The Wired, Wired World of Bob Steis

How a sailboat captain who'd had his day in the sun found inspiration to go into the interconnect business

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Bob Steis, owner of Business Communication Services, a Shelburne company that provides phone equipment and support to businesses, set out to sell an entrepreneur a boat and ended up with a career.

Bob Steis met his destiny one foggy weekend in Maine. It was 1984, and Steis had an appointment with a man looking to buy a boat. Steis is the owner of Business Communication Services Inc., a Shelburne company that does custom wiring, installation and computer-telephone integration for business phone systems.

For the nine years leading up to that foggy weekend, Steis had been in the boating business, sailing largely in the Virgin Islands. "I did a combination of charter boats, private boats and deliveries," Steis says. "In general, I was anywhere between the islands, on the East Coast, and I spent some time in the Mediterranean, Mexico, sort of all over." He chuckles as he adds that he "spent six or seven years of my life on anchor," waiting for a charter.

Steis had been in the boat business ever since leaving Western Michigan University, where he had begun to study engineering before realizing he couldn't picture himself sitting in an office. "One thing nice about that business is you never knew day to day what you'd run into," he says. "You might get a job and you're off to Europe. It could be a constant adventure; and there could be long periods of severe boredom, too."

By 1984, "I basically had had enough," says Steis. "I was looking for some sort of control over my own destiny."

The last boat he had captained was for sale. "I was up in Maine," he says. "The owner called me up and said he had a gentleman and his wife coming for the weekend to look at the boat, and to take them out and entertain them."

The gentleman was Michael Jarvis, an entrepreneur who was one of the first people in the interconnect business with branches from Philadelphia to Miami.

"It was Friday night," says Steis. "I went out, provisioned the boat and got beer, etc. Maine that weekend was incredibly foggy, so we sailed around Booth Bay, ate lobster, ate clams and drank beer. It was a great weekend. He kept trying to convince me that he wanted a bigger boat, and he wanted me to be his captain. 'What would it take?' he asked me. I said, 'Buy me.' "

Each crew member has a specialty. From left, Todd Garthaffner, computer specialist, handles large team projects; Brian Gorton, who bridges service and installation, does computer support; and Bill Knight handles repairs, installation and service with a focus on customer voice-mail.

Steis recalls how Jarvis' wife had read between the lines of conversation and understood the situation. "She said, 'Michael, why don't you just set him up in the business? He doesn't want to be in the boat business any more.' "

Steis had wild oats to sow before he entered a new career, however. "I wanted to move to Vermont to ski," he says. "I wanted a new adventure."

Jarvis offered to mentor Steis in the business in exchange for Steis' counsel on buying a boat. "I spent time at a couple of his branches, trained in sales and the technology. Of course, at the time, I had no idea what the business was about."

Opening the business was not a quick process, and Steis tells the story in a deadpan manner to illustrate how drawn-out it was.

He moved to Warren that winter. "I watched the snow fall, and he would call me up and say, 'What are you going to do?' I would say, 'I'm going to start an interconnect.' He would say, 'What do you need?' I'd say, 'I want to know how the equipment works.' "

Jarvis was not only in the service end of the interconnect business; he also manufactured a product line of phone equipment, says Steis. "He UPS'd me boxes of equipment, and I cross-country and downhill skied and tried to figure out how the stuff worked. There was an instruction manual, but I'm a very hands-on person," Steis quips, adding that he got "very intimate with the equipment."

Jarvis stayed in touch on a regular basis. "He would call me the next week and say, 'How's it going?' I'd say, 'Well, I've figured out how the equipment works.' He'd say, 'Well, what are you going to do next?' I'd say, 'I'm going to start an interconnect.' "

Three technicians seems to be the optimum size for an interconnect company, says Bob Steis, whose company employs three technicians and Bonnie Stagg, a part-time bookkeeper.

Jarvis announced he was sending Steis $500. In return, Steis was to send him a business plan. I got off the phone and said, 'What is a business plan?'" He sought counsel from a friend who was controller at Sugarbush. When the business plan was written, Steis shipped it to Jarvis, who, true to form, called the following week to tell Steis it looked good.

He said, "'I think your numbers are high, but if you're going to be in business, you need to be optimistic.' "

Again, Jarvis asked Steis what he was going to do. "I said, 'I'm going to start an interconnect.' " When Jarvis asked how much he thought it would take to do that, says Steis, "I came up with a number, and he said, 'I'll send you a check on Monday.' "

Steis realized he was going to have to find a customer. "I sort of know what the equipment does; I have no idea why you'd buy more than one in a lifetime, but I knew I needed a computer." He walked into Universal Microsystems in Waitsfield and spoke with Tom Barefoot, the owner.

Universal Microsystems was moving to a new location. "They needed a phone system; I needed a computer, so we did a barter and I got my first customer," says Steis.

