Written by Anna Raddatz | Photos by Anthony Harden
When you think of “technology,” perhaps you think of gadgets and apps. Consumers today have at their disposal a seemingly endless array of electronic devices, from smart phones and e-books to laptops and tablets. Software developers tout their newest games, apps, and widgets that promise to entertain and “engage.” And the media can’t get enough of tech startup stories. It’s a culture that busies itself with what’s new at SXSW this year, or how to be an early adopter on the newest social media platform.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the meantime, there are other technology businesses out there, not in the spotlight but in the trenches. Businesses that quietly work to understand the latest technologies, determine which elements have staying power, and help their clients to implement them. TSAChoice, headquartered in Candler, is one of those businesses. Instead of dreaming up the “next big thing,” this business is more concerned with finding and implementing the systems that actually help their clients work more effectively, efficiently, and securely.
TSAChoice is what is known as a technology integrator but describes itself as “the largest and oldest provider of office technology in Western North Carolina.” Originally founded in 1982 as a telephone system provider, the business has evolved and grown over the years, morphing into a full-service technology company that provides a myriad of systems for a variety of clients.
This isn’t some flash-in-the-pan startup with arcade games in the break room. This is an established business that’s seen a thing or two and is built to last.
TSAChoice offers their customers a full suite of technology services, which they have packaged into six categories: voice (traditional telephone systems and the new VOIP-voice over Internet Protocol ), IT (computer systems and network engineering), cabling (design and installation of all types of technology cables), audiovisual (videoconferencing, conference room technology, and home-automation), and security (video surveillance, access control, and alarm systems).
At first, it’s a lot to wrap your head around. But one of their promotional videos shows how many of the pieces can work together for a business owner. In the video, the owner of a local car dealership explains how TSAChoice designed and installed numerous systems, everything from iPads and smart phones for the sales and service staff, to weather-proof security surveillance and electronic access controls for customer records.
It’s this all-inclusive model that makes TSAChoice stand apart and defines what a true technology integrator is all about. By offering so many different services, they are able to ensure that all of the individual functions “play nice” with each other.
Of course, to run a business of over 60 employees, the key is to have a leadership that “plays nice,” too. And that’s where Bill, Jeff, and Dan come in. This executive team has been working together successfully for over 30 years, and is made up of men who started their careers before cell phones and personal computers took over everyday life, when the cutting edge technology was based on two simpler modes of communication: radio and telephone.
The Seed of a Business
After graduating with a business degree from Appalachian State University in 1978, Bill Arledge, now president of TSAChoice, got a job at Motorola selling two-way radio communications systems that businesses used to communicate with their trucks. After a few years, he went on to work for Executone, which Arledge explains was one of the first companies to provide telephone systems for businesses. This might seem strange, given that by the 1980s the patent for the first telephone was over 100 years old. But at that time, AT&T maintained a monopoly on the American phone system—not just the phone lines, but the equipment as well, which was rented to subscribers. “AT&T still ruled the world,” recalls Arledge. “They would sue you if you put any other kind of equipment on their phone lines.”
But as the result of an antitrust lawsuit, the U.S. Department of Justice broke up the monopoly in the early 1980s. At that point, a flood of new telephone technology entered the market—and Arledge was on the front lines. “When you’re a monopoly, you don’t have to keep up with technology,” says Arledge of AT&T. “So it was very easy selling, because we were able to offer hands-free intercoms and paging through the phone. Customers had been used to paying so much to AT&T, but we were able to give them so much more.”
MB Haynes Corporation, an Asheville-based multi-trade contracting company, was one business that was eager to get into the telephone business. They purchased a telephone system and hired Arledge to lead the division, which they called Telephone Systems of Asheville (TSA). Within a year, Arledge would hire the two men who would become his business partners, Jeff Lowdermilk and Dan Higgins.
