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March 2010
Virtual Workspaces
By Ellison Clary

     Jeff King knows why his information technology company is growing rapidly, becoming one of the largest in the Carolinas.

     As founder and president of At-Net Services – Charlotte, Inc. (AT-NET), he has forged some impressive acquisitions and is growing organically, too, but, he says, “the bottom line comes down to serving people.”

     “We sell products by necessity,” King says as he strolls around his south Charlotte office. “But our main focus is keeping our customers happy. We’re in the people business.”

     “We’re here to help people meet their business objectives and to make information technology simple for them,” he adds. “We are capable of anything in the technology business. That’s the easy part for us, but it’s the scary part for our customers. We want the technology that they are signing up for to go exceptionally well and for them to get the full benefit of it. That way, we become a trusted advisor.”

     AT-NET is a network systems integrator that provides data, voice, video and security products and services. It also services Internet and information recovery needs.

     The company counts about 300 clients who’ve used its services in the last six months. Though AT-NET has customers literally around the world, the bulk of them are in the Carolinas or the Southeast. And though some are huge, many are small and medium-sized.

     One satisfied client is Wishart Norris Henninger & Pittman, a law firm which concentrates on closely held businesses. Robert Norris, managing partner in Charlotte, sings AT-NET’s praises.

     “With over 75 employees, including 35 lawyers, it is essential that our IT system always be up and running at a fast pace,” Norris says. “Given that we have offices in Charlotte and Burlington, it has been a challenge to have the appropriate IT support at each office on a cost-effective basis. AT-NET has customized our services contract to meet these challenges.

     “We could not be happier with their responsiveness,” Norris adds.

     King comments, chuckling: “If we can keep a law firm happy, we can keep anybody happy.”

     He’s proud of AT-NET’s capability to design, build and maintain a turnkey information technology system for any individual business or institutional need.

     Further, he touts his firm’s reputation for quick reaction. AT-NET operates our own technician-staffed customer assistance center for 24/7 response.

     “The goal is for each cry for help to land on a technician’s ear the first time. We are accessible to our customers,” King says. “We have one-hour contracts we respond to. Within one hour, we are fixing the problem. We impress urgency upon our engineers.”

It brings him to a pet peeve: customer service.

     “American business has forgotten about service; I have not,” King says forcefully. “I’m deeply invested in my customers’ success. And I do truly care about it. We always make good on our promises. We’re here to take care of people.”

 

The Making of Success

     The son of an IT manager at Westinghouse, King grew up in Winston-Salem watching his dad work in computer rooms. As a child he’d play with hole-punch cards that programmed those lumbering 1970s machines.

     While earning a business degree with a concentration in real estate and urban analysis at Appalachian State University, King worked three jobs. He was a waiter, a real estate agent and a night security guard at a women’s dormitory where it was permissible to doze.

     “I got paid to sleep,” he grins.

     After graduation, he returned to Winston-Salem and wound up in a commercial real estate firm. Because the company used five methods to value properties, calculator work was never-ending. So King dabbled in IT without realizing it.

     “I sat down on a Macintosh with Excel and wrote all kinds of formulas where I could plug in some basic variables and, for what would normally take a week, it would spit out answers for me in less than an hour,” he remembers.

     Pretty soon, he was selling copies of his program for $600 a pop.

     Next, he used IT applications in Charlotte for his first father-in-law’s point-of-sale company. He was instrumental in growing the business from $1.3 million in annual revenue to about $13 million.

     But he had yet other adventures to pursue. He took a job with a start-up that paid him to build a nationwide golf handicapping network. The result was “a fascinating piece of software that worked like a champ, but it didn’t sell,” King says ruefully.

     So in 1995, King took what he terms a “long vacation.” He bought a house on Lake Wylie and remodeled it. He soon grew restless enough to hire out as a consultant and found himself logging 300,000 air miles a year as he worked on voice recognition systems for big banks.

     When that contract concluded, King had an epiphany one evening while sitting on the back porch of his lakeside home with ROI, his golden retriever. King decided to start his own business. He had a knack for computers and had learned a lot about voice, data, video and security products and services.

 

Optimizing for Success

     And so it was 1998 that he founded the J.S. King Company. Subsequently, he changed the name to AT-NET.

     At the time, the field of offerings was very splintered, and King took full advantage of combinations that made sense for his business. In 2000, King linked up with Premiere Alliance Group, which had 16 sales representatives. Two years later, King bought out the partnership with Premiere and folded the integration company into AT-NET.

     That started a string of years when AT-NET grew at least 100 percent and sometimes 1,000 percent. Acquisitions fueled much of the run.

     “Organic growth is essentially hard,” King explains. “There’s not a lot of margin in the computer business. In our annual growth model, probably 75 percent is based on acquisitions.”

     King bought a Gastonia firm, then one in the District of Columbia. Early last year, he purchased a small Charlotte company and, by mid-2009, AT-NET was on track to be a $10-million-a-year outfit.

     Then came AT-NET’s biggest buy ever: SDI Networks based in Greenville, S.C. Three times the size of AT-NET, it was owned by John Ludwig, who was facing criminal charges after his out-of-control Maserati crashed into a residential home, killing a man watching television.

     King e-mailed Ludwig’s attorney of his interested in buying SDI. A week later, King was bonding with some employees around the office pool table late on a Friday when Ludwig dialed his cell number.

     “It was the fastest multi-million dollar deal I’ve ever done,” King says of the August agreement to acquire SDI. “I knew it was a good company. The unit had a lot of financial trouble. But I also knew we could fix it.”

     King kept three essential executives from SDI: the heads of sales, accounting and engineering. Meanwhile, he did all he could to heal the employees’ battered psyche.

     “By December 1, everything was operating smoothly,” he says. “We have been swallowing a whale and recently we just got the tail down.”

     Now with 80 employees, about 30 of them in Charlotte, AT-NET operates from a 13,000-square-foot headquarters on Southern Pine Boulevard. It also maintains offices in Atlanta, Greenville, Columbia and Charleston in South Carolina, as well as Knoxville, Tenn., and Washington, D.C.

 

Integrating Newer Technologies

     AT-NET is on schedule to turn $30 million in revenue for 2010, but King has his eye on a couple of new Carolinas acquisition targets. He predicts AT-NET will be ready to make a run at one of them by late this year.

     “We will be purchasing someone in the Internet service provider side of the world,” he says. “It’s more of a recurring revenue model.”

     With AT-NET’s dramatic growth, the size of a remarkable achievement has escalated.

     “It used to be if we got a $5,000 sale, we would go to the Sizzler and we were just happy as we could be,” King smiles, adding that today is different. “Anything $500,000 and higher is a good celebration for us.”

     A product in high demand continues to be VoIP, or voice over Internet protocol, which facilitates computer-based oral conversations. But as its popularity wanes, a couple of new items loom large.

     One is virtualization, or “cloud computing,” which King says is simply “a term meaning that we take a client’s systems into one of our data centers. We’ve built our centers in such a fashion that people can plug in and use our resources. It’s going to run our sales model for the next five years.”

     Another next big thing is telepresence, an advanced videoconferencing in which people in various locations can see and hear each other as if they were together.

     “It’s inexpensive compared to what it used to be,” King says, “and it doesn’t require huge amounts of bandwidth like it used to.”

     Further, it injects a personal aspect into remote communications that King feels has been lost with e-mail. In e-mails, most people are not quite as cordial as in person, he’s observed, adding that video conferencing is much more engaging.

     “It brings manners back,” he says simply.

     King values civility with his employees. “I’ve hired people who are dedicated to the business and want to make it successful,” he says. “I’ve allowed them to run it. I’m not a micro manager.

     “I have people who know what their jobs are and I don’t have to tell them every day. I can take a vacation. That’s what gives me satisfaction. We’ve built a good, sustainable company that doesn’t rely on me to pull it forward.”

 

A Kinetic Future

     For King, the confidence in his shop doesn’t discount the stress of being available at a moment’s notice to tackle any customer’s IT challenge. King points to that in-office pool table as he explains how he tries to combat such strain.

     “I supply diversions like pool and a ping-pong table,” he says. “We have exercise rooms. We have showers.”

     But there is accountability. He monitors performance constantly.

     That brings him back to growth. “Our goal is to hit $50 million a year and then look around and see if we want to continue. I’m interested in longevity for the employees and for their careers.”

     So King thinks he may try to double his $50 million target. But someday, he’ll sell, he says—“to the right buyer.”

     “Money will be important,” he allows, “but the biggest aspect is ‘Who are we going to dance with?’ Is it the right fit, for the employees first, and is it right for our customers?”

     King is only 45. What would he do next? Several factors might influence that decision.

     His wife, Michele Juba King, is the human relations executive at her family’s Juba Aluminum firm based in Cabarrus County. It provided the skin for such high-profile structures as the Duke Energy Center and the Arlington condo tower.

     For daughters Isabella 5 and Sophia 3, King wants to be a meaningful part of their life.

So he might consider a less time-consuming pursuit, perhaps related to the environment.

     “My wife and I are on a big green kick,” he says. “I’m terribly interested in energy, and in hydrogen engines. I would love to see us all driving hydrogen-powered vehicles that produce water vapor. It’s very viable today.”

     He pauses and smiles. “I also thought about just opening a cheeseburger stand.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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