House of Connection
Loretta Roby has made the world of telecommunications her own
by Julia Lynam
Loretta Roby launched Caleidoscope Communications 10 years ago after her job at another company was eliminated. She is president and CEO of the company, which has offices on Kilburn Street in Burlington; Zoltan Keve is vice president of sales and managing partner.
A combination of creativity and organization underlies the success of Burlington-based telecommunications service agency Caleidoscope Communications. President and CEO Loretta Roby developed the company over the last 10 years from its original incarnation as a Verizon agency and now helps businesses navigate the kaleidoscope of opportunities presented by the ever-changing world of telecommunications.
Roby was born in Brooklyn and raised in New Jersey. When she was in ninth grade, her family moved to Charlotte for her father’s job with IBM. With a lifelong passion for painting in various mediums, she envisioned a career in the art world, so after graduating from Champlain Valley Union High School, she studied for two years at the Montreal Museum School of Fine Arts. This was followed by two years taking classes at the Boston Museum School while working as a picture framer in Brookline, Mass. When she gravitated to New York City in the late 1970s, a moment of decision arose.
“A friend’s dad’s company was starting a joint venture with Lehman Brothers in Manhattan,” Roby recalls, “I was temping at the Metropolitan Museum, finding being around art very exciting. Then I was offered an opportunity to get into the business world, which I knew absolutely nothing about.
“I chose business and it turned out that I had a natural talent. I’m very organized, and organization and creativity in business make a good combination.”
She entered the business world as office manager for a joint venture between Lehman Brothers and the Burlington insurance firm Brown Bridgman and Co. “It was a great job,” she says. “I learned a lot and spent seven years there; and I was still painting, while working a very conservative job during the day.”
Roby eventually found the New York job too intense and, missing her family, returned to Vermont, finding work first as assistant to the director of the Elizabeth Lund Home (now Lund Family Center), then as office manager for architects Keilman & Roland. She married David Roby, whom she had met in Burlington several years earlier.
“This was the late ’80s, early ’90s and the economy was like it is now,” she says. “We bought a house, then both lost our jobs, and that’s how I got started in telecoms!”
Enter Richard Parlato, who runs his own production company in South Burlington and is president of the board of the Vermont Mozart Festival. In 1990 Parlato and Zoltan Keve had established a telecommunications company called Network Services Corp. Parlato had known Roby for many years. “We interviewed several people for office manager,” he says, “but when I heard that Loretta was available I knew it just had to be her. She’s one of the most meticulous and tenacious people I know.”
Parlato left the business two years later but Roby remained, rising to become president of the company in 1996. Two years later, Keve sold Network Services. “It changed hands three times in two years,” says Roby. “They changed my title to director of the Northeast region, and the third new owner eliminated my position. I had one job interview and then decided that I could run a company myself.
“So I went to Staples, bought the $99 business plan, put on my sweat pants, and locked myself into my office for six months, developing a business plan. Since then I’ve done a plan like that every year. In my original plan, I would have been a national company by now, but bumps in the road and unexpected events changed that.”
Roby established Caleidoscope Communications in 2001 initially as a Verizon agency, offering the Verizon menu of telecommunications products to customers within the Verizon footprint. “I went online and applied for an agency,” she says. “I had no office and no funding, but because I had a good name and a reputation they came to my house to talk about it. I hit the ground running, and in the first year we made 352 percent of our annual quota.”
She rented her first office in the Chace Mill because it was close to a yoga studio. “I was a yoga fanatic” she says. A back injury prevents yoga today, but Roby keeps fit with a daily hour of aerobics. “When you’re running a company it’s important to keep your mind alert, and exercise is the best friend for doing this.”
In 2006 an opportunity came “to take off the handcuffs” and become an independent agent representing a range of carriers. “It meant a lower margin from Verizon, but it gave me a chance to learn about what other people were offering,” she says.
Personal networking is an important part of Roby’s modus operandi. She served for three years, 2007 to 2010, on the board of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. Her networking paid off and the company began to grow.
“Everything begins with a contact,” she says. “At first I spent a lot of time researching the products and adding carriers. It was a lot of work and we were very successful. After a couple of years I found that I was trying to do everything myself, so Zoltan Keve came in as a partner and VP of sales.”
Former Network Services colleague Sven Kielhorn, owner of My WAN Communications of Easthampton, Mass., calls Roby’s vision “’customer-centric.’ Customers don’t care about all the wonderful features salespeople attribute to their products — they really don’t,” he says. “Customers want to know if we can solve their telecommunications problems — Caleidoscope Communications understands that better than any other provider I know of in our region. Peers and partners recognize that ability in Caleidoscope.”
Roby says her company has had a large impact on the willingness of national telecommunications companies such as PAETEC, Level Three, One Communications, Adtran, and ShoreTel to invest in the Vermont market, increasing options available to businesses.
Caleidoscope hit one of those bumps in the road in 2008 when FairPoint Communications took over the Verizon operation in Vermont and later filed for bankruptcy. Roby filed suit disputing the legality of its use of her customer data. At press time, that lawsuit was approaching settlement.
By 2008 Caliedoscope employed 13 people and had moved from the Chace Mill to the CornerStone Building on the Burlington lakefront. The litigation necessitated cutbacks, including a move to smaller offices on Kilburn Street and a restructuring of staff to reduce the number of salaried employees by using more subcontractors and telecommuters. The current team includes seven salaried employees and several telecommuters in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and North Carolina.
Even 10 years ago Roby knew that telecommuting might become a bigger part of the mix, as the industry changes so rapidly. “We have the ability to sell product anywhere,” Roby explains. “In the early days I was insistent that we build our own proprietary database that could be accessed from anywhere.”
Through all the changes Roby has continued with her creative art. “I’ve always been an artist,” she says. “My subject is usually something in my mind, my feeling about a place or a person or an object.” She has a studio in the Burlington home where she lives with her photographer husband David Roby, former owner of the Bullet Boy Courier Service. They are serial pit bull owners, currently on their seventh, a 65-pounder called Nino who earns his living as “chief packet sniffer” for the company. He was featured in one of her recent monthly e-newsletters to clients and partners.
“I really try to educate people about telecoms and what’s going on in telecoms,” she says, “to keep people abreast of what’s going on globally and locally, like the Burlington Telecom story, and to talk about new providers coming into the area.”
After a year of consolidation in 2009, both for customers dealing with the economic recession and for Caleidoscope dealing with the repercussions of the FairPoint lawsuit, 2010 was a year of progress. Roby is hiring again, taking on technical staff, and seeing increased demand. “In 2009 it was all about saving; in 2010 it’s been about investing in technology to stay competitive,” she says. “It seems like every day I’m coming in to hear about a job we’re going to be quoting on.”
In particular, voice-over Internet protocol (VoIP), the use of Internet and other electronic systems to replace traditional telephone lines, is growing as customers seek to replace their antiquated analog phone systems with more flexible solutions. Caleidoscope seeks to manage not just this, but every aspect of the customer’s communications system.
“Loretta has given people options in the telecommunications world,” Parlato says. “There’s a lot of monopoly around but she’s able to walk into a business and say, ‘This is not a minefield, this is a commodity, and you can choose what you buy.’ She’s offering opportunities for people to look at options and cost savings in telecommunications.”
The flexibility and challenge of telecommunications seem to have struck a chord in the mind of artist Loretta Roby. Besides that, she just plain enjoys it. “I like telecommunications,” she says, “because I learn something every day — and usually not just one thing.” •