Calculated risks

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:33 pm

Since its inception in 1993, Berbee Information Networks Corp. has taken calculated risks that have led to the company’s success.
The Madison-based company has nine regional offices, including one at N14 W23833 Stone Ridge Dr., Suite 100, Waukesha.
James Berbee, chief executive officer and founder of the Madison-based information technology company, took a risk just by creating a business on the cusp of widespread technology adoption.
Berbee had served as a systems engineer for IBM before branching off on his own to form the company, which specializes in networking computer systems. Networking is the technology that allowed computers to share files and print servers at a time when e-mail accounts and the Internet were just coming into vogue, said Paul Shain, president of Berbee.
"There was a tremendous amount of opportunity to help companies map out what the future of this technology was and what it was going to do for their businesses," Shain said. "The Internet was new and novel and somewhat unknown as to what the business impact was going to be."
Berbee made sure that engineers were more than capable of developing and implementing both current mainstream technology and emerging technology. Berbee based the company’s integrity on talent and customer service, and as a result, the firm grew as its clients grew, and its client base expanded, Shain said.
"We started at a time when technology was really taking off and was becoming mainstream for many companies," Shain said. "We built our business around the philosophy of hiring outstanding engineering talent. If there was one key and critical success factor of our company, it is that we have always had excellent technologists who are able to implement and employ this technology, which is increasingly complex regardless of the vision that this was going to get easy."
Berbee’s first office was in Madison as the company began to support firms throughout Dane County, Shain said.
"We kind of just kept growing and largely opened offices where our customers were and where there was a nice concentration of medium to large businesses that were using technology," Shain said.
With 11 office locations in the Midwest today, Berbee has been successful in part because the company has never deviated from its core business model, which includes a focus on new technology platforms and helping companies deploy those technologies to solve business issues, Shain said.
Berbee’s business practices are divided into five separate units, including a storage and server business unit centered on its partnership with IBM Corp.; networking and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) working with Cisco Systems Inc.; productivity applications developed around Berbee’s partnership with Microsoft Corp.; a data center business unit; and an application development group that focuses on Web sites, including e-commerce and portals, Shain said.
Staying ahead of technology through development and implementation years before the product or service is considered mainstream, or in some cases, even introduced to the market, has kept Berbee on the forefront, Shain said.
"The most important risk we took was making a commitment to competent VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) three or four years ago," Shain said. "That meant that we had to retool our engineers and data to telecommunications experts and made a commitment to become a leader (in the technology). It also meant a significant investment in our people, processes and training."
Berbee built an application for a VoIP phone and integrated the entire system into its 11 locations. Berbee did not integrate the system into customer operations until the internal system was nearly flawless, Shain said.
"(The integration) taught us the experience customers would have and added a ton of credibility and flexibility to our technology," Shain said. "It was critical to our success."
Berbee now stands at the forefront of VoIP technology, which has been popularized by telephone companies and Internet service providers in the past year.
"It is part of the commitment we made to be an important partner for Cisco," Shain said.
Berbee built a data center in 1998 to support networking systems. The state-of-the-art environment ensures Internet connectivity and support for corporate computer networks. Although data centers are widely available today, Berbee finished construction in 1999, when data centers were less common and the future of data centers was unclear, Shain said.
"It was an enormous bet to make," Shain said. "The market went south, but we continued to build data and skills. It was an upfront capital and people investment."
Part of the focus on customer service for Berbee is to receive feedback and to routinely sit down and talk with every client to gather ideas about how the company can either change or grow, Shain said.
"There is an advantage to listening to customers," Shain said. "See what is happening. Spend time with vendors and partners. Putting the two together and seeing what we can do to help engineers."
Berbee focuses on its employees as much as it is dedicated to serving customers. When hiring the best of the best, Berbee treats employees as such, Shain said.
A department within Berbee, which Shain refers to as the people department, specializes in finding and recruiting employees for all aspects of the business.
"People who join Berbee need to share in the passion of the company, be competent and fit in well with the company culture," Shain said.
The Berbee senior management team wants to ensure that every employee is taking time to have fun and openly communicate with each other, Shain said.
"We have an incredible openness, and our philosophy is communication," Shain said.
When Berbee decides to acquire another technology company, it is both a geographic and strategic decision, and the new employees are always retained, Shain said.
Berbee’s most recent acquisitions were both for adding greater geographic presence and for the addition of a technology staff. In 2004, Berbee acquired Wausau-based Network Engineering Associates, which brought in 22 new employees, and Cleveland, Ohio-based Foresight technology Group, which allowed Berbee to enter the Ohio market with 87 employees.
Earlier this month, Berbee announced its third acquisition in one year when it purchased Strategies & Solutions LLC, an Appleton-based private technology services company with 13 employees. Strategies & Solutions also provided Cisco Systems infrastructure, Microsoft operating systems and IBM server and storage hardware.
The Berbee staff has the opportunity to share concerns, experiences and progress at monthly meetings and staff surveys.
Employees located at the Madison headquarters can talk directly with Shain or James Berbee by walking over to the cubicle that the two share. The senior management of the company gets too much credit, and employees are most responsible for the success of the company, Shain said.
"We try to have fun," Shain said. "We are very tied to technology and communication and try to make sure our local offices try to have fun, relax and celebrate our successes. This is all important to our environment."
The company plans to double in size in the next three years, Shain said.
"We are fortunate to be in a segment that is growing, and with our strategy, we are well-positioned to evolve," Shain said.

Berbee Information Networks Corp.
Address: 5520 Research Park Dr., Madison (headquarters); N14 W23833 Stone Ridge Dr., Waukesha (Milwaukee regional office)
Industry: Information technology and telecommunications
Web site: Revenue: $228 million
Employees: 600
• Established its first data center in 1998 at a time when off-site data storage was not widely seen as a viable option.
• Developed and perfected a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) system internally before offering the technology to customers.
• Made three key strategic acquisitions to help the company expand its technological capabilities and its geographic footprint.

May 27, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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