Soft-skill investments create technology-service ROI

By Paul E. Kandarian
Contributing Writer
Just about any company operating in a recession might be lucky to break even, soldiering on doing level business, waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel. More

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Soft-skill investments create technology-service ROI

PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY
MAKING CONNECTIONS: Atrion Networking CEO Tim Hebert, above wearing glasses, understands that investing in his staff increases the company’s success. With him at Atrion’s Warwick headquarters are, from left, Anthony Kinney, Daniel Muncey and Kathryn George.
By Paul E. Kandarian
Contributing Writer
Posted 12/17/12

Just about any company operating in a recession might be lucky to break even, soldiering on doing level business, waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel.

But a business with fewer than 200 employees boosting revenue from $33.4 million in 2007 to $73.3 million by 2012 – a more than doubling? That sort of increase would be unexpected, to say the least.

Not to Tim Hebert, who has been president and CEO of IT-service company Atrion Networking Corp. in Warwick since 2006, following 17 years as chief operating officer. He plans for progress with the same mindset he applies to his off-duty passions of running in marathons and hiking the Incan Trail in the Peruvian Andes.

“We’ve grown through recessions in the past, and explosive out of recessions,” said Hebert, 50. “I hope it happens again this time when this recession is finally over.”

The company has been in business for 25 years. “What’s defined us is how resilient we are,” said Hebert, winner of the 2012 Providence Business News Business Excellence Award for Business Leadership. That resilience includes three major tactics, he said.

“When a recession hits, we focus on customer service. We get closer to our clients; it’s one of our fundamental tenets,” he said. “If the recession affects us, it affects them. If we can make them adapt, if we change to adapt to their needs, get in front of them, feel their pain, create a solution on how to solve their problems, the more successful we are.”

Secondly, the company invests in its employees, whereas many companies may cut training and professional-development programs during lean times, he said.

“We actually double down on our people during a recession. We accelerate through the curve,” he said. “That’s what happened with this recession, and we saw that a huge investment in our people paid huge dividends.”

Finally, as the company went through tough times, Hebert said, “You have to be agile. One thing we’re really good at is forcing ourselves to rethink business models, listening to clients, our employees, changing on the dime, putting in new services, applying a new approach to something we’ve done for 10 years. You have to be very quick to respond.”

Investing in workers yields the added benefit of greater loyalty than other companies in the field.

“The average employee retention rate in the IT industry is a year to a year and a half,” he said. “At Atrion, half our employees have been here for more than seven years.”

The industry has noticed. Earlier this year, the company was nominated as one of the National Registered Apprenticeship System’s Trailblazers and Innovators, for its Internetworking Associate Apprenticeship, a one-year intensive program in which candidates learn both the practical and theoretical aspects of a new trade in the IT industry.

Of the company’s 190 employees (more than 30 were added since June 2011), 177 of them have passed exams or attained certifications to advance their careers in the past year, he said.

Another 70-plus workshops and seminars were attended by Atrion teams. In addition, Hebert’s Leadership Challenge workshops are highly attended events by clients and employees, In the workshops, Hebert stresses identifying leadership strengths and weaknesses; setting examples by aligning actions with shared values; recognizing the accomplishments of others; and applying the tenets of the Leadership Challenge to a current business challenge.

“The energetic and interactive workshops are insightful, challenging and force you to redefine your view or traditional leadership concepts,” said Brian Fortin, assistant vice president of enterprise infrastructure services at FM Global.

Keeley Wray, chief operating officer of the consulting services division at Foresight Science & Technology, said the ability to empower others wasn’t a quality he associated with leadership before attending a Hebert Leadership Challenge event.

“Now I can see how important it is not only to motivate others to complete their tasks but also literally transfer your skill-set into their hands,” Wray said. “Since I have put this principle into practice, I find that my life at work is less stressful. I am no longer the bottleneck to completing certain tasks.”

Hebert also leads by example in doing for others, inside and outside the industry. He volunteers for the Gloria Gemma Foundation; is a member of the R.I. Economic Policy Council; is president and chairman of Tech Collective; is a mentor for young students in the Rhode Island Year-Up program; and serves on 1nService’s strategic committee, a consortium of 30 specialized information tech companies across North America.

“That’s part of our philosophy here, to pay it forward,” said Hebert, who encourages his employees to hold charity drives for causes that include the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, the Rhode Island Blood Center and the Arctic Mission, a Rhode Island community outreach center for the underprivileged in West Warwick, run by Atrion founder Charlie Nault. “We see it at every level. When a new employee comes in, a veteran takes on the mentor mantle. It’s an incredible thing to watch people grow.”

During the recession, the company did more than invest in its workers. In 2008, Atrion acquired a local Web 2.0/interactive agency to create a strong applications and information practice. In 2009, Atrion relaunched an enhanced version of its highest profit-yielding program to date, Maxtime Managed Services. In 2010, the company formed a joint venture with Rhode One Technology Solutions to create Atrion SMB to service the small-business marketplace better.

Earlier this year, it moved into a new, 30,000-square-foot headquarters in Warwick and is positioned to hit $100 million in revenue by fiscal year 2014.

And all of it stems from leadership and motivating employees to be the best they can be, Hebert said.

“Leadership is one of the most essential skills you can have,” he said. “It’s not taught in our schools to a degree, not in the home as much as it should be. Investing in that, we spend a lot of time training our employees to become better leaders, which I think is most important in your personal life.

“It teaches you how to become a better parent, a better sibling, a better son or daughter,” he said. “Used in that aspect, it spills over to the business world.”

And though the company has experienced explosive growth despite the recession, Hebert said it’s not all about dollars.

“We sell technology, and that can be geeky, logical, machine-like,” he said. “But we’ve made our organization people-centric. Our mantra is to have a positive impact on our clients. It’s a warm-and-fuzzy purpose, sure, but it’s our core purpose.” •

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