Competitive Edge

The four partners of Competitive Computing worked together for one computer company before running their own

by Amy Souza

Carolyn Edwards (left), president; Todd Kelley, vice president of operations; Marty Thieret, vice president of information technology services; and Melissa Dever, vice president of engineering, opened Competitive Computing in Colchester after being laid off by Digital Equipment Corp. when the South Burlington business closed. "We call it 'getting the entrepreneurial nudge' from Digital," Thieret says.

From their fourth-floor conference room on Water Tower Hill in Colchester, the founding partners of Competitive Computing can see much of the Champlain Valley, all the way across the lake to the Adirondacks. On any given day they can watch the weather roll in over the mountains and settle into the valley. The view seems a particularly fitting metaphor for these professionals whose success depends, at least in part, on a careful surveying of the technical landscape.

Melissa Dever, Carolyn Edwards, Todd Kelley and Marty Thieret met while working at Digital Equipment Corp. in South Burlington. They struck out on their own when the facility closed and they were laid off.

"We call it 'getting the entrepreneurial nudge' from Digital," says Thieret, Competitive Computing's vice president of information technology services.

Armed with severance packages and years of consulting experience, the four partners formed Competitive Computing, more commonly known as C2, in 1993.

Today the company employs 55 people and offers strategic consulting services, focusing heavily on Internet and e-commerce solutions. A little more than half of the company's clients are in Vermont; the rest are throughout New England.

To get to where they are today meant they needed to partner with the world's leading software manufacturer.

"We worked aggressively to form a relationship with Microsoft," says Edwards, C2's president.

C2 is a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner in e-commerce and enterprise systems, a partnership program requiring certified technicians on staff and excellent customer references.

"We're the only one in Vermont and one in four in New England at that level," says Thieret. "We're very proud of that."

Shanon Place (left), senior systems engineer, and Shannon Spicer, systems engineer, help Competitive Computing offer Internet and
e-commerce solutions.

In 1998, C2 was named Partner of the Year in New England and was one of 22 finalists in the world.

"We have a lot of self-motivated people working here," says Edwards. "A new technology comes out and they're all over it."

"It's a collaborative atmosphere," adds Melissa Dever, vice president of engineering. "That's how we keep the company on thefront edge."

C2 employees are encouraged to work toward Microsoft certifications. Most of them are certified in one or more areas, and Edwards says the company makes a big investment in their continuing training. Each certification requires numerous courses and tests designed by Microsoft. Knowing the technology inside and out is the name of the game.

"Over the past eight years, we've raised the caliber of how technology is used in Vermont," says Edwards. "We understand high-quality systems and we use them to help clients manage technology better."

Digital was a huge company, and from it the C2 partners learned a lot about what they wanted and didn't want in their own company.

"They did a lot right," says Kelley, vice president of operations. "The manufacturing facility was not representative of the company as a whole. Vermont added a flavor to the facility. We got to be creative and innovative. But as managers, we also saw the dark side of corporate."

"The lethargy of bureaucracy is something we willingly left behind," says Dever.

"When the internal processes take over, you lose sight of what the customer is and needs," adds Edwards.

One thing they all took from their time at Digital is the value of diversity.

"That really plays well into teamwork," says Kelley. "You get different opinions, different perspectives."

"That can be a productive tension," he adds. "People work hard to articulate their points of view and learn to listen to one another."

"Also we saw the integrity of the
Vermont management leadership at Digital," says Edwards. "Integrity becomes natural; it's built into everything you do. It was a great experience in building core values that are fundamental."

The partners believe in individual empowerment, as opposed to giving their employees a list of tasks to complete. They encourage those who work for them to discuss things openly, and even though they've known each other for nearly 15 years, or maybe because of that fact, the four partners often engage in very heated debates.

"We each bring different things to the discussion," says Edwards. "Our differing perspectives have made the company stronger."

Adds Thieret, "By the time you get the four of us to agree on something, it must be the right answer."

Digital also gave them experience working on major projects. "At Digital we were working for big corporations with big-company mentality," says Dever. "People knew what it took to get things done and they had budgets."

When C2 opened its door, many of its first Vermont clients understood that technology could take them forward, but most lacked the money to undertake huge projects.

"On the other hand, the people you deal with are real people," says Edwards. "We work hard at building strong relationships and on collaborating. Sometimes in large corporations there's an understanding that technology costs money."

Paul Beauchamp (left), support services engineer, and Todd Kelley discuss strategy in the company's server room. More than half of Competitive Computing's clients are in Vermont; the rest are throughout New England. Color

With Vermont companies, Dever says, they realized the focus was on helping them take the first step toward using technology. "That's where we got our name; let's help companies use technology in a competitive way."

The four partners have strong Vermont roots and knew they wanted to remain here after leaving Digital.

