A trio of Air Force vets keeps Vermonters in touch
by Janet Essman Franz
When their employer, the Motorola Service Center in Burlington, was restructured in 1993, the four remaining employees offered to buy it. Todd Goad (right), Eric Field, David Pray, and Pauline Sicard (since retired) launched Burlington Communications, now located in Williston.
Last August, when Hurricane Irene ravaged roads and phone lines in Plymouth, the town’s emergency responders needed a better communication system. Al Poirier, emergency management director in Plymouth, sent an email to Todd Goad, president and general manager of Burlington Communications, the company that sells and services the Plymouth Fire Department’s wireless communications
“He said, ‘Todd, we need radios,’” Goad recalls. “I didn’t know how to get the radios there. The state police told me I could run them there myself.”
Goad doubted he could drive to Plymouth, but he had to try. With the radios in his trunk, he navigated past washed-out pavement, utility poles hanging by wires, and cars buried in mud, before arriving at the Plymouth fire station.
“It was an amazing experience,” he says. “They were tickled to see me. They loaded me up with food for the trip back home to show their appreciation. It was definitely my most memorable service call this year.”
Fortunately, most of the company’s service calls are not of this nature, although all of them relate to keeping lines of communication open, fast, and reliable.
Founded in 1993, the company provides two-way radio equipment to public safety dispatchers, public utilities, hospitals, government agencies, and commercial businesses.
In January 2011, the company’s three owners spun off FleetWave to focus on customers with commercial fleets, such as businesses that deliver fuel, haul trash, or provide transportation. In combination, FleetWave and Burlington Communications cover most of the two-way radio business in the state.
On a typical day last month, the service bay at Burlington Communications housed various installation projects: radios, cameras, and computers for a Richmond Police cruiser; transmitters for the Shelburne 911 dispatch center; a dispatch console for the Agency of Transportation; and transmitters for the Copley Hospital Emergency Room. The service shelves in the technicians’ shop held radios for Sugarbush and Jay Peak ski patrols, Dartmouth College security, Burlington Fire Department, Vermont Railway, “and about 50 others,” says Goad.
The company responds to about 1,000 service and installation requests each year, in every county of Vermont. Revenues from equipment sales and service surpassed seven figures in 2005 and continue to rise, says Goad.
Each of the partners — Goad, Eric Field, and David Pray — has had a penchant for fixing things since childhood, and they still enjoy tinkering and repairs. All three grew up in Vermont and studied electronics in the U.S. Air Force. They didn’t meet, though, until they worked together in the late 1980s at Motorola Service Center in Burlington, installing and repairing two-way radio systems for public safety and government agencies.
Goad, 48, came of age on a dairy farm in Derby, where he settled with his mother and stepfather, Patricia and Paul Bergeron, and four siblings at age 12.
Farm life was “all hard work,” he says. “Chores had to be done before and after school, and I never had a vacation until I was 18. It really built my work ethic.”
He liked the challenges of repairing farm equipment and household items such as stereos and clocks. He recalls the Christmas when he was 12 and received a battery-operated game that didn’t work. “Most people would have returned it to the store. I opened it up, found the broken wire, soldered it back to the circuit board, and enjoyed the game for years,” he reminisces.
Upon graduating from North Country Union High School in 1982, Goad joined the Air Force where he focused on aircraft navigation systems. He spent two years at the Zweibrüken Airbase in Germany, earning an associate’s degree in avionics.
He married his high school sweetheart, Donna William, in 1986. They live in Colchester with three school-age sons.
Following the Air Force, Goad tested radio frequency components for Joslyn Defense Systems in Shelburne. He soon took the job with Motorola, where he met Field. Goad worked his way up to service center supervisor.
Field hails from Middlebury, where his parents, Bill and Beverly Field, remain. His two brothers also live in Addison County. Everyone in the Field family is handy, he says, “even Mom. Her father was a mechanic who owned a service station and a farm equipment dealership in Ferrisburgh.”
His father was a mechanic and, later, a carpenter and a lineman for Central Vermont Public Service. “Mom and Dad were very thrifty,” says Field. “Dad did all the repairs around the house — he knew electrical wiring. I learned those skills from him.”
Field graduated from Middlebury Union High School, then sold automotive parts at Shea Motor Co. in Middlebury. “I gained people skills there, dealing with the public and doing retail sales,” he says.
With a goal of increasing his income, Field joined the Air Force in 1983 to learn how to install ground radio communications equipment and become a certified two-way radio technician. Afterward, he worked for Motorola.
Now 49, he lives in Shelburne with his girlfriend of 10 years, Mary Parker. He still loves “to tinker on vehicles,” he says. “I just bought one of our shop’s old service trucks so I have a ‘new’ project to work on.”
Pray was born in Newport and raised in Albany, where his parents, Richard and Cappy Pray, still live. His three siblings also reside in Orleans County. Pray and his wife, Paula, live in Johnson, and their three grown children live nearby.
Like his business partners, Pray has long dabbled in automotive and household repairs. After graduating from Lake Region Union High School in 1976, an interest in weather forecasting drew him to become a weather equipment specialist in the Air Force.
He earned certifications as a two-way radio technician and tower climber. Following his four-year tour, he worked at Ethan Allen furniture company where his parents were employed. Motorola recruited him from a job fair in 1980.
When Motorola was restructured in 1993, only four employees remained at the Burlington service center: Goad, Field, Pray and Pauline Sicard.
“We caught a rumor that our facility would be shut down,” Goad says. “We contacted Motorola and said, ‘Sell it to us.’ We paid 10 cents on the dollar for the assets.” The four employees partnered on the purchase. Sicard has since retired.
The transition was quick. “We went from working for Motorola on Friday to working for ourselves on Monday morning,” says Pray. “Our business picked up immediately, and we’ve been busy ever since.”
Field credits Goad as the mastermind. “He came up with the business plan, and Dave and I put in money, blood, sweat, and tears.”
Goad is fascinated by business sales and marketing. He spends time each day reading books by sales gurus such as Dale Carnegie and Jeffrey H. Gitomer, author of The Sales Bible. His current read is Success Through A Positive Mental Attitude by Napoleon Hill and W. Clement Stone.
Each partner brought important skills and talents to the venture, says Goad. “We each had our own niche. Eric is good at systems troubleshooting; Dave is good at installation. I had already taken the supervisory role at Motorola. Our roles are well enough defined that it works.”
Burlington Communications moved to its Williston headquarters six years ago and has grown to include eight employees. Repair business has picked up with the economic downturn, as businesses consolidate their fleets and renovate rather than buy new gear. Sales have increased as customers seek purchasing advice.
“We are their trusted source. It’s easier for a service guy to tell you what to buy. We’ve worked on everything, and we can pick and choose what works best for a customer,” says Goad. He hopes to hire additional qualified repair and installation technicians — if he can find them.
“It’s hard to find radio technicians,” he declares. “There are no schools that teach people how to fix electronic equipment. Today it’s all about ‘box swap.’ But you don’t want to box swap a $5,000 radio.”
The work is interesting and fun, Goad says. “Not everyone gets to jump around in fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars all day. It’s pretty cool.”
The partners spun off FleetWave to separate commercial fleets from public safety customers. Marketing strategies and regulatory requirements vary greatly for the two types of clientele, Goad explains.
For example, as a wireless carrier, FleetWave is subject to regulation, much as cell phone companies are, so most of the business involves monthly contracts. Accounts for the public safety customers at Burlington Communications are a mix of time and material or contracts, says Goad.
With FleetWave’s growth, the partners’ roles are shifting. Goad, the president of both companies, will become general manager of both business entities, and continue as president of FleetWave. Field, the vice president, will eventually assume the position of president for Burlington Communications and a partner in FleetWave. Pray, the secretary-treasurer, will be vice president of Burlington Communications and a partner in FleetWave.
The nature of the business requires someone to be on call off-hours to resolve potential communications issues. Most weekends they receive one or two calls for something straightforward, like resetting connections or swapping cables.
Occasionally the problem is more severe, requiring a snow machine ride up a mountain to solder equipment or a journey through hurricane-ravaged countryside to deliver radios to a fire station.
“When a firefighter goes into a building, this is his communication. He can’t miss an evacuation order,” Goad explains. “When a dispatcher presses a button to make a call, it has to work.” •