"They were very understanding. They were in the same sort of business the technology business themselves. But I took care of them, and they're still a customer today. I've sold them three phone systems since then."

Word spread about Steis' business, and in a short period of time, he had picked up about a half dozen customers "people like Black Diamond Ski Wear, which is still around and grown," he says. "The Valley is a very small place."

Another customer is Bob Stiller of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, who contacted Steis when Green Mountain moved to Waterbury. "They started off with, I think, eight phones," says Sties, "and we've maintained them as a customer over the years. They probably now have something like 400 phones."

The Coffee Roasters system provides a good example of all the services Steis' business provides, he says. "They have a call center with 50 people, so we provide a system that handles that inbound call traffic. They have a voice mail system that is used company-wide. We've also been responsible for cabling their whole facility, which is a good chunk of Waterbury, actually. So I knew every little piece of cable in there intimately."

Steis has traveled far from those early days in terms of knowledge. He says he now knows the business so well, he can walk into an office and tell a lot about a company by how many and what types of phones he finds.

Steis employs three full-time technicians and a part-time bookkeeper, an optimum size for this kind of firm, he says. "I think it's economics. There's only so much business in this area, and you can go bigger, but you will go smaller eventually, as the times are right now." He finds it interesting to think about looking in the Yellow Pages under telephones and comparing the listing to the one in a 1985 directory. "I'm probably one of less than a handful probably one of three that are there today who were there in 1985."

When you're a small, new company, "who's to say you're going to be in business tomorrow?" he asks. "But at the same time, all the big guys have gone out of business, and all the little guys have stayed in business. What it tells you is there's not enough profit in it for a large company to make a go at it. A small company can provide a better service and better value."

Steis points to his client list to make his point. Besides Green Mountain Coffee, his clients include company names well-known in the community: Country Home Products, which started out with eight phones in 1992 and grew to 300 phones in six years; Dakin Farm; Child Travel Services; Hickok & Boardman; Vermont Energy Investment Corp.; and Controlled Energy Corp. "You pride yourself in your work, and you pride yourself in the companies you work with," says Steis.

Ted Child, president of Child Travel, doesn't make any communications decisions without speaking first with Steis. "We're not IBM, but we do have some communication issues, and he's been great," says Child. "We did a big phone overhaul maybe three years ago, moved from one location to another, and he or his people were here all the time for a couple of weeks, making sure any kinks were worked out, showing us how to best utilize the features, how best to customize those tools to the business."

Child appreciates the experience Steis' brings with him. "He doesn't have a one-way-fits-all approach; he really tries to customize solutions. He can also deal with the various long-distance carriers, whether it's Adelphia, Verizon, Sprint, whatever, he can maintain that relationship as well.

"There are a lot of people out there selling phone systems who have got a lot of flash and maybe not as much substance," says Child. "Bob may not be that flashy, but he delivers an awesome product."

Business Communication Services' offices are anything but flashy. The company operates out of an 800-square-foot space in the Blue Water Center on Pine Haven Shore Road. The typical business day begins at 8 a.m. "plus or minus," when Steis and the three technicians review the schedule of service that came in the day before and projects that are in process. The technicians are cross-trained, but each has his specialty.

"The crew I have now, we work very well together," says Steis. "You know everybody's assets, and you know their breaking points." He has encouraged each team member to pursue his area of interest. "It's nice that everybody has a specialty they're interested in that somebody likes voice mail, somebody likes the computer aspect of things so we do a lot of sitting around the table going through applications." It took time to develop that process, he says, "and the right people to develop it with."

Steis acquired one of his technicians and a number of customers in 1989, when he purchased Alltel, a similar business, from Dale Lavalley. "That was a very good move," says Steis, who emphasizes the importance of the customer base to a business. "It's really expensive and really hard to go out there and procure new customers, especially in today's environment. They're what keep you going."

Today's environment has been a strain, although Steis says he's been fortunate never to have laid anyone off. "If people aren't hiring, they aren't buying new equipment," Steis says. When businesses downsize, they have extra equipment in inventory, so don't require Steis' services. "We have a few hundred customers, and you don't see a lot of people making big moves right now. It seems to come in little spurts here, up and down, no constant flow."

He and Jarvis remain friends, although these days, they talk only about once a year. "He's semi-retired," says Steis. I'll see him at trade shows. He'll look at me and laugh and say, 'Are you mad at me?' "

For Steis, an important factor is that, after all these years, he's still having fun. "I created my own destiny," he says. "There is the ultimate responsibility, so when you go on vacation, you're still available." Vacations sometimes take him back to the Caribbean or out west to Utah or Alberta. He still skis in the winter and enjoys other outdoor activities. "Summertime is boating, biking, Montreal, hiking," he says.

Yes, he admits, he has a boat, albeit a small one with an engine. "The time frame is short. You've got to get out there and jump in." Sounds like good advice.

Originally published in March 2003 Business People-Vermont