"And we wanted to use our technical aptitude," says Dever. "We thought we'd continue to be on planes for years. We were overwhelmed with the opportunities we found in Vermont."

Their employees want to be here, too.

"People are here as a lifestyle choice," Dever says.

Clients find it hard to believe it when Dever tells them C2's turnover rate is less than 5 percent.

Many C2 employees were raised in Vermont or attended college here. After school, many moved on to big cities and gained technical expertise and skills. When they wanted to move back to Vermont to raise their families "We've had our own little baby boom," Edwards says they brought that professional experience with them.

"We can attract and retain employees," says Edwards. "Plus, with our business, you don't have to be geographically right there."

"It really is the people who make the difference," adds Dever. "We have a great crew."

"It's passion. Everybody here has it," says Edwards. "The challenge is channeling that energy."

Because of that low turnover rate, employees get to know each other. As those professional relationships grow, the customer benefits. "Our employees have a mix of skills and they know each other," says Thieret. "Very rarely are problems single-skill. We bring a breadth of skills to solve problems."

One of Competitive Computing's first clients was Dakin Farm, a mail-order business based in Ferrisburg. In the early 1990s, Sam Cutting IV, Dakin Farm's president, knew he wanted to harness technology to help his company grow. He was referred to Competitive Computing for a simple task.

"All I wanted to do was network three PCs and integrate that with our mail-order system," Cutting says. "It sounds so simple now."

From that simple beginning, the relationship between Cutting and C2 grew, as a new technological force was beginning to take shape: the World Wide Web.

"In the direct-marketing business we had heard there was a lot of potential but that it wasn't there yet," says Cutting.

Cutting had put up his own "billboard site" a small website with information on products and a fax number for people's orders. C2 had bigger plans and offered Cutting the opportunity for Dakin Farm to become C2's premier site.

"I could see that these people had a lot of enthusiasm and knowledge," Cutting says, "but I didn't want to spend a lot of money. They said, 'We want to think a small Vermont company could afford this.'"

"The lethargy of bureaucracy is something we willingly left behind," Melissa Dever, C2's vice president of engineering.

Cutting and the C2 partners began work on Dakin Farm's first site designed for electronic commerce. In 1995, they attended a Microsoft-sponsored event in San Jose, where Dakin Farm was one of 23 featured companies.

"That was an amazing experience for me," says Cutting.

In the early 1990s, the Web was huge in Silicon Valley. "In San Jose I really got bitten by the Web bug," says Cutting, "but things on the east coast moved a lot slower."

Cutting describes his experience as a roller coaster. "I get pumped up and then discouraged."

Over the past six years, Cutting says, he thought the Web would make Dakin Farm double or triple in size.

When C2 built sites for the three biggest direct marketers in Vermont Orvis, the Vermont Country Store and Gardener's Supply Cutting watched as their businesses grew in leaps and bounds. Those companies had more money to invest in technology.

"My conclusion at the end of last Christmas was, it's not going to make us a big company, but it's a new channel for our customers and it will help us grow."

The primary purpose of Dakin Farm's site is not just to sell online but also to market itself to a broader audience and to build better relationships with current customers. The company's Web presence has definitely had an effect.

"In October this year, retail and mail-order were flat; the Web business grew," Cutting says.

C2 is one of four computer vendors that Cutting uses. He calls them a primary innovator for the company.

"They're constantly opening my eyes to new technology," he says. Although Cutting has to manage his investment in technology to make sure he doesn't overspend, he says his Web presence has basically paid for itself.

"I find they're just so capable. The depth of knowledge is unlimited."

Dever says C2 partners decided to adopt a "tortoise pace" in growing their business because they wanted to ensure its sustainability. While other technology companies were acting the hare over the past eight years jumping out and hiring like mad C2 stuck to its plan. The company did have to do some downsizing, however, and finds itself with nearly half a floor of empty offices in its year-old corporate space. Still, Edwards predicts the company will make it through these lean times.

"Capital spending is down, and that's what we do," says Edwards. "We had been gearing up for growth, so our plans had to be modified. We were starting to feel it come back before 9/11," she says.

"Right now it's timing and hesitation," adds Dever. "It's not an evacuation of technology."

The partners are hopeful that things will turn around come January. Dever adds, "This is a time of differentiation for a company like ours. We have staying power."

Edwards agrees. "We think the shake-out will be pretty good for us in the long run," she says. "There's lots of inexperience out there taking on big projects. You'll see a lot of experience in our halls."

To Edwards the future looks, if not sunny, at least bright. "The whole Internet era is not going away," she says. "We are managing carefully through this difficult time, and we expect to come out on the other side and continue our plan.

"Our abilities are right in the sweet spot of what the business market needs," she adds. <

Originally published in December 2001 Business People-Vermont