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Taking his business to new heights

Robert Estephan puts every new hire at his company, Integrated Cabling and Communication Systems, in the field as an installer for two weeks. It was, Estephan says, how he started and learned the business.
Even personnel whose jobs have little to do with the technical end of the firm’s business, such as accountants or office workers, will be better at their jobs for knowing how the technical side of the company works, he says.
IC2S, as Estephan styles the company name, is not a big business but has a wide reach. The firm, which Estephan, 43, started as a one-man operation in 1985, installs surveillance and access-control systems and provides wiring services and supplies for computer networks.
The firm does business nationally and counts Fortune 100 companies as clients. It targets firms that need companywide systems spanning locations widely separated geographically.
IC2S employs 44 people, having roughly doubled its staff in the past few years. Estephan does not publicly state the company’s revenues. The firm has upped sales by at least $1 million in each of the last four years, and Estephan projects that revenue will continue to grow at roughly 10 percent a year.
He could push the firm’s growth rate higher if he wanted but is not a fan of 50 percent annual growth rates, he says. An uncomfortably high number of young companies prize growth at any cost but cannot handle the consequences and end up crashing, he says. He prefers to take a safer route and does not want the firm to get too big.
IC2S began as a computer wiring supplier and later branched into network wiring installations. Video surveillance and controlled-access system installations were a later addition but are now its fastest-growing segment. Security installations over the past several years have caught up with the company’s original network cabling business, Estephan says, and account for half of IC2S’ work.
In the next few years, he expects security installations to surpass the firm’s network cabling business. Much of the new security work, he says, will come in the national market.
In New York, IC2S primarily does business in the Rochester, Buffalo and Albany regions. A small percentage of its in-state business is spread among jobs in the Finger Lakes, the Southern Tier and occasionally the North Country and Central New York. But 60 percent of the firm’s security work is done out of state. Large concentrations of its security installations are in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas and near Eastern Seaboard population centers.
A fair sprinkling of other sites are scattered evenly around the 48 contiguous states. A map of IC2S security installations shows red dots representing jobs completed in virtually every one of those states and a smattering of places across Canada.
IC2S clients include the 600-theater Regal Entertainment Group movie chain, the Forever 21 Inc. women’s clothing chain and Birdseye Foods Inc.
The boom in security work came in the last few years as IC2S picked up on Internet protocol innovations in monitoring and access that increased the capabilities of newer systems to something approaching what is depicted in spy movies and television shows, Estephan says. Old-style surveillance systems based on video cameras produce tapes that need to be stored and viewed individually.
Space constraints and cost concerns often mandate periodic erasure of tapes so they can be reused. Information captured and stored by IP-based surveillance systems can be stored on hard drives and can be duplicated or backed up; called up in discrete, easily accessed bits; or burned to CDs or DVDs. Images, which are higher in resolution than videotape pictures, can be transmitted over company intranets or sent anywhere the Internet can reach.
Its security work has boomed over the past five years because the firm’s background in network installations gave it a leg up on the alarm companies that had cornered the surveillance and limited-access markets, Estephan says. As IP-based equipment proliferated, alarm dealers were not as quick to pick up on the innovations and he saw an opportunity.
Charles Bianchi is vice president and general manager of the JFS/Curtze Food Service, a Rochester-based distributor supplying fresh meats, fish and other food and grocery products to restaurants and institutions in New York and several other states.
He found IC2S’ Web site a few years ago when he was looking to upgrade JFS/Curtze’s security system to cover facilities the company had opened in Cleveland and Erie, Pa. The firm previously used a local alarm company to provide surveillance for its Rochester distribution center.
“I wanted somebody who could connect the three locations seamlessly, and I mean seamlessly. The people we were using before had the equipment. But the appealing thing about Bob was his command of the technology,” Bianchi says.

