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An entrepreneur who’s wired for growth

Joseph Oster:
An entrepreneur who’s wired for growth

Eighteen years ago, a Model 1 computer wheeled through the door of a local Radio Shack store. The task of figuring out the chain’s first personal computer fell to a college student working there part time.
“This thing came in the front door that nobody recognized and I lost the toss to figure out how to use it,” says Joseph Oster, president of NetWorks Inc. “The rest is history.”
That history includes Oster rethinking a career as a doctor and ultimately founding a fast-growing networking company.
Originally named Edgemere Inc., the business outgrew the basement of his Webster home and now employs 50 people at renovated offices in the old Rochester Envelope Co. building in the Cascade historic district. He expects employment to reach 70 employees by December and 100 by mid-1999.
Oster declines to provide current sales figures for the privately held company, but says it had $2 million in sales in 1996–more than double its 1995 sales.
Half of its business comes from “plumbing” or network infrastructure, such as cabling and fiber optics. The other half is evenly split between custom programming and PC wide-area networking.
Oster, 38, lives in Webster with his wife, Carol, and two sons, Jacob, 7, and Jack, 6, in what he describes as boring, normal suburban life.
“It is not easy to achieve,” he says. “Boring is real good. Not many people have a good life in the suburbs.”
His “boring” life includes powerboats, classic sports cars and scuba diving.
Oster grew up in Greece on Edgemere Drive–which lent its name to NetWorks’ predecessor–building things and planning to become a doctor.
“I was always a hobbyist,” he recalls. “I built Heathkits, soldering things together. I like geeky things and there is nothing more geeky than a circuit-board computer.”
He took an array of electronics and technology courses at Monroe Community College.
Oster started on a premed track in college and planned to follow into the Oster family business–becoming a doctor or a dentist. He realized his reasons stemmed more from family tradition than a true desire to go into the field of medicine.
“Organic chemistry was another good reason (not to choose medicine),” he jokes.
His interests focused on art, and Oster took art classes throughout his early college years. One day, however, a professor suggested he look at other areas for a career.
“He did me a big favor,” Oster says.
He then focused on marketing and expected to go into advertising. It seemed a natural match for his education and artistic interest.
After graduating from SUNY College at Brockport in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, he was offered a job teaching Unix courses at Radio Shack until he got a “real job.”
That job came–but in computers, not advertising. He became one of the first employees of the Computer Store, as it grew in the early PC market surge. He worked as manager of customer support from 1983 to 1985.
The position introduced Oster to a wide range of technology and job duties. He directed staff training and technical support, and chaired the company’s product-review committee. He also was responsible for designing, engineering and installing local area networks.
In 1985, Oster moved to Bausch & Lomb Inc., where he cut his teeth on mainframe computers and telecommunications as senior programmer at the firm’s information center. He directed technical support of some 700 PCs.
Two years later he joined First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Rochester as manager of end-user computing. He also handled network configuration and installation.
“They started going into the personal computing network,” Oster says, “and I was one of the only people who had been doing it for a couple years.”
Like most computer specialists, Oster also did consulting work on the side.
“I used it as a way to support family,” he says. “Then I hired an employee. (Soon) I had 20 some customers and I didn’t have to look for a job.”
He left First Federal in 1992 to focus on his business. Within two years it grew to nine employees.
The crucial move came in late 1994, however, when Oster formed a second company, CableOne Inc., to install fiber-optic cabling. The result: sales doubled.
“That really exceeded any reasonable expectations,” Oster says. “It fueled Edgemere’s growth. The synergies were incredible.”
The two businesses continued as separate companies until it became an accounting nightmare and confusing to customers. This year, Edgemere and CableOne merged as NetWorks.
One of Oster’s first customers, Nancy Lundberg, serves as administrator for the law firm Chamberlain, D’Amanda, Oppenheimer & Greenfield. Oster’s ability to express himself to non-technical people won him their business and respect from the legal community, she says.
“He is a regular guy,” she says, not a computer geek. “He projects a sense of energy and confidence.”
Adds Lundberg: “He has an excellent sense of humor.”
Oster lists NetWorks’ acceptance by the area’s technical community as a chief accomplishment.
“We really have a solid reputation– ethical and uncompromised (in) our ability to maintain a high level of customer service,” he says.
Ron Bolt met Oster six years ago when Bolt worked at Frontier Corp. and contracted out some work to Oster. After he retired following 33 years with Frontier, Bolt joined NetWorks.
“Once you give him a task, you don’t have to worry about it,” Bolt says. “He always exceeds expectations. He gives you more than what he contracted for.
“The only people more important to him than his employees are his customers.”
Oster also still dons a pair of jeans and puts in cables himself.