Building a Team
Lowdermilk, who is now the executive vice-president of TSAChoice, had worked in advertising and sales for a Western North Carolina radio station and was drawn to the sales position in an up-and-coming industry. Higgins, who today is the vice president of technical services, had been a telephone installation and repair technician for four years in the United States Air Force. He found TSA was a great place to put his new skills to work.
It was an exciting time to work in communications. “We were in an industry that was brand new,” says Lowdermilk. “To sell, maintain, and install telephone equipment were fairly radical, new things to do. We had a good bit of freedom to help chart where we were going within the structure of MB Haynes.”
After several years, the men pursued the idea of going out on their own by buying the telephone division from MB Haynes. “We had become a very viable part of MB Haynes,” says Lowdermilk, “but they recognized our entrepreneurial drive.” Through an owner-financed arrangement, Arledge, Lowdermilk, and Higgins purchased the business in 1995.
For the first eight or nine years, the company sold and installed telephone systems exclusively. But as desktop computers took over offices everywhere, demand for new services increased. “A lot of our customers asked if we could wire for their computer systems as well,” says Arledge. In order to respond to their customers’ demands for more data related services, TSA purchased Choice Computer Center and changed its name to TSAChoice.
“That’s how we’ve grown our business,” says Arledge. “Our customers have asked us to do more and more.” It’s a page they’ve borrowed from their initial parent company. “MB Haynes wanted to provide everything having to do with building,” Arledge explains, “from plumbing to heating to electrical and general contracting. We wanted to provide everything for our customers’ technology. It all just seemed to flow together.”
The Only Constant is Change
Today the company serves a wide range of clients, from small businesses—like law firms and dentist offices—to larger institutions, like Mission Healthcare System, the Biltmore Company, and Buncombe County Government. Because of TSAChoice’s model of providing a range of services and upgrading them over time, it has enjoyed many long-term client relationships; Lowdermilk says they’ve had some of their clients for over 25 years, nearly as long as the business has existed. “As the technology has changed, they trust us to lead them,” he says.
And change it has. The business has witnessed the rise and fall of numerous technologies, including fax machines (which were big business when they first came out) and car phones (which Arledge remembers costing around $1,500 each—they were kits that had to be installed by technicians). “We’re always on that bleeding edge,” says Arledge, “trying to determine which technologies have lasting power.”
Right now, that edge is in the cloud. No longer just a fluffy white thing in the sky, the cloud (short for “cloud computing”) is the future—and, increasingly, the present—of technology systems. Higgins says that with more services moving to the cloud every day, it signals a sea of change for both the industry and TSAChoice, as they understand how to embrace it and learn how to manage it for their customers. They now offer cloud-based servers and phone systems.
But the thing that all three partners are most excited about—and where they see potential for major growth—is their newest offering: managed services. In a nutshell, TSAChoice can act as an outsourced full-service IT department. “Our clients want to concentrate on what’s core to their business, whether they’re a law firm or a brewery,” says Lowdermilk. “For all of the other things that every business has to have around tech, they are preferring to have us as a trusted partner.” If clients have questions or issues, they’re invited to take advantage of TSAChoice’s help desk, which goes into action to triage and fix any problems that might arise.
But through all of the technological innovations and evolutions, the TSAChoice leadership finds that there are some things that always stay the same. First of all, Higgins explains that no matter what technology you’re dealing with, it should follow the “five nines” concept—that your systems should be up and fully functional 99.999% of the time. Dependability, naturally, is essential.
In addition, Higgins saysthat neatness counts. Whether it’s installing a PC or a server, making the cables tidy and accessible is important for client satisfaction. “There’s a craftsmanship that goes into making things look neat,” he says. “It’s hard to find people who can do that.”