Start in business

Estephan started the company that became IC2S in 1985. The Chili native had begun attending Arizona State University, where he planned to major in sociology, when his father alerted him to a business opportunity. It was a chance to become a manufacturer’s representative for a line of computer wiring supplies.
The elder Estephan-who also is named Robert but has a different middle name-had just sold his computer-supplies business and decided to retire. Most businesses then used mainframes and workstations. Estephan’s father’s company, now no longer in business, sold punch cards, removable disc packs and reel-to-reel tape backups. His father had no interest in starting over but thought his son might want to try starting a business.
Estephan was game and left school. The woman who would later become his wife was attending school in Pennsylvania, and that “probably had as much to do with my decision to come back” as any desire to go into business, Estephan says.
Estephan and his wife, Mary, now have a 21-year old daughter who recently started law school and an 18-year-old daughter who is a senior at Penfield High School.
As a young entrepreneur, Estephan threw himself into his new venture, doggedly cold-calling prospects to build a client base of businesses and tech-support companies.
“The idea was to start with the one manufacturer and maybe look for other lines to expand the business,” he says.
After a couple of years, Estephan decided to also branch out into installation.
“It was another way to make money, to add volume to the business. I contracted with installers to do the work, but then I also started doing some of the installation myself,” he says.
An unintended consequence, Estephan says, was that he gained a level of technical expertise and grounding in the nuts-and-bolts side of the business. He continued to use others to augment his own installation work, contracting the work for a couple of years before hiring his first on-staff installer.
His experience as field technician led him to institute his policy of starting all workers with a stint in the field, Estephan says. At first, connecting mainframes to workstations was the core of Estephan’s work, but computer networks began to replace mainframes. His familiarity with the technical side of the business gave him an edge in the computer-based security monitoring and controlled-access business.
Estephan has developed much of IC2S’ national client base with methods that hark back to his cold-calling days. Many clients’ initial contact with IC2S is a mailing, e-mail or cold call from the firm’s salespeople. The mailings, which Estephan notes are increasingly expensive to do, go to a highly targeted group. Estephan is loath to say too much about how he builds a database of firms likely to need IC2S’ services.
“If I told how we did it, then other people could go after the same audience,” he says.
Being small has been important to the company’s success, Estephan believes, and in expanding to a national market he has been careful to keep the firm from getting too big for him to handle.
To go after multiple-location clients as a particular target for IC2S, Estephan needed to have reliable crews within reach of his clients to install and maintain systems. One way of doing that would be to get bigger by establishing a national network of IC2S locations. That could be accomplished by building company branches from scratch, acquiring existing firms or combining the two methods. But any of those options would require large capital investments and turn IC2S into much larger company.
“I like smaller,” he says. “I want to keep the company lean and limber.”
Instead of looking for investors or venture capital, Estephan looked for strategic partners. He researched companies capable of doing the work he needed to do in regions where he had sold jobs and lined them up as contractors. IC2S takes final credit and final responsibility for work done by its partners, but it makes no effort to hide that it has contracted with a local company for the work, Estephan says. Contractors work to IC2S specifications, using IC2S methods and materials. So far, Estephan says, it has worked beautifully. Things sometimes go wrong, he says, but he can deal with it on a case-by-case basis.
“Nobody’s perfect,” Estephan says.

Up in the air

For their 10th wedding anniversary, the Estephans took a trip to Jamaica. It was his first trip out of the country. Estephan had worked hard to establish IC2S, and the firm was on solid footing. Mary Estephan, a special education teacher whose earnings supported the family through the company’s first few lean years, had worked hard too.
Their itinerary called for them stay at two locations and to go in a single day from one end of the island to the other. As it happened, they missed the connection and had to make other arrangements. Estephan found a private-charter pilot who would take them for a couple of hundred dollars, and the pilot, whom Estephan describes as a pro but also an easygoing island type, offered in midflight to let him fly the plane.
“He just said to me, ‘Hey mon, do you want to fly the plane?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ and he handed me the controls,” Estephan recounts.
Estephan was hooked. When he got back home, he took flying lessons, got a private pilot’s license and joined the Rochester Flying Club. He now owns a plane. He uses it in the business but concedes that flying has become a main form of recreation-along with golf, which he does not get to play as often as he would like.
A couple of years after he got his pilot license, Estephan flew his family to Virginia. When he wanted to head back to Rochester, the weather turned foul, grounding Estephan, who was not instrument-rated. Estephan appealed to the flying club members, and one responded by flying in an instrument-rated pilot to bring the Estephans and their plane back to Rochester. The instrument-rated pilot was Joseph D’Arpino, a certified flight instructor, who agreed to help Estephan qualify for an instrument rating.
D’Arpino, who is retired, worked then as a machine operator for a local manufacturer. He has never owned a plane. He learned how to fly and became a certified instructor so he could teach his son, who had expressed an interest and is now a commercial pilot.
D’Arpino and Estephan became fast friends, and Estephan frequently takes D’Arpino for flights in his aircraft, a single-engine model that D’Arpino describes as “a sports car of an airplane.”
As a flight student, D’Arpino says, Estephan was one of the best he has ever had.
“Doctors, lawyers, people who own their own businesses, they don’t always like to do what other people tell them,” D’Arpino says, drawing on many hours of experience as a Rochester Flying Club instructor. “Doctors are the worst. But Bob, he always listened.”
Now the tables have turned somewhat, D’Arpino concedes. Older planes had traditional dials and gauges on their dashboards, but the flight data is on two cockpit computer screens in Estephan’s plane. Estephan, “a computer genius,” more often gives flight orders to him, D’Arpino says, but it is a turnabout he does not seem to mind.
Cooking, like flying, is a stress reliever for Estephan.
“I work pretty hard at the business,” he says. “It doesn’t give me a lot of time for other things, but I love to cook. It’s my relaxation. When I get home, I love to chop-celery, carrots, onions-anything. We have a kind of rule; if it pertains to food, it’s my job. Anything else, that’s Mary’s job.”
As for IC2S’ future, Estephan says he is playing it by ear to some extent. He has tried to stay open to opportunities as they arise and to adapt the business accordingly. It has worked pretty well so far, Estephan says, so he thinks he will keep doing what he has been doing.
rbj@rbj.net / 585-546-8303

Robert Estephan
Title: Owner and CEO, Integrated Cabling and Communication Systems
Age: 43
Family: Wife Mary; daughters Dhyana, 21, and Laura, 18
Education: Attended Arizona State University; left to start business
Residence: Penfield
Hobbies: Flying his own airplane, cooking, golf
Quote: “I like smaller. I want to keep the company lean and limber.”

03/13/2009 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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