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Ed Steele went in as a 30% partner with another businessman and bought a Computer Renaissance Franchise for the Troy, Michigan territory from GrowBiz International. (They long ago sold off the Computer Renaissance concept and have since renamed themselves to Winmark Corporation. The new Franchisors are in Florida. Looks like Jack Hollis is doing a great job to this day - here is an article from 2000 about their rebirth.) The legal name of that independent franchisee corporation Ed partnered in was "Rochester Technologies, Inc." because our desired store location was on Rochester Road between Big Beaver Road and Wattles Road in Troy, Michigan. We opened that store in June 1996 and promptly set a 200-store franchise record for best opening month in the history of the franchise (at that time.)
The Franchisor had very weak software for their store Point of Sale (POS) Systems. They needed something that could do better (barcode scanned instead of hand-counted) inventory and something that could manage the repair shop and the test-to-buy process (where clients sold used equipment to the store so the store could then resell it to other clients.) They weren't forthcoming, so I incorporated "RT Software Systems, Inc." in June, 1997 to sell software that we had developed for ourselves. The "RT" stands for "Rochester Technologies." Our only [potential and real] customers at that time were the 200 some-odd other franchisees that were in the same boat we were in. We built a nice little program using VB6 and Access 97 to do a Barcode Inventory (ScanPOS 98) and we turned the inventory process from [typically] 10 hours of hell for 8 people with clipboards and count sheets, into 2 or 3 hours for two people with bar code guns. We also built an Access 97 application to manage the shop (RTQuoter 97) and both programs were the backbone of our own store. (We later upgraded RTQuoter 97 to an Access 2000 application.)
We also bought the franchise rights to Farmington Hills, MI and bought an existing Computer Renaissance store at 13 Mile and Orchard Lake Road from Taylor Bond, a very successful franchisee from Ann Arbor, Michigan who had opened that store some time in 1995.
The computer business changed overnight some time in 1998, when new computer pricing went from an average of $2000 to an average of $1000 (for an average PC) almost overnight. Do you remember opening up the Sunday Paper and seeing the Best Buy ad that day? And saying "Wow! That's cheap!" for the first time? That meant that we'd have to sell twice as many PC's and priced at half as much money (to make the value proposition work, a used PC has to be a few hundred bucks cheaper than a new one, right?) and we had no way to really cut down the retail overhead of two stores (power, payroll, rent, advertising, etc was all the same as it was the day before - the prices just had to be half price.) We knew it was a matter of time.
We started tightening up. We heard about a guy who was about to buy a franchise and we sold him our Troy territory and store for about $80,000 less than he was going to be spending directly to GrowBiz, and we walked away from it with about a $30,000 loss. We rolled that loss into the Orchard Lake store and kept churning for a few more months.
We decided to close up shop and pay off whatever debts we could pay off by selling off inventory, fixtures and equipment. I was vehemently opposed to bankruptcy (call me stupid, old fashioned, hard-headed or whatever - but I was not going to do it then and I have not done it since then) so we worked very hard and got all of our debts settled in full with the exception of our Bank Loan, which was secured in the assets of the 70% partner. We completely closed our Computer Renaissance Orchard Lake Store in March 1999 and went to our bank to tell them that we were planning to pay our note and that they should not pull the note on us. They didn't, and we did pay it - I am still paying on that obligation to this day, some five years later. I made a promise on a handshake to my 70% partner and have kept my portion paid up every month to him so that the bank would leave us alone. (It feels pretty good to be a man of your word, for those of you who haven't felt that feeling in your own life. Some might say it's a lost idea in today's litigious bankruptcy-ridden world huh?)
My partner went on his way and I worked with some of our store's clients to support their business networks on an hourly basis as they needed help. RT Software Systems, Inc was what the bill said when I sent it to them. RT Software Systems was intact, independent of the store, tiny and healthy.
I spent a large portion of time supporting Star Trax, Inc. as their internal IT Department during a period of time where they were experiencing explosive growth and simultaneously building a dotcom Travel Web Site that would drive their core corporate business. They are great folks - it was a wonderful relationship that I trust was mutually beneficial. They are still very much a thriving entity in the social and corporate events business.
We really started to have a dedicated need for a base of operations again to support the very healthy network support business that RT Software Systems had evolved into. In the year after the store had closed we had become very important to a fairly large group of clients that had previously used our store's service department, or had heard about us afterward via word of mouth referrals. It made sense to open up a modest office in Southfield and to "make it official" - so we did. We leased space in the Onyx Plaza at 29777 Telegraph Road, Suite 1375 in Southfield, MI 48034 at 12 Mile Road and Telegraph.
We continued to help our clients succeed. We deployed equipment, serviced networking equipment for them, installed mail servers, supported applications and basically became the IT Department for nearly 100 clients during the time between March 1999 and June 2003. There were plenty of adventures during this period! New technicians, growing pains, all of the things that you'd expect to deal with as you build a new company.
Our modest office became too small to work within. A long time client who has always looked out for me (David Wilner) referred me to Grant Bruce from Signature Associates who found us a great spot in Berkley. It was a single story, 1164 square foot brick building that was built in 1967. It had been recently vacated by Air Systems Sales, who had expanded into a larger facility in Royal Oak. The Berkley site is at 3912 West 12 Mile Road, Berkley, MI 48072, on the north side of 12 Mile Road between Greenfield and Coolidge. We executed a Lease/Purchase Option and made Berkley our new corporate home.
Seven years later, we find ourselves still going full steam ahead. We have grown into a formidable team of experts. Each of our staff have very special talents that make "the sum of our parts" quite something indeed. We have men and women working for us who truly care about our clients and each other. To have that as a group is truly a gift - it's also the formula for health and prosperity moving into the future. I've always found that if you truly care about the client, and you truly have their best interests in your heart, that the money and details seem to take care of themselves. And when you add that to a group who truly cares about each other, you have an unstoppable positive force in business, able to overcome whatever hardships come their way. We'll always have hardships - it is our own internal confidence and our response that sets us apart and helps us succeed while others with less heart may fail.
We acquired a large delivery truck and secured a parts warehouse in Berkley where we stage equipment for deployment and provide equipment for sale via the Internet.
In our ninth year, we now have an extensive Data Center where we provide internal resources for our own operations. We also provide 24/7 "outside-in" systems monitoring for client sites, and we maintain a Windows 2003 Server based Server Farm where hosted Exchange email, Microsoft Office, QuickBooks Enterprise, SQL and IIS based applications are available to customers on a monthly basis. The server farm is maintained and backed up and protected from Viruses and Spyware as part of the monthly cost. The data center has three physically separate Internet connections from different carriers, and is a termination point for multiple high speed circuits that some clients use so that we can maintain redundant offsite backups of their data at our location, in case they suffer a loss due to fire, sprinkler damage or other on-site disaster.
Keep your eye out for us. You'll find us doing our thing - protecting our clients from Internet threats, running their back office network, making sure they can focus on their core business instead of stressing out about their computer network.
We'll also continue selling off-lease material to those people who can recognize that it does not have to be expensive OR new for it to do a good job. In the server and networking end of things it's surprising how much you can get done with so little money right now. The last few years have provided us with a seemingly never-ending supply of very good equipment that can be acquired off-lease for fractions of what the gear cost new when it was originally sold. We're here to pass those kinds of deals on to our clients as part of our value proposition to them.
We're supposed to cost less per year than it would cost them to have their own IT Department. We're efficient enough, skilled enough, and we care enough to consistently do that. That's what any client can continue to expect from us.
Until We Meet [or meet again],