LAN Lord

A local connection helped launch this IT company

by Will Lindner

rubin_bennettRubin Bennett’s Montpelier company, rb Technologies, can design, implement, and troubleshoot a network; integrate communications among remote locations; and ensure network security.

The office water cooler, Rubin Bennett believes, can be a deadly place. Not for employees, who have every right to stretch their legs, clear their heads, and take refreshment; but for companies, if the water cooler is where workers loiter when computer malfunctions are driving them up a wall.

“Any business owner can tell you the cost if their employees are idle,” says Bennett. One office worker, tormented by an intractable software glitch, repairs to the cooler, vents to a nearby coworker, and the spreading gloom gradually slows workplace production to a trickle.

“These systems are mission-critical to all our customers,” says the founder and owner of rb Technologies in East Montpelier, “so at its simplest, our job is to prevent that from happening.”

It’s not like Bennett has had a wealth of personal experience around a water cooler. A former emergency care attendant with the Mad River Valley Ambulance Service, professional ski patrol member at Sugarbush, and bicycle mechanic, Bennett worked briefly for an IT company in Waitsfield and for two years as a network engineer and database administrator for a chain of bagel stores in Burlington, before throwing himself full time into his own company in 2000. While those positions provided valuable learning opportunities, “The corporate environment,” he says vehemently, “did not work for me at all!”

The water cooler parable is something he picked up from his relationship with his customers, who number now around 120 companies, mostly in central Vermont (granite companies, various manufacturers, insurance companies), but with outliers in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and elsewhere. There may be more “elsewheres” in the offing as the company, which employs seven people, has seen double-digit growth in each of the last seven or eight years, he says.

Rb Technologies occupies space in a converted airplane hangar built in 1947 by the Lemieux family for their Fairmont Farm. It sits next to Bennett’s home on Vermont 14 between Barre and East Montpelier.

Depending on a company’s needs, and which, if any, functions it keeps in-house, rb will design, implement, and troubleshoot a network with servers (the central hub) in a back room and workstations in the front; it can integrate communications among remote locations, create and support the functionality of websites, and ensure network security (firewalls) — “the edge between your company and the Internet,” he explains. “We’re a managed-services provider as opposed to a straight IT [information technology] provider.”

That said, Bennett, isn’t one to put boundaries around the tasks he undertakes. It’s a quality that impressed George Goodrich, the owner of Trans-Video in Northfield, who faced the threat of losing practically his entire network infrastructure 15 years ago, when the California company that had helped his cable TV and telephone business expand into high-speed Internet went bankrupt. Goodrich was given a date certain when a crew would show up to haul the modems and CMTS (cable modem terminations system — the pulsing heart of Goodrich’s operation) away.

Unsure where to turn to rescue the company his grandfather had founded to provide local phone service in 1951, Goodrich reverted to principle: Find someone local.

“I said, This isn’t working. I should have kept it in-house or partnered with somebody here and done it ourselves,” Goodrich recalls. A friend referred him to Bennett. Bennett had an infant son, a commute to Burlington that he hated, and a profound itch to start his own technology business. Together, they figured out what equipment Trans-Video needed and how to finance it.

But Goodrich’s account of the actual switchover has all the drama of an action movie: the California reps (virtually twirling their handlebar mustaches) on site, threatening to seize the equipment; Goodrich stalling them every way he could think of; Bennett hidden away, working like mad to figure out the systems and sequences that would effect the conversion.

“Just as they were about to disconnect it all, Rubin shouts out, ‘I got it!’” says Goodrich.

With a grateful Trans-Video as an anchor, Bennett soon quit his commute, engaged other customers, and in 2006 hired a full-time Windows network engineer.

“Rubin continues to manage and maintain all my infrastructure for my internet business,” says Goodrich. “He has been more like a business partner than some outside guy working on our network. He’s one of those good guys, with his integrity and work ethic. He’s the real deal.”

