce services to other companies. Now called One World Direct, it employs 75 people in Mobridge, aiming eventually to open facilities in Asia, Europe and Latin America.

“One World became an example of this Friedman-esque idea that the world really is flat now,” says Unterseher, referring to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s book, The World Is Flat.” We do business with companies all over, ranging from Sony and The Wall Street Journal to little dot coms.”

Needing to attract qualified employees to his growing business, Unterseher became involved in Mobridge’s local politics, serving on the city council for five years. The goal: Clean up the parks and redevelop the riverfront and main street areas so people in other areas might want to pull up stakes and move to South Dakota. “The town was dying,” Unterseher says. “It’s an outdoor paradise if you like hunting and fishing. But you need certain baseline amenities if you want to attract people.” New grants totaling nearly $3 million helped accomplish those goals, though the change was slow and often came at a personal cost.

With the oldest of their three children reaching school age, Unterseher and Bohr decided to return to Southern California in 2006, moving to Pasadena to be close to Bohr’s family. Unterseher opened a One World satellite office in Orange County and travels to Mobridge every month, spending the summers there, too. The idea is to get the best of both worlds. Los Angeles provides a better base for sales and, in the summers, their kids can ride their bikes around Mobridge with complete freedom.

The Trojan connections continue. Unterseher recently began working with Belgium-based Micah Wolfe, who attended the USC School of Cinematic Arts, to develop One World’s European expansion strategy. Meanwhile, Tyler, Unterseher’s old business partner, has become a much-in-demand, Grammy-nominated mastering engineer and producer of the music for One World’s Web site and videos.

“It’s amazing how quickly things have changed since we made that move to Mobridge,” Unterseher says. “Here you have all these ’SC alums coming together from all over the world - through South Dakota, of all places - working on a global Web site. Makes you wonder what the next 15 years will bring.”

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