The Prairie Technology Alliance is a single-source IT service organization made up of five member businesses, serving a range of diverse technology needs in central Illinois.
Evolution of an Alliance
Five years ago, Brian Ford, president of Facet Technologies, approached several of his fellow technology business owners with an idea and a vision. While he had always referred clients to friends in the industry when he couldn’t fulfill their needs, Ford sensed that there were tremendous missed opportunities because of their lack of a more formal arrangement. He saw great potential in developing an alliance, and as it turned out, so did the others he approached, including Fred Dirkse, president of OIC Group. What Ford envisioned five years ago has finally come to fruition.
While initial interest was strong, Ford and Dirkse soon realized that some of those who came to the table weren’t the owners or executives who could make decisions on the spot at the group’s regular lunch meetings. This turned out to be a huge impediment, and Ford and Dirkse found themselves discussing other options.
“When you get two business owners together, it’s hard enough finding time to meet, but when you have five,” explained Dirkse, “it takes the right group and the right dynamic to put it together and maintain it.” So Ford and Dirkse set out to create that right dynamic.
They found what they were looking for in Troy McDaniel, founder of US Laser Printers and Supplies, early in 2007, in Brad Juergens, vice president of SEICO Security, in March 2008, and in Kevin Krosse, owner of United Security Communications, a month later.
“When we started out,” Ford explained, “we were basically just a ‘tips group’ looking for leads from each other—very informal. The evolution over time has not only been in knowing who we need to have in the group, but also making it a formal, strategic alliance that’s incorporated and has dues.” That formal incorporation happened about a year and a half ago. Since then, one of the best moves the alliance has made was hiring Marketing Director Joel Storm to represent the group as a whole. Though each of the five member companies has its own sales and marketing staff, having a representative for the entire alliance has proven to be very beneficial.
Working Better Together
According to Storm, there are three major “wins” of doing business with Prairie Technology Alliance: the convenience of having all five member companies to go to, the extra channels of communication created by such an alliance, and an extra layer of accountability, as each member is held to high business standards.
“We’re self-policing,” reported Ford, “meaning if one member is working with a customer and finds out the customer isn’t thrilled with something another member did, we call them up and tell them to get it fixed. They might not even know they did something wrong. It’s something our customers really like.”
While the alliance can be seen as a one-stop shop for technology, its unique arrangement allows for great flexibility. “We try to cross-promote and be a one-stop shop if that’s what customers want,” said Juergens. However, while customers can use all five services, they are in no way obligated to do so. “If a customer wants to contract to us or deal only with Brian and have him go to the other companies, they can do that,” he explained. “Or if a customer wants to deal with each person individually, they can do that too.”
The convergence in the security industry and the IT market is one of the factors which initially attracted Juergens to the alliance. With the shift to IP-based cameras and digital video recording, security now requires access to network resources, and IT departments have taken over what used to be covered by facility personnel. Juergens said, “We [now] have to be experts in the IT field as well, to a degree, and Brian complements us on that in a lot of ways.”
“We’ve given each other a lot of business back and forth,” said Ford. “I’ve had customers come to me and say, ‘Brian, I need IP phones, access control, this, that and the other.’ That’s not my core business—I’m going to hand it off to these guys. They do it so much better than me, and I’m not guessing at anything. I just hand it off to someone I know can do it well.” But sharing clients like this requires great trust in fellow alliance members.
The Trust Factor
Before joining the alliance, Krosse said he had contacts to turn to when he couldn’t do everything a customer needed, but ran into problems with unprofessionalism. “With this group, I know everybody is professional in the way they do their jobs. We all believe in the same thing—we’re not out to make a quick buck and get down the road,” he explained. “We’re there to do what’s right for the customer.” And if that means handing them off to another member of the alliance with greater expertise in a particular area, there is no hesitation.
Ford noted that, prior to the formation of the alliance, he was sometimes forced to turn customers away when asked to do something outside of his expertise. Now he has four partners with different specialties whom he trusts, allowing him to better serve his own clients while helping his partners develop more contacts themselves.