He describes himself as a stereotypical early-to-bed, early-to-riser, which allows him to arrive at the office between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. It is the only way he can find quiet time.
Oster often plays the moderator between two forces within NetWorks: telecommunications and networking professionals with 15 to 30 years of experience, and younger staffers looking to employ the coolest new stuff.
“My role is to monitor and ultimately determine which our customers would like to use,” he says.
The key challenge for NetWorks is addressing the rapidly changing technology. The firm must continue doing what it does well while researching new technology and techniques.
“We try to be leading-edge while being very conservative,” he explains. The company does a lot of research and development, but is conservative in the types of systems it installs for clients’ critical operations.
Oster’s success at NetWorks has given him resources to contribute to the community. In July, he donated a computer and design work to Bill White, one of the longest-living quadriplegics in the country and the longest-residing patient at Strong Memorial Hospital. After reading a newspaper account about White–who used a slow, outdated computer as a window to the outside world–Oster donated a new computer. He also worked with other companies to design a voice- activated system that gives White access to his phone, voice mail and computer.
“We have gotten to know each other,” Oster says. “He is incredible.”
Oster describes himself as a frustrated artist who–through his business success –was able to open the Synaesthesia Gallery Ltd. on the floor above NetWorks in the Cascade Center. The “SoHo-loft”- style gallery opened May 30.
It has nationally renowned artists lined up, and a show next spring is aligned with the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester.
“It has been a dream of mine for a long time to become more involved in art,” he says. “We happen to have a great spot for an art gallery in our lease. It has also made this place an interesting place to work.”
The gallery also reflects Oster’s goal to help boost downtown and his involvement in the Cascade historic district.
While he enjoys relaxing in the gallery, Oster says he no longer does much artwork.
“I like to think of networks as my canvas,” he says. “I do more music than art.”
The basement of NetWorks’ building contains Oster’s piano, where at night he goes downstairs to play. He also plays other keyboard instruments, guitar and harmonica, and performs occasionally with different bands.
Oster’s other hobbies involve planes, boats and automobiles. He is a licensed pilot, builds and flies model aircraft, and owns a powerboat.
“I grew up on the water. I spend a lot of time on boats,” he says.
In addition, Oster restores old cars; he owns a red 1965 Mustang convertible and a 1951 MG. And he regularly plays pickup basketball and is a certified scuba instructor.
Oster likes to show off NetWorks’ headquarters, a mix of tradition–a human, not a machine, answers the telephone–and state-of-the-art computers. A narrow, metal spiral staircase leads to the basement of the brick building and the company’s underground parking. The garage–aided by the city funds–was a key to NetWorks staying downtown. It houses the firm’s fleet of trucks and features a heated access ramp.
In the last year, Oster has hired several executives to free him to handle CEO duties and focus on research and development.
“It’s very exciting for me to do that,” he says.
However, he expects eventually to hire a CEO to run the company and allow him to return to telecommunications work.
Edgemere began serving small customers, but NetWorks has grown to handle work for the largest local corporations. The company boasts some 300 customers; its projects range from a system for a 30-attorney law firm to a 17-location frame relay network for Griffith Oil Co.
Bolt describes Oster as the consummate entrepreneur.
“He is willing to take risks. He is continually looking for ways to break out of the bubble,” Bolt says. “He does not sit and overanalyze: analysis, paralysis.”
Similarly, Oster says he wants his employees to make quick decisions.
“We don’t hamstring our people. We (tell) people to make decisions in the field as long as it makes sense to the benefit of customers,” he says. “If it makes sense, do it.”
Oster also strives to keep skilled people concentrating on their areas of expertise.
“People who ride skateboards ride skateboards. We encourage computer wizards to play with computers,” he says. “Our only measure is how satisfied our customers are.”
Oster describes himself as phobic about the company losing its flexibility and entrepreneurial edge. A key reason he has turned down numerous purchase offers is because he does not believe the firm can function with significantly more than 150 employees.
If it grows too big, NetWorks could not change to adapt to new technology fast enough, he says.
William Pfeiffer, treasurer/controller at Griffith Oil, says even as NetWorks has grown, Oster remains in touch with his customers. It is not unusual for him to join an employee on a sales call.
“Joe is sincere. He is not going to oversell you on something you don’t need,” Pfeiffer says. “If he can’t help you, he will tell you that. It’s a level of trust.”
Oster says he uses technology to improve productivity and staying connected with employees who often work outside the office.
“I am way out there in terms of using technology,” he notes. “It’s fun. I still get a kick out of it.”
It is the same type of kick he got back in college using his Model 1 computer and being accused of cheating.
“I was in college doing term pagers on my word processor getting yelled at by my professors for cheating,” he says. “I recognized early the value of the personal computer.”


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