Investing in People
What Arledge, Lowdermilk, and Higgins have found over the years is that it’s actually better in the long-term to invest in staff who have the right personality, and then invest the time and training to equip them with the right skills. “A lot of companies go out and hire experienced people,” explains Arledge. “But we’ve found that our best employees are the ones that fit our culture and have an aptitude, and then we’ve trained them from the start on the technology or sales side.” They also make an effort to hire from the local community, finding employees who are already invested in the region, as opposed to recruiting folks from farther away. Today there are around 50 employees at the Candler office and six in the new Greenville office. Impressively, Arledge says the average employee tenure is 10 to 15 years.
All three men agree that the office culture is one of the most important aspects of TSAChoice, heavily based around an “open door” policy, wherein staff members are encouraged to come directly to the leadership with any problems. Lowdermilk says that the business has had some employees leave and come back because they missed the culture. “People thought they were leaving for better opportunities, but when they got there they found out it was culturally very different from TSAChoice.”
Higgins describes the environment as “dynamic and diverse,” due to the wide range of staff roles, from client-facing sales reps in suits to “guys that are crawling through attics and crawlspaces” doing installation work.
As you walk through the maze-like 20,000-square-foot office space, you can see that diversity pretty clearly. There are separate sections for administration, sales, support, and, of course, technical work—the last of which is easily identified by tables littered with nests of wires and components in various states of assembly. The facility also includes a 3,500-square-foot warehouse space, which contains around $1 million worth of inventory, including parts to repair any of the equipment TSAChoice sells.
Connecting in the Community
As Asheville attracts more technical talent, TSAChoice has made an effort to stay connected to the local technology community. One way they do this is through a group called Tech After Five, which offers networking events for IT professionals. Started in Greenville, South Carolina, Tech After Five now has nine chapters around the Southeast. Lowdermilk was instrumental in bringing the concept to Asheville a couple years ago; now TSAChoice sponsors the local monthly events, which draw up to 100 attendees. “It’s a way to get the tech community together as a whole and see how we can move the ball forward together,” says Lowdermilk.
The business also supported the launch of Asheville Women in Technology last year, an idea conceived by Lynn Banks, a sales engineer at TSAChoice, and spearheaded by Banks and a core group of women from other area businesses. “We would find ourselves at tech networking events, and we were always in the minority,” says Banks. At their monthly meetings, the members mentor one another and discuss what they’re working on. “It’s a different kind of bonding than going out with my girlfriends,” says Banks. “It provides an opportunity for women in technology, engineering, and math to be with women who are more like them.”
The first gathering of the Women in Technology group was held at TSAChoice last February, and attracted 35 attendees. Now the group meets at various locations around the region and has over 200 women on its mailing list. “We were very happy to help get that group going,” says Lowdermilk. “It’s important that we help provide a career path for young ladies in this male-dominated industry.”
Leadership with Longevity
“A lot of good and bad luck is who you’re working with,” says Higgins. It’s something that any working adult knows to be true. And it’s clear that the TSAChoice leadership found a lot of good luck in each other. The business has grown four-fold since they purchased it, and this year they plan to do a little over $8 million in sales.
All three contend that their partnership has been drama-free, which is extraordinary for any relationship that has weathered three decades. “In 30 years, I don’t think we’ve had a cross word between us,” says Arledge. Higgins agrees. “For whatever reason, we don’t butt heads much,” he says. “There are disagreements, but we work things out in a way that has never gotten heated.”
It helps that each man is well-suited to his work—Arledge likes analyzing numbers and strategizing; he oversees the operations and administrative side of the business; Lowdermilk puts his sociable personality to work interfacing with clients and overseeing the sales team; Higgins uses his technical background and on-the-ground work ethic to oversee the technical staff. “We all respect each other very much and understand our roles,” says Arledge.
He underscores the dedication and commitment that he and his partners have invested in their business. “It’s always been about building something,” says Arledge. “All of us have been in this thing from the start, and we’re in it for the long-term.”
For his part, Higgins says his favorite thing about working at TSAChoice is the people. “When I started at TSA, I thought I’d be here for five years and then move on to something else,” he says. “I’m glad that didn’t work out. The people here are dedicated to their work and very talented. I learn from them every day.”