Because all five members are in similar fields, some of their services overlap, making them competitors in a way. For example, Ford and McDaniel both sell printers. Ford has always done a bit of web development, which is Dirkse’s specialty, and both Juergens and Krosse do wiring. “We do compete at times,” Dirkse admitted. “Very slightly, but you have to have a trust factor built in.”
Says Krosse, “The old one-stop shop routine is great, but you can only be an expert in so many things. Here, I’ve got four other people I can feed off of, to help me out on what I need to do, and yet, I don’t have to train all my [employees] on how to do each one of these different jobs. I’ve got an expert who can do the job for me.” With the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none,” in mind, Ford noted that Prairie Technology Alliance is more than just a one-stop shop. “We have five masters here and can cover what the jack of all trades can’t.”
Experience, the Greatest Teacher
While all Prairie Tech members are business owners, some have been in business longer than others. “We all coach each other and give each other advice. It’s like having a board of directors,” said Ford. “Talking to [the others] about issues that some have already been through can help direct me,” added McDaniel. Indeed, the dynamic of the group allows for the sharing of wisdom as well as the necessary give and take in the decision-making process.
“We’re coming together for business reasons—to market and to increase business, but it’s also nice to talk business owner to business owner,” noted Dirkse. “I can’t necessarily talk to my employees in the same way I can talk to Brian, Brad and Kevin on the issues we deal with a lot. It’s good to hear the same struggles, the same joys, and really have that association with one another.”
What Lies Ahead
At this time, Ford feels that Prairie Technology Alliance has hit its stride, so he’s not anxious to search for new members. Yet if the right person or business came along, the alliance would consider an addition. “We’re always open to new members,” he said, “but we’re extremely picky.” All members of the alliance would have to agree on the new member. According to Dirkse, any new member “would have to fit what we do, complement our services, be established with a good reputation and have a good client base.” When asked, the group speculated on the possibility of including a business that specializes in copiers, document shredding or data recovery.
But for now, Prairie Technology Alliance is focused on getting its name out and helping its customers with all aspects of their technology infrastructure. By offering a variety of IT services in one place, they can save clients money, time and headaches, an added value in this economy. For more information on Prairie Technology Alliance and its individual companies, visit prairietech.org. iBi
BRIAN FORD is president of Facet Technologies, Inc. He started the business with his wife about 20 years ago. Their main office is located in Pekin, and they also own and operate Nerds on Call in Peoria and Farmington. Facet Technologies offers computer technology support, networking and repair for residential to corporate environments and everything in between. The company has over 20 employees who service approximately 1,200 businesses in central Illinois.
BRAD JUERGENS is vice president of SEICO Security, Inc. Founded by his father, the company’s president Albert Juergens, SEICO specializes in commercial security integration and financial security equipment. The company is located in Pekin and deals mostly with businesses within a 150-mile radius of the Peoria area. The company’s 25 employees are experts at designing, installing and programming security systems, from access control systems to indoor and outdoor surveillance.
KEVIN KROSSE is he owner of United Security Communications, Inc., a company which has been in business for 23 years. USC currently has six employees, with plans for expansion in the near-future. Serving a radius of 60 miles of Peoria, the company specializes in telephone systems, voice and data cabling, voice mail, intercom paging, call accounting systems, VoIP, wireless networking and automated attendants.
TROY MCDANIEL is he founder of US Laser Printers and Supplies, Inc. Founded 16 years ago, the company became a family business about seven years ago. They manufacture toner and ink cartridges for printers and are the only company in the area that offers free repair services on laser printers for customers who purchase toner from them. US Laser employs five people and is located in Bartonville.
FRED DIRKSE is resident of OIC Group, Inc., which specializes in developing, hosting, supporting and marketing easy-to-use websites using its custom content management system. In business for about six and a half years now, the company’s eight employees work out of an office on the Peoria riverfront. While most of their clients are located here in central Illinois, the OIC Group also has clients in foreign countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Belgium.