Surprisingly, Bennett did all this without earning a degree in computer science or anything else. Now he wishes he had taken business courses during his time at Mesa Community College in Arizona; it would have served him well as he has gone about building a financially secure enterprise. But in this respect as in all others, his learning style has been “experiential.”

His time at Mesa was split between academics and bicycle mechanics, refining skills he had acquired working at Clearwater Sports in Waitsfield. This was true to form for a confessedly middling student (“I’m not a book learner; I was a terrible test-taker”).

Born in 1971 and, with his younger sister, Lila, raised largely in Northfield Falls, Bennett transferred out of Northfield High School to attend Harwood Union in Duxbury, which he hoped would be a better fit. That option was available because his parents had divorced and his father, proprietor of Northland Construction, lived in Waitsfield. He graduated in 1989, and in 1991 left for Arizona, where he spent a year establishing residency to lower the tuition costs at Arizona State University.

ASU didn’t go too well, Bennett recalls. Mesa Community College appeared to be more manageable, and working at the bike shop full time sustained him financially. Interestingly, though, the bike shop opened a second store, and needed someone to coordinate electronic communications between its two locations (this was early in the evolution of computer networking).

Bennett, who had tinkered with computers since age 12 when his folks bought him his first TRS-80, volunteered. “That’s where I made the move to the IT world.”

He made the move back to Vermont with his fiancée in 1997, when the environmental abuses he saw around him — unbridled development, unsustainable water usage, a total absence of recycling — repelled him.

“Vermont has a unique set of values and culture built into its very fabric,” he says. “Where else would I want to be?”

His tech jobs in Waitsfield and Burlington sustained him until his adventure with George Goodrich freed him to launch rb Technologies full time in 2000.

Bennett’s life and academic experiences inform his company’s approach to database and communication technology in various ways. For one thing, he rejects the common notion that “geeks” are smarter than other people. He compares IT work to auto mechanics, finding in both that the key is developing an ability to visualize how systems function, then working backward from a problem to eliminate its potential causes until a solution is found. Bennett seeks the same humility in those he hires, to ensure better customer relations and to form a team of people who enjoy working together.

Another hallmark is rb Technology’s support of “open-source” software.

“A lot of people know we have an affinity for Linux, which is an open-source operating system, as opposed to a proprietary system,” says Bennett. Rb Technologies doesn’t impose this on its customers; Bennett and his techs work comfortably in Windows, for example. “But I like the culture of knowledge and sharing that’s intrinsic to the open-source world. We publish articles on our website, like ‘Here’s this tricky problem that stumped us for half a day, and what we did to solve it. That might help you, too.’”

These are qualities that Greg Sanford — well-known as Vermont’s longtime state archivist (he retired in 2012) — values in his godson. (Sanford and Bennett’s parents have been close since high school).

“He has grown up with a sense of public service,” Sanford observes. “What comes out of that is this incredibly decent human being who is extremely honest and thoughtful.”

Indeed, Bennett has served, since 2007, on the board of directors of Capstone Community Action (he is currently vice president), and he is chair of the East Montpelier Elementary School board. With his own spotty academic record, Bennett would like to influence the public school system toward placing greater value on experiential learning and the students who thrive in that milieu.

His education work is also guided by family considerations. Bennett and his wife, Shaline, each brought a son to their union from former marriages: Justin, 15, and Calen, 13. Their daughter, Lacey, is 5. Shaline designs and sews bridal gowns, working in a home studio. The family skis, and he and Shaline are what Bennett calls “home-renovation addicts,” a hands-on passion for both, Bennett’s having inherited his father’s bent toward carpentry. He’s also a fiddler, dabbling in Irish, Cape Breton, and old-time fiddling styles.

“Rubin, like all of us, sampled life’s smorgasbord and perhaps stayed at some places longer than he should have until he found his niche,” Sanford says with a chuckle. “But once he started gaining traction he’s become organized, knowledgeable, and has figured out his business plan. I’ve known him since his infancy. It’s been a wonderful thing to watch.” •