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January 2008
One Company, One Call
By Ellison Clary

     Time was, communications companies dealt with telephones—and not much else. Fast forward to 2007 and a telecommunications company that puts in phones might perform dozens of other services.

     One such company is TelWare Corporation, based in the University area. The firm handles all phases of planning, design, installation and maintenance of communications systems for various types of businesses.

     Flip the business card of company president Brian Clontz and a list of two dozen functions pop out under five areas: business telephone systems, office/warehouse paging systems, data networking systems, structured cabling systems, and fiber optic cabling systems.

     “Technology has definitely changed a lot and it’s going to continue to change,” Clontz emphasizes. It’s more than an evolution he’s seen during his 23 years in the industry; it could almost be called a revolution.

     “When I got started, it was just basic phones,” he says. “Now it’s phones and voice mail and unified messaging, call accounting, dialing from the desktop—it’s basically a big computer system.”

More Than Monikers

     Acronyms such as VoIP and SIP name technologies that are changing the way people transact business.

     Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, places voice, video and data on a single platform as people talk with each other through the Internet or data network. It’s been around since the late ’90s but started gaining wide use in 2004. SIP, or Session Initiation Protocol, the latest version of VoIP, tells others on the same communications system whether the user of an individual phone is available for a call.

     As prices for both continue to fall, Clontz believes SIP will soon experience the same growth spurt that digital systems enjoyed in the ’90s.

     He sees many more innovations coming, but he’s happy to outline TelWare’s business profile of today. It operates from 7,000 square feet of space at its Charlotte headquarters with 32 employees. It also maintains offices in Greensboro and Raleigh.

TelWare has about 3,500 customers and their number of locations varies widely. Some have 100; others have 10. TelWare serves about 4,000 total facilities.

    Many of the company’s customers are in the Carolinas, but they also are spread from Delaware to Florida and as far west as Oklahoma.

     TelWare prides itself in working with customers such as Allen Tate Realtors and the Harris Teeter grocery chain.

     “Our niche,” Clontz says, “has become multi-site locations. Our motto is ‘one company, one call.’ When somebody calls on us to do a job, we can do everything they need, from cabling of the building, phone system installation, networking data systems, overhead paging, etc.”

      The typical customer of TelWare has anywhere from 10 to 100 phones. But TelWare also serves what Clontz calls “extreme” clients with up to 1,000 phones spread over multiple locations. His firm handles the communications for all the federal offices in the city of Asheville, including entities such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Air Force Combat Climatology Center.

      An important new customer for 2007 was the Harris Teeter grocery chain, which ranges throughout the Carolinas as well as Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida.

But no customer is too small, Clontz is quick to say. He remembers too well when his firm was new and a prospective client spurned his overtures because of his startup size.

      “I don’t treat my customers like that,” he says affirmatively. “Whether my customer has two phones or 20 phones or 200 phones, I’m looking to build a valuable relationship that will grow my customer’s business and, in turn, help us grow.”

 

Thinking Outside Phones

     Even though Clontz categorizes customers by number of phones, TelWare also does work that isn’t related to phones at all. Some customers want their buildings connected with fiber optic cabling and TelWare’s cabling division does just that, by designing, installing and repairing cabling systems for small offices, multi-story buildings and campus environments.

     TelWare’s school division handles phone systems as well as cabling and other communications needs for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Union County Public Schools along with many others.

     “We’ve got a lot of competition in every segment,” Clontz says, “in the phones, in the cabling, and they’re different competitors.”

     That brings him to why TelWare is unique. “We can do it all,” he says unassumingly.      
     “We’ve kept pace with massaging our existing base and taking care of our existing customers without always having to look for new ones. Companies are attracted to us because we can do it all.”

      To be effective at so many functions, TelWare emphasizes training. Clontz, 41, and his younger brother Scott, 36, who presides over sales, set an example for the firm.

      “In this business, you go through tons of classes,” says Clontz, who is certified as both a design engineer and a sales specialist for Nortel Networks. He’s also strong on his Vertical Network products. The Clontz brothers have completed more than 150 certification classes. “And we have to keep those certifications up to date,” adds Clontz, who also is a licensed real estate agent and a North Carolina licensed electrician.

      “It’s important to me to have our techs and installers certified by the manufacturer and trained properly,” Clontz says. “I strive to make people understand that we are a professional company. These days, a telephone is a very complex piece of equipment and it does require professionals to work on it.”

      TelWare’s customers agree. Ellen Zeman, telecommunications manager for the Allen Tate Company, says this kind of professionalism has kept the real estate giant associated with TelWare for more than a decade. “It’s critical to have a dependable, experienced and service-oriented vendor like TelWare to best serve our customers, Realtors and employees,” Zeman says.

     Dave Bratcher, director of technology for Harris Teeter, praises TelWare’s quality of work and its work ethic, calling both “second to none.” Bratcher, who has been with Harris Teeter a year, worked with TelWare when he was network and telecommunications manager at Gaston Memorial Hospital. “I brought them to Harris Teeter,” he says proudly.

     Clontz is proud to say that TelWare offers its employees the same comprehensive benefits they would find at a much larger company. That includes medical and dental insurance coverage, paid vacations and sick days, plus a 401(k) investment plan with matching company contributions.

     “A lot of my competitors don’t do that,” Clontz says, “and they can chop their hourly rate way down. But I think I’m doing the right thing.”

     Longevity in the work force seems to bear this out. TelWare has an employee who’s been with the firm since 1986 and most others have been on board at least a decade.

“We have very little turnover,” Clontz says. “Turnover is not good. I’m out for quality. I want quality work.”

 

Learning from the Ground Up

                Perhaps Clontz’ appreciation for dedicated employees comes from his experiences in learning the business from the ground up. He grew up in the eastern Mecklenburg County town of Mint Hill, and was attending Central Piedmont Community College preparing for a degree in computer science, when a neighbor recruited him to work for a company providing contract workers for BellSouth and other telecommunication firms across North Carolina.

                After brief stints there and at another telecommunications company, Clontz hung his own shingle in 1987, providing installation services for companies like Jarvis, Executone and Catskill Communications.

                Then, in 1989, the company was purchased by Catskill Communications. The Clontz brothers continued with Catskill Communications until leaving in 1994 to form ComSouth. Being two very successful companies, ComSouth and Catskill joined forces to form TelWare in 1997. The Clontz’s now own TelWare along with Robert Stirton who is one of the original owners of Catskill.

                TelWare has turned in five years of annual growth at 10 to 12 percent. Clontz calls that “controlled growth” and professes that it’s fast enough but still allows for quality service.

“We’re a service-based company,” he says. “Really taking care of a customer, that’s what sells systems. We don’t take the high pressure sales approach. We get most of our customers through word of mouth.”

                Yet TelWare was installing VoIP systems as early as 1999, when Clontz admits that was bleeding edge technology. “I like the bleeding edge as long as it works for the customer,” he says. “We are very, very cautious to test products over and over and over, because we take a lot of pride in our reputation. So we make sure when we say we can do something, that we can pull it off.”

                TelWare will even work with a potential customer to help find a way to afford enhanced services, such as facilitating a switch to a new carrier to save on monthly service charges. The resulting freed up revenue stream can go toward a new system.

                Clontz doesn’t hesitate to predict the near future for the telecommunications industry. A big trend, he believes, will be supporting customer systems from a remote location. Technology now allows TelWare to join a customer on a Web site and work on the customer’s system there. No longer does TelWare necessarily need to drive one of its 32 trucks to a customer location to perform service, saving the customer time and money.

                This direct connection is helping spark another change in the telecommunications market. “It used to be, if you weren’t a hometown company, you were looked on as an outsider,” Clontz says. “Nowadays, everybody’s an outsider. We do a lot of business with companies around the country. They’re just looking for a company to take care of their communications needs and for people who do what they say they can do. They want excellent service.”

                Manufacturers are increasingly offering subscribed services, an arrangement under which a customer pays a small fee to the selling company in exchange for ongoing support and software upgrades. These plans allow customers to keep their systems running smoothly and up to date with the latest features.

                Clontz sees more competition ahead. Information technology companies are increasingly offering VoIP services, breaking out of the old mold in which data companies handled computers networks and phone firms handled voice networks, making these lines to be permanently blurred, Clontz believes. “More companies will be offering comprehensive services and more will be doing remote support,” Clontz says.

                He believes TelWare has adapted well to the new realities. “We are flexible enough to change our model quickly,” he says. “We’re small enough, if we need to adjust to the market, we can. That’s one advantage TelWare has. We can change procedures and move forward without missing a